Apr 282013

[trigger warning for discussion of fictional non-consensual sex]

I think romance novels should come with warning labels:


Except that apparently romance authors and readers don’t seem to be that good at recognizing rape. It shouldn’t be that difficult – if she doesn’t consent, it’s rape; if consent is coerced, it’s rape – and yet the romance community seems to struggle with it.

The Smart Bitches write in Beyond Heaving Bosoms that rape scenes, once a mainstay in the genre, have “largely disappeared from romance novels published from the 1990s onward,” but that’s not at all true.

For example, To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney (1995). The first sex scene, if we may call it that, between hero and heroine is unambiguously rape. Just, unambiguously. And yet. Here are comments on the book from Dear Author reviewers, which rates it as the #1 Best Romance:

Hands down my favorite romance ever. Blew my mind.

One of my all-time favorites.

Have never read it and doubt I ever will.

Adore this book. Amazing character arcs.

Part of my Romance conversion package. One of the few books with sexual force I adore. I was a late and reluctant reader of this book but it is powerful and moving.

Great book, but so uncomfortable I can’t read it again

Some mixed feelings from the various reviewers, but not one person saying, “Interesting story, but the way the hero rapes the heroine and then they fall in love is just too creepy for me.” Which is my review of the book.

How do I know it’s rape? The heroine never says yes. But even more than that, she never wants it – I mean, she’s SCARED the whole time. She doesn’t fight or scream because she’s frozen with dread. I mean JESUS PEOPLE. If I were teaching a class about how to identify lack of consent, I would ask my students to read that scene.

The idea that he’s, like… what? … HELPING her with this experience? is just gross.

What makes the scene particularly agonizing to read is that the heroine is a survivor of an abusive relationship AND THE HERO KNOWS THIS. Maybe the best/worst part is where the hero urges the heroine to give consent, saying, “Don’t make it rape.” Because it’s the heroine’s job to give consent in order to make it not rape. That’s how it works.

I threw the book against the wall.

I’ll give two more examples, though I think I started with the most egregious example.

Another: Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart (2004), in which, again, the hero and heroine’s first sex is unambiguously coerced, unwanted by the heroine. Here is another scene I’d show students to illustrate what non-consent looks like.

This heroine does fight. She bites him. But she doesn’t want it, and he doesn’t stop.

The pair goes on to have one of the most original and interesting sex lives of any romance couple – the hero turns out to be a pretty committed submissive pain slut, which is not what you expect when your hero is also a professional assassin, right? – but in order to buy any of that, you have to let go of the fact that the hero raped the heroine.

Untie My Heart by Judith Ivory (2002). The consent in the first sex scene is more ambiguous than in the other two examples – there’s some ambiguous POV thoughts like, “Do I want this?” – but the heroine says no out loud, and she never says yes. Consent wasn’t there. I could make an argument here based on the fact that the hero turns out to be a service top and there’s some psychological things happening etc etc, but really. She wasn’t sure if she wanted it. “Not sure” is the same as “not,” when it comes to sex.

I think maybe we’re supposed to be able to tell she wanted it because she has an orgasm, but you and I know that orgasm can happen during sexual assault; physical response is not consent, it doesn’t mean she likes it and she doesn’t mean she wants it.

(There’s a lot of “My body responded, so I must have liked it” in romance novels. I need that to stop.)

Rapes notwithstanding, these are all three books that I liked, and it distresses and puzzles me that these three writers – gifted writers, all in my Top 5 Romance Authors – couldn’t or didn’t find their way to making the heroine want the sex, or, failing that, call what happens an act of violence.

Part of teaching is the stories we tell. We need – I need – stories that show consent at its best, that clarify the difference between “physical response” with “wanting,” that shows women how to recognize what they want and how to talk about it. And we need books that show how freeze works, so that we create a cultural narrative around it, grant it space and privilege in the story of survival.

That is all. Thank you for listening.

emily nagoski

  37 Responses to “she has to want it.”

Comments (37)
  1. I have to partially disagree with you about To Have and to Hold. I don’t think it falls under the “confused about what rape means” category. The book clearly portrayed the hero as an abusive rapist in the first part. The narrative acknowledged this and built to an epiphany of sorts where the hero realizes he’s awful and tries to fix it. Now, you can say that this sort of romance between a reformed rapist and his victim is offensive in principle. Or that it *might* work, but that this particular book doesn’t deliver, that the way it handles the redemption part is way too weak, which leads to a sort of minimizing the abuse in retrospect. I think both of these complaints are valid, and it actually bugs me that this book gets cookies just for “going there”, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites the readers to overlook it’s rape.

    And yes, I agree that rape is not gone from romance. There is this thing where authors try to blur the line between to have ~good feelings~ about sex & to give consent. Like, in order for the readers to know it’s not rape, we get the heroine’s perspective and how she really wants & likes everything that’s happening to her, but she cannot in any way communicate. I always feel that, from the hero’s end, this is indistinguishable from rape. In some cases, this is addressed in the text. In others, it’s just a way of skirting the issue of consent without depicting “obvious” rape.

    • It’s been a while since I read it, so I could well be forgetting, but I was actively LOOKING for (a) that moment of redemption when the hero goes “oh shit, I totally RAPED her! I am an ASSHOLE.” He got that he was an asshole, as I recall, but not that he raped Rachel; and (b) that moment of confrontation when the heroine recognized that what happened to her was rape.

      The whole scene reads like rape apologism to me; it would be so easy, as a reader, to persuade oneself that she’s just “reluctant” and he’s “being nice” because he’s deciding not to tie her up and stuff, which is exactly what we do in real life.

  2. Emily, I really don’t see the difference in this non-consent-in-a-fantasy-setting and your contention that “succumbing” is the key to a woman’s fulfilling sexual life. These are just harder-edged “succumbing” without the technical gift of “consent”. Rape is rape, but that doesn’t mean that both genders don’t get off reading about rape and non-consensual sex, nor does it predispose them to perpetrate non-consensual sex. And romances where the “succumbing” is nice and consensual and all the paperwork is properly filled out, the reader has been bored to tears and off in search of a bodice-ripper.

    The heroine who freely consents to the hero has undone herself at the outset; the reader does not respect her for quickly or freely-given decision, they doubt her for her lack of judgement (no matter what other clues to her judgement they may have been given). The heroine must follow her heart, but only if it leads away from where her head steers it. Therefore the implicit pull between “What the heart (and loins) wants” (Alpha Bad Boy) and “what makes the best sense” (submissive and obedient Beta provider) becomes the classic sensual tension of the story. If there is no resistance, fierce resistance to that Alpha Bad Boy, then she gets no respect from even the most liberal of her readers. If he does not use overwhelming force against that resistance, and she has no compelling reason save her own feelings to “succumb” to that superior force, then she loses her magic vagina status in the eyes of the reader. Consent, at that point, is a betrayal of the story.

    No, some compelling reason higher than her own desires has to cross that line against her will, to allow her to “succumb”. The Orphans need to be saved, or her father needs to be sprung out of jail, or her submission will keep the Youth Center open another month or something. But consent? That ruins her magic vagina, and keeps any real possibility of Happily Ever After from happening. The worth of the magic vagina is directly proportional to the outrage involved in its desecration.

    Yet these heroines are rarely staggering off afterward in search of rape-kits and police reports. Their non-consensual “succumbing” always has important social or cultural context that makes her responsible action in the case of such a crime somehow impossible — someone would get hurt, there would be a scandal, no one would believe it. she wouldn’t inherit,. some vital, compelling reason of why this non-consensual sex (which has established the value of her magic vagina) happened also keeps it from being more than a blurry, passionate memory throughout the rest of the book. Right up until the magic of the HEA ring removes the stain of the initial non-consent.

    The alternatives are unpalatable by those who most read this fare. Heroines consenting willy-nilly? There’s no magic in their vajayjays. Heroines making rational, reasonable choices to stick with unexciting sensitive short-dicked Betas instead of exciting, socially-deviant Bad Boys who don’t respect women (except, of course, the heroine via her magic v)? Where’s the conflict? Where’s the “succumbing”? When was the last time you applauded a heroine’s good sense, instead of her complex rationalizations about how she can manage to “follow her heart” and yet still stay true to her motivations? No one wants to read that crap. People want conflict and excitement and succumbing and passion, not consent and mutual respect. And you don’t get passion and excitement if you know which way the story goes. If there is no force against which to succumb, then the empowering nature of the heroine’s succumbing is invalidated.

    The rapacious dude, in that sense, is a mere stock character, a penis against which she has no respite . . . but which forces her to pleasure blah blah blah. He’s not even a real person, he’s a cardboard representation of her selfless repudiation of her own desires . . . because eagerly sexually-active heroines make for poor romance novels. The exact nature and character of the inevitable attraction is laid out during that first rapacious thrust, but it doesn’t really matter. Pirate captain or Billionaire, if he doesn’t take what he wants – thus establishing his superior strength over the heroine – then the rest of the book is crap.

    Critiquing romance novels as metrics of popular culture is slightly more useful than critiquing porn flicks. You get a very base-line idea of what attracts a certain type of person, and perhaps a few misguided ideas of what it portends for greater society, but in the final analysis all you’re really seeing is what genuinely trips someone’s sexual trigger. Less rape in romance novels won’t lead to less rape, or even less harsh feelings about rape, all its going to do is lead to women who are frustrated that they can’t get a good jill on in the tub because Mr. Billionaire just refuses to do the plucky young environmentalist because he’s too much of a gentleman, and she’s technically engaged so . . . two hundred pages of frustratingly and increasingly witless banter later, they finally do it and it has all the erotic appeal of day-old pancakes without syrup.

    The intricacies of the female erotic imagination are fairly straightforward. The first author I read who manages to appeal to a popular audience by abandoning them will be a pioneer…but I just don’t see it happening.

    • I don’t know. I just read the “succumb”-post and I think it should be fairly easy to write a sex scene that’s both emotionally gripping, consensual and involving the push-pull mechanism that’s underlying both the sexually non-consensual and the consensual setup. I’m saying fairly easy for a story, because it gives access to the inner voice. I think in real life, people want to have what Emily is describing, but it’s such a difficult performance particularly for guys, because it involves constant consensual pushing of boundarie, performing overwhelming desire while still being in control and ready to control oneself at every point. Since that’s so hard to do – and it is – it’s not something easy to imagine for most people, so they end up writing and imaging a scenario involving the overwhelming emotional force that they can imagine – alas, it’s non-consensual.

      So, I think there’s a circular problem here: the fact that this is so hard to do makes people reluctant to write about it, and the fact that people aren’t writing about it makes is even more dificult to perform.

      Since it’s easier to write about this than to help people perform that way, I suppose Emily has a point that “top-down-change” would probably be helpful in this area.

      Still, that said, and understanding that everything Emily has written in the succumb-post was understood to be consensual, I would still find it very hard to logically match feminist concern for explicit and if possible constantly reaffirmed consent with the kind of desire and performance described. I understand the trust part, but, just like a safeword, it turns the feminsit affirmative consent ideal into a classic no-means-no scenario. Which is perfectly fine. I just don’t think it’s compatible with a lot of feminist arguments in this respect.

      • I’ll write it. A succumb scene with consistently reaffirmed consent that doesn’t require a safeword. I’ll make both characters feminist. It’s not hard – it’s hard, rather, but only as hard as writing any compelling sex scene. If I have time, I’ll write it from both character’s POVs. Here’s how I’ll make it hard for myself: I’ll make it the first sex between these two. It’s easy when they know each other’s bodies so that he knows her body and she already trusts him and trusts herself with him.

        For everyone’s reference, the succumb post: http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2010/03/23/what-women-want-5/

        • Looking forward to reading that!

        • Huh. I don’t really identify with the “succumbing” thing at all. I mean, I like the sense of being wanted and getting a bit fierce about it, but it’s always seemed to me to go both ways. If I “succumb” to anything, it’s to my own experience of sex, allowing myself to feel it fully, not to the man as such. And equally I would think of him as acting that way because he was succumbing to his feelings.

          I think a lot of romance novels sort of disembody the woman’s own feelings and make the man into a kind of embodiment of both their sexualities. The innocent heroine needs to be “awakened” and all that (a trope I despise), and the man is a phenomenon that happens to her more than a person.

          • I think the “being wanted” aspect is the key to the whole dynamic. And Laura Kinsale has a whole thing she talks about, where the hero is actually a very important component of the reader’s experience – even though the readers are mostly women, they love getting inside the hero’s experience. She even has some of her heroes confront the “phenomenon that happens to her more than a person” directly, saying stuff like, “I’m a person, not a hero.” You might like her “Prince of Midnight.”

      • A great example, though is Kinsale’s “Flowers from the Storm” – in the first sex between hero and heroine, she says no, he stops but then starts again, and he tells her, “You say when to stop,” and not only does she never say, we get Maddy’s whole internal dialogue about how good it feels, how she knows she should say stop but she can’t bring herself to because actually she really wants it even though she condemns herself for wanting it and literally HER ENTIRE FUTURE is at stake. This book is known in the romance world as among the most literate and compelling stories for a reason. It’s my favorite, head and shoulders about the rest, and the sexual connection begins with what might be considered a “forced seduction.”

        • “she says no, he stops but then starts again,”

          Wouldn’t that already be a consent problem in a feminist sense? How long does no mean no? When is it ok to try again to demonstrate both the overwhelming desire an the respect for her previous decision?

          • Yeah, they were a mite fuzzy on that subject in Middle School Social Studies. It kind of topped out with “no means no . . . and if you don’t proceed away from her at flank speed with a deep sense of revilement and self-loathing for hearing that ‘no’, you’re as good as a rapist”. The whole “no means no . . . until she (not you) decides it doesn’t” wasn’t covered at all.

            Which might explain an entire generation of impotent, self-loathing Beta boys who now fear their own sexuality and view women in general with cautious pessimism, porn as a more appropriate masculine sexual expression than dating, and see the prospect of a permanent commitment to a woman as a sign of personal failure.

            Or . . . could just be the videogames.

            In any case, I look forward to reading your excerpt.

          • Indeed. You don’t hear feminists saying that “stop means take a step back, reassure me that you’ll stop if I *really* ask you to – but continue trying to push my boundaries, and don’t consider this particular stop as a *real* stop.”

            Yet I think it’s right. “no” and “stop” sometimes genuinely does mean “I’m testing if I’m safe”, or “I want you to work a little harder for this.” or “I want you to convince me” or a large array of other variants where really, “no” potentially means “yes”.

            Somehow that’s never mentioned in the “no means no” campaigns.

            In real life, no sometimes means no, but at other times it means “maybe” or even “yes”.

      • I think you’re right, Sam, that an obviously consensual succumbing scene should be possible to write, but also that, yes, it can be difficult to tell in real life.

        Which is why, I think, that Emily stressed the ‘trust’ aspect in her “succumbing” post. Succumbing makes sense in the context of a relationship that’s been at the dating-not-sleeping-together stage for a while, where there’s been a chance for trust to build up. In casual sex contexts it’s more difficult however. It depends there on the woman having had time or a feeling that she can trust the guy she’s pulled. Sometimes you can get that straight away, sometimes it’s a risk you are willing to take, but sometimes it’s not. It’s also something you need to have practice in. You need to know that you can trust *yourself* to speak up and stop things if they’re not going the way you hoped, which is a skill in itself.

        And Emily, as for ‘he stopped and then started again’, I’d need a LOT more context to be happy with that example. Otoh, you seem to have good taste so I’m willing to take you at your word.

        I’d also like to note that “succumb” has a bad, negative feeling attached to it, and that I’d prefer another word. I think I prefer relent – it has a feeling of being an active process that puts the women in the driving seat, rather than in a passive role as “succumb” implies.

        • Oh and another thing – Ian, there’s a big difference between something being THE key and something being A key.
          By saying it’s THE key, you suggest that it’s applicable to ALL women, everywhere, ALL the time. And it’s not, not by a long shot.

          Maybe Emily’s post didn’t make that explicit but it should be clear from reading everything else she’s ever written, that she’s well hot on every woman being different, being her own complete person, and generalisations that exclude certain groups of people being not okay. It’s the variation within populations that’s interesting, and variation within groups often excedes that between groups, IIRC.

        • And see, “relent” feels uncomfortable to me – too much like “Okay fine” rather than “Hell yes.” I dunno.

    • “The intricacies of the female erotic imagination are fairly straightforward.”

      Fuck all the offs, Mr Ironwood. How would you know?

      And your Aplha male/ Beta provider thing is a load of bunkum too. It’s entirely possible for men to exist who both know how to get what they want but how to actually look after the woman they want to be involved with, without taking advantage of her. There’s something to be said too for the man who much prefers to put his partner first. That kind of man, who is not a stud or a jock, can be just as attractive as the stud/jock archetype.

      I like my men on the podgy side, I don’t give two cents whether he can run a marathon or bench press twice his body weight. I want my men to be intelligent, have something they care passionately about, to have drive and direction in their life. I like them to be kind, considerate, romantic, able to talk about their feelings, to not be afraid of crying in front of me or appearing ‘weak’. I want them to have similar music and film tastes to me, and if they have hair halfway down their backs, so much the better. I want to be able to trust them with my innermost fears and I want to know that they will never, ever pressure me into sex I don’t want, AND that they will stop and ask what’s up the second I show any discomfort on my face or in my body language.

      And you know what? I have that, and have had it more than once. Those men are far more common than you think, and the women that like and love them also more common than you think. Just because most authors are too ignorant to write the stuff that matches my reality, doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

      • NessieMonster,

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting that *reality* looks, or is or should be taken out of romance novels, or that every woman has the same desires or the same taste in men. Life is complicated and comes with great variety.

        That said, if you decided to interview *a lot* of women about their ideal seduction setup, I think it would look a lot like what Emiliy describes in the succumb article and what the romance novel authors are trying to get at. And I would agree that it is something that *is straight forward* in observation, but incredibly hard to do in real lifef (as explained above). Since it is so hard, and most men don’t want to risk a potentially rapey misunderstanding, they end up *not being able to give women this kind of passion they want to be able to succumb*.

        People work around that, of course, but I think the desire for this kind of novels, or the fact that 6/10 bestselling novels in my country are currently made up of “literotica”, aimed at women who are – at least in my understanding – looking for exactly that – consensual – succumbing experience, is, apart from real life indicators that may differ given everyone’s limited sample size, a pretty good indicator that there is *something* to the observation.

        I’m really looking forward to Emily’s attempt at the consensual succumbing bit.

  3. Emily, I read your blog with some interest, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed that’s pretty consistent about your thoughts about sexuality: it’s that you REALLY wish things were the way you want them, rather than accepting the way they are.

    Those scenes are not accidental.

    They are there because there’s a strong undercurrent of desire to be–in a word–raped. The fantasy of rape works for a lot of men and for a lot of women as well. Rape itself is abhorrent, and for what it’s worth the fantasy doesn’t do it for me, but obviously there is a large proportion of the population for whom it does work.

    You can feel frustrated, like it’s a fantasy BECAUSE of rape’s tacit normalization in our culture, but regardless of why, the reality is that some people like rape… and not just the rapists.

    Why? What is the consequence? Should we try to change it? All fair questions, but clearly “consent is sexy” doesn’t resonate like one would hope.

  4. I wonder if both the appeal for the readers and the authors’ desire to write such scenes tie into general sexual guilt some women feel from being raised in a slut-shaming culture. “Gentle” rape fantasies might ease the guilt of giving consent and allow the reader to feel aroused without having those distracting buzz-kill feelings triggered.

    • This was exactly what I was trying to get at, only much more succinctly!

    • I think it certainly does. I’ve even met women who are aware of this, and state it explicitly, yet nevertheless want it. That it’s not “allowed” for women to be horny, to be lusting, to desire, and the shame and guilt associated with that can be a huge turn-off.

      Yet if they are being “forced”, if it’s something that is done to them, and not something they can be blamed for, it can be easier to relax and turn the brakes off.

  5. I continue to wonder if the nonconsensual fantasy appeal ties into sexual guilt some women feel from being raised in a slut-shaming culture. “Gentle” rape fantasies might ease the guilt of giving consent and allow the reader to feel aroused without having those distracting buzz-kill guilty feelings triggered.

  6. First, you must appreciate her, then you must remove things for her to worry about, and then you must provide a force to which she can’t help but succumb.

    These are your own words. And yes, you follow them with several paragraphs about how people should not misunderstand any of this. Because while the man has the responsibility of “providing a force to which she can’t help but succumb” he should of course make certain that he’s got her full consent every step of the way.

    But there’s significant problem here. One is that if the thing (or atleast -a- thing) you want, is that this scenario pretty much requires the current standard mating-scheme, where the women resists (it’s pretty hard to provide a force if there’s zero pushback), but at the same time consents you having her resistances forced.

    In a sense, “I’m saying no, or atleast being reluctant, but I want you to provide a force that’ll make me succumb.”

    That’s dangerously close to “no means yes” – and in actual real life fact, it sometimes does. Yet you’re unwilling to critique this aspect of female sexuality, to point out that this certainly contributes to unwanted sexual advances or even sexual abuse.

    If the guy gets it wrong, in either direction, he, and he alone, is to blame. Some get it wrong in the direction of pushing too much — that’s anything from annoying to inappropriate or in the worst case rape. Others get is wrong in the direction of not being assertive enough, providing inadequate force. The result in this case is that the women do not succumb, and the man is left sexually frustrated and perhaps bitter, also not a good outcome.

    Insisiting that every no means no, while in observable fact regularly saying no, yet being happy to be overpowered into a yes is deeply problematic. The practical result of it is that if you’re a man who is a feminist ally, who believe what the feminists tell you, you’re “rewarded” with zero sex.

    The reality, which many feminists are unwilling to admit, is that men are required to walk on a knifes edge, while women are required to do nothing.

    The man must approach (or stay lonely) – but he must avoid being considered creepy. The man must provide a force – even in the face of reluctance – but at the same time he must reliably detect the womans true wishes and refrain on those occasions when she *really* would prefer he knock it off. (as opposed to those where she merely acts reluctant, but -actually- desire to succumb)

    • (1) It’s really, genuinely not this complicated in practice. Perhaps the word “force” is ambiguous here. I mean it as “an energy, an entity,” as in “a force to be reckoned with,” not as in “force her to do stuff.”

      And (2) This narrative is far from the *only* thing women want. They also want to initiate, jump yer bones. They want loose, easy fucking. They want to break down all YOUR defenses too. Women want all the things men want, and in the right context they want them as much as men do; but they want them in the context of having been socialized that all of those wants are unacceptable.

      • Emily,

        (1) It’s really, genuinely not this complicated in practice. Perhaps the word “force” is ambiguous here. I mean it as “an energy, an entity,” as in “a force to be reckoned with,” not as in “force her to do stuff.”

        Hmm, I think, in practice it *IS* genuinely complicated. It usually works out somehow because of point 2), that this is not the *only* thing women are looking for, but I’d still say it is something women are desiring very much and it is asking of men, as Gunnar Tveiten mentions, a performance on a knife’s edge. Now of course, men don’t have to take the risk inherent in that performance and women are probably better off if they don’t try. But it’s still something women wish men could perform better and so do men. And it *is* complicated. Not in theory, but in practice. It is. Complicated. I mean, it’s almost schizophrenic, don’t you think? Demonstrating *overwhelming* desire, projecting that she’s unleashing the wild animal in us, and still be in total control of that animal. Both things cannot be *real* emotions at the same time.

        • But they both definitely ARE real emotions at the same time – the dual control model is precisely that: a brake and a gas pedal, both working at once. The judicious application of the brakes in the face of intense stimulation to the gas pedal.

      • Well, I must be dumb then, because I spent more than a decade, most of it frustrated, figuring it out. I believed the propaganda: that handling a no or reluctance in any other way than completely stopping would be if not downright abusive, then at the very least incredibly rude.

        In retrospect, yes I received hints sometimes. I’ll give an example from when I was 16. This girl which I happened to be heads over heels in love with was visiting me over the weekend, she was sitting in my lap, we where chatting. I commented that her lips where dry. “none of your bussiness” she said. I made the mistake of believing her, took it as a signal that her lips was nothing I should be concerned with, i.e. that she’s certainly not welcome a kiss or anything like that. So I refrained.

        Months later, she told me how disappointed she had been that I didn’t do something like say “yes it is” and kiss her.

        No big deal, evening was nice anyway, and we ended up lovers anyway a few weeks later. But a practical example of the *experienced* fact that taking a no for a no is sometimes the wrong thing to do. Despite loud public claims that “no means no”.

        Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.

        I found that complicated, I doubt I’m the only one. Your claims that “It’s really not that complicated” don’t ring true to me, they sound like something it’s easy to claim if you’ve never been the one with the responsibility of figuring it out.

        • That’s not an example of the dynamic we’re talking about. Consent itself is complicated in practice. The difference between consent and relenting or succumbing or whatever, is not complicated in practice.

          • It’s precicely what we’re talking about. You say — and I *agree* that quite often (though certainly not always!) women desire to, as you say, be provided with a force that’ll make them succumb. They sometimes desire this even when they say “no” or “stop” or otherwise act reluctant. My friend from the example I gave from my personal life desired precicely that. Her words, if taken at face value, expressed rejection, but her actual desire, was to have her objections challenged — *not* to have them respected.

            This in marked contrast to the claims often seen in public that “no means no” because in actual real life fact, it does not always mean no, sometimes it means yes.

            And that’s complicated. And you don’t have to be dumb, or to malevolent to sometimes get it wrong – in either direction. Kissing someone who has just explicitly stated that her lips are none of your bussiness could easily be constructed as sexual assault.

            And I don’t see a lot of understanding for the position this puts men in from you. They should do this and that, while avoiding this and that. I rarely hear anything from you about what women should do – or what women should avoid doing.

            They have the responsibility of not proceeding in the absence of consent. Yet women show in practice, and sometimes explain in theory (like you do in your succumb article) that sometimes having the man push forward even in the face of reluctanct or refusal is PRECISELY what is wanted.

          • I think I might have just an an “Oohhhhhhh!” moment. The key phrase for me was “act reluctant.” Tell me if this sounds right:

            Sometimes women are aroused by the “acquiesce/succumb/relent” dynamic. And men – I’ll just go ahead and be totally heteronormative here for a second – have developed a sense/belief that women are saying no, saying it insincerely, IN ORDER TO BE CHASED.

            I believe that does actually happen. It seems perfectly possible that that’s what was up with your friend. But that’s not what the acquiesce dynamic is.

            The acquiesce dynamic is about having real, legitimate reasons to say no, and having those real, legitimate reasons shrink to nothing in the face of overwhelmingly fabulous reasons to say yes. The acquiesce dynamic is brakes and gas at the same time, until there’s so much gas that the brakes don’t stand a chance.

            What you’ve described is a straightforward chase, which is not the same thing. They’re saying no specifically because THEY ACTIVELY WANT TO BE PURSUED. You’ve described a woman putting up a fictional wall as an INVITATION. It’s a game, it’s play, it’s fun. Chase me! Come and get me! It’s teasing.

            Which isn’t the same thing as acquiescing.

          • I think there’s considerable overlap, really, between these different sorts of no. You might say no as a game, wanting to be chased though being perfectly aware that you *do* want intimacy or sex to happen, but I think often there’s atleast some element of saying no because you think you’re -supposed- to say no, because for any number of reasons you’re uncomfortable with just plain saying yes. For example, women may fear being considered “slutty” or “easy” if they enthusiastically say yes without going trough a “sufficiently” reluctant phase first, it’s pretty much the cultural expectation, thus I think many women, perhaps especially young inexperienced women, in essence do what they think is expected of them, rather than what they actually *want* to do. (but I also agree with you that some of the time they *do* want the chase-dynamic)

            In the example I mentioned from my own life, I think it was mostly traditional gender-roles at play, she did want to be kissed, but she also felt that it’d be somehow wrong for -her- to take the initiative, or even indicate interest in it. So yes, I guess you could say it was a game, but she played it because it was the only game she knew how to play, or felt that she was allowed to play.

            It’s actually sort of beside the point I’m trying to make *why* women say no, or *why* women act reluctant despite actually desiring sex.

            My point is, young men are told, repeatedly and loudly, that “no means no”. That specific phrase is used more than a million times on the net, for example, the vast majority of which are in reference to anti-rape work, mainly directed at young males who are told that if and when a woman says no, it’s paramount to respect that.

            The problem is that in real life, as they gather their own experiences, they slowly discover that this slogan, claimed as a simple truth, infact oversimplifies things to the point where *fully* conforming with it harms your dating-success, and actually disappoints romantic partners.

            No *sometimes* means no. When that is, and when it isn’t, you’re supposed to figure out by yourself. Most of us manage that pretty well, and erring on the side of respecting the no too much isn’t typically all that bad, missing out on a few potential intimate relationships isn’t the end of the world. (though some folks who figure it out too late, end up bitter as they observe that boys who -don’t- follow the advice given by feminists about dating enjoy considerably more dating-success than themselves. I personally think this dynamic explains atleast SOME of the complaining about “why the bad boys gets all the girls.”)

            But something worse happens. You feel lied to. You feel that the people who *claimed* to want to educate you on proper sexual/romantic behaviour gave you advice that was willfully inaccurate, and even harmful. They *claim* that women universally desire to have any no 100% respected. This is not, infact, true. People don’t like being lied to. They don’t tend to respect, or in the future listen to, people who they’ve caught in lies before.

            There’s very few feminists who are willing to openly say that sometimes, even in the face of reluctance or outright nos, it’s acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to do something different from just stopping. Continuing to push, while easing her fears, may be precicely what she wants.

            I think the *reason* people are unwilling to say this, is because it feels like defending overly pushy guys, guys who fails to respect borders set by others, guys who continue to push when they *really* should take a hint and knock it off. So it feels safer and simpler to resort to “no means no”.

            The problem is that it’s a lie.

          • I would agree with Gunnar here that it is an example of the subject at hand as it related to real life. I don’t think it’s as often a problem of actual *token nos”, research I’ve seen says it’s about 15% of women using those. And Gunnar’s example wasn’t about her saying no, it was her indicating non-interest or non-understanding, and it was him taking that as a no – so brake instead of gas-pedal when she would have *wanted* him to push the gas-pedal. So, yes, I think this is a perfect example of a real life situation of performing both “overwhelming desire” and staying in complete control.

            (Disclaimer: Initiating kissing is a hard thing for me to for those reasons, and I usually leave it to the women, who are often later indicating their disappointment in a similar manner. So, like in Gunnar’s case, it often works because *this* dynamic isn’t the only thing women want, but it’s still something they would apparently like to experience more and something I’d like to give them (and me) more. And despite my OCD (and feminist and religious hangups around sexuality when I was growing up) I doubt I’m the only one.

          • Emily,

            you may be right analytically, that there is a difference between the acquiesce and the chase dynamics, yet, to second most of what Gunnar said in his reply: people aren’t mind readers. And to the extent that the difference can be told, that is usually a matter of being very emphatic and understanding where and in which dynamic the other person currently is. And that *IS* very difficult, and it is something that is, in real life, very hard to perform. And, as far as I can see, I would subscribe Gunnar’s point that feminist consent rethoric is generally making very general claims and is targeted at a very broad group of people while being actually mostly concerned with the actually problematic cases. And that, I believe creates exactly the kind of feelings Gunnar describes among a lot of men who take the feminist advice to heart, and, also, leads to disappointed women and men who don’t even attempt to learn how to tell the difference in real life dating.

            I think in an ideal world, this would be different, but we’re all living in a real world, and in my opinion, crafting a more real-live oriented, more targeted feminist message about this phenomenon, instead of simply disregarding it, would help everyone, including feminism. I think Gunnar is right that a lot of guys who originally listen to feminists end up feeling betrayed and that they are a huge part of the “Nice Guy” phenomenon. And, among feminists, there doesn’t appear to be any real awareness of how they’re contributing to reconstructing the problem they claim they want to abolish.

          • I’ve been worrying this idea in my head for days, trying to understand how it could feel like “mind reading” to notice the difference among (1) someone who’s asking to be chased, to play, (2) someone who’s got reservations about the situation, with competing desires to continue and to pause, and (3) someone who wants you to stop.

            The surface-level behavior may match. The words may match. Which makes the advice “no means no” or “listen to her words,” not too handy, given, as you say, the nature of the real world.

            But everything below the surface is fundamentally, essentially different. The emotional state that goes with each of these is extremely different. So I sort of want to say, “What we need to be teaching is how to pay attention to things that are more meaningful than words.” How to pay attention to a person’s internal state an respond to it accurately.

            And yet I talked with someone recently who had the shitty experience of learning after the fact that a sex partner was in fact in freeze during their encounter but, because they were in freeze, was unable to communicate about that. This person I talked to is REALLY GOOD at reading body language, paying attention to consent – they teach it to other people and practice what they teach – and yet their partner was EVEN BETTER at pretending everything was fine.

            So basically it’s a shit show. Women are so well trained to “Be Nice” and go along to get along that when they get stressed out, their training kicks in and they fake it. They’re also so well trained that they’re not allowed to actually just WANT SEX, that they engage in chasing games to give them permission to succumb rather than actively initiating. And men are totally confused. No wonder.

            The “Yes Means Yes” movement wants to address all of this, and I think it’s totally crucial that we teach young people how to feel good about what they want – even just how to KNOW what they want. But it sure does feel like something larger scale has to happen, to create larger change.

          • The emotional state behind 2(I’m feeling nervous about this and thus ask you to stop) and 3) (I don’t want this, so I’m asking you to stop) aren’t nessecarily all that different. Being nervous about something is one of many potential reasons for not wanting something, and there’s a sliding scale between “I’m nervous about this, but may want to continue if my fears can somehow be reduced” and “This scares me, stop it.”

            It seems to me, we all agree that we should definitely get a whole lot better at telling girls and women that they’re allowed to say *yes*, and increase acceptance of those who do that to the point where more women will feel comfortable doing so, without fear.

            It’s possible and realistic to say “yes, but chase me”, or “maybe… let’s play and see where we end up” if that’s what is desired. When a guy you’re sitting in the lap of comments that your lips are dry, you are free to say: “What are you going to do about it?” rather than “None of your bussiness.”

            In the meantime though, we do both feminism and young men and women a disservice by lying. Try visiting a mainstream feminist blog and ask them what they think of the behaviour of the man in the story you wrote a week or two ago. Ask if he’s doing the right thing, or being abusive. My guess is, they’ll say he’s being abusive and a rape-enabler by not respectinger her clearly stated request that he stop.

            Also, we need to figure out how to tell young men that they’re allowed to, and indeed sometimes required to, push on or work to override a rejection — *without* coming of as rape-enablers. “Even if she says no, she might actually secretly want you to continue” is a very troubling thing to say, because she might also *NOT* want that. And telling the difference isn’t always simple.

            Yes, it’s -often- simple, especially with people you know very well. But it’s difficult often enough to be a real problem.

            From a male perspective, the female reluctance to say yes, can easily feel very cowardly. In the current dating-script, men are required to repeatedly make the first move, to indicate interest while risking rejection. That’s a scary thing to do.

            In contrast, responding positively to someone who’s *ALREADY* indicated interest in you, seems much less risky. It’s not as if you risk rejection by responding positively to a request. I don’t actually think cowardice has anything to do with it, I think it’s mostly a case of social conditioning, and sometimes social sanctions against those few women who dare break the rules, but these mechanisms aren’t very transparent to the typical teenage boy. (atleast they wheren’t to me)

            Also, keep in mind that I’d had hammered in, repeatedly, and from many sources, including sources I trusted, that it’d be a evil, abusive, *bad* thing to do to fail to respect the limits of a girl. And to me, a verbal “no” represented a *limit* — something you’re NOT allowed to deliberately cross or even challenge in the absence of clear invitation to do so.

            Figuring out that “maybe she didn’t really mean no this time” requires at a minimum the knowledge that a) this actually happens and b) you’re allowed to consider this possibility without being considered a monster.

  7. I’ve never read any of the books in question and wouldn’t particularly consider myself a romance kind of gal BUT I have read a couple of excellent books/series where the author clearly knows the difference between rape, hot-I’m-Not-quite-sure-I want-this…on second thoughts, on hell yes sex, vs I’m not quite sure…ok now you stop sex, and rough/kinky oh hell yes I want this sex, and sweet first time, ‘I don’t want to physically or emotionally hurt you’ sex. She makes those comparisons clear both from the external point of view/what the characters are doing/saying out loud and the first person narrative.

    Those books are 1/ anything by Diana Gabaldon, 2/ the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger, and 3/ Bitten by Kelley Armstrong.

    Diana Gabaldon’s books should come with a massive trigger warning for rape because it’s a topic she deals with seriously at various points but she gets mega bonus points from me for describing well (as far as I can tell) PTSD responses to rape, and covers how and why women freeze up during rape. She also has her main male protagonist subjected to torture and rape by a corrupt Army captain, and a large part of his story is how he recovers from his ordeal and how it shapes him in the future.

    The first sexual encounter between her two main protagonists is a woman who has been married before and is sexually experienced and a 19 year old highlander who’s never had sex before. It’s his wedding night and he’s as nervous as anything and the things he knows about sex he gleaned from watching animals on the farm… It’s incredibly sweet and tender. She wrote it that way because she figured every romance novel she’d ever read had it the other way round and she wanted to shake things up!

    Aside from all this, the story (which continues over 7 or 8 massive tomes at this point) is primarily about how their marriage develops over 2 or 3 decades, how they raise their daughter and her children and how they care for their tenants whilst surviving both the Highland Uprising and the American Civil War. Also as an author who worked for a long time in the biological sciences and then moved to historical fiction, she’s awesome.

    I’m not going to even try to deal with the rest of what’s been said in the other comments because…eww. The whole, oh but women get off on reading about rape, fantasy rape is a-okay. just no. It might be fine IF there was a whole body of literature out there where the differences are clear, and sex can be loving, or a one-nighter, tender and gentle or rough and kinky, without piling up condemnation on the woman who did what she wanted to do. It’d be fine if there were books out there where the female protagonist goes for what she wants without feeling so much guilt she has to partially decieve herself or let the man do all the work. But unfortunately those books are few and far between. The fact that a whole genre can be posited on the hot male protagonist convinces uncertain, weak female into sex that she eventually comes to love, is a sad reflection on the state of affairs in out culture.

    Have you considered that women get off reading about rape because that’s generally all that easily available? The advantage of reading about rape/not-quite-rape is that it means you don’t have to deal with the feelings that liking sex makes you bad, dirty and wrong? Clearly if it’s a bad thing, but you get off on it, that’s not your fault? You didn’t ask for it after all, so you can’t be blamed for liking it? That’s a very seductive train of thought, and it takes a lot of work to get from there to a place where sex is something healthy and good and enjoyable. For me certainly, once I got to that place it was much harder to enjoy things where the woman is being coerced.

    OK, so that was two paragraphs on ‘I’m not going to touch that with a barge pole”. I’m going to stop now.

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