Friday, 20 January 2012

Rape by any other name

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.


Maia said...

Ludditejourno - thanks so much for writing this. I've always been uncomfortable with the idea 'rape is not sex' and I haven't been able to quite unpack why.

Generally I agree with the underlying argument that people are making (on say Hoyden about town - which I think has a graphic which says 'rape is not sex) when they criticise the media's use of 'sex' rather than 'rape' in rape cases.

However, there is more to discussing sexual violence than in the context of the police, media and (in)justice system. And in many contexts the idea that 'rape is not sex' can lead people to believe that their experiences were sex so they weren't rape, rather than the other way round.

I also really like your way forward. Part of rape culture is the fact that rape isn't a million miles away from sex - it's just one person's consent away.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Maia, thanks for comment. I completely agree that the way the media uses "sex" is diminishing and minimising of sexual violence in relevant articles. But this is much more than that.
And I think we come back to, again and again, how we "do" meaningful consent. What processes are important. How do we activate all genders feeling able to ask for what we want, and that be acceptable. How do we activate all genders being able to say "I'm not sure about that, can we talk about it some more/that's not something I'm interested in at all/I don't know how to do that, can we explore that together etc etc etc etc.

Anonymous said...

i keep trying to come back to comment on this and something always intervenes (usually child or intense level of sleep deprivation stealing my coherency) but after a few false starts i at least want to say: thank you. awesome post on so many levels and i hope to come back and do it justice in my response some time soon. -- Iris

LudditeJourno said...

Thanks Iris, look forward to hearing your thoughts when you have a spare moment :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Luddite Journo, i may comment in piecemeal fashion. One thing that is sitting with me at the moment is that without the kind of nuances you offer here, some groups of people may be particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable (and ones that are potentially already vulnerable).

Like young people in circumstances where all parties involved are 'minors'. Where finding a language for your experiences is already denied you, to an extent, because you are excluded from the social and legal discourses around sex.

Where in some instances, scenarios of forced sex, unwelcome sex, unwanted sex, prompt a question: 'where are the adults?' (whether literally, or metaphorically) that isn't generally present for adult experiences (and it might be worth wondering why it isn't, and the implications of this, etc, but that's a different post).

And I think that this scenario comes to me because as well as activating all genders to be able to speak as you suggest in your comment above...I'm also interested in how we activate all genders, anyone, to become more literate in languages of silence/hesitancy/contradictions etc and be comfortable and confident enquiring after or responding to them...

I'm not sure I can articulate my thoughts anymore than this at the moment, but I know I will be continuing to consider them...

thanks, Iris.

LudditeJourno said...

Hey Iris, yes, I think that point is absolutely right around language and young people. When I talk to young people about being sexual, learning to negotiate what they want etc etc etc I use language that's about how they feel, rather than what a particular activity might be called. So if something hasn't felt ok, we talk about why not, and that gets us into talking about meaningful consent. I find that a much more useful approach than labels which might not fit for them.

Anonymous said...

me again...there is something else that is rattling around persistently that i can't get into words.

but it rattles more loudly when i read this:

and it's got something to do with space for/questions of how to talk about responsibility in relation to 'sex' that might be useful but not in ways that end up getting used like they do in 'responsibility for rape' etc...??

can you hear the rattling? i'm putting it out there in the hope that someone will hear something similar.

note: i am *not* suggesting that women are responsible for rape etc. I'm reaching for some conversation that doesn't reproduce that, yet accounts for some complexities that your post raises (and that i believe are valuable and valid for their transformative possibilities...otherwise i wouldn't still be returning to it) :)


LudditeJourno said...

Hi Iris,
yeah I do understand I think? The gap between someone saying "yes, I want to do that, it's fun and I like you" and someone not saying no, or not saying no in a way the other person reads, and that being seen as "good enough". Basically the second scenario I gave above. Is that what you mean? If so, I think we are talking about unravelling gender scripts in order to get to real consent negotiation, not assuming consent because you've already done x y and z. My belief is that unravelling gender scripts for women around being able to ask for what we want (as opposed to say no to what we don't want) is key to this. And for men, unravelling gender scripts which say they always have to be up for sex - because in the second scenario, part of what is happening is an assumption that men always want sex, so checking is not important. Does that capture what you're exploring? I could talk about these issues for days....who am I kidding, I do talk about these issues for days :-) Interested to hear more of your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. It is good to acknowledge that "definitely rape" and "definitely consensual sex" don't form a binary of possible experiences we can have. I have a few memories of incidents from my younger days that I wouldn't feel I'm justified in using the "R" word for, but were just... not ok...
I think often it comes down to the power dynamic between people - something that feminist writers like yourself are no doubt very aware of.
Thanks again

PS long time lurker first time commenter - and as per the recent post about "lurkers" - sometimes we just wait til we think we have something to say. But the whole "check your privilege" thing can be intimidating coming from internet people who don't know where we're coming from, even (especially?) for those of us who DO try to consider our privilege as much as possible.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Jane, you are welcome, yes, what you are describing, that false binary, is the issue, and as you say, power the problem. Plus a culture terrified of sex and socialising us all into gendered roles constantly. Thanks for commenting :-)