A lot of people in my social media have posted this New York Magazine article about the failure of feminism in the cultural dialogue about consent. The article – titled “The Game Is Rigged: Why sex that’s consensual can still be bad. And why we’re not talking about it” begins with this example of, one supposes, bad but consensual sex:
“I have so much to drink my memory becomes dark water, brief flashes when I flicker up for air,” Gattuso wrote. “I’m being kissed. There’s a boy, then another boy. I keep asking if I’m pretty. I keep saying yes.” But in the morning, she wrote, “I feel weird about what went down” and was unsure how to express her feelings of dissatisfaction and confusion over “such a fucked-up experience.”
I read on, waiting for the moment when either the woman describing the experience (Reina Gattuso) or the writer of the article acknowledge that this was not actually a case of bad yet consensual sex, but of non-consenting sex. She was drunk, so drunk her memory was failing. Drunk people can’t consent. This was sexual assault. SOmeone’s going to say so in the article, right?
It doesn’t happen. Nowhere in the article, as far as I can tell, does anyone raise their hand and say, “Pardon the interruption, but that’s not bad sex. That’s rape.”
I had the same jarring experience last winter, reading Susan Dominicus’s NYT piece, “Getting to No.” She too begins the piece with a description of a scenario that is, by legal definition here in Massachusetts anyway, unambiguously sexual assault, and she even acknowledges that it meets that definition… but:
The language we use for a given experience inevitably defines how we feel about it. I could not land on language that felt right — to me —about that encounter. I still cannot.
Here is her description of the encounter she can’t find language for:
I drank from the red cup, and in the next scene from that evening that I can recall, I am on my bed, and he is on top of me. I am resisting, but he is heavy, so heavy, and my limbs so leaden. I am certain he thought he was, as we used to say back then, a totally decent guy. Even now, I can imagine him as someone’s loyal husband, a maker of pancakes, his kids’ soccer coach. But that night I said no, and still he lay there, massive, pleading, sloppy with beer, for what seemed to be hours (but surely was not), until I finally stopped holding him off. Too close to sleep to rouse myself to outrage, I settled for capitulation, then revulsion.
She goes on to say, “In the days following that encounter, I avoided calls from the guy, who so clearly misunderstood the situation that he thought he was courting me”.
(Alternatively, he was engaging in textbook predator behavior of gaslighting and deliberate obfuscation.)
She concludes, “I never felt I was a victim; looking back, I was an English major for whom language failed at a moment when I needed it most.”
(Alternatively, she was a young woman whose bodily autonomy was compromised, and whose ability to acknowledge that compromise was impaired by the rape myths embedded in our culture.)
In my view as a college sexual assault prevention educator and a person who’s worked around campus sexual assault for twenty years, it is not language that failed Susan Dominicus – she has a word readily available to her, a short word, easy to pronounce, that describes what happened. What failed her is a culture that told her that only the darkest navy blue is blue; the blue of the sky isn’t blue at all.
Her suggestion is that we make new language to help people communicate about this “gray area” or “red zone.”
I have a different suggestion.
We get to choose the emotional and cognitive frame in which we understand our own sexual experiences. My suggestion is that we include in the potential cognitive and emotional frames of these kinds of experiences, the possibility that our mythological notion of what rape is like – as Susan Dominicus puts it, “Get off or I’ll scream” – is incorrect, and that the kind of experience that happened to both of these women is what rape is actually like.
I worry that this apparently feminist cultural dialogue about how complex consent is – and you know that I do believe consent is not simple – is reinforcing long-standing myths: if she doesn’t fight, or if he’s a “nice guy,” or if she was “asking for it,” then it wasn’t “really” rape or assault.
For example, if you read Reina Gattuso’s story or Susan Dominicus’s story and thought, “Yes, that happened to me too, and I have struggled to know what it was or how to understand it,” consider this question:
What would it be like if, instead of trying to find a different name for what happened that night, you instead said to yourself, “I was raped that night. He raped me.”
What would it be like?
It would be AWFUL, probably. Hurt like hell, fill you with rage, with shame, with fear. And those are all legit reasons not to call it assault, violence, rape, etc.
You get to choose.
The benefit in using that word, or the idea of sexual violence, to conceptualize such experiences, is that it removes the ambiguity, pushes the edges of the “gray area” further out, to places where it actually belongs.
I can agree that there is a “danger zone” or a “gray area” between consenting and non-consenting sex. But apparently as a culture we’re calling “gray” what is in fact -what is in law – unambiguous. We need to shift our spotlight, sharpen it, so that the penumbra marking the edge of consent and non-consent falls on behaviors like (a) sober ambivalence, (b) clear consent for unwanted sex, and (c) sex that is consensual and wanted, yet unpleasurable. That last one is ACTUAL “bad sex.”
Let me begin with this shifting of the spotlight:
If you are drunk and someone pushes you to engage in sexual behavior, that is an attempted sexual assault. If you are drunk and someone touches you sexually, that is a sexual assault. If you are drunk and someone penetrates you sexually – mouth, vagina, anus – that is rape. It doesn’t matter how much you want and like sex when you are sober. None of those things are in a “gray area.”
Even if both of you are drunk. If both people are drunk, then it’s like have the same variable on both sides of an equation: it cancels itself out. One of the drunk people is pushing the other drunk person for sex. I say this as a person who has spoken with perpetrators who acknowledge that, when they were confronted by their victims about what they did, they said, “Oh well you know, I was drunk too, so…” because they know that will “excuse” them.
I can agree with the ultimate conclusion of the New York Magazine article, that we needed a clearer conceptualization of true sexual equality – and I think we’re all even leaning toward a way to achieve that: pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing.
But it seems to me that focusing the spotlight on pleasure will necessarily involve calling violence by its name and not letting it languish in the shadowy discontent of “bad sex.”