rape culture

Sexual agency and bafflement

I had some weird, not-really-the-point reactions to a recent Captain Awkward letter (TL;DR is that the letter writer is in a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman who does not engage in any kind of penetrative sex, and is averse to semen generally. Their sex life involves him getting her off usually without reciprocation.) The actual advice and comments provided to the letter writer are great (she gets to have her boundaries, but you also get to leave if you’re not happy and that’s ok) and I have nothing to add.

But.

But the thing that really strikes me, hard, when reading this letter (and I have read things like this before and had a similar reaction) is how completely impossible it seems to me that anyone could ever possibly have the wherewithal to express the kinds of preferences and boundaries this person’s girlfriend has put in place. If it was me, I would have never felt like I had the right to expect these kinds of needs or preferences to be respected. I would have assumed that I was the problem and compromised the shit out of my boundaries and suffered quietly and tried to suck it up.

Because I was raised to believe that there are certain things you just have to do if you are going to date a man. Because I was raised to believe that if you dared to ask for a compromise or to slow down on those things, and if the man involved was gracious enough to grant you their patience, they were going above and beyond the call of duty, and you probably owed them one to be honest.

This is a key part of rape culture, for the record, and it is something I was very clearly and explicitly indoctrinated into.

I was fortunate, therefore, that my first sexual relationship was with a woman, because that messaging didn’t come into play for me there. I am sure that foundation is part of what prevented me from being sexually traumatized by my relationship with my first boyfriend, to be honest.

Because that, as I have written about before, was something else. With him, it was all about the explicit pressure. But to be honest, he didn’t need to work all that hard – a little hinting was all it took for me feel like I was being unfair or unreasonable or that I was over-stepping my rights to agency. So when we made out for the first time, and didn’t go an further, and he said “You can’t keep doing this to me” (the *first time* we made out!), I didn’t run away or tell him off or anything. I just let him go further than I was ready to next time.

And thus was our pattern established.

It’s been a long time since then, of course, and it’s been a *very* long time since I had a partner who had also internalized these toxic ideas about what is simply required in a sexual relationship. It is intuitively obvious to me now that people get to have and express whatever boundaries they want. And I’ve learned to set my own boundaries somewhat, though I’ve also just had partners who are caring and attentive and able to read me well enough that those things haven’t always needed to be explicit.

I do still sometimes have to fight an uphill battle against myself, and the fact that I still instinctively respond to my own awareness of my partners’ desires with an internal pressure to perform. It is sometimes difficult to pull apart my genuine drive and desire to please other people because I enjoy it a fuck of a lot from the more damaging drive to self-obliterate against other people’s desires. I have to remember to stay in tune with myself, and that is easier some days than others, but I am honestly really good at it now.

But still, reading something like this letter, from a person whose attitude is so naturally “well, is the person I’m with doesn’t want the thing, then we don’t do the thing” that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly stated, when that attitude is just the way he seems to live and breathe his approach to relating sexually to other people, it actually kind of blows my mind a little.

Because, of course, that should be obvious. But to so many people, it really, really isn’t.

“Consent is sexy” is an insidious message

Look, I get the point of saying “consent is sexy”. I get that it became a thing in direct response to naysayers of the importance of consent who insist that asking before touching someone (especially sexually) is somehow inherently unsexy or a turn-off. I also get that we are living in a culture that seriously does sexualize and eroticize female non-consent and just violence against women generally, and that it is important to try to fight back against those forces as they continue to form so many people’s sexualities, sometimes in very dangerous ways.

“Consent is sexy” is and always has been at *best* a band-aid solution to some specific aspects of rape culture. And it has always been clear to me that we shouldn’t need to sell consent in this way, or call it anything other than right, or the only non-evil way to interact with other people. The fact that anyone thinks that the message is necessary tells us how much work still needs to be done, if nothing else.

But. It needs to stop now. We need to stop actively promoting the idea that consent is sexy. Because there are ways in which it is actively harmful and helps rapists.

I don’t think it’ll be surprising or revelatory to anyone if I point out that many people (read: most women) feel an awful lot of pressure to be “sexy” in accordance with what their culture tells them is sexy, regardless of whether they enjoy those things, or particularly want to have sex. Heck, women are told they need to be conventionally attractive in order to be perceived as professional (or, y’know, even just worthy of being treated with the most basic respect), as if those things have anything to do with one another.

Women are taught to model the behaviours that the culture they grow up in declares to be sexy. Naturally, as the idea that consent (and especially enthusiastic consent) is sexy gains more traction, this means that women are feeling and will feel more pressure to model the appearance of said enthusiastic consent regardless of their actual desires.

By framing consent as “sexy”, we are making it harder for people, and women especially, to feel like they have the freedom to decide whether to consent or not. Not because it’s bad to find consent sexy – I do still agree that finding consent sexy should be and will be a sign of the death of rape culture if that ever comes – but because we are still living in a misogynist world, and because we are still living in a rape culture, and this particular attempt at combating that culture is far too easily turned against itself.

Consent is necessary and important, regardless of whether it is sexy. It is mandatory even if it is inconvenient, even if it is a turn-off. And deciding not to consent to anything, at any time, is not unsexy, either.

“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.

Questions from the search terms: a non sequitur

I am working on a really tough post, about gender and self-doubt, and it’s refusing to stop being a total amorphous unstructured blob of half-thoughts, so this week I’m just gonna throw you a quick rant inspired by the search terms, that’s outside of my usual purview.

I wrote one time about the movie Killer Joe, in the context of depictions of sexual assault in movies and tv, and I guess this is how this questioner got to me. [TW: indirect discussion of rape and conspiring to rape]

why does dottie shoot her brother and dad in movie killer joe?

I don’t know, maybe you missed that part of the movie where Dottie’s brother and father treat her like their property, and are constantly making decisions on her behalf, without so much as consulting her? Or, y’know, that time they used her as a bargaining chip (literally, as a “retainer”) when hiring Joe? Dottie literally didn’t have any choice in the matter of her “relationship” with Joe, did you miss that too? None of the men in this movie see or treat Dottie like a person at all, they are all just trying to get her to do whatever will make them happy, or make their lives easier.

And, I don’t know, maybe she decided she’d had enough of that? Not that I actually condone murder, or violence of any kind, but seriously, the fact that Dottie might be angry or feel hate for the men in her life, who either raped her (Joe) or orchestrated and supported her repeated rape because it helped them meet their other goal (which, by the way, was the murder of a another woman, so not a great track record these men have) makes her desire to be free of these fuckers pretty understandable. But I guess you missed all that, yeah?

“Hidden” sexual violence in the media: or, this is one of the reasons it is so hard to get people to see rape as rape

[This piece was originally written for a online course I am taking at Coursera, “Understanding Violence” (hence the noted difference in tone to my normal writing here). It relates back to a post a wrote a long time ago about scenes that turn up in movies and tv that are clearly intended to be innocent or seductive, but that actually portray coercion, assault, and/or rape. Trigger warning for descriptions of fictional scenes of sexual violence.]

In the media today, sexual violence is often portrayed in ways that are not intended to be sexual violence. That is to say that quite frequently, I see scenes in movies and television that are intended to be non-violent sexual content, but that in reality portray sexual violence that goes unrecognized by the writer and much of the audience. Moreover, the ways in which this happens differs significantly depending upon the gender of the person against whom the sexual violence is being perpetrated.

A very common trope in supposed seduction scenes in movies and television is the portrayal of men ignoring women’s displeasure with their advances, of continuing to behave sexually toward women despite their protests, until eventually the women suddenly change their minds and decide they want to have sex after all.

One of the most blatant examples of this trope is in the movie Blade Runner. The ‘seduction’ of Rachael (Sean Young) by the protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) plays out as follows: Deckard kisses Rachael. She responds with discomfort and tried to leave. He physically forces her against a wall, and commands her to kiss him. She complies. He commands her to tell him to kiss her (i.e. he coerces her into giving false verbal consent, or to falsely express desire). She does so. They continue to kiss, and now Rachael appears to begin to enjoy herself.

In this case, it is unclear whether the scene was intended to portray dubious consent. It should be noted that Rachael is an android, and that she was in fact designed to serve humans wants and needs, a detail which complicates the story and raises questions about the meaning of consent, and some people have argued that this scene is made to be deliberately ambiguous on this point. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the director’s intent, many people who watch the movie do not see this scene as coercion.

There is a long-standing debate on Wikpedia, for instance, on whether this scene is more accurately described as rape or seduction. The “Rape/Seduces” section of the “Talk” page about the movie opens by very clearly stating “[Rachael] does consent” (“Talk: Blade Runner” 2013). Although these is rich discussion about the issue, the actual Blade Runner entry shows that the consensus on the issue is that this scene portrays Deckard “forc[ing] her to acknowledge and trust her feelings” (i.e. that he forces her to admit that despite her protests she secretly does want him.) This is an extremely dangerous way of discussing the use of coercive force in sexual encounters, to say the least.

A more contemporary example of this form of coercive ‘seduction’ appears in Tyler Perry’s Temptation. This movie includes a scene in which Harley (Robbie Jones) expresses a desire to have sex with Judith (Jurnee Smollet). She does not reciprocate. He physically grabs her, and she resists, repeatedly telling him “No.” He appears to become even more turned on, and pauses only for a moment to reassure her (“Okay, now you can say you resisted”) before continuing the physical assault.

At no point in this scene does Judith give any appearance of consenting to this activity. What is shown is very clearly a sexual assault. But later in movie, this scene retroactively cleaned up in a flashback sequence that confirms that at some point Judith changed her mind and stopped resisting, and the couple made love.

Generally speaking this scenes are considered to be unproblematic and entirely acceptable, because ultimately the women succumb and consent to the men’s advances. However, regardless of the fact that the women change their minds, during the period of time that the men continue to pressure the women, and continue to try to kiss or undress them against their clearly stated wishes, up until the point where the women begin to consent they are committing sexual violence.

There is a serious misunderstanding in these scenes about what constitutes consent, and at what point you need to have consent in order to not be committing sexual assault. Of course, in reality, you need consent for every part of the interaction, from the first kiss or touch, onwards. And if at any point that consent is not present, than sexual violence is occurring,
I do think it’s important to note that in these fictional scenes, the women in question are not harmed, and end up having (presumably) fond memories of the encounters. What is concerning about these portrayals, more than anything else, is the message they send to men that if you keep pushing back against women’s resistance to your advantage, they will eventually change their. When men in real life attempt this tactic, they can and do frequently wind up committing sexual assault or even rape, depending on how committed they are to continuing to try to “seduce” a woman who does not want to be seduced.

To make matters more disturbing, it is important to note that part of the mechanism that creates such a preponderance of scenes of questionable consent in the mainstream is the ratings board. There are numerous reported cases in which filmmakers have been required to remove evidence of female sexual desire and pleasure in order to avoid an R rating.

A recent example of this is the movie Sucker Punch. The movie originally contained a brief, fairly tame sex scene. Emily Browning’s description of what happened to the scene speaks volumes. According to her report, in order to get a PG-13 rating, Zack Snyder reportedly had to edit the scene in a way that ultimately eliminated any sign of agency or desire on the part of the female character. Rather than replace a consensual sex scene with one that played as an assault, Snyder decided to cut the scene entirely.

What is extremely important to note here is that while the ratings board was ready to slap an R rating on a consensual sex scene, they were willing to drop that rating to a PG-13 is the consensual sex was changed into a coercive ‘seduction’.

In the same vein, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce has spoken at length about the problems she had with even acquiring an R rating for her movie (it was originally granted an NC-17). To be sure, Boys Don’t Cry deals with a great deal of sensitive and disturbing subject matter – based on a true story, it follows a short period in the life of Brendon Teena, a trans man trying to escape his past a forge a life in his male identity. He briefly finds love, before his girlfriend’s family discovers that he is trans. This revelation culminates in his being gang raped, (when he reports the rape to the police, he is subjected to further humiliation), and eventually murdered.

But none of this is what bothered the ratings board. As Pierce reports it (you can hear her telling of the story in This Film is Not Yet Rated), in order to get the rating dropped to an R, she was required to repeatedly trim down and re-edit the consensual sex scene in the film. This scene is not explicit, and shows no nudity. It was simply a long shot of Brendan’s girlfriend’s face showing clear sexual pleasure. And this was repeatedly deemed unacceptable.

The brutal rape scene however, garnered no comment, and required no editing.

In part because of the lesser cultural hang-ups around portrayals of male desire, the ways in which the media seemingly unconsciously portrays and normalizes sexual violence against men is very different than the treatment of women. Rather than displaying a poor understanding of consent, or a preference for coercion over portrayals of genuine female sexual pleasure, there is a disturbing tendency to completely disregard altogether the concept of male consent (or, rather, the possibility that a man might refuse to consent to anything.) Consider the following examples from popular television shows.

In the first episode of the show Californication, the protagonist Hank Moody (David Duchovny) has sex with a number of women (always with their clear consent). However, there is this extremely strange and disturbing thing that happens in one of the sex scenes. When he is in the middle of having sex with one of these women, very suddenly and without warning, she hauls off and punches him in the face. He is clearly shocked, though not upset. She punches him once more before simply leaving him, bewildered. For the remainder of the episode, he has a black eye from this encounter.

Now, as in the examples of sexual violence against women, Moody is not particularly upset by this incident, and his feelings about it seem to lean more toward bemusement than anything else. Regardless, it is very important to look objectively at what happened here – a woman physically assaulted him apparently for her own sexual gratification, without first acquiring his consent to do so.

A more extreme example of this occurs in the fifth episode of season five Doctor Who. In this episode Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) attempts to seduce the Doctor (Matt Smith) in much the same way that the men in above examples try to seduce women. She kisses him, and when he pushes her away, she continues to advance, kissing him more even as protests verbally, and struggles and to get away from her. She tries to remove his clothes, while he continues to try to stop her. At no point is it implied that there is anything wrong with her behaviour, and in fact it is played for laughs – as if the Doctor is somehow oblivious to her desire, despite the fact that it is clear that he knows exactly what is going on and does not want it.

The main difference between this scene and the male-driven seductions described above is that the Doctor does not change his mind, and eventually simply escapes. It is clear the Amy had no intention of stopping and things would have only gotten worse if he had not gotten away. And yet somehow, this scene is still generally considered a light-hearted one.

Once again, here, the male character’s lack of consent for the sexual activities the woman forces upon him is apparently irrelevant. The clear message is that male non-consent does not matter, is not important, and somehow doesn’t count.

The people who write these scenes that unintentionally portray sexual violence, when they seem to intend only to depict sexual seduction, display a clear lack of understanding of consent, and of sexual violence itself. And this lack of understanding is reflected in the ways in which audiences tend to receive these scenes (largely they read in the way the writers intended them to, as seduction). Ultimately, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, wherein these kinds of images and behaviours are normalized and not recognized as sexual violence by audiences (which include future screenwriters, who will re-enact these problematic models of seduction for the next generation).

In many ways these kinds of unintentional, and largely unrecognized, forms of violence in the media are more dangerous than the overt depictions, which are more often accompanied with some sense of immorality. Thus, the way in which some kinds of sexual violence are portrayed as acceptable and even normal is one of the most disturbing trends in media today.

PSA of the Day


Things that, when they occur, can be considered natural consequences of choosing to get drunk, for which the person who chose to drink is responsible:

  • Having a hangover
  • Getting alcohol poisoning

Things that are *not* natural consequences of choosing to drink:

  • Getting roofied
  • Getting raped
  • Being robbed
  • Getting taken advantage of in any way

Please note that the items in that second list all involve the active and autonomous actions and choices of another person other than the person who drank “too much”. The person who was over-indulging did not choose to have these things happen to them; the person who did them chose to do so, and that choice is *their* responsibility, and a natural consequence of them being a terrible person.

In other words, the first list is things that alcohol (which we sometimes actively invite into our bodies) does to people; the second list is things that other people do to people, without permission. Understood?

That is all.

Righteous rage of the day

[Content note: rape, pedophilia, rape apology]
Currently reading

This makes me so fucking angry:

“I always wanted to protect kids,” he said during one of two interviews at the Miami County Jail. “Somewhere along the line, things went wrong.”

Orly? So, in you story, you were just going along, minding your own business, adopting children out of the goodness of your heart, and then one day you just totally accidentally started raping them? I mean, you never meant for it to happen or anything. And then, once that had happened, there wasn’t really anything else you could do but get other men to also rape them. There just simply weren’t any other options, obviously.

I mean, it totally could’ve just happened to anyone, right? Rape is like a force of nature and no one involved really has any responsibility for it.

Gods. Fucking. Dammit.

…On a lighter note, I do really, really appreciate that the author of the article also included the following:

Child abuse by adoptive fathers is much rarer than by biological fathers, or by other male relatives and non-relatives, federal studies have indicated.

“This isn’t a typical situation. It certainly isn’t typical of people seeking adoption,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Most abusers of this sort have an interest in a child during a certain period of their development. They are looking for opportunities where they can get access to the kids. They don’t want to have custodial responsibility.”

Fostering and adopting children meant passing background checks and other scrutiny, with home studies and follow-up visits by social workers.

Working against rape myths, and trying to prevent people from using this particular case to shore up their confirmation bias about adoptive parents? Awesome, Ms. Farrar. Pure awesome.