Terminology (or, This Isn’t Sex), Pt. 1 found here.
Note: I briefly had this post under password protection, as it dealt with some personal/intimate details and feelings. If you read the post and have strong opinions on whether or not it should be publicly published, please drop me a line in the comments (I can delete your comment after if you want).
This is a continuation of the sentiments expressed in the other day’s post, Terminology (or, This Isn’t Sex). In it, I describe how when I was younger, I assumed pretty much any sexual media to be “sex-positive” and empowering, as some sort of “take that!” to the social conservative, decidedly sex-negative movement. I conflated objectification and rape apologism with empowerment and sexual freedom and agency, in part because none of the former words were in my vocabulary at the time. I discussed how the lack of feminist terminology in popular discourse, or the misunderstanding of same, leads to the phenomenon of all criticism of pornography, etc. being labeled as prudish and anachronistic, and had I realized that at least some of the criticism was based on ideas I would actually agreed with, I would have come to certain realizations much earlier.
Today, I’m going to discuss more thoughts about sex I had at that age and how they were influenced by popular culture and education, so this is your fair warning to leave if it’s something you’d rather not hear about (Hi, Mommy!).
When I was a teenager, one of the paramount themes in representations and discussions of relationships was sexual intimacy (shocker, I know). I was lucky enough not to be in an area of the country or religion where abstinence-only sex education or purity pledges abound, but the impressions I got were still mixed, at best. In discussions with health teachers, other adults, friends, and of course almost all popular media, the following messages were disseminated:
- Teenage boys are the horniest creatures on the planet. They are perpetually masturbating, or thinking about it, and this is both completely acceptable and very funny. In almost no situation can a teenage boy control his sex drive, whether this means becoming aroused at an inappropriate times or trying to “get” sexual activity from a hesitant (female) partner.
- Teenage girls are boy-crazy, but any sexual contact with said boys is a result of peer pressure. The vast majority of girls don’t masturbate, which is why any discussion of it is both rare and considered much more”shocking”. Teenage girls can’t control their emotions and fall hopelessly in love with boys at the drop of a hat, which leaves them vulnerable to being “made” to do something they’d rather not (have sex). This is not a funny thing in the same way that boys humping apple pies is, but the girls aren’t pitied very much either, because as the possessors of a lower libido they are the Designated Kill Switch for any teenage sexual activity, which is universally considered to be bad unless we’re just talking about boys having sex with nameless figures, in which case it’s cool and funny. Any girl who fails to properly control her boy’s sexual urges is to be blamed and shamed; any indication that she might have actually invited or (gasp!) wanted said sexual activity should lead to even more blaming and shaming. The terms “fast”, “loose”, “easy”, “whore”, and “slut” should be employed whenever describing a girl that someone thinks might have wanted sex, or had sex, or been “made” to have sex, and are universally acknowledged as the worst things a girl could ever be.
People were not entirely without sympathy for the female half of the population, though. We also received frequent admonitions and instructions on how and why we should “resist” our potential boyfriends’ inevitable (and inevitably unwelcome) sexual advances. I remember distinct moments in health class, for example, where we all discussed what we would say if our boyfriend told us “you would [have sex] if you loved me” – the proper response was “if you loved me, you wouldn’t make me”. A boy who is trying to have sex with a girl who doesn’t want to (pretty much all sexual activity was assumed to fall into this category) is inconsiderate and not a nice person, and it might even be good for you two to have a Serious Discussion About Your Feelings, but breaking up with a boy who was pressuring you into sex was a last resort (don’t want to be a prude! And all boys are gonna do it anyway, so do you really want to be alone?).
My friends and I internalized these messages to varying degrees; we did endorse the “boys are uncontrollably aroused” idea, and did use the terms “easy” and “slut”, even while we acknowledged that at least some “normal” girls might want sex. I personally never took the “how to resist sex” warnings very seriously, as they seemed to hinge upon girls being universally frigid, which I knew was not the case. It was difficult for me to envision a situation in which a potential boyfriend might want more sex than I did, as I (last warning, Mom!) spent my pubescent years in a state of near-perpetual horniness. If such an unlikely situation did arise, I conceded that it would not be a good thing and might even make me love my boyfriend less, thought dumping him might be a bit much. I mentally condemned and mocked all female characters who complained of being sexually pressured as prudish and uptight. In short, it wasn’t something I envisioned ever having much of a problem with, as it depended on the “fact” that good girls resisted sex. If you want sex, then you can’t be pressured into it – and wouldn’t be likely to anyway, as the reason boys pressured in the first place was having unsatisfied urges. As long as you both have lots of mutually agreed-upon sex, you’d be safe from any messy “if you loved me you wouldn’t make me” awkwardness. Phew!
Just for the record, I was “right” in that respect. No boy ever tried to force me into something I wasn’t interested in, or was anything less than completely considerate of my feelings. This is not one of Those Stories.
I chalked this up to my decidedly sex-positive attitude, as well as the fact that people I went out with were nice boys. How lucky I was, to find people that cared about me enough not to pressure me into sex! It wasn’t until years later that I really thought about those beliefs, and I came to a shocking revelation: Someone who “makes” you have sex is not just inconsiderate, or unable to control their impulses. Those things are completely true, but no one ever mentioned that this person was also a rapist.
Let me repeat, in bold face and caps: NO ONE EVER TOLD ME THAT SOMEONE FORCING YOU INTO SEX WAS RAPE.
Not teachers, not parents, not friends, not any of the “young adult” books I so voraciously consumed (even the ones that depicted teenage girls as realistically horny). No one ever said “someone who tries to get you to have sex with them against your will is trying to rape you”. No one ever said “the character in this movie is pregnant because her boyfriend raped her”. Words such as “sexual assault”, “consent”, and “rape” were completely absent from even my twelfth-grade health class, except for a brief discussion we had on statutory rape laws and the age of consent in our state.
No one ever told me that the calm and amicable (and COMPLETELY THEORETICAL) back-and-forth I had with my boyfriend about what I might do if he tried to make me do physical things that made me uncomfortable was really a calm and amicable discussion about how I’d behave if he sexually assaulted me.
Just let that one sink in for a minute.
* * *
I realize that as epiphanies go, this one’s deceptively simple: the criticism of people conflating sexual assault with sex, maintaining a difference between “coerced sex” and “rape”, and viewing all methods of coercion short of actual restraint as totally fair game are feminist bloggers’ bread and butter. I shouldn’t be surprised, and in a sense I’m not – I’ve done enough reading about rape culture, both for pleasure and for school, to not really be surprised by anything like that anymore. I’ve read how studies about how rape proclivity and incidence of rape need to be measured by asking the perpetrators “Have you ever had sex with someone when you knew they didn’t want to?” rather than “Have you ever raped someone?” because most rapists freely admit to the first; the same false distinction goes for survivors of sexual assault. I’ve read about how people that view rape as just some other kind of sex are more likely to excuse it, and to report that they would consider doing it sometime (you know, just for the hell of it). I know all this, and it used to shock me, but it (usually) doesn’t anymore. I have been so completely disillusioned about our cultural beliefs about sexual assault that most of the time, I’m numb to any new and horrible statistics or revelations.
But this? This revelation doesn’t leave me numb. When I think about how I so easily could have been sexually assaulted and not really known why it made me feel so bad, I feel both terrified and relieved for myself (this post could so easily have been one of Those Stories), and great sorrow for all the people who weren’t as lucky as I was. When I think about all the work I inadvertently did, in my mind and in my actions, to dismiss all instances of “forced sex” as the inevitable result of mismatched libidos, I feel ashamed.
When I think about how blissfully unaware I was that that unprovoked and detached conversation I had with my boyfriend presented him raping me as a reasonable (though remote) possibility, and that even as I told him I would dump him if he did I thought in my head that I probably wouldn’t, I want to throw up.
And when I think about all the supposedly more knowledgeable and more responsible people that were supposed to be telling me how the world works and how to get through it in the best way possible – all those people that for all their talk about sex, never mentioned rape except in the context of Law & Order: SVU episodes, I feel furious.
How hard would it have been, in the midst of talking about lube and condoms and birth control pills and anal sex, to throw in a one-minute spiel about sexual consent? I realize that because of the rape culture the probability of that was very low (for reasons discussed earlier), and that to condemn any one individual for conforming to it is very unfair. I also realize that because of the same environment, any “lessons” about sexual assault would probably have been of the Esteemed School of Victim Blaming (the same Epically Unhelpful institution to bring “Why doesn’t she just leave?” to every discussion of domestic violence), but at least then the possibility would have crossed my mind.
How much did it cross the grown-ups’ minds? Is it sometimes the case, as I posited in my prior post, that people want to express pro-feminist thoughts but are forced to couch them in more “traditional”, socially conservative terms? Were some of the people talked to actually thinking about rape but unable to articulate it in socially acceptable ways?
In particular, this makes me think of a well-worn expression: “He’s only after one thing”. This phrase, and its variants, are ubiquitous when discussing teenage boys, the implicit assumption that the “one thing” they want is sex. It’s frequently said by older men, when recollecting their youthful heyday. Sitcom Dad: “I remember when I was his age! They only want one thing, and NO DAUGHTER OF MINE WILL BE HAVING THE SEX!” (then Sitcom Dad jokes with Sitcom Male Teenager about his latest “scores”). It’s sometimes said in the funny yet rueful manner people use when talking about teenage boys’ inevitable masturbation, but I’ve heard it more often as a cautionary: “You don’t want to go out with that boy. He’s only after one thing.” Unsurprisingly, teenage TRN didn’t really understand why this was such a bad thing (a horny dude who wants to fool around? Sign me up!) and attributed it to most people’s implicit assumption that girls weren’t interested in sex. A boy wanting sex couldn’t be anything other than unwelcome, because girls are pure as the driven snow. And in a lot of cases, I’m sure I was right. A lot of people, for all their progressiveness, still get super-freaked at the idea of their little girl being sexually active in a way that doesn’t apply to their little boys, and that has nothing to do with her sexual agency.
But how many people actually mean the more sinister implication? Sure, it’s a problem if two people get in a relationship and find their sexual desires are incompatible, doubly so if one person misled the other about their intentions, but someone who’s only after one thing sounds like they’d go to great lengths to get it. Someone who only wants sex and doesn’t care about your feelings probably isn’t going to be honest about their intentions if it’ll impede their attainment of said sex. Someone who only thinks of women as the means to a very specific end (I refrained from writing what I really wanted to) is going to treat them like crap. Someone who’s after sexual congress above all else, including actual consent, is a rapist.
I understand that allegations of sexual assault are taken very seriously, and that in most people’s minds accusing someone of rape without sufficient evidence (or sometimes even with it) is a far worse crime than actually raping someone. So your aunt is not at all likely to say, “Don’t go out with that boy, he might try to rape you. He’s done it to four other girls”. But is that what she meant? I think the way in which the phrase is used indicates that at least for some people, it is meant to protect women from a threat that they can’t actually admit. Of course, this means that some men who say “I remember when I was his age! I was only after one thing, just like him!” are tacitly admitting to sexual assault, which…yeah*.
I may have strayed a wee bit from my original point, which was that the way we talk about sex is important. Forced sex is not sex. Sex, or sexual consent, that is “obtained” or “gotten” is not sex. Trying to “make someone have sex with you” by any means other than politely asking, and being willing to hear a response of “no”, is not sex. Viewing people as sexual objects without feelings, or being completely willing to ignore these feelings for the sake of “getting some”, is not the inevitable conclusion to sexual arousal, and it is not sex. Someone who pressures you into sex is not having sex with you. The inability or refusal of people to use feminist terminology when talking about sensitive subjects such as sex has very real consequences. I know that I’m not one of the main casualties of the rape culture, as I have so far managed to go through life unassaulted. But when I realize how much I’ve been forced to dispassionately contemplate the possibility of my own sexual assault? That little frisson of fear is all too familiar, and it affects all of us.
*This is actually not a shocking idea – many pro-feminist men have written about retrospectively realizing that they had coerced women into sex (what they don’t say is that it was “accidental”, just that they didn’t think about it as sexual assault).