In which I talk about my personal experiences of sexual coercion

This post has been a long time coming.

When I started this blog, one of the main topics I had in mind was abuse, and my own experiences thereof. I was really deep in the work of trying to develop a coherent narrative of what had even happened in my abusive relationship, and writing was, of course, helpful for that. I wrote some things about it here, and wrote at much greater length in more private venues. It helped.

I am actually in an extremely healthy place around the whole thing, now. Which is probably part of why I am finally getting around to writing the post I wanted to write almost two years ago, but just wasn’t ready to.

Trigger warnings for what follows

You see, there was a question I have always had trouble definitively answering. And as I understand it, it’s a pretty common one:

Was I raped?

What happened to me (and I will get to that) is definitely in a grey area. It is reasonable to describe it as rape, and also reasonable to decide that it is something else, also horrible. I mostly don’t even care anymore. I get that it was fucked up. I know that it was damaging and awful to experience, and I know the ways that it has impacted me in the long term. These are the important things for me. Everything else seems irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I want to talk it through, as it might help other people achieve some clarity in framing their own experiences. I want to start with some things I know to be true.

So here goes:

Fact #1: Nothing ever happened until I said “yes”

Or, you know, at least until I said, “Ok.”

Of course, oldest story in the book, the yeses and oks were often begrudging. Scratch that: they were often made from a desperate desire to escape the “conversation” (y’know, the one where he begged and pleaded and guilt-tripped me about not wanting to have sex, endlessly, for as long as it took – and believe me, I tested it; these could go on for hours, long past when I needed to be asleep in order to function the next day, and I never found any way out other than giving in and getting it over with).

But my point is, there was never any physical force involved.

As if that matters any more.

Fact #2: A lot of the time I didn’t want sex, but I said yes right away, anyway. No convincing required.

I actually have a very clear memory of making a conscious decision one day. I wasn’t going to refuse him anything ever. I was up for whatever whenever.

Because just saying yes and getting it over with was so much less painful than trying to stand up for myself, and being beaten back into a position where I had to say yes and get it over with anyway.

Because it was quicker, and then we could do something else.

But, I mean, that’s a thing: I decided to do that, of my own free will, right?

For years I actually framed the whole thing as me using him as a tool of my own self-destruction. Like I tricked him. What *really* happened, I told myself, is that I used him to rape myself. I was awful, and cruel, and unfair, and exploitative. Wasn’t he the real victim here, a victim of my dishonesty?

Fuck it.

Fact #3: This was some fucked-up shit

One day, at some point after I had given up the ghost, when I had stopped even checking in with myself to know what I did or did not want, when I was an automaton on autopilot every time he wanted to have sex (I had that shit down to a routine that I knew to be efficient; he never even noticed as far as I know), I did a very strange thing.

In the middle of sex, without doing anything else, I just started saying “No.” Over and over. “No no no no no no no.” In one long, flat, monotone sentence. No sign of distress whatsoever. Just the word. I can’t explain it. I think I just wanted to know how he would react.

I couldn’t see his face.

He didn’t even break his rhythm, though.

I felt… empowered, somehow? Giddy, anyway. I felt like I had let out this big secret I had locked inside of me.

So I did it again. Just once, or maybe twice more, I’m not sure. I never got a reaction from him. And then I stopped.

I think that I was getting way too close to a reality I wasn’t ready yet to face.

I brought it up in conversation some months later – I guess I still wanted to know what he had thought was happening with that.

He indicated that it had made him “uncomfortable”.


Fact #4: No matter how convinced I may be about the truth of Fact #1 (I always said “yes”), it’s not, strictly speaking, true

Here’s the tricky thing about me brain. Its knows that the things I’m about to tell you about happened, but it still constantly tells me that I always said “yes”.

If I actually include all of the things I know in the narrative, this is really easily disproven.

On at least one occasion (I know it happened once for sure. I just wouldn’t put it past myself to have forgotten other instances), I was lying half-conscious, very drunk, on the bedroom floor. And he took off my pants. And he “had sex” with me.

I was entirely aware of what was happening the entire time. I was entirely capable of asking him to stop. I really was. But I didn’t.

Instead, I played a game. I decided I wanted to know what he would do if I just did nothing. Just lay there, conscious but unresponsive. I wanted to know if he would actually go through with it.

Of course he did.

I don’t know who won that game.

So, was I raped?

I don’t give a shit, any more. I was someone’s glorified sex toy (and not in the consensual, kink-positive way) for a few years. It was awful. He is a shitty, selfish person.

I am pretty much done with that shit.

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

Yes to all of this

Excuse me while I spend the next week rereading and fully processing the amazingness dropped here (CW: rape)

“So if you want to be helpful, stop it. Stop it right now. Stop telling us we need to be less sensitive, or need to learn to take a joke. Stop explaining abusive behaviour to us. Stop implying feminists like being offended. Stop telling me you’d listen to women if we weren’t so angry.

Because I am angry and I’m sorry if anger makes you uncomfortable but for me, it’s a relief to realise after years and years of being quietly defeated, just how angry I now find I am. The anger reminds me that buried beneath the worthless, self-loathing teenager who whispers “it wasn’t rape,” whispers that I misunderstood, and that she will protect me by staying invisible, there’s another voice. That voice is tired of being told to shh. She knows it was rape. She always knew it.

Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss. People might think you are not okay with being raped.”

You should definitely read the whole thing. At least once.

Abuse-logic and Memory

I find it extremely difficult to talk, or write, or think clearly about the fact that I spent some years in an abusive relationship (which I’ve written about before, here and here. And it’s not that the thoughts are clouded by emotion – I can be dispassionate about most of my memories from that time. It’s something else entirely that’s going on.

Here’s the thing – the ways in which that relationship was abusive were definitely kind of nebulous, and not clear-cut examples of your standard after school special an abuse. And even now I’m often like “well, you know, it was kind of abusive, but not like super abusive” with whatever caveat I might have about it. One of those caveats is “I mean, it’s not like he raped me or anything.”

Except that, you know, I can actually point to a whole litany of occasions when he did sexual things to my body without my consent (up to and including penetrative acts, in case you’re a purist about these kinds of things).

So, honestly, I have no idea why I kind of just (conveniently?) forget about these things all the time.

I know it took me years (literally, *years*) after the fact to actually link any of these incidents with the way I felt about him and about our relationship. But it’s still hard for me to actually integrate them into any narrative of things – it’s like the way they’re stored in my memory is incompatible with the way other memories are stored, and they just don’t fit together. They’re random isolated islands of memory, oddly context-less, and my brain resists attributing any sort of causal relationship to them and anything that happened to me since, or any feelings that I have.

Even at moments like this, where I explicitly remind myself that actually, you know, he did rape you, I mostly don’t feel the truth of that statement. It’s not internalized in any way. Or rather, I suspect it’s already really deeply internalized, but that it’s somewhere that I can’t actually access consciously. Part of me resists it very strongly, to the point that I am entirely uncomfortable providing any kind of details about the incidents I’m referring to above.

I mean, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the details are, and it’s not like I feel like I have something to prove*, or that somehow sharing the actual story would allow me to get external validation on the fact that what happened was fucked up**.

I really think a lot of this links back to the kind of thing I was talking about in my post on “abuse-logic”. Being gaslit has a distinct effect on the ways that you understand the things that are happening to you in an abusive relationship. If, every time you have a moment of clarity, every time your brain wakes up enough to tell you that this maybe isn’t ok, your experiences are denied, ignored, and minimized, you’re told that your memory is incorrect, or that you’ve misinterpreted things, over time you develop an inherent distrust for your memories of the events in question. I don’t know why so many of us fall for it, either. But we do.

And unfortunately, the effects last well beyond when we manage to escape the cycle. Even though I know, intellectually, that my memories are accurate, and that my refusal to interpret them in the ways he insisted I should is valid, still I can’t interpolate these things into my existing narrative in any real way. Still, I can’t stop instinctively second-guessing myself, and doing the kind of generous rewriting that I had started doing as a matter of course when I was in the relationship. Because that’s the other thing. I was gaslit so much in that relationship that by the end, I never even confronted him with things, because I could have his side of the conversation with myself. I could tell myself exactly what was wrong, and exactly why I was being unreasonable, and I would do so because it was less emotionally draining than talking to him about it. And, by the time the relationship had developed to that point, the largeness of the pile of things that had been shoved under the rug to keep me in the relationship made me more and more reluctant to even look directly at each new piece of the puzzle.

The narrative is clear when you actually look straight at all of the facts pieced together, but the full picture is also just too scary to contemplate, and so I usually don’t put the pieces together, and certainly never more than one or two at a time.

And so it’s hard, but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it actually was that bad. It’s far enough away from my day-to-day life now that it looks smaller in the distance, and I’m processing it and putting the pieces together. And maybe one day I’ll stop minimizing my own experiences of it, I’ll stop second-guessing, and I’ll trust my interpretations. But I don’t think that day is quite today.

*Of course, I very often do feel like I have something to prove. This is exactly why I’m so often internally dissembling about whether it was “real” abuse.

**I’m actually perfectly comfortable framing the whole thing as fucked up, and that’s a depiction I can feel the truth of. It’s just the words abuse and rape that I can’t get to really stick in a way that’s convincing to myself, even though I would have no trouble if the same story was told by someone who wasn’t me.

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.

PSA of the day

Women in short skirts don’t get raped because they were wearing short skirts.

Women who are drunk don’t get raped because they are drunk.

People doing [thing that rape culture says gets people raped] don’t get raped because they did that thing.

Rapists rape people in short skirts/drunk people/people doing whatever thing the culture has decided they’re not supposed to do because you made it clear to them that if they targeted someone doing one of those things, their victim would not be believed and they would get away with it.

Stop teaching rapists how to get away with rape.

Models of Consent, Part 3 – Yes means yes!

This is part three in a series of posts on consent. Click through to read Part 1 and Part 2

Everyone should read this book!

In Part 2 (no means no redux), we discussed campaigns that expand on the no means no message to include other things that mean no. Ultimately, though, this kind of campaign can fall a little flat, since they succeed only in reducing the circumstances under which implied consent can be assumed. But the thing is, it’s never ok to assume that someone else will consent to a thing you want to do to them.

One of the images I included in part 2 actually does just manage to squeak in with message, when it says “anything but consent means no”. The problem here is that there is still no good definition of consent given. Ok, so we’ve seen soft nos, silence, or stillness don’t constitute consent; but what does?

This is where “Yes means yes” messaging becomes relevant. How do you know someone consents to have sex with you? When they say yes, of course! What I love about this message is that, while it’s exactly as concise as “no means no,” it carries the implicit requirement that you ask permission before you do something to someone. Because of the loophole I had talked about in earlier posts where, when “no means no” is the generally accepted model of consent, abusers can get away with a lot more by avoiding giving their victims the explicit opportunity to refuse consent – since it’s a common experience to freeze up when one’s boundaries are crossed without warning, by not asking permission, rapists reduce the probability that their target will clearly say “no,” and give themselves plausible deniability.

This loophole doesn’t exist in the yes means yes paradigm, wherein the actual intended meaning is usually “only yes means yes,” and in fact, more often than not “only an enthusiastic yes means yes”. (Maybe it should be “YES! means yes”?)

Yes means yes rhetoric has a lot going for it. It’s a paradigm wherein asking for permission is a necessary step in getting permission. And it removes rapists’ plausible deniability. By itself, though, it doesn’t really cover everything – I’ve written before about what can happen when people don’t take “no” for an answer, and bully their target into saying yes. Of course, this kind of behaviour doesn’t qualify as gaining enthusiastic consent, but I would argue that real problem is not in accepting and unenthusiastic no, it’s in the tactics used to get it. This is why “yes means yes” can’t stand alone, and requires a “no means no” counterpart, so that is clear both that 1) you have to ask before doing; and 2) if the person says no, you accept that no at face value.

In some ways, the combined rhetorical messages of yes means yes and no means no create a pretty airtight defense against rape (if and only if people actually abide by the rules of course), and this makes it a really solid model from which to talk about consent.

And yet. I don’t think it’s perfect. In the next instalment, I will explore some of the more nuanced aspects of “Yes means yes” (or, rather, “yes means yes and no means no”).