There is a pitched battle going on over what counts as consent when it comes to sex. There are feminists who insist that sex following anything that isn’t a wholehearted, absolutely sober ‘yes’ is rape. And behind it, whether intentional or not, this has had the effect of heaping sex with more complexity and misery than it had already, turning any ambivalent sex into a crime and a tragedy of epic proportions, and casting me and millions of women like me as victims of successive rapes.
I don’t accept the title of rape victim from these feminists for the times I’ve had reluctant sex any more than I’ll accept the label of slut for the times I had it with unmitigated glee. I reject any authority that seeks to characterize my experiences without my permission, without consulting me.
I was raped once. Only once, and I was in no doubt about what it was when it happened. Neither was the man who raped me. Although I was initially interested, it quickly turned brutal and forceful and nasty. No one was confused about consent. In those days, because I had initially shown interest, it would probably not have been prosecutable, but it was rape. I was not a victim; he was an asshole. It didn’t ruin my life. It didn’t put who I was or my sense of self under erasure. It didn’t haunt my subsequent sexual relationships.
But since then, I have had sex that, by feminist standards, would be labeled as rape. I’ve had drunk sex, uninterested sex, and pity sex. I’ve had initially not so sure sex, I’ve had sex with some (surprisingly few) totally inept partners, I’ve had sex when I didn’t want sex but I did want to comfort someone and give them a nice time. I’ve had sex because I knew it would bolster my partner’s self-esteem. I’ve had sex for the single purpose of cheering someone else up. Because I could.
The convenient thing about being a woman is that you can actually pull that off vaginally. It’s a lot more difficult for men, although I’ve had partners who generously attended to my sexual needs when they didn’t feel particularly horny. And I’ve given my share of sexually disinterested but emotionally invested handjobs and blow jobs too.
None of those instances were rape. Unwise sex, ambivalent sex, mediocre sex, bad sex, or sex for non-sexual motives isn’t rape to me. I was always able to call a stop to it if I had wished to. It might have taken a stern, unequivocal refusal, it might have even taken a good hard shove. Sometimes I did that, sometimes I didn’t. And the times I chose not to and just put up with it, it still wasn’t rape – because I chose. And YES, I chose. I am not ‘blinded and brainwashed by the masculinist hegemony’ into believing I owe anyone sex when I don’t want it. That is the most authoritarian, disempowering and pernicious lie of all.
This is why the current reformulation of ‘consent’ as nothing but wholehearted, avid, loud acceptance is flawed. Because, strangely, it takes my power of choice away. It brands me as a victim for all the times I had sex when I wasn’t raring to have it. And there’s very little daylight between that sort of authoritarianism and some Christian right-winger branding me a slut for all the times I had sex out of wedlock.
I want to ask you to do a little bit of an intellectual flip. It’s not easy, but I want you to try.
Why is the sex we have so much more important than the sex we don’t have?
What about all the times I didn’t have sex? Who will mourn those? What about the times, in much younger days, when I refused an offer of sex because I feared someone would think I was a slut? What about the times I feigned reluctance (because it seemed the socially right thing to do) and the person took it at face value and walked away? What about the time I wanted sex with a gloriously sexy colleague but didn’t accept the offer because I was in the company of other colleagues who might read my acceptance pejoratively? What about the times I was so filled with self-doubt, so scared of rejection, I didn’t ask? What about the times I rejected an offer of sex because, although I was sexually attracted to the person, I knew his motives were powered by conquest and social positioning rather than an honest mutual exchange of pleasure? What about the times I refused sex because the other person was married?
Who will mourn for all those lost hours of sexual pleasure? No one. Because, just as with the times I had sex I didn’t actively want, the times I eschewed the sex I wanted, I was making a personal choice. And as hit and miss as this paradigm is, the fact that it is MY choice, and the ultimate power lies with me is, to my mind, the truly feminist thing.
Ironically, putting the entire responsibility to determine that consent has been given onto the initiator – most usually in our culture the male – robs me of the right to determine what constitutes consent. That may seem counter-intuitive, but consider it for a moment. If I decide that my consent entails a nod or a drunken kiss, I’ve just had my definition overridden.
Here’s my problem with the ‘consent’ activists: they’re lazy. They think, simplistically, that the core of the issue is consent. But it’s not.
The real issue is that we, as acculturated, socialized humans, have swaddled sexual pleasure in ridiculous layers of meaning. As much as behavioural scientists like to portray human sexuality as equivalent to animal sex, it just isn’t. Just because we also mash our genitals together and trade body fluids doesn’t mean we’re doing the same thing, or have the same intentions. And although some people, and indeed some cultures, claim they are simply animals acting on instinct, this is nothing but a ploy to escape the burden of choice, of agency and responsibility. Animals are mindlessly driven to mate. (Seriously, take a minute and go to youtube and find a video of dogs mating to remind yourself what a completely natural sex act looks like – not actually that much fun.). We subverted and complicated our sexual instincts many millennia ago. We have made it glorious, delirious, fun, dangerous, ugly, violent… we have made it many things.
Historically, we have surrounded sex with taboos, rules, myths, sacredness and profanity. We’ve enmeshed it in a moral web. We’ve woven it, inextricably at times, with love. We’ve historically branded it as sinful when it didn’t involve love. We’ve territorialized it and commoditized it. We’ve scripted gender roles for it, placing males into the position of permanent aggressors and petitioners, and females into the position of prey and gatekeepers. We’ve brainwashed boys to base their sense of self-esteem on getting laid. We’ve brainwashed girls, until very recently, to base their sense of self-worth on their chastity. Then we medicalized it. With the rise of science, we started burdening sex with even more crap, identifying certain forms of human sex as normative and other forms as deviant. We started branding positions, frequency and responses as normal or abnormal.
And even as sex has become more discussable and gender roles have become more malleable, advertising and Hollywood still beams out non-stop streams of cultural messages that complicate and use sex as a vehicle for meaning. We’re now exhorted to craft our personas, to productivize ourselves in relation to our sexual appeal. We buy viagra and breasts, we craft abs and surgically alter vaginas in our efforts to live up to wholly fictional, idealized versions of what a sexually attractive human being should be.
We will never have a truly unambiguous culture of consent until we have cleansed sex of all its implications, all its baggage of status, economics, moral and personal implication. That isn’t going to happen any time soon. Probably it never will.
And before you go mourning our loss of natural innocence, I’d ask you to consider that this may be a good thing, because if we managed to strip away everything, all the negative and positive layers of meaning that we have piled onto sex, our sex would look like that video you googled of dogs fucking.
But because of all this complexity, our consent or refusal will never be based on the consideration of the simple question: do you want sexual pleasure? Our answers will always carry the weight of this mess we’ve made of sex. Our consent will, if we’re even vaguely thoughtful people, always contain the ghost of reluctance, and our refusal will always carry a hint of regret.
But that is okay, because … guess what? It’s only sex. And we have the choice to make as much or as little of that as we wish. There are lots of choices we make that close down our options, from which there is no way back, which contain consequences we must live with for the rest of our lives. Luckily, with the use of a condom, sex isn’t one of them.
As a woman approaching the age of wisdom, I’ll offer some advice to the young: if you insist on having regrets, stop regretting the bad sex you had, regret the good sex you missed.