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”).

Models of Consent, Part 2 – No Means No Redux

This is the second in a series of posts critically examining some of the ways consent has been framed in feminist and other circles. For more info, Go to Part 1.

Despite the clear issues with the no means no message, the slogan continues to be employed in anti-rape campaigns. It is a catchy slogan, and it’s message, while incomplete to a degree that is potentially dangerous (as we’ve seen), is an important one. It is clear, however, that even those employing the slogan are aware of it’s limitations, and as a result we see a lot of campaigns expanding on the message to make it clear that the absence of a “no” is not, in itself, an indication of consent.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

Image from the No Means No campaign by the Canadian Federation of Students. Text reads: “No means NO. Not now means No. I have a boy/girlfriend means NO. Maybe means NO. Maybe later means NO. No thanks means NO. You’re not my type means NO. [String of symbols representing an expletive] off means NO. I’d rather be alone right now means NO. Don’t touch me means NO. I really like you but… means NO. Let’s just go to sleep means NO. I’m not sure means NO. You’ve/I’ve been drinking means NO. Silence means NO. [blank] means NO.

Source: Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. Texts reads: “No means NO! I’m not sure, means NO. Not right now means NO. I’m tired right now means NO. Silence means NO. Stop means NO. Staying still means NO. Anything but consent means NO.

There’s a number of really important things going on here, that address many of the criticisms I made of no means no as a stand-alone message.

The Canadian Federation of Students’ messaging in particular directly addresses the phenomenon in which people (especially women, or members of any marginalized group) are uncomfortable giving direct rejections. “No” can be hard to say, and we often try to say it without using the word no. Instead, we make excuses (I have a partner/I need to do this other thing right now, sorry!) that kick the rejection can down the road, and that are sometimes interpreted (by assholes, mostly) to be encouragements. These kinds of excuses unfortunately make people who aren’t actually concerned about what you want feel like they can negotiate with you about your sexual desires (pro tip: this is not a thing that works). The messaging in the images above combats the idea that it is ok to keep pushing after receiving ANY form of rejection – it’s not. Appreciate that the person who propositioned is being kind, but recognize the rejection for what it is and don’t be an ass about it.

Cool. I’m glad we cleared that up.

The second poster also deals with the more insidious form of deliberate ignorance and advantage-taking in the absence of a no. “Staying still means NO” is possibly the single most important concept here. The message is that just because someone doesn’t explicitly object to what you’re doing to them does not mean that they have consented. This is actually a very powerful and meaningful message, and is the one that most often trips people up when talking about consent in sexual situations. It just about erases the possibility that you can get away with whatever you want as long as you don’t ask permission first (i.e. as long as you don’t give your victim a chance to object, or put them in a situation where they will be too confused or scared to do anything that could be construed as an explicit objection).

Just about. But not quite.

In Part 3, I discuss the messages behind “yes means yes” campaigns, the ways in which it differs from “no means no” messaging, and fills some of the remaining gaps left even by expanded non means no campaigns like those discussed here. And I’ll also be exploring some of the flaws of “yes means yes” messaging.

Models of consent, Part 1 – No Means No

This is the first in what will be a series of posts critically examining some of the ways consent has been framed in feminist and other circles.

“No means no”

I think it’s fair to say that the “no means no” model of consent has the most mainstream traction in North America today. And it seems simple enough – when someone objects to you doing something to them, you don’t do that thing to them, right? As a rule, it works in every possible life context, not just sexual ones.

Of course, you still get people saying things like “sometimes a no is just a yes that needs more convincing” (this is actually a sadly common answer to the OKCupid multiple-choice match question asking people whether they believe that no means no). I would like to just completely write these people off ass assholes, except for two things. First, it’s too prevalent a belief to completely write off. And second, as much I would like it to be untrue, there’s still an mount of stigma attached to being a woman who gives in “too easily” to sexual advances.

To some extent, as fucked up as it is, (some) men expect to have to “work” for the privilege of having sex with a woman. Because women don’t ever have sex ’cause they like sex, they just do it to keep around a fellow who buys them nice things and takes care of them, am I right? And for reasons I will never understand, apparently in some straight men’s minds, a woman who uses sex as a gambit is actually preferable to a woman who really wants to have sex with them, and enjoys it.

Um… because they can’t be trusted not to have sex with other men, I guess? Yeah, that’s just a gross attitude, but it does seem like some people still carry it around.

But yeah, it is because our culture has set up the mainstream narrative of sexual politics this way that “no means no” meets so much resistance despite it’s obvious correctness.

That said, though, there are also some legitimate criticisms to be made of the “no means no” model. After all, it does set the onus on the person who doesn’t want sex to clearly express themselves on that point. And it’s been well documented that women, particularly, have been socialized against clearly rejecting romantic/sexual advances, lest they anger their “admirer” and “provoke” them to violence. Thus, many women simply aren’t comfortable expressing a clear “no”. And while it’s clear that women’s sometimes round-about ways of rejecting men are not actually as confusing as they are sometimes made out to be (and ‘softened’ forms of “no” are understood in many non-sexual contexts), the way in which rejections often omit the word “no” is a huge problem if your model of consent is “no means no”.

To put it simply: “no means no” implies that all you need to ensure consent is a lack of a no. And that makes this model easy to abuse. It means that everyone is walking around all the time in a default state of implied consent to sexual activity. And thus, if you never explicitly ask permission, you can get away with an awful lot.

And I want to perfectly clear here; the fault is not with people who have been socialized not to say “no”, it’s with people who refuse to accept rejection, and with the cultural narrative that makes it ok to keep going since she didn’t say no, after all. And the “no means no” doesn’t tell us what “maybe” means, so what’s a poor guy to do?

It’s all about plausible deniability, and unfortunately, the “no means no” model leaves a lot of room for selfish assholes to pretend they didn’t know what was going on.


Part 2 looks at some of the ways in which “no means no” has been expanded and improved upon over the years.

The “asking for it” narrative

No one ever asks to raped. No one ever asks to be abused. Physical violence is not an appropriate response to anything other than someone else initiating physical violence (or threatening to do so). The person who initiates it is in the wrong, always.

There. Done. Nothing more needs to be said on the topic, right?

That would be nice.

I’m not going to get into the bullshit ideas that if a woman has the audacity to be attractive to someone, that somehow constitutes consent to any and all activities with any and all people who find her attractive. It’s not even worth addressing. It’s just wrong. And I really think that even most of the people who say it know it’s wrong.

I want to talk here about one of the kinds of interactions that can arise in long-term abusive situations (whether abusive “romantic” relationships, parent-child relationships, or any other form of bullying over the long term) that may legitimately confuse some otherwise well-meaning people.

I know that for myself, when I relationships I have been in have fallen into abusive patterns (i.e. when I have been abused), I have been known to play in to those patterns. Because I knew my father’s hot buttons, and what would result irrationally angry reactions from him, I could choose to “set him off”. And sometimes I did.

Because the thing is that it was much easier to take whatever he had to throw at me if I was prepared for it. Setting him off unintentionally was far more painful and left deeper and more lasting emotional scars. I was living with him; it was always inevitable that another outburst would occur at some point – the only thing I had any chance of controlling was when it happened.

With my abusive partner, it was slightly different. It was the tired old story of not taking no for an answer, but not in a physically forceful way. Any time I did not want to have sex would trigger a wave of emotional blackmail, whining and begging. Early on, this could go on for hours before I could “convince” him to accept my initial no. But I could only do this so many times, and eventually I lacked the energy to fight for that long, and instead I inevitably give in from pure emotional exhaustion. I saw no other choice – I just couldn’t argue any more.

As time went on, my energy for trying to stand up for myself waned, until eventually I reached a point where I wouldn’t bother to say no in the first place. I agreed to whatever he wanted, because having things done to my body that I didn’t want was preferable to being emotionally shredded for hours, or being emotionally shredded for a while and *then* having things done to my body that I didn’t want. And when I was in it, in that horrible gaslighty mindspace that emotional abusers can back their victims into, I didn’t seem to have any other options.

But I never, ever “asked for it”. And it wasn’t my fault.

So, when someone tells you about an abusive situation they were in that seems like they “should have known what would happen” if they did the thing they did the “provoked” the abuse, please remember the following things before opening your fool mouth:

1) whatever they did, it did not call for violence, or any other kind of abuse, nor did it force their abusers hand. The abuser is responsible for their own actions. Always.

2) Even if it doesn’t seem like it to you, in the abused person’s mind, what would have happened if they had not “incited” the abuse would have been worse and more painful than what happened. This doesn’t discount the horrific-ness of what did happen, but remember that an abused person spends a good amount of their time feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and sometimes the only thing they feel like they can control is when the abuse will escalate, since they cannot choose whether it will happen again – it will happen again and again as long as they are in that abusive situation. And none of it is their fault.


More on the psychology of people in abusive situations, and the kinds of considerations that colour their decisions:

“Why Does She Stay With That Jerk?”

One of Cliff’s answers is particularly pertinent to what I’m talking about here:

6. “I reached out once, and was rebuffed.”
In a rare moment of courage, he–with shaking hands, summoning all his strength–told someone he thought he could trust what his wife was doing to him. They told him to think about her point of view for once, to not use big drastic words like “abuse,” and to take care of his own damn problems without airing his dirty laundry. He just knows that if he reaches out again, it’s going to be the same thing. He’s lucky she didn’t find out about that time and doubts if it’s worth taking the risk again.

Seriously, don’t be the person who makes people feel this way.

Why I didn’t call the cops

Unintentional rape scenes in movies and tv

(TW: discussions of fictionalized depictions of rape)

I think that one of the giant markers of rape culture is the ways in sexuality is portrayed in the media. Ok, duh, yeah. But in this case I want to talk specifically about scenes in movies and television that are actually rapes or sexual assaults, but that are never identified as such by the people writing, directing, producing or acting in them, and that generally aren’t recognized as such by mainstream audiences.

A friend of mine recently wrote a review of sorts about the movie Killer Joe. In his review, he discussed a scene he described as “the rape scene”. Based on his description of the scene, wherein the (potentially brain-damaged?) daughter is tricked into going on a “date” with a hired killer, as the killer’s retainer for a job her father and brother want him to do. There’s this really creepy scene where he orders her to change into a dress in front of him, and then they “have sex”. The only problem I had with my friend calling it “the rape scene” was that he didn’t call it “one of the rape scenes,” since there is a scene later in the film where another woman is forced to fellate a fried chicken leg. But at the same time, I got a gut feeling based on the description that the people involved in the making of the movie wouldn’t call it rape.

So I googled around, and yeah, almost all of the instances where the word rape comes up in the context of Killer Joe, it’s with respect to the chicken scene, with two notable exceptions. The Girl With The Film Blog has a great, thought-provoking review that covers most of what I feel about it. And I also found a quotation in which Juno Temple (who plays Dottie) expresses confusion at the idea that the scene might be described as rape.

The thing is that, taken completely out of the context of the rest of the film and everything we know about Joe and what he’s capable of, the scene (starting from after Dottie gets coerced into stripping for him – the context-removal has to be downright surgical) seems to be trying to be about two sort of emotionally stunted people who probably aren’t capable of consenting to adult sex acts, but who are on the same level in a way that makes their activities kind of appropriate, and sweet in a really uncomfortable way. Juno Temple, who plays Dottie, describes the scene as a sort of love scene that’s weirdly sweet.

I obviously don’t buy it. The whole movie seems to be about these three men in her life (father ,brother, and Joe), and the ways in which they make decisions about her fate without any thought to consulting her. And Joe is the same guy who breaks a woman’s nose before forcing her fellate that chicken leg – the scene was unwatchable for me, and just went on and on. And he is a contract killer, after all.

So in context, that scene, and the continuing relationship between Dottie and Joe through the rest of the movie, are sort of a manipulation 101, wherein Joe has tricked Dottie into loving him by playing the part of someone sweet and innocent (while simultaneously only talking about her to her male relatives in terms of payments and retainers.) And ultimately, even if Dottie appears to have consented to the whole relationship, it’s just as clear that she didn’t actually have any real choice in the matter (or rather, the choice was “consent, or get raped” which, well, isn’t actually a real thing that can be called a choice). And there is nothing ok about any of it.

Of course, this isn’t the only place this has happened. I continue to reel from the fact that so many awesome feminists are brimming with Amy Pond-love, when one of the first things she does when she sees the Doctor as an adult is sexually assault (there’s a prolonged scene where he’s desperately trying to stop her from kissing him, and she keeps trying to take his clothes off while he tries to stop her. Can we please acknowledge that this is a thing that happened, and it’s not even a little bit ok?) No really, though, check it out. I’ll wait.

(Jump to about the 35s mark)

Wikipedia (known for the editors’ resistance to attempts to name rape for what it is) describes this scene as Amy’s “[attempt] to the seduce the Doctor.” (For reference, the questionable scene is Killer Joe gets glossed over as follows: “Joe ‘dates’ Dottie and then appears to be staying over at the trailer and having sex with her regularly.” …Right.)

There’s actually people who are trying to push back against this mainstream refusal to acknowledge the rapey-ness of so very many mainstream “sex” scenes. I tried to google around to re-find them, but actually wound up finding all kinds of lists of the best “spicy” rape scenes in movies, with compilation videos and playlists, and I had to stop. Seriously.

My point is that … well, I’m not sure what my point is. I was going to say that you can point to these kinds of scenes as evidence of rape culture, but that will only work for people who are already aware of rape culture, since other people could just as easily try to use these scenes to prove that these kinds of behaviours aren’t rape/assault (“look, Amy did it to the Doctor, and they’re friends! There couldn’t have been anything wrong with it!”/”Dottie really loves Joe! it’s all ok!”) I think my point is that this shit pisses me right the fuck off.

Why valprehension?

So, that big giant title up there? What’s that about, eh?

The short answer is that the story and significance of the word valprehension fill a very special place in my heart, because discussing this word involves all of the topics that I have the most to say about (language, privilege, sex, and gender). Allow me to demonstrate:

It’ll probably start becoming pretty apparent as this blog progresses (if the cat’s not already out of the bag) that language is an extremely important thing to me. And I actually honestly believe that exploring the limitations and boundaries of any given language can tell you an awful lot about the society/societies in which that language is prevalent.

Because the way language works is that it grows an changes through use, and to fulfill the functions that its users require of it. I think that language is one of those things that is often fallaciously conceptualized as this unchanging (or slow-changing) juggernaut of a thing that we have to try to filter our thoughts into if we want to communicate. But the rules of language (what is and is not a word, and also the rules of spelling and grammar) can be  double-edged sword. A certain amount of standardization is necessary to allow communication between and among different social groups, and to increase the universality (or the universal potential) of a language. But at the same time, these rules can sometimes hamper clear communication.

For instance, I’ve been told numerous times that “impactful” is not, in fact, a word. But here’s the thing; if I use the word impactful, I think it’s fair to say that most an English speaker knows exactly what that word means. And every time that I have chosen to use it in my academic career, it has been because I could not find another word that adequately expressed the precise connotations of impactful. I actually developed a list of potential alternatives at some point, but none of them mean quite the same thing, and it seems pointless to tell people they can’t use the word that means the thing they want to say simply because no one’s incorporated it into a dictionary yet.

Regarding grammar, well, this was recently covered at great length over at Painting the Grey Area, so I’ll just say this: a whole lot of grammar doesn’t serve any real communicative function (i.e. rules about ending sentences in prepositions, which, if followed, can actually make sentences more awkward and harder to parse), and in practice only manage to serve as a barrier to marginalized groups’ participation in discussions that affect their lives.

Aaaaanyway, so what does this have to do with valprehension? Well, it’s not in any dictionaries yet, for one thing. Not even, sadly enough, urban dictionary. But it fills a very serious gap in the English language, one that caused it to be greeted with much fanfare among sex writers when it was coined.

Becca over at Becca’s Sex Blog originally coined the verb “valprehend,” from which I take the noun valprehension. The definition is “to actively grab or seize with the vagina or rectum.” This word is important because most (penetrative) sex acts are discussed solely from a perspective in which the penetrator is the active participant, and the person “being penetrated” is just that, passively being penetrated. Their participation is reduced to simply being present for the penetrator to penetrate.

Which is very often an inaccurate way of describing the involvement of the non-penetrating partner in a penetrative sex act. To make an extreme example, imagine someone with a penis in completely immobilizing bondage. Their partner is on top of them; the immobilized person’s penis is in their partner’s vagina (or rectum), and the mobile partner is moving around in ways that are pleasing to both people.

In this scenario, the person whose member is inside the other person can’t really be said to be penetrating the other person. Their participation is limited to being along for the ride, having the experience and emoting about it. And the mobile partner in this scene is certainly not “being penetrated,” they’re valprehending their partner, possibly vigorously. And hopefully they’re both having all kinds of fun, (although I think that a positive side effect of removing penetration from its pride of place in descriptions of sex acts is that is also makes it easier to conceptualize cases of rape wherein someone is “forced to penetrate” someone else; “forcibly valprehended” is a more illustrative phrase, I think, and one that will fight back against the idea that such a thing can’t happen, since we didn’t previously even have the language to talk about it.)

Of course, I don’t mean that penetration and valprehension are somehow mutually exclusive – it’s perfectly common to have two active participants in a penetrative/valprehensive sex act, and mutual penetration/valprehension is great fun!

Ok awesome, but I guess that still doesn’t actually tell you why it’s the title of this blog. To be perfectly honest, the name popped into my head and I loved it instinctively, but there are a number of reasons that I think I had that reaction to it.

Firstly, I like the idea of raising awareness of the word. It certainly has not yet reached a mainstream audience. I was disappointed to find that it hasn’t even reached parlance in academic circles, even in sexuality studies (i.e. the word hasn’t appeared in the title of any academic papers that I could find in my university’s online catalog). The more it gets used, the better. So there’s that.

But also, “valprehension” as a concept is important to me in reframing the way I think about my sexuality. In 2012, I came out to my friends as genderqueer/gender-fluid, and that’s just one component of my quest to understand my sexuality and gender expression from outside as many of the standard frameworks as I can. It is freeing for me to stop trying to conform with my birth gender, and to not feel like a failure for doing so. It’s also freeing to remember that just because I like to bottom sexually doesn’t mean I’m a passive figure in my on sexuality, even when I go through phases where being the penetrative partner is completely unappealing. But this is a topic that might need its on post. Let’s just say that I find the existence of the word valprehend to be somehow inherently empowering to valprehenders everywhere.

Edited to add: All right, this is relevant to today’s Daily Prompt

Things I have trouble reconciling

(CW: rape, rape apology)

Credit: Winged Wolf on flickr

In light of the Good Men Project’s most recent controversy, and the alleged gang-rape in Steubenville, there’s been a lot written lately pushing back against the idea that consent is complicated, and who can ever really know whether they’re committing a rape? It’s not their fault; they just misread signals, am I right?

Well, no, obviously not. And better writers than me can explain why. People are responsible for their actions, and our culture has handed men (and, to a different extent, women) who genuinely don’t care about consent an extremely convenient alibi that normalizes rape.

And yes, we have many, many people pointing to the fact that the perpetuation of rape myths actually encourages and fosters a culture in which more rapes happen, and in which rapists can pretend that they’re not rapists, or at least, that it really wasn’t their fault, anyway. The thing is, though, that the facts outlined in these studies and writing are somewhat at odds with the points made by the people that say that misread signals aren’t a real thing. If educating people about affirmative, enthusiastic consent (and generally fighting back against rape myths) actually does reduce the incidence of rape, is it unreasonable to assume that there were some people who genuinely misunderstood what constituted consent?

I’m inclined to believe that, no, people should know better. I’m inclined to side strongly with people like Cliff, who put the responsibility strongly with the rapist. But the suggestion that the effectiveness of anti-rape campaigns targeting men (like Vancouver’s Don’t Be That Guy campaign) should be chalked up entirely to the fact that the added rape myth push-back that these campaigns create serves as a deterrent to men who were deliberately capitalizing on rape culture to get away with rape, and that none of it has to do with people actually believing rape myths, and thus perpetrating rape without realizing it isn’t clearly correct.

My anecdotal evidence: I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship for a number of years when I was younger. While there were clear instances of boundary violation that occurred during that relationship, cases in which my ex would do things to my body without warning (i.e. without even giving me an opportunity to object until it was too late), the aspect of our relationship that was most confusing, and in some ways, most damaging to me for years after I got out was the fact that (with one notable exception) any time sexual activity was occurred, I at least gave general consent (“yes, we can have sex now”). Ignoring the handful of times that he misused that consent to apply to activities I never intended it to, on a large number of occasions, those “yes”es were the results of emotional blackmail and just general bullying/refusal to take my initial “no” as the last word. But the thing is, (and we actually talked about this in a sideways way shortly after breaking up) he genuinely believed that when I said “yes” it meant not simply that I was giving him permission to use my body, but that I was actually turned on and that I wanted sex. How he thought that I his whinging got me all hot and bothered, I can’t tell you, but I actually do believe that that is how he perceived the situation.

So, is he an unbelievably selfish and self-involved douchebag who may have been genuinely unable to tell the difference between turned-on me and emotionally-exhausted me? Absolutely. Is he a rapist? Yes. Did he know that he didn’t have meaningful consent in those cases I’ve just described? I’m not so sure.

And to be very, very clear, I am not suggesting that this is somehow my fault. It’s entirely on him, and the fact that he bought in to the myths perpetuated by rape culture. The point I’m trying to make is that some people seem to genuinely misunderstand the concept of consent. Ozy Frantz recently wrote a post describing how this misunderstanding plays out in conversations around alcohol and consent. And this post actually gives me a frame from which to figure out where my logic might be going wrong.

It’s very important to note that in Ozy’s post, zie isn’t talking about how people’s misunderstanding of that idea that a drunk person cannot give meaningful consent causes them to commit rape; it’s actually about how the misunderstanding of what constitutes “drunk” causes people to reject the whole notion that drinking removes the possibility of consent, since tipsy people can and do consent. It’s about how unclear communication on the part of anti-rape activists is preventing people from letting go of rape myths around alcohol. Thus, I think it’s about the ways in which regular people (the ones who manage not to rape people) allow actual rapists plausible deniability around whether they knew what they were doing.

The way I understand it, then, is that the theory espoused by all of the writers to whom I have linked here (all people I respect and have been reading for years) puts people in a taxonomy as follows:

1) People who see through rape myths. These people have the power to bring more people over to their side through the power of education (Yay!)
2) People who do not (yet) question the rape myths that our culture perpetuates. These people are not themselves rapists, but do espouse and communicate views that enable rapists, and will often defend rapists by spouting rape apology, but are not actually at risk of committing rape themselves, because they actually care about other people, or something(?)
3) Rapists (and potential rapists who haven’t had a good opportunity to rape). These people deliberately take advantage of rape culture to get away with rape. They are aware, on some level, that what they are doing is not on the level, even if they do not define it as rape.

The theory suggests both that people can move from group 2 to group 1 through education, and that people from group 3 can be prevented from acting on their desires if the loopholes that they are taking advantage of are removed (i.e. if the group of people defending them and implicitly approving of their actions through rape jokes and the like). In this theory rapists are still just would-be rapists who haven’t been given the opportunity to rape, which is a little too deterministic for my liking. I think the lines (between these groups) are actually a little blurrier than we’re making them out to be.

I also realize that my entire theory is hinging on my own experiences, as out-lined above. And the thing is, if I simply stopped counting the times I was bullied into “consenting” as rape, all of this confusion falls away. Because the other instances I hint at are clear examples of sexual assault and rape. And either way, the ex is a rapist. But if those instances wherein I genuinely believe that he misunderstood my “consent” are also rape, then what does this do to the idea that this kind of misunderstanding doesn’t really happen, or is always deliberately constructed?

I suppose that you could say that the moment he continued to badger me after I said I wasn’t in the mood, he revealed himself as belonging solidly in group 3. He certainly failed to respect/acknowledge my feelings and needs as a general thing in all aspects of our relationship. But I still hold that this stemmed not from a genuine lack of concern for my well-being, but rather from a genuine inability to understand that not everyone felt the same way he did about everything. (Or is it an unwillingness? This is the crux of it, isn’t it? And I can’t answer that question, even though I would honestly prefer to define it as an unwillingness, since that would simplify things. Maybe I’m just not ready to go there yet.)

Maybe this whole exercise has just convinced me that the hole I perceived before I started writing isn’t actually there. I don’t know though. The idea that there is just a group of people out there who will commit rape if given an opening, and that’s just how it is, doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that these people can’t be educated out of that, that we have to rely on educating their enablers so that the openings disappear, just can’t be correct, can it? Is there something I’m still missing? Honestly, I’d appreciate input on this one. What do you think?

Edited to add: on further consideration, maybe the thing I was missing isn’t all that complex. The thing is that people who deliberately behave in the ways that rapists do probably can’t just be educated out of it with information – they probably need some kind of mental health intervention. And anti-rape activists can’t provide them with that. many feminists are, however, working toward reducing and eliminating the stigma around mental illness, and the barriers to accessing mental health assessment/care, which actually means that this portion of the problem is being worked on to some extent. (Also, in this model, the question of whether my ex was unable or unwilling to understand what he was doing to me becomes somewhat moot; whichever word is more accurate, he is not doomed to remain unable/unwilling – he just needs (needed? I don’t really know what his life’s been like in the meantime) to work on himself.)