Guest Post! Sex vs. Rape vs. Power

[Today’s guest post brought to you by Problematic Shit (some) Feminists Say That Actually Make It Harder For Rape Survivors to Process Their Experiences, and For Us Even To Have Productive Conversation About Rape! Everybody welcome Frances Rae (@LetsHearItForMe), who was kind enough to write down some stuff when I asked them to because of a conversation we were having.]

There are a couple of phrases I’ve heard used in conversations about consent and rape, often by well-meaning people who usually identify as feminists and who are usually trying to examine and challenge rape culture:

“Rape is not sex,”
and,
“Rape is about power, not sex.”

It's unclear to me how "Rape is about power" follows from "It's never the victim's fault." I understand how, if it were true that rape is about power, the rape conversation would be simpler. But I fail to see evidence that it's true.

It’s unclear to me how “Rape is about power” follows from “It’s never the victim’s fault.” I understand how, if it were true that rape is about power, the rape conversation would be simpler. But I fail to see evidence that it’s true.

They are concise, tidy mantras whose political function I understand as wanting to completely, absolutely distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sex acts and emphasize the (not necessarily physical) violence involved in removing someone’s choice. Those can be important things to differentiate, and the motivation behind saying these things is aptly based in promoting consent as critical. But these phrases can feel like they’re doing more than that, and I think they are actually damaging to the ideas they’re ostensibly trying to support. They also assume that there is no need to investigate the motivations or perceptions behind how rape occurs because they assume that the only possible reason for rape is a conscious intent of malice by A Bad Person.

“Rape is not sex.”

To begin with, “Rape is not sex” can be easily construed as “Rape never looks like sex.” If this were true, then it would follow that we would always immediately recognize rape and be able to differentiate it from consensual sex. But if rape and sex are so radically different as to always be obvious, it puts more responsibility on survivors to both identify and halt activities that are nonconsensual, which in turn leads to placing blame on them after it occurs. This also opens the door to let rapists off the (ethical and, often, legal) hook both by discrediting survivors’ accounts and attributing guilt to both parties.

Imagine, for example, that you’re in a long-term relationship. Often you do want to have sex with your partner, and you fully consent and enjoy yourself. Other times, you feel pressured, or aren’t in the mood, or change your mind partway through, and maybe aren’t comfortable saying so, but your partner proceeds. For the most part it otherwise looks like the rest of the sex you have anyway. Imagine this happens once, or a few times, or every time. You know you didn’t want to, but it didn’t occur to you until much later that what happened was not okay. Is it your fault for not knowing, then, since you should always be able to tell the difference between rape and sex? What if the times you consent and the times you don’t look so similar as to be almost indistinguishable?

The idea that rape never looks like sex can be detrimental to many people’s experiences of how both consensual sex and rape occur. It also follows from this that there are plenty of people out there who are completely oblivious to the fact that they’ve raped someone. From a young age, we are taught that one person will be the gatekeeper while the other will be the pursuer of sex: that if someone is pursuing you, you are supposed to say no (because if you don’t, it carries a heavy character judgement) whether you want sex or not, and that if you are the one doing the pursuing, it is your job to turn that inevitable “no” into a “yes”- or, at least, an opportunity. Usually these roles are assigned to women and men respectively, but that dynamic can certainly apply to relationships or interactions of any gender. As a result, coercion can end up seeming like an inevitable part of any sexual relationship. If you believe that someone is going to say no whether they mean it or not, what impact does that have on how seriously you will take a “no”? If you believe that you’re supposed to say “no” whether you mean it or not, how do you know whether you’ve been raped? What if both parties just plain don’t know of any other way for sex to happen?

“Rape is about power, not sex.”

The idea that rape is about power and not sex erases this very problem of how to communicate about consent in a variety of contexts. In the first place, we have to decide whether we even care what rape is “about” for the rapist, which I know is a contentious issue for a lot of people. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t care what rapists are thinking, and it is understandable, even, to not want to care. But I think if we want to reject all notions of victim-blaming and truly believe that the only person responsible for rape is the rapist, it is probably a good idea to look at how this can occur from that perspective. I’ve often heard (and agree) that we should be teaching “don’t rape” rather than “don’t get raped”, and I think that in order to do that, it is valuable to examine how sex and consent are understood by the pursuers. If someone just wants sex and doesn’t know how to go about that in ways that are respectful and consensual, it doesn’t necessarily mean their desire is about power. I’m not saying this makes them any less culpable- but how can you tell someone not to rape if they don’t know that what they’re doing is rape?

Now, this isn’t to say I think we should sympathize with rapists. When I say this is something “we” need to investigate, I am talking about the pursuers. There are campaigns like Men Can Stop Rape that do a lot of good and important work to broaden our awareness of what constitutes consent and illustrate some situations that are beyond the stereotypical stranger-in-an-alley depiction of rape. I do think it is problematic, however, to dichotomize and attribute segregated statuses to particular bodies or identities. While there are statistical differences in vulnerability, at the individual level no one is exempt from either side of sexual coercion.

Basically, all I want to acknowledge here is the following:

  • It can be difficult to differentiate between rape and sex, and saying they’re different things is not really constructive.
  • Sometimes rape is about not having an understanding of consent, even despite wanting to or believing they do.
  • Everyone should be mindful of the ways they go about pursuing sex in any context.
  • There needs to be more discussion (generally, everywhere, all the time, for everybody) about what consent entails.

So, those are my controversial opinions of the day on how the things we say about rape are wrong and why we should stop saying them. Please feel free to leave a comment telling me what a doofus I am. Goodbye, internet!

Frances Rae is a queer gender-bored non-monogamous parent to a hilarious four-year-old and partner to a handful of generally amazing humans. They are passionate about queerness, mental illness, and talking about poop. Frances spends their time doing crafts, walking into door frames, and accidentally covering Toronto in glitter. They have a degree in psychology & sexuality studies, and their favourite colour is everything. Follow them on twitter @LetsHearItForMe

10 comments

    1. There isn’t a single sentence in this entire post that suggests either that “yes means no” or that “all sex is rape”. What the post *does* say is that the common cultural messages around consent make some people interpret (for instance) the absence of a clear “no” as a “yes”, when that yes may not be present.

      It also makes the point that *some* (notice how the word “some” means something very, very different from the word “all”, This distinction will serve you well in many contexts in your life) instances of rape might look like sex to either the rapist or the survivor, and might especially be confusing to outside perspectives.

      1. “Other times, you feel pressured, or aren’t in the mood, or change your mind partway through, and maybe aren’t comfortable saying so, but your partner proceeds.”

        Said “Yes” but it really means “No” or “Read my mind so you know when to stop”

        Yes mean no.

        So Given No Means NO. Maybe means NO. Yes means NO. There is no answer that actually means yes. Consent can not be established, no sex is consensual, all sex is rape. Well at very best there is no way to determine if it was not rape.

        This really is what your saying. Please stop.

        1. Sometimes people, under duress, agree to things they don’t actually want you to do. I should think that before you engage in sexual activity with someone, your concern should be about whether they actually want to participate, and not simply whether they will allow you to do it.

          If you seek consent in terms of what the other person actually wants, whether than what you can get away with, then consent is actually pretty easy to establish. If you can’t understand that ,you should probably never touch another human.

          The issue of what happens when someone changes their mind after giving a valid yes (by valid I mean, “not under duress”. People say “yes” to things sometimes when they know that the consequences for saying “no” will be worse than saying “yes” – I think it should be clear that a “yes” under this kind of cirumcstance doesn’t imply that a person actually wants to have sex. And you should never have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you – even if they aren’t fighting you off or have given you tacit permission. Real consent usually involves active participation and enjoyment.) But anyway, if someone changes their mind after giving valid consent, then yes, it is somewhat on them to communicate that they are no longer happy with what is happening.

          I would suggest, though, that if you ever find yourself engaged in consenitng sex with someone, and they suddenly seem to stop enjoying themselves, you might want to check in with them to re-establish consent (or to discover the lack thereof, so you can stop the activity) rather than just blithely going along and waiting for them to tell you to stop. It’s not that hard to pay attention to the person you’re with, seriously.

          1. “I would suggest, though, that if you ever find yourself engaged in consenitng sex with someone, and they suddenly seem to stop enjoying themselves, you might want to check in with them to re-establish consent (or to discover the lack thereof, so you can stop the activity) rather than just blithely going along and waiting for them to tell you to stop. It’s not that hard to pay attention to the person you’re with, seriously.”

            Good common sense advice. I’m an old st8 white man and don’t know if my opinion or experience even counts here, but when I was younger and sexually active, if a woman pushed me away at the start of or even during sex, I stopped immediately and the whole thing was over. If I felt the woman was not engaged in it, there was no reason for me to continue It was a complete turnoff.

          2. Your opinion and experience is super important! And also it’s heartening to know that really, many men *do* feel this way about sex, and aren’t 100% selfishly looking for their own gratification at any cost. Thank you for sharing!

  1. This post points to a really complicated and important issue – I think more definitely needs to be said about the sexualizing of the “no,” which is often misinterpreted, especially when it comes from women, as a necessary invitation-disguised-as-rejection. Culture is constantly reproducing that “no” as sexualized and gendered.

    1. Yes absolutely. The idea that having to push past a “no” is just a natural part of the “seduction” game (and the corollary that a woman who *doesn’t* give you a “no” to push past is too slutty to be worthy of you) is a really damaging message.

  2. I wish this was Facebook so I could “like” your comments and post! I’ll just say I like it here in this comment, though.
    You are so very right about everything you say in this post. I have just recently learned all of this, the hard way. It would have been so much easier if someone had told me earlier. And a lot more, about how to handle stalkers (I didn’t know about restraining orders), how wives aren’t the passive personal property of their husbands, and a lot more.
    Thanks for a great post! I hope that people who this information can help are able to find it and read it! I would re-post but no one reads my blog anyway. ;)

  3. I understand where this post is going, but believe in the context of domestic violence, non consensual sex, at least in my experience, is motivated by the desire for power and control. It’s part of a larger pattern in which rights are denied and boundaries are violated.

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