“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.

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If Your God Condones Forced Pregnancy, Get a New God

[Content note: sexual assault]

I mean, I realize it’s not that simple, but could you at least consider it?

Richard Mourdock, a Republican senate candidate from Indiana, thinks we should be praising the Lord if we get pregnant from rape:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Then of course the outcry began and Mourdock tried to apologize:

I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.

What he seems to be saying is that rape itself is abhorrent, but the pregnancy that may result from it is not. This is puzzling. The two processes are not completely disjointed from each other. Pregnancy is a response that most female-bodied people are capable of having to sexual intercourse. If rape is awful, how can pregnancy resulting from rape be a gift?

And on that note, Dictionary.com defines gift as such: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.”

If the way your god honors, shows favor, or gives assistance to women who have survived a traumatic and possibly violent crime is by forcing them to carry an unwanted baby and then raise that child for 18 years, you need to find yourself a new god.

Oh, and if your politician supports forcing these religious beliefs on all Americans, you need to find yourself a new politician.

But incidentally, Mourdock has not only failed at being a decent human being and at understanding the U.S. Constitution. He has also, according to at least one writer, failed at interpreting his own religion. A Chicago Theological Seminary professor writes:

Rape is sin by the perpetrator and God does not cause sin. Conception following rape is a tragedy, not part of “God’s will.” The capacity for tragedy to occur in human life, and indeed in what we call “natural evil” like earthquakes, is a result of what Christians call “the fall” from perfection as described in Genesis.

When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.

Not being a Christian (much less a theologian) myself, I can’t necessarily vouch for this interpretation, but it certainly makes more sense to me than Mourdock’s.

What this suggests to me is that Mourdock, and others like him, aren’t actually interpreting their religious beliefs objectively and then coming to the conclusion that abortion is still wrong even after rape. Rather, they are reinterpreting the religion post hoc so that it supports their desired conclusion–that abortion is wrong no matter what.

Of course, religious beliefs should have exactly nothing to do with public policy, and I don’t understand how this is still up for debate. However, the fact that these politicians aren’t even expressing genuine religious ideas, but rather manipulating religion to make it seem like it supports their twisted morality, somehow pisses me off even more. Surely (whines the atheist) this is not what religion is about?

The thing about gifts is, they can be politely declined or flat-out refused or returned to the store or given to someone else. If god has so kindly offered you the “gift” of a pregnancy following a rape, you should be within your rights not to accept the gift.

A gift that is forced on someone without their consent is, by definition, not a gift at all.

Guess What: Rape’s Not Funny When the Victim is a Man, Either

I know Jezebel is low-hanging fruit, but I can’t resist picking apart their new “Sexytime Dilemmas” column and its endorsement of sexual assault, which apparently is okay when the target is a man.

One of the letter-writers wants to know how to get a guy to try anal play. Jezebel’s “sexpert” responds (TW for sexual assault):

If you want this to work you’re going to have to be very delicate, and take things slowly. No one wants a dry finger shoved up their butt at random. In my experience, guys are generally more open to new concepts, and trying out new things, when you have their dick in your mouth. (This is because fellatio slows their brain down to a point of temporary retardation, which means their guard is down.)

…So, while you’re sucking, start playing with his balls and then slowly move moving your fingers back in the desired direction. Be conscious of how he’s responding to your touch. If he flinches as soon as you start poking around in that area, that’s not a good sign, but don’t give up hope just yet. Wait a minute or so, then do something fancy with your tongue to distract him and try again, rubbing lightly around the outside of the hole, as not to scare it….Basically, never give up and remember that with a little perseverance you can do anything you put your mind to, Susie!

I’ll say it several times since apparently people still don’t get it:

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

I’ll let the much-more-talented Rebecca Watson explain this further, along with the many other ways in which that Jezebel post is horrible. For now, I want to address the assertion–which I’ve seen a few self-identified feminists make–that this piece is somehow “funny” because “humor” and “satire” and “lol rape against men.”

First of all, blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either. Just as it wasn’t funny when Daniel Tosh said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”, it’s not funny to be like, “LOLOL JUST STICK A FINGER UP HIS ASS WITHOUT CONSENT LOL.” And that’s basically what this piece is saying.

Now, if sexual assault of men were extremely rare, to the point of being unheard of, I can see how this might be funny. Sometimes, creating a satirical world–in which something that seems ludicrous in real life is commonplace–is humorous. That sort of role reversal inspired a play I saw recently, Venus Envy, which depicted a world in which men, not women, were the “weaker sex.” This type of satire points out problems in our society that are so entrenched that we take them for granted.

But this is not the case for sexual assault of men. Men are less likely than women to be raped, yes, but it’s not that rare. Men also face unique barriers in admitting and prosecuting sexual assault–from the perception that they “can’t” be raped to the victim-blamey belief that they ought to be able to defend themselves. Knowing that the hypothetical man in the article would receive very little support from others if he accused his female partner of violating him–knowing, in fact, that he may have internalized the “men can’t get raped” myth to the point that he wouldn’t even have the words to talk about what had happened–it’s just not funny to me.

As another (much better) Jezebel article once pointed out, it’s quite possible to joke about rape. Since the article was in response to the Tosh incident, it’s mostly talking about standup comedy, but it’s still relevant:

So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.

Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke.

It’s not funny when they’re female, and it’s equally not-funny when they’re male.

After I read the Sexytime Dilemmas article, I participated in a few online discussions about it and I found numerous (female) feminists who found it funny–and who openly admitted that they wouldn’t find it funny if the genders were flipped. And I felt sickened.

Yes, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. But how on earth does that statistical fact make it any less tragic when a man is assaulted? Is the fact that it’s less likely supposed to make it more palatable somehow?

I don’t think so.

I am reminded of this wonderful post in which the author screams, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”

My feminism will concern itself with all rape victims or it will be bullshit.

My feminism will care about the ways in which men are harmed by patriarchy or it will be bullshit.

My feminism may not devote equal time to men’s issues as it does to women’s issues, but it will show compassion for all genders, or it will be bullshit.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake: if you want to try something sexual with someone, communicate and get consent.

On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome

Whenever women are discussing street harassment and what causes it and how to prevent it, a man inevitably comes along to inform us that, actually, our feelings about harassment are Wrong because he, personally, would just love it if women catcalled him on the street or came up and slapped his ass without consent.

There are lots of things wrong here.

1. This is male privilege.

It’s a perfect example of it, in fact. Having privilege isn’t a “bad” thing, and it doesn’t mean you should have to lose that privilege–rather, it means the rest of society should gain it. In this case, that privilege is being able to walk down the street without being subjected to sexualized attention, and that privilege is one men have and women do not, in our society. (Of course, men are more likely than women to face other kinds of unwanted attention on the streets, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

When you say that you would “love” it if women catcalled you, you are speaking from a place of privilege because catcalling isn’t something you ever have to deal with. The only reason you are even able to imagine enjoying it because you’ve never experienced it.

Some men do experience sexual harassment from women or other men. But these generally aren’t the men butting into our conversations and telling us that we should take harassment as a compliment, because they understand what it’s actually like.

2. Harassment means you don’t want it.

Why is this so hard to understand? If you want sexual attention, then it’s not harassment or assault. It’s flirting or sex. If you want to be catcalled, then it won’t feel like harassment to you. When you make a sexual comment towards someone without their consent, you are running a huge risk of harassing them, but if it turns out that they wanted to hear that comment, they’re probably not going to complain.

But of course, none of us are mindreaders, or else men who harass women on the street would probably realize that they don’t want it in the least.

3. And anyway, your penis is not the arbiter of everyone’s sexuality.

As in, I don’t really care what you like. Just because you may like getting catcalled without your consent doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like it too, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to do it to others. It’s just like I wrote about people who prefer not to be asked for consent during sex–that’s totally cool. But you cannot assume that others feel the same way you do.

If being catcalled in public is your thing (which, as I’ll explain, I kind of doubt, anyway), you’ll need to find a way to arrange that without advocating that everyone should be okay with catcalling. Just like if you get off on emulating rape, you’ll need to find a consenting partner to do that with rather than suggesting that everyone should be okay with getting raped because that’s what your penis likes.

4. Harassment is never a one-time thing, and that changes everything.

If you’ve never gotten catcalled (and likely never will), it may indeed seem like it’ll be pleasant and flattering. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking something similar when I was a teenager–old enough to want sexual attention, but too young to really get it (not to mention living in a quiet suburb rather than a big city).

The first time a man ever made a comment to me on the street, it was a bit weird but also kind of cool. I still remember it–I had just graduated from high school and was taking a trip to Chicago alone for the first time. I was in the Loop and there was a group of guys. One of them said, “Hey! You look good.” That was it. Fairly harmless as catcalling goes.

The second or third time, which I don’t remember, probably went much the same way, and I didn’t mind it much. But it’s never just a few times. It’s dozens, hundreds of times over a lifetime. It’s when you wear a cute dress. It’s when you wear sweats. It’s when you’re excitedly on your way to a date. it’s when you’re dragging yourself home after an exhausting day at work. It’s when you’re taking a run. It’s when you’re carrying groceries. It’s all. The. Fucking. Time.

And that, as this blogger explains beautifully, makes all the difference.

5. It’s also different when you’ve been a victim of sexual violence.

My guess is that men who say these things have not, and this is another type of privilege at play. If you’ve never experienced sexual violence, unwanted come-ons will feel different to you than they will to someone who has. To survivors of sexual violence, street harassment can be anything from a mildly uncomfortable reminder of a past experience to an actual trigger for a panic attack, depressive episode, or flashback.

And here’s the thing–if you haven’t had that experience, you cannot know what it’s like to be triggered or reminded of it. You just can’t. But luckily, you don’t need to understand it to respect those who do know. You just have to shut up for a change, and listen.

6. Who, exactly, would you want to be catcalled by?

My guess is that when you imagine getting catcalled, you’re imagining a gorgeous woman doing it. What about an ugly woman? A fat woman? A gay man? In my experience, the men who go around whining that nobody ever catcalls them on the street are the same ones who get horrified when someone they don’t find desirable pays them any attention.

Also, men who are perceived as gay are often bullied or assaulted for even seeming like they’re coming on to straight men. Apparently it’s not such a “compliment” anymore when it’s coming from someone you’re prejudiced against.

And remember that the whole problem with non-consensual interaction is that you don’t get to choose who interacts with you.

7. Gender matters.

Although men are not immune to violence (sexual or otherwise, from women or from other men), the dynamics are demonstrably different because most men are stronger than most women. If you’re a man walking down the street and a woman starts harassing you, you generally don’t have to worry that she’ll brutally rape and attack you if you try to get her to stop (TW for that link).

For women, the awfulness of street harassment isn’t just what it actually is, but also in what it could become. It could just be an offhand comment, or it could lead to stalking, groping, assault, mugging, or murder. You may think that you’re a perfectly nice guy who’d never actually hurt anyone as you stand there and whistle at a woman, but she doesn’t know that, and therein lies the horror of it.

The humiliation makes it even worse. When a man catcalls me, I can feel the eyes of the passerby on me and I know what they’re thinking: She shouldn’t have dressed like a slut. She shouldn’t be here alone this late at night. I wonder what she did to get his attention. 

When women come on to men, on the other hand, this generally reflects well on the men because getting attention from women is seen as an accomplishment, not a failure to stay modest and unobtrusive enough.

On the other hand, though, this mindset also contributes to the huge problem of sexual assault not being taken seriously when men are the victims, which brings me right to my final point.

8. Comments like these erase male victims.

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll make in this entire piece: men who say things like this are effectively erasing the experiences of male victims of sexual harassment and assault. Believe it or not, many (if not most) men don’t actually enjoy it when women pay them unwanted sexual attention, “unwanted” being the key word.

A male friend of mine mentioned that whenever a guy points out that, no, he does not want to be harassed by women on the street, he gets ridiculed by other men. That, right there, is why it’s so difficult for men to admit being harassed or assaulted, and why male victims are marginalized. Male rape is still largely considered either impossible, “not a big deal,” or, as I’m discussing in an upcoming post, simply hilarious. I don’t know how else to say it: this is a fucking problem.

Anyway, I’m at 1,400 words now, so this seems as good a time as any to stop. Here’s the tl;dr version for people who minimize the problem of street harassment: check your privilege, put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and consider the fact that the world doesn’t fucking revolve around you.

Consent Does Not “Ruin the Moment”

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.