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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


Should I have my feminist card revoked?

One of my most obnoxious students caused me to really doubt my feminist credentials. This happened some weeks ago, and has been bothering me ever since then.

We were talking about sex in class - specifically we were talking about first sex - the first time women particularly had sex. I can't recall the exact numbers, but a significant proportion of women, when asked about their first sexual experience, noted that the sex was not wanted.

My student said, "well, isn't that rape? If she didn't want to have sex, then that is rape."

Is it that simple? If a woman does want to have sex but does have sex, is that rape?

It seems to me that there is more grey there than "it is either consensual sex or rape." It seems to me there is a lot in between. But, before I go any further - if a woman says she felt it was rape, then I believe her ... I'm not into labeling others' sexual experiences, and I don't doubt women.

But, aren't there times when women (and men - but for ease, let's just stick to women) have sex that isn't wanted, but it isn't rape? Or are the terms "unwanted sex" and "coercive sex" just backpedaling ways of not using the word rape?

For the purposes of this discussion - we're going to assume that we are talking about people who know each other - at least somewhat.

Let's start with hindsight. If I have sex and am maybe sort of into it at the time - or not sure, but then later on decide I really didn't want it. Maybe I got overtaken in the heat of the moment, or didn't really let myself be aware of my concerns at the time - or maybe was just on automatic pilot - is that rape?

What if the intiator promises things - tells me that he/she loves me, wants to be with me, promises to be emotionally intimate or promises fidelity - and I have sex not because I want it, but because I believe him or her that this will lead to the fulfillment of those promises. Is that rape?

What if I don't want it, but go along because it is easier than saying no. Is that rape?

What if I had been sexually abused in childhood or adolescence, and learned that that was how I got power, or was led to believe that that was my only use in life - my only skill or strength - what if I dissociate because that's what I did as a kid when it occurred. If I have sex in this state as an adult, is that rape?

Clearly, if we look at the initiator - the desire to have sex with someone who is not completely willing, consenting, and into it is suspect. Having sex or desiring to have sex with a partner who is not a full partner in it is creepy and of concern.

If I think about my first time - I don't call it rape, but it wasn't consensual. There was heavy duty set-up and seduction on his end. I went into the encounter thinking we were just studying, and he was planning for sex. At the time, I was really really young and naive - and really not well prepared for sex at all (despite my parents having given me "The joy of sex" when I was in kindergarten). I didn't have friends who were sexually active, I didn't have anyone to talk to about it - sex just wasn't something I was ready for, not interested in. So, I went along with it - I just did it. And I never spoke to him again - I didn't actually like him, and I felt misled and betrayed. But was it rape? But if you respond to this - I'm most interested in a more general discussion rather than labeling my own situation - I just use that as illustrative. And maybe that experience clouds my ability to see this issue as clearly as I ought?

So, is there some grey area here?

My male students were very eager to make this black and white - I think because they needed to believe that if they didn't outright force a woman (or man) to have sex, then it wasn't rape. But the women in class seemed much more comfortable seeing it as confusing and difficult to tease apart and as something of a grey and complex matter. Likely because many of them have stories not unlike mine - or at least have had sex when they didn't want to because it was easier or whatever or maybe they don't want to have to label the person with whom they didn't have completely consensual sex as a rapist - after all, it could be their boyfriend or girlfriend.


At 11:19 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

Great post.
If rape was to be defined as sex between people when one had clearly stated they did not want to engage in the act, or was being forced by threat of physical harm to engage, then there would be a grey area between that and consensual sex. Unfortunately the grey area would include 'date rape' scenarios where the woman is unable to object but is not being threatened.
I suspect that men largely live without the slight fear of rape or unwanted seduction, and also see sex as a far simpler scenario - if they're not aroused, it isn't going to happen*. The consequences are far fewer for them and I'm not sure they analyse as much!
*I'm excluding male rape from this.

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Breena Ronan said...

There is a grey area, but it's dangerous to admit it. I think it's important for men, or whoever to assume that if their partner isn't actively involved they could be accused of rape. For example, purposely drugging someone so that you can have sex with them is clearly rape. On the other hand getting really drunk and having sex with someone who is under the influence seems more of a grey case. I guess that's the problem with assuming that rape is always about power. Then if the aggressor didn't intend to rape, is there, by definition, no rape?

At 5:37 AM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

I agree that it's a really hard question. On the one hand, I want to say that if there is no way the other partner could know that you are not fully into it then it isn't rape. Eg. if you "go along with it at the time" and act like you enjoy it or even do enjoy it, but later regret your decision, or if you for whatever reason (excluding coercion by your partner: I'm thinking e.g. peer pressure) feel pressure to pretend you want it, but deep down don't really, or whatever.

But on the other hand, if you say that these cases aren't rape, then that opens the door for men to use horrible excuses for rape like claiming that they didn't know their partner wasn't happy with it, because she didn't scream loudly enough, or stopped struggling or was drunk or whatever.

I was *almost* convinced by Twisty's post a few weeks ago at I Blame the Patriarchy, where she argued that we should by default assume all sex is rape unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, but no, I see the flaws in that too :)

So really, I have no clue. And the closest I can come to resolving the issue for myself is to say, like you, that if a woman says it's rape, it's rape. If she feels violated, then she was. (Whether it can be proved in court is another matter.)

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Ianqui said...

I suppose the problem with the "If the woman says it's rape, it's rape" argument is that she may not want to admit it or may not want to press charges or whatever. In that sense it's like domestic abuse--lots of women stay in abusive relationships for myriad reasons, but that doesn't mean they're not cases of domestic violence.

What about married couples? I don't always feel like having sex every time that we do, but if it's been a week or so and I'm feeling bad about it, then I do it because I want to make my husband happy. That's consensual, even though I don't really want to have sex. So maybe consensual is the best way to define it? Of course, that falls into your "What if I don't want it, but go along because it is easier than saying no" category.

One problem, especially for college aged boys, is that they're probably not always mature enough to know to step away if things don't look hunky-dory. That's probably why they need to have some serious black and white, because they can't trust their own judgment.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Anastasia said...

i was going to raise the same case ianqui did, which is that in a long term relationship i think (I think?) many of us will consent to sex even if we aren't into it ourselves for the sake of our partner. I'd define that as consensual even though I personally would rather not have sex.

then again, that's often something we say out loud to one another so there isn't any grey area about the consent in the way that's likely in a different kind of relationship.

great question, great post. and I don't doubt your feminist credentials :)

At 10:28 AM, Blogger shrinkykitten said...

propter doc: in re: to male rape ... I did a presentation once at a huge conference for college students, and I brought up male rape - and I remember people reacting with absolute shock that that was even possible ... I think that was in 1992 or 3. Lordy that was a long time ago. And I think that may well be (that is, issues regarding male arousal) why *some* men might have trouble understanding why it is complex - arousal is easier for men - and far more evident. Moreover, sex is far less laden for men as well.

breena: that issue of intent is interesting. It becomes muddier if the intent isn't rape - but is simply to have sex no matter what. I forget what study it was, but it was a study of university males who talked about what they had done to get sex - and over 50% had used coercion or promises or whatever means possible (but not force) to have sex. And that drugged issue is complicated when you consider the post by bitch phd recently about a man who drugged his wife and had sex with her.

styley: yes, and issues of legality is a whole other issue. Here, what is considered legally to be rape differs depending on the state - and judges and juries interpret the laws wildly differently (that seems a constant no matter where you live). Like the case of the woman in texas who convinced her rapist (stranger rape) to use a condom - it was judged to be not rape because "obviously" if she got him to use a condom, it was consensual. There's also a case from florida (?) where the judge decided that raping a little girl wasn't rape because the 5-year-old was "unusually seductive."

ianqui: and indeed that is particularly true in relationships (which is part of why the rate of reporting rape within relationships is significantly lower than stranger rape reporting rates) and for women who have any kind of history of sexual violence (they may see rape as so normalized they cant see it as a violation).

And regarding married (or committed) couples - it is very tricky. Going back to that case of the man who drugged his wife and had sex with her...some commenters said that it wasn't rape because it was her wifely duty to have sex with him. Now, almost every woman would disagree with that - in theory - but I think we have an internalized sense that sex is our duty in relationships. We'd never admit that - but it is a subconscious influence.

anastasia: And that is what is perhaps trickiest - in a consensual relationship, in which sex has historically occurred consensually, what if the sex is not completely consensual on one or more than one occasion?

At 10:58 AM, Blogger shrinkykitten said...

I've been thinking some more about the legal issue. One of the thing that is confusing for me about the Duke rape case is that DAs simply do not take on rape cases unless there is ample evidence because rape cases are so unwinnable, period. So, unless there is clear evidence of force, DAs won't touch it with a ten foot twinkie (as my best friend in elementary school used to say) and thus more often than not, victims do not get to see their cases go to court, and don't get justice (whatever that means in our justice system). That makes the duke case confusing. As the media seems intent on convincing us, was it really a false accusation? If there wasn't a ton of evidence, why on earth was the case undertaken? Same with the Kobe Bryant case - what DA, much less what victim, would put themselves through a rape case unless it was clear by overwhelming evidence that it was rape?

I had never actually even thought that women ever made false accusations - until I had a a client who claimed that she had made two. She reported that to get back at a guy, she made a false rape accusation. I didn't get to work with this client for very long - so it wasn't clear to me if she was being honest with me or not. One thing I know is that victims will often recant accusations and claim they were false - even though they aren't. Children do this a lot too - they recant the claim of rape out of fear or loyalty or coercion or to protect. Then people get this mistaken impression that false reports are common, when in fact what is common is simply recanting.

I tried to explain to my students why so few women - even women raped by strangers - report rape. I explained the horrific process of the rape kit exam and what it is like to report it. One male (of course) student said that it was ridiculous to claim that the reporting and evidence collecting procedures were invasive and traumatic, as it was simply what was necessary to get enough evidence and to ensure that false claims weren't made.

And sure, the procedures are a necessary evil - but the attitudes and treatments are not. When I would go with rape survivors to the hospital after a rape, more often than not, we were kept waiting in the ER waiting room for hours and hours - horrific after a rape. Often the doctors blamed the victim for the rape, or treated her poorly. The process was prolonged, painful, humiliating, and invasive.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Ianqui said...

Shrinky, you don't see the Duke rape case as a DA trying to capitalize on touchy race issues? I mean, he botched so much of that case that I'd be willing to believe he took it on despite the fact that the evidence was shaky. It's like he refused to believe it because he thought that this particular case could be his key to fame and fortune (or something--political gain?) While I do find the whole idea of rich jock college students hiring strippers icky to begin with, I think Mike Nifong was just an idiot, plain and simple.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Anastasia said...

the wifely duty argument is icky. Anybody who is drugged does not want to have sex. That, to me, is a clear cut case of rape.

I certainly think rape can take place in the context of marriage. it's a very sensitive issue and I think the only way to avoid a problem is really clear communication and boundaries. What worries me, actually, is the idea of coercion. Because I do think it's possible to convince yourself you're kind of okay with it at the time and later think, you know...I didn't really want to do that.

I'm not sure what to do with those coercive cases. I feel really strongly that it's wrong but it does also seem like a gray area that's really tricky to navigate. Again, communication and clear boundaries help, I think. But even in a committed relationship, things can get blurred pretty easily.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger k8 said...

Very tricky - and it is hard to tell exactly what the women in the class meant when they said it wasn't wanted. Did they mean that they protested? Did they mean that they didn't plan to have sex that night but went along with it anyway? Or was there force involved? And coersion is tricky to define sometimes? It definitely happens, and we can't lock girls up until they are old enough to recognize it because we might never be old enough to recognize it.

I have no answers. I'm confused too.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger BrightStar said...

Not that my experience answers anything, but the only guy I know who told me that he was raped was in a situation when a stranger robbed him and then raped him -- a random act of violence. The only women I know who told me that they were raped were drunk at parties when they were young.

Given that, it has made me wonder a lot of things: Are men less likely to be raped? Probably, but there are probably situations when men have felt like they had non-consensual sex and didn't end up labeling it as such, maybe because men may be socialized not admit that sometimes they don't want sex and women may be socialized to not admit they sometimes do want sex. So maybe it's more socially acceptable for women to talk about having not completely consensual sex.


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