CN: Mentions of rape.
If sexual encounters are on a scale, from the most consensual, reciprocal sex you can imagine at one end, to assault at the other, then I’m lucky enough to be able to say that my sexual experience has only covered quite a small portion of this scale. The best sex I’ve had has been consensual at every stage and reciprocal to the point where I think sometimes, I get more out of it than my boyfriend. I am lucky enough to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat female pleasure as an afterthought. There are a lot of men out there who wouldn’t question his approach to sex, who understand exactly what enthusiastic consent looks like and for whom their partner’s pleasure is just as important as their own. But I’ve also experienced another approach to sex which makes me realise that there are also plenty of men who aren’t so in tune with one or both of these things.
My ‘worst’ sexual encounter can’t be placed on a level with the experiences of survivors, but reflecting on it in light of the Letters from Survivors project, it’s clear that these experiences are linked. Sexual violence doesn’t just come out of the blue. It’s the most extreme form of behaviours which exist already and are prevalent in university contexts and in society at large, but a lot of these behaviours aren’t routinely called out as problematic. Only when we recognise the smaller scale manifestations of rape culture (a scary term which lots of men, and women, are quick to challenge) can we begin to recognise that that is what we are talking about, a culture, not a few bad apples and a series of one-off events.
I didn’t really do dating in high school, so I was pretty inexperienced; it was a guy in the year above and I was excited to have been asked out. He was pretty nice when it came to complimenting me, but looking back I realise he was quite emotionally manipulative – he’d sulk about quite small things and I often felt the need to apologise, like I was doing something wrong, and it’s only on reflection that I realise I really wasn’t. When we made out I enjoyed it and overall I was pretty happy with how things were going. He was quite eager to find out about previous relationships and to share how far he’d got with other girls, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but when coupled with insistent ‘requests’ that we take things to the next stage while making out, it all contributed to a pretty coercive approach.
Part of me is inclined to shrug this off or justify it with the fact that I was consenting, and that – to be fair – he was just a teenage boy desperate to lose his virginity. But now I just don’t think that’s good enough. When he first fingered me it wasn’t awful, but at best I felt very little; it was uncomfortable, and there was some pain. When he’d asked if I was ready I’d said yes, but in hindsight it was more of a ‘yes, I’ll let you do this now’ than a ‘yes, I’m ready’.
Given the sex education that we’d both had at school, I don’t think any of this is surprising. I don’t think it’s surprising that I had no idea what it really meant to be ‘ready’ (because who ever talks about arousal or lubricated vaginas in PSE?). I don’t think it’s surprising that I didn’t see his behaviour as problematic, because I had said ‘yes’. I don’t think it’s surprising that he couldn’t see what the problem was, because he’d asked, and again, I’d said yes. His shock I said I hadn’t enjoyed it isn’t surprising either, because no one, not in sex education and definitely not in porn, had told him that it’s not as simple as just shoving your finger up there. On the train home I knew something wasn’t right, felt somehow weird and embarrassed but didn’t know why, because as far as I knew, we’d done everything right – no risk of pregnancy and that all-important ‘yes’.
This experience didn’t have a traumatising effect on me, although well into my first year of uni I was still baffled by the idea that a finger up there could feel good, but I do think it highlights some important things about the way we think about consent and relationships. And I don’t think it’s irrelevant to the wider problem of sexual violence on campuses across the UK and around the world. As a society, we have a problem with visualising consent. But it’s easy, right? Consent means the person has said yes to sex. Sounds simple, but it’s not. ‘Yes’ isn’t enough. One yes isn’t always the same as another. A yes given when drunk or pressured is not the same as an excited, aroused yes. The way we teach and think about consent is centred around the answer, but no one is telling us what questions to ask. It doesn’t help that in films, the language of sex is silent, communicated through passionate looks and dramatic music, giving the impression that mutual consent is just instinctive, otherwise it isn’t sexy.
All too often, even in the best case scenario where consent is explicitly requested, the framing of the question starts with a ‘can I?’, and is based on what the asker wants. At the very least, we need to reformulate this as ‘do you want to?’. But consent shouldn’t even be a closed question with only two answers. We should be asking questions like ‘how do you feel?’, ‘what would you like to do now?’, ‘how was that for you?’ – and we shouldn’t be asking them just once, but at every stage along the way. These questions are often dismissed as killing the mood, but when asked in the right context, I think most women and their partners would agree that this kind of negotiation, this back and forth, this sharing and communication makes things a whole lot sexier, and definitely leads to better sex.
These are the questions I would have liked to explore in learning about consent. And they are questions which will change the way we think about sexual violence. The approach to consent which I experienced in high school is not uncommon, and it’s at the root of the pandemic levels of sexual violence across UK universities. My experience was a relatively harmless example of how misguided conceptions of consent lead to at best neutral, and at worst unpleasant, sexual encounters. But it was still a far cry from the experience I have had of enthusiastically consenting sex.
A few more intervals on the scale and we get to coercion, and a bit further along we reach assault and violence, until we eventually come to rape. This interrelated-ness can be understandably tricky to take in. It’s a tiny minority of men who actively express a wish to rape women. But it’s a slightly bigger group who have accepted a dubious or unenthusiastic ‘yes’ without asking if it was whole-hearted consent, a slightly bigger group who would laugh at a problematic ‘locker-room’ joke or at least stay silent and not call it out. A slightly bigger group still would stand up for their male friend if he was accused of sexual violence, and it’s a worryingly large group that might believe a survivor of sexual violence would have ‘consented’ at some point along the way.
When we say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that we think you are a rapist. We don’t think that you want to sexually assault anyone. We don’t think that all men are predators, and we don’t think that consent isn’t a complex issue which requires nuance and sensitivity. What we know is that if you join the dots of isolated incidents of rape and sexual violence by those individual ‘bad apples’, you’ll see a pattern. We know that education about consent is not where it needs to be. We know that sex based on mutual and continued consent can be amazing, we know that anything less than this is not good enough and needs to change. We know that bad sex is not our fault, and that behaviours which we don’t think to question are less extreme manifestations of the same attitudes which lead to crimes.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to question their own approach to sex, whether that’s in or out of a relationship, to think about the questions you’re asking and what answers you want. Consent means more than just a ‘yes’, but no, whether spoken out loud or screaming in the silence, always means no.
Image credit: Lauren Shirreff.