Dating while feminist

Relevant to some of y’all’s interests!

For those that enjoy my various and sundry social justice-y thoughts on dating, and especially online dating, check out datingwhilefeminist, which is written by past (and hopefully future) Valprehension guest blogger Spice.

You can also follow her general awesomeness on the Twitter @thepurplecoffee

“Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about power”… except for when it really is just about sex

[TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of rape, both in abstract generalities and of my own specific experiences]

I was amazed recently to see the responses to this article about rape, and the idea that for many rapists, the fact that they know their victim doesn’t want to have sex is the turn-on. Which, this just seems obvious to me.

But, on facebook where I saw it shared, comment after comment poured in to correct the author on their understanding, because obviously “Rape is NOT about sex it’s about power and control.” Some people couched this in somewhat more nuanced ways, such as claiming that “It’s a sexual crime that is not sexual in nature,” or that “It is very much sexual. But it has nothing to do with sexual pleasure.”

The message here is: rapists don’t rape because they enjoy it sexually, or because doing so turns them on. They do it to feel powerful and/or to enact the power that they already have in society. And the thing is, sometimes this is exactly what rape is: when it is used as a tool of violence in war, very often when it occurs in prison, and also very often in abusive interpersonal relationships, rape is a symbolic way of claiming ownership and control over another human being, and often a way of communicating that that the rapist doesn’t consider them to be human, and sometimes that is the primary motivation for rape. And it is important to acknowledge this aspect of sexual/sexualized violence.

But that doesn’t even begin to cover the full range of non-consensual sexual activities. It completely elides the fact that we live in a society that does actively sexualize violence against women, and that generations of men have grown being taught to be turned on by sexual violence, just as the Ms. Magazine article describes.

In fact, the description of rape as always about power doesn’t even remotely apply to my own experience of rape.

There are some things that I’ve only just recently put together in my head, that explain my own experience of rape and how it happened in a much more solid way than I have ever before been able to articulate.

The thing about my abusive ex? One of the main things that I led to things going the way they did with us? His primary sexual fantasy was for one person to start off not wanting to have sex, but to change their mind once things started and wind up enjoying it.

Like, he told me this at one point. And I’ve only just now realized just how strong a thing this was and how much it coloured so many of our sexual interactions.

Because the thing that this did, in our relationship? It meant that if he wanted to have sex and my initial position was a no, not just that he didn’t accept that answer (which is the first and most obvious problem), but that he was actually *more* turned on once I’d said no, because this was now a chance for him to enact his fantasy. From his perspective, when I said no, the stakes actually got higher.

I didn’t realize this at all at the time, but it makes his behaviour make way more sense to me now. Not in a way that makes it somehow less reprehensible, for the record; just in a way that makes it easier for me to remember things more clearly, because the motivation tying together his actions has made the narrative easier to hold in my head.

This also explains some other things that for years left me confused and unable to name my experiences as rape. The thing about it all is that my rapist isn’t a person who got off specifically on non-consent – he doesn’t quite fit the model described in the Ms. article that started me down the road to figuring this out. What he was looking for wasn’t violent all the way through. It was slightly murkier than that.

And so there are facts like, I learned how and when to vocalize fake enjoyment to make things go faster, and to get him to finish more quickly. Because, of course, his fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it.

Though, I also have to admit that it’s not as if me never coming around to vocal enjoyment ever stopped him, either. It just made things take longer, and often involved him tapping into his other major turn-ons, which were just generally more physically demanding for me – though I also knew to pull them out when I didn’t have the energy for play-acting (you see how I gave myself the illusion of choice and control, there?)

The truth is, my abuser was a deeply, overwhelmingly selfish person. He was entitled, in ways that pervaded all of his interactions with other people, and the ways he would push to get his way in all things. But his impulses were never intended to be violent. He didn’t really understand what he was doing to me, but that doesn’t make it any better for me that I went through it.

For him, it was definitely, unquestioningly, and always about sex. About his sexual fantasies, and turn-ons, and pleasure. And he failed to see the implications of his actions, and he failed to really care about my boundaries, ever. It wasn’t ever really about dehumanizing me, or anything remotely like that.

But it was definitely rape.

So, to the people who insist that rape is never about sex: you are allowing your political position and perhaps your personal experience to override and delegitimize the lived experiences of many rape survivors. Your shitty hard line stance made it harder for me to identify my experience as rape and has made my healing process unnecessarily difficult. Stop it.

Guest Post! An open letter to men who date women

[Hey, remember how I used to talk about feminism? Maybe one day I’ll get back into that. In the meantime, though, here is a guest post by Spice, who I’m hoping might actually be a recurring guest blogger here! Because, y’know, I am a lazy blogger and I like it when other people do the writing for me.]

An Open Letter:

I am a woman. I am also a feminist. A feminist who happens to find herself mostly attracted to straight cis men. And, this is cool. Cis men can be awesome! Especially when they are also feminists.

And yet. And yet, while we live in a society that is finally starting, in bits and pieces, to unpack sexism, and while I date men who are either feminists or want to be, and while these men tend to be intelligent, sensitive people with good intuitions, relationships are still a confusing thing to navigate.

Because there are mixed messages. How are we dividing relationship responsibilities? Is it heteronormative? If it is, is that okay? And what often happens is that guys – particularly those with feminist sensibilities – worry about doing anything that is sexist. And this is understandable. And great! And also, at times, deeply frustrating. Sorting what is ok from what isn’t is already pretty hard when you know what it’s like to be a woman. I also think that what’s ok and what isn’t varies from relationship to relationship, and person to person. And so one thing I really want to say is that we should probably just get more used to talking this shit out, instead of avoiding things or guessing or making assumptions or whatever.

But, I also want to put something out there, something that is based on my own lived experience. And while this probably won’t represent women *everywhere* (because women are not a monolith) I have had enough positive feedback from women regarding what I’m about to write about that I am pretty confident that this will be pretty useful for at least some of us.

In my first relationship I ever had, I had an argument with my boyfriend about the fact that he never told me he thought I was beautiful. “Of course I think that. But I shouldn’t have to say it. I wouldn’t be dating you if I didn’t think so,” he claimed. He also didn’t feel comfortable saying those things, he said. It wasn’t his style.

I have such compassion for my younger self, because looking back, I knew he was wrong, but I couldn’t for the life of me articulate to him what was wrong with what he was saying. But since then, I’ve come across similar tendencies in my own partners and in those of my friends, and so this is my attempt to write a public service announcement.

“But!” You might be thinking. “But reducing women to their looks is bad right? We don’t want to value people just because they are attractive. I don’t want to offend my girlfriend or feminism.”

And yeah. I get it. I get where this impulse is coming from. And look. Sexism is a thing. Women’s value being reduced to their appearance is a thing. And, there are some seriously fucked up beliefs that help to form it. And these are beliefs that I, and you, and many other people have consciously tried to undo. And consciously unpacking them is one way of attacking them, and goes some way to undoing the problem, but it can’t possibly fix it entirely. And this is in part because pretty much since we were born, we have been sent fucked up messages. As a woman, I have been sent messages about what being a woman means, how one’s appearance forms a huge part of that, and how I should be doing it. I am sent these messages all the time, every day. These messages are ubiquitous and pervasive and come from so, so many directions: advertising, movies, television shows, billboards, window displays, cosmetics stores, magazines, clothing stores, the way women talk about themselves, the woman behind me in the coffee shop right now moralizing about her work out habits, my friends on facebook talking about how they hate their bodies, how women police other women…. just so, so many aesthetic things that permeate everything.

Because capitalism is actively invested in maintaining a lot of sexist beliefs. It’s how it makes a LOT of its money. As long as women keep feeling badly about themselves, then women will keep buying things to try to fill in their perceived inadequacies. Now, in general, ads often abuse ideas about ‘dreams’ and ‘happiness’, so like, ‘hey buy this and you will actually feel happy!’ etc. They try to give you a sense of some lack in your life that needs to be filled.

But saying that someone doesn’t *have* something is very different, I think, from being the target of ‘hey, you should *be* this, but you aren’t are you? Well, this product will help solve your failings!’ – because the latter thing is attacking not just how we feel, but who we *are*, and insinuating that there’s this ideal that we’re not living up to, and who we are will always, no matter what, be tied to how we match up (or don’t match up, realistically speaking) to that ideal. And once that gets instilled in women – and it does – then that is an easy thing to prey upon, and to manipulate. And so I spend most days putting a lot of energy into fighting it. Into thinking: no, no I don’t believe this. I will not allow my sense of self to be reduced to this, because this is bullshit. At least, I do that when I realize that I’m thinking about it, which sometimes (often?) I don’t.

And I think I do a pretty good job, quite frankly. And my self-esteem is also related to other things, like the fact that I’m funny and interesting, that I am good at teaching and that my own work is going well, and I sometimes write things people think are interesting and fun to read. My friends and family reinforce positive reflections of myself to me. I think of myself as a confident person.

And that is an achievement. It isn’t easy or straightforward to get that. But general confidence is not the same thing as confidence within a relationship. You can be extremely confident but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to find you attractive, or like you. And needing that security within the context of a romantic/sexual relationship isn’t weak, or needy. It actually makes a whole lot of sense.

Certainly, acquiring a general sense of self-confidence as a woman is elusive. I’ve spent *my entire life* hearing/seeing/being told that the most important thing I can contribute to the world is being attractive and that I should place a huge part of my self-worth on that. And that being attractive is really important because it will make men want to sleep with you and by the way if men don’t want to sleep with you all the time you must be doing something wrong because that’s basically how men are wired, etc. (Even though… apparently you also have to work really hard at making them want to sleep with you by wearing makeup and the right clothes and and and?) And one major way to gauge your value, we are told, is via male desire. The importance of this cannot be overstated, because it has gone towards who I have built myself to be as a person, for better or worse. I can’t just decide to go back in and extract those pieces of myself because now I realize how fucked up those beliefs are. It doesn’t work like that. None of us is bigger than our culture.

And then I start having real relationships with real people (amazing!) and then I realize that these things are not true: my entire value is not based on my attractiveness, that my attractiveness is not entirely based on my physical appearance, and that men don’t want to have sex all the time. And sometimes I will want to have sex more than my partners do. And it’s confusing and I have to recalibrate how I’m judging my sense of self and desirability in a relationship and that is more work.

(And this is a great example of why sexism hurts men too, because all of a sudden a bunch of women are like, what do you mean you don’t want to have sex all the time, what’s wrong with me that you don’t? And the men are all confused, like, of course there’s nothing wrong with you, what is happening? And then the men are upset and confused and sad because women have these weird expectations and why would they have those expectations if they weren’t reasonable?)

And I know that many of these messages are wildly inaccurate. And so there is a programme in my brain devoted to fending off this tide of bullshit, and that is just so damn wearying. And I manage to keep my shit together, but then sometimes things leak out of the cracks in the dam that I build up against it. I’m *already* doing the work of constantly reminding myself of the fact that of course I’m attractive even though I don’t live up to (and couldn’t possibly live up to) all of these standards. And then, then to hear men express frustration with the fact that there’s so much pressure on them to reinforce women’s self esteem because sometimes we would like to be told that we’re beautiful? That somehow that is onerous? That we should just know that we’re attractive because otherwise they wouldn’t be dating us?

Are you kidding me? No. Just no. All of the No’s to that.

Despite the pervasive cultural voices telling me that I’m not good enough, and my own internalization of that, I’m supposed to just brush all that aside like it doesn’t matter very much and somehow choose to feel confident anyways? No. I need more than that. I deserve more than that. I cannot possibly reinforce this all for myself, I have no idea how I would do that. I have no idea how anyone would do that. And no one should have to.
Because our sense of ourselves is not divorced from our surroundings. It’s not as simple as just deciding to see myself in a certain way from inside a vacuum. And I take myself to be a pretty confident person, but I’m not a superhero. I cannot bootstrap myself up. I am a human being, who needs to hear that she is beautiful and desirable and admired and loved from the people around me. And again there is a distinction between how I feel about myself generally, and how I feel within the context of a relationship. You can be confident and still need positive feedback from your partner. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. In fact it’s pretty damn normal. Confidence doesn’t come from nowhere.

So, compliment your girlfriend if she wants you to. Don’t make her deduce that you desire her. Don’t cop out by saying it’s ‘not your style.’ Don’t make her feel like it’s out of line with ‘feminism’ for her to want that. Or that you feel ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’. This isn’t hard, it basically means taking the things you think anyway and saying them out loud. And isn’t the point to make each other feel loved and desired and safe and comfortable? We’re on the same team here, so let’s do what we can to help each other feel happy and loved.

A little bit of femme-love

It definitely doesn’t get acknowledged enough: consciously femme folks are fucking badass, amazing, courageous people fighting an important fight for gender equality. Being femme can be a radical act (whether it is intended as such or not), and I think that often gets forgotten.

Y’see, as a non-binary person, I know that people see me as being somehow radical, or on the edge of some sort of movement to change the way gender works in society. And in some ways I embrace this. I am happy to be in a position to call into question a lot of assumptions about what gender is or what it means. But at the same time, I am very much one of *those* non-binary people: I am white, middle-class, skinny, AFAB, and vaguely transmasculine – if there is a normative version of genderqueerness (and there is), I am it. To some extent, I’ve very deliberately crafted of sort of sexual invisibility for my (public) self – I *hate* being sexualized by strangers, y’all. I really do. And my presentation is, ultimately, extremely safe.

Femmes, though; y’all I don’t know how you do it. I know that the world we share is one where feminine people are very often seen as consumables, as commodities, as existing for other people’s viewing (and consuming) pleasure. I know that for me the difference between wearing pants and a skirt represents (easily) a ten-fold increase in the likelihood of facing harassment. I don’t doubt it is the same for all of you.

I know that by being unabashedly femme, you increase the likelihood that you will be seen as unworthy of leadership positions, that you will be talked down to, that your path will be harder in all kinds of tiny little ways that are maybe hard to see individually but that add up to being treated as less-than in all kinds of ways.

And I know that by also being your awesome self at the same time, by being worthy, by insisting upon your worthiness, by simply *being* you are revealing the lie of the inferiority of femininity. You are at the lead in making the world a place where people can be feminine without being looked down upon, without being seen as submissive or powerless. You are bringing power to the feminine, and that is so fucking important.

Because yeah, a lot of women are making it in the world by sort of playing along with masculine power displays and being one of the guys, and that’s great too, in it’s own ways. Not only men can rock suits and wield that sort of power. But I’d hate for equality of the sexes to be one at the cost of everyone having to give up on glitter and frills and awesome nail art and all things girly. Because girly things are freaking amazing, and everyone should feel like they can be girly without somehow hurting their chances at a promotion, or without being accused of asking to be harassed, or having to deal with any of the millions of microaggressions associated with the entire idea of girliness all of the time (all of which happens to femme folk of all genders).

Even if this isn’t your goal exactly. It doesn’t matter. Either you’ve seen through the lie that feminine things are bad, and are just doing the things you love regardless what anyone thinks, or you are actively fighting against the idea that a person can’t love frilly clothes and wear flashy glittery make-up, and own all the pink things, and be powerful at the same time. You are so awesome, no matter what!

So yeah, I love y’all. And I’m going to leave you also with a love letter from Ivan Coyote, because Ivan Coyote:

And also this amazingness:

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,”
“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