Disclaimer: I understand that by writing this many may interpret this work as me victim blaming and/or shaming, that isn’t my intention. My intention is to start a dialogue on an issue that has confused to me, namely how we define rape and nonconsensual sex in the midst of a society consumed by rape culture. My impetus for this discussion are two stories that I came across in recent weeks which made me question not only what I understand about rape and non-consensual sex but who is dominating those discussions and shifting perspectives on the matter. I will take up this discussion in two parts, the first of which is below and the second which will be published tomorrow–I promise.
The first article entitled “Is It Possible That There Is Something in Between Consensual Sex and Rape…And That It Happens to Almost Every Girl Out There?” details a sexual encounter between two people who had spent a substantial amount of time drinking together. The young woman went home with the young man, in the morning she ended up in his bedroom where they had a heart-to-heart discussion, and then things went seemingly downhill from there. While they were talking the young man said, “I feel like you want me to make a move, just so you can turn me down.” And following those words they began to make out and making out escalated into sex. Here is how she describes it,
Before I even had a chance to decide if he was right, we were making out. In my state of extreme intoxication, my mind was racing in search of a decision. This was exciting. This was fun. But this was also really, really weird, and ultimately, not a road I wanted to go down. I couldn’t decide if the excitement and lust in the air would win over the pit in my stomach. It wasn’t until he grabbed a condom that I really knew how I felt. I was not okay with this. I did not want to have sex with him.
But I did.
She goes on to describe the internal conflict she had throughout the entire encounter, wrestling with the fact that she was uncomfortable with the situation but conceding to it. She says,
It was easier to just do it. Besides, we were already in bed, and this is what people in bed do. I felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.
It is in retrospect that she realizes that what happened to her may have been a violation to her. She struggled with this because there are no clear words for what happened, it wasn’t rape but it wasn’t consensual sex either and thus it is complicated. She is telling her story to shed light on something that she believes happens all the time to women and as she states in the article, many women replied in the affirmative that they had similar experiences with men. Thus she concludes with this,
It happens to us with consistent hookups, first dates, boyfriends, and one-night stands alike. We have sex with guys, because sometimes it’s just easier to do it than to have the argument about not doing it. But no one talks about it. Talking about it makes it a big deal. It makes us feel like we’re whining. It makes us feel like we’re being dramatic. And we don’t want it to be dramatic. We don’t feel entirely violated. It doesn’t affect us forever. We just feel like we got the short end of the stick, and that sometimes, we have to do something we don’t want to do, out of politeness or social obligation. So why bring it up? Why risk wrongfully tagging a guy with a serious, heavy label he doesn’t deserve? And more importantly, why risk being wrongfully tagged as “the girl who cried rape,” when we’re not trying to say it was rape at all? We’re saying we don’t know what it was. We just didn’t like it. But by refusing to acknowledge the existence of these rape-ish situations, we’re continuing to subject ourselves to them indefinitely.
Having read this article several times I remain confounded by it and its implications for women and men. To establish this space between rape and consensual sex is confusing to me. What does this continuous expansion of the definition of rape and nonconsensual sex mean in the long run? Who is given the authority to expand definitions of rape and consensual sex? Who are the women and men who are allowed to talk about their experiences most widely in a way that has impact on the general perspectives of this issue? What is the cultural impact of these discussions? The latter question is based on my reading and interpretation of this as a black woman who has observed rape culture and nonconsensual sex discourse as one that is dominated, primarily, by white people–particularly in the public spotlight and spaces.
I thought about if I were in this woman’s shoes and wondered what my friends, most of whom are black women, would say. Having talked to a few of them and explained this article in detail they all believed that it wasn’t rape and it wasn’t non-consensual sex, it was a woman making a mistake and expressing regret. Given this, it seemed to me that interpretation and response may vary based on culture and certainly there is a longstanding tradition that exists. For so long I have watched society set white women up as vestal virgins and blameless persons whose sexuality must be protected while women of color have constantly fought to protect their bodies and their sexuality while being labeled as hypersexual and animalistic by those same protectors of white womanhood. I’ve not had the good fortune of being a part of a race where it is assumed that I am good and pure even as a black Christian woman. I am a part of those darker women who, when their bodies are thrown off an overpass and it is discovered that they were strippers the stories goes, largely, untold. Meanwhile the white sex workers who face a similar fate have their stories plastered everywhere. I see the many ways in which white bodies are protected or how, within their narratives, there is an implicit expectation that someone should protect their bodies for them and thus they give up agency while my sisters and I must always protect ourselves. To be clear, I’m not arguing for the chance to give up agency or claim victimhood, I’m sharing an observation about the highly politicized nature of the black body versus the highly praised white body and how either is protected or not. This leads me to a brief point about perceived lazy womanhood and taking up agency.
The young woman in the aforementioned story embodied what I call a “lazy womanhood” indicated by her giving up agency in favor of surrendering to a man’s needs, particularly in a situation that seemed ripe for her use of agency. Her account suggests that there was room for her to voice her concerns during the encounter but out of fear of disappointing the man she chose not to. Furthermore, when she points out that many other young women had similar experiences it further perpetuates this notion of placing male desire and lust above female need and security. But this can’t be our womanhood.
We should always feel we have the right to say “No” in a sexual encounter, based on what we need and never based things on disappointing someone else. In campus sexual assault situations that are growing more ambiguous than they are obvious it is important for women to believe and know that they still have an upper hand in the situation. Sex is not something that just happens to women, we are not a refuse or mere pleasure hole for men’s pleasure-seeking missiles, we are full-bodied people who should often and always speak up and say “No.” I reiterate this especially in the wake of these beginning gray areas between rape and non-consensual sex. There must be some recourse for women and it cannot be that anytime we enter into a sexual encounter our defenses are down and we become victims before we learn to be conquerors. Especially in these newly exposed gray areas, women need to be as vigilant and outspoken as ever for it seems that this might actually be a case where, more often than not, they could stop an uncomfortable encounter before it starts. Again, I don’t want to be interpreted as shaming or blaming this young women or women like her, I do want us to take a more critical eye toward what we are claiming when it comes to discussions of rape and non-consensual sex and who we are allowing to dominate these discussions.
The story that has grounded this post came from a young white woman and it is also indicative of a trend–or maybe the norm–of these being the stories that dominate discussions on rape and nonconsensual sex. I’m concerned about the influx of these narratives and the way in which they are privileged, shape definitions, perspectives and even policies, all the while coming from white women. Women waving the feminist banner but not evolving beyond the age-old feminist practice of neglecting race and class in their struggle for gender equality. Herein lies the segue for the second article…
Tomorrow I will continue this discussion with the second article in question which further proves the “privileging of white female voices in sexual assault narratives” argument, will highlight work being done among black feminists to give capital to black women’s sexual assault narratives, and finally I will offer a third way of fostering dialogue.