Feminists want us to define these ugly sexual encounters as rape. Don’t let them.We need to stop prosecuting bad behavior as rape.
By Cathy Young May 20, 2015
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.
Forty years ago, feminist reformers successfully challenged the discriminatory treatment of rape complainants, from the requirement of physical resistance to attacks on a woman’s “unchaste character.” Feminist advocacy also deserves credit for clarifying that forced sex is always rape, even in a relationship. (I am talking here about being forced by physical violence, restraint or threats, or subjected to sexual acts while physically helpless.) But the anti-rape activism that emerged in the 1990s and has surged on college campuses and on the Internet in recent years goes far beyond that. Today, it not only embraces an absolutist version of “no means no” in which any hint of reluctance must halt further attempts at sexual intimacy. The movement also insists that only a clear (and probably sober) “yes” means yes.
Sometimes, the movement’s supporters claim that the new rules amount to little more than common sense: don’t have sex with someone who isn’t a willing partner. (In practice, a male student at
was recently expelled over sex with a
partner who was willing and enthusiastic, but apparently too intoxicated to
think clearly.) Occidental College
Others champion a far bolder vision. Theriault writes that that we must “raze” nearly all our cultural beliefs about sex and “create an entirely new foundation”—built on the belief that consent must be explicit and almost certainly verbal, and not simply a “yes” but “ongoing conversation.” Increasingly, this is also the approach adopted by consent education programs on college campuses. A bizarre “consent porn” video created as an educational aid shows make-out sessions proceeding to a constant mutual refrain of “Is this okay?”; the apparent idea is to show that “consent is hot,” but the result looks more like a particularly tacky parody.
Affirmative consent proponents often assert that the new rules will make for better sex by encouraging people to talk about what they like in bed. Such arguments have unpleasant overtones of “we decide what’s best for you”; Kend, explicitly states that if you cannot have “an adult conversation” about sex, “you shouldn’t be having it.” The meddling turns starkly authoritarian when the “encouragement” involves potential penalties—expulsion from college, or even criminal charges if affirmative consent becomes a legal norm.
Meanwhile, little regard is shown for the preferences of people who like intuitive give-and-take rather than requests and directions. Sensual, playful, or raunchy bedroom talk is very different from compulsory checking for a clear signal that you’re not crossing a line. Reluctance to engage in frank sexual communication is treated solely as a puritanical hang-up rather than a valid desire to preserve some spontaneity or dignity. And the wrong kind of communication, such as persuading an initially hesitant partner, is equated with sexual assault.
Despite its scorn for reticence, the new sexual revolution has a deep puritanical streak. Consensual sex is viewed as always under control, the result of a rational, fully autonomous choice. In this vision, there is either unequivocal “enthusiastic consent” or reluctant submission. In real life, though, there are many other possibilities.
You could agree to have sex to please your partner despite not being in the mood, and get enthusiastic later. You could be sexually eager but emotionally ambivalent, or vice versa. You could be torn between passionate desire and ethical or practical reasons not to act on that desire. You could get drunk to quiet your scruples, or hope to be coaxed into surrendering to temptation. (Obviously, “coaxed” does not equal “physically overpowered.”) Some of this behavior may be unhealthy or immature. But if it involves consenting adults—ones who can refuse sex without reasonable fear of harm—those adults should be free to make mistakes.
Ultimately, ensuring that sexual consent is always free of pressure is an impossible goal. Consent advocates already fret that even an explicit “yes” may not be given freely enough. A series of educational campus posters includes the warning that “if they don’t feel free to say ‘no,’ it’s not consent”; a Canadian college campaign cautions that consent is invalid if it’s “muted” or “uncertain” rather than “loud and clear.”
This advocacy creates a world where virtually any regretted sexual encounter can be reconstructed as sexual assault (unless the person who regrets it initiated it while fully sober) and retroactive perceptions of coercion must always be credited over the contemporaneous perceptions of consent—even though we know that human memory often “edits” the past to fit present biases.
In theory, this regime is gender-neutral. Yet real-life cases like the one at Occidental show a strong presumption—openly acknowledged by a dean at Duke—that in a heterosexual encounter, it’s the man who must gain consent and bear the blame if both are intoxicated. Whether cloaked in traditional chivalry or feminist rhetoric, it’s still a paternalistic double standard.
It is time to rethink this crusade, which criminalizes too much sex, thereby trivializing actual sexual violence.
Anti-rape efforts should focus on criminal conduct and law enforcement responses. In college communities, young people who feel wronged in sexual situations that stem from misunderstanding, pressure, or insensitivity could be offered support without being treated as “rape survivors;” remedies might include mediation or joint counseling, clearly inappropriate in cases of sexual assault. Sexual ethics based on honesty, respect and communication can be discussed without turning every lapse into a crime.
The quest for perfect consent is profoundly utopian. Like all such quests that ignore human realities, it points the way to dystopian nightmare.