There was the time when, 19 and naïve, I was guilt-tripped into entirely unwanted physical intimacies with a much older married man. And the time, three or four years later, when I went to visit an on-and-off long-distance boyfriend and quickly realized that it was over for me—but he assumed we were still on, and I didn’t have the nerve to say no to sex. And the time I told a man, “Look, I’m not going to sleep with you,” and it was taken as “try again in a couple of hours.”
When they happened, my view of these encounters ranged from “a mistake” to “it’s complicated.” It still does—even though, these days, we are encouraged to reinterpret such experiences as sexual violations. To many feminists, stories like these are evidence of a pervasive, misogynistic rape culture. “Kids see movies where there’s an aggressor who gets pushed away, but keeps trying until the girl relents,” writes advocate, author, and filmmaker Kelly Kend. “This is a rape dynamic that has been played off countless times as just how it works.” Canadian feminist author Anne Theriault laments “the still-pervasive and very flawed idea that if she doesn’t say no, it’s not rape”—clearly referring not just to attacks involving violence or incapacitation (for which few would demand a verbal “no” as proof of rape), but encounters in which a woman yields to unwanted overtures.
To me, this crusade against “rape culture” over-simplifies the vast complexity of human sexual interaction, conflating criminal sexual acts like coercion by physical force, threat or incapacitation—which should obviously be prosecuted and punished whenever possible—with bad behavior.
Was I a victim? Even in the first incident, in which the man knowingly pressured me into something I didn’t want, I could have safely said no. Consent for bad reasons is still consent; despicable behavior is not always criminal. (Getting guilt-tripped into giving money to a freeloading friend is not robbery.) In the second instance, it would be an infantilizing insult to deny my responsibility for a mutual misunderstanding. In the third, what happened was not only consensual but wanted; my initial “no” was sincere, but it was mainly an attempt to stop myself from acting on an attraction against my better judgment.
Besides, I know that sometimes the roles were reversed. There was the ex-boyfriend I thought I was seducing in the hope of getting him back—only to realize, the one time he finally said no harshly enough, that it had been more pressure than seduction. There was the man who told me it was too soon for us to get involved, and said, “we shouldn’t be doing this” more than once the evening we first went to bed. If I were to claim victimhood, I would either have to admit to being a perpetrator as well, or fall back on a blatantly sexist double standard....
h/t Doug D.