Late last year, the Lady Garden’s Tallulah thoroughly fisked the idea that women talking about sex we like could be one of the reasons some men rape. She also made the compelling argument, again – because it seems it needs making repeatedly – that the negotiation of consent should be our primary benchmark for assessing whether sexual activities between adults are ethical or respectful, not whether or not we personally enjoy the kind of sex being discussed.
But surrounding the facebook discussion she focused on, and in many other online debates I’ve seen more recently, is the repeated idea that there is a clear difference between sex and rape. That we shouldn’t talk about forced sex, or coerced sex, or unwanted sex – because those things are not sex, they are rape. That women can tell the difference between sex and rape – and therefore I’m assuming by inference, men can too – because rape and consensual sex are qualitatively different experiences.
Clearly that’s true for some of us, and that’s wonderful. Wonderful to be able to draw clear distinctions around sex we want, and sexualised experiences we didn’t want, or were coerced into, or were forced into. Rapes.
But it’s simply not true for many of us, and herein lies the rub. In trying to separate off rape so cleanly, we are, I think, not counting experiences which not only in some cases meet legal thresholds for sexual violence, but in others meet ethical thresholds for sexual interactions which are not mutual, not enthusiastic and not respectful of both (or more) people’s desires and personhoods. And in not counting those experiences, we do those who survived them the enormous disservice of supporting rape culture because we’re leaving those experiences as “just sex”.
I get that’s not the intention of this nice, clear-cut distinction. And I truly celebrate that many of us feel able to draw such clear lines from our own experiences.
But let’s try some scenarios. Woman, man, together for years, parents. Great exploratory sex for the early part of their relationship. Consensual negotiation of group sex with other people. As the relationship goes on, male partner wants sex (in this case, vaginal intercourse) more often than female partner. He sulks if she doesn’t say yes. He will only do nice things for her if she says yes. He keeps pestering her until she says yes. He starts watching porn and asking her to try things she’s not interested in, because he tells her he’s not having sex enough and he needs to.
She loves him, and often likes having sex with him. By the time their relationship ends however, after this going on for more than a decade, he makes her skin crawl.
Or how about this? Two men, mutual attraction, playful date, go home together, begin kissing and playing, begin mutually undressing. One man realises he doesn’t feel ready to have sex (in this case, anal intercourse), but also realises if he tries to stop what’s happening, he might not be able to. Decides to allow intercourse because he says it was going to happen anyway. Goes home, never speaks to his date again, much to his date’s surprise.
Or what about this? Bi couple hanging out with another bi friend, longstanding friendships, whenever the three party together the couple repeatedly try to get the other person to be sexual with them – but only when they are all chemically enhanced.
In none of these three “real-life” scenarios are the people concerned calling what is happening rape. Outside observers might, particularly with the first two, and depending on outcome, possibly with the last one. But is this ok, to describe others’ experiences in terms they don’t use for themselves?
That’s why I use the phrases unwanted, coerced and forced sex, especially when I’m exploring with someone how they understand an experience. Because sometimes those phrases capture dynamics around how we enact sexual encounters we are participating in that are not captured by “rape” for the people concerned. They capture the fact that what we want in a sexual interaction can change over time (both in terms of repeated sexual encounters and in terms of a one-off experience). They capture the fact that in this world as it stands, gendered scripts can create completely different understandings of mutual experiences. Being masculine means you hunt and gather sex because you want it all the time and you know how to do it because you da man, and being feminine means you gate-keep sex because giving it up devalues you, and holding onto it makes you moral and worthwhile and pure, and besides you don’t really like it anyway, do you?
These scripts are enormously harmful of course, we all know that. Psychologist Nicola Gavey calls them the cultural scaffolding of rape when she pays attention to how often experiences of “just sex” actually meet legal thresholds for rape.
There’s two parts to challenging this. One is to sit with the ambiguity of people’s lived experiences – and unpack it experience by experience – rather than pretend that rape can always easily be distinguished from “just sex.”
The other is for those active in challenging sexual violence to continue to describe how most sexual violence happens – that we usually know the perpetrator, that it usually happens in our homes or the homes of the perpetrator not in dark alleyways, that people who are vulnerable are targeted, that it’s not usually “violent” in terms of other injuries, that no one has the right to do anything sexual to your body that you are not happy with – so we can continue to take rape culture apart, and enhance every person’s entitlement to joyful, respectful, fun sexual experiences.