A Problem of Consent

Trigger warning: this article contains detailed discussion of the author’s personal experience of rape.

Until two days ago, I never saw myself as a rape victim. I could – to trusted friends – acknowledge and occasionally talk about the sexual assault that happened when I was an adolescent, and I was happy to make jokes about “that music teacher who locked himself in a cupboard with me…” without looking properly at the consequences of either of those events. I felt as though those two occasions were the limits of my negative sexual experience.

And then on Friday I found myself talking to a close friend about various relationships, and I described my relationship with the man to whom I lost my virginity. (As an aside, I really don’t like the terminology of ‘losing one’s virginity’ – it puts a really uncomfortable value on the whole thing, for me.) Having tried to explain what it was like, I ground to a halt. My friend looked at me, and said: “That was rape.”

Point blank. I’d never looked at it like that before. Or rather, I had not wanted to.

And I am troubled by it now; is it rape, for example, when you enter into a relationship with someone, knowing that they will have sex with you, and that your choice in the matter is almost nil? If you know that will happen, and yet you go ahead anyway, is that rape? I take sides against myself to say ‘no, it can’t be, and it isn’t fair on X to call it rape’. I brought it on myself, is my main feeling.

Two people very close to me are both victims of rape; probably if I asked, I’d know many more women who are. I’ve always therefore assumed that you know that it’s rape; that there’s something in your mind that tells you straight away that this is wrong, even if you can’t react to it at the time. Maybe I did have that warning voice, without recognising it. Maybe I deliberately chose to ignore it.

Consent is often very difficult to negotiate. Many laws globally make reference to the importance of “free and active” consent. In my case, I don’t know that any law would legally call it rape, although my consent was given more out of a sense of inevitability than because I actually wanted to be part of it. I remember, during the many times we had sex, staring at a point above his right shoulder and wishing he would just go away, wanting it to be over, and wondering how long it had to last. I felt more honour-bound to be part of the performance, than actively excited by it. I used to wonder what the point of sex was – I certainly didn’t find it enjoyable, I didn’t ever really want to be there, but I said yes, so in my mind that was consent.

Looking back, it seems very difficult. I’m in a relationship now where I know – for the first time – what it feels like to actively want to be in bed with someone, to feel confident enough with them to initiate contact, and to feel loved enough that it is possible to say no. It is not as though I was ever threatened by my previous boyfriend; he was ever so careful to make sure I knew that he wasn’t going to put pressure on me and that I was at perfect liberty to say no. I also knew – because he told me – that if we didn’t have sex, he would go and sleep with other people (which didn’t, in his eyes, mean he loved me any the less, just that it was more important he had regular sex than that we had a relationship that both of us were comfortable with). So I could have said no, and not minded him having sex elsewhere – that could have been an arrangement we came to. “Like Sartre and De Beauvoir”, was his contention. We could both have other partners, but we each came first to each other. Or rather, he could have other partners, and I would pretend to be happy with it. Somehow, at the time, that didn’t feel like emotional pressure.

Because of the state of mind I was in at that point in my life, I went out with him like a rat leaving a sinking ship. Everything else felt slightly futile; he was someone to be with to make life more interesting. If I had to have sex in order to spend time with him then that was a sacrifice part of me was willing to make. The part of me that curled up in inward disgust every time we were alone in bed together, the part of me that hated the contact of skin to skin and begged to be allowed to sleep in a T-shirt rather than spend the night naked with him, this was a part that – in my self-imposed tyranny – had to subside in order to preserve this strange and uncomfortable relationship.

He was a nice guy. I’m never going to tell him that what happened was – probably – rape. I don’t know if anyone else would define it like that; I’m sure that for people who are victims of much more serious assaults, this seems easy in comparison. I don’t know what I want to call this. I don’t want to live with the knowledge that I brought it on myself.

Consent is tricky; victim-blaming is even harder when it’s self-directed. And through this all, all I want is for someone else to define what happened for me, to take on the responsibility of anger, because I can’t bear it myself.

I’m sorry if this sounds more like a confession than an attempt at an article. It is in part a flood, perhaps. It is also, however, an attempt to recognise from within myself, how easily undefined consent is. I don’t think there is any law that would recognise what happened to me as rape, and perhaps rightly so. What is necessary instead is so much more emotional education about sex and sexuality from a much younger age. If there were some way of teaching everyone to recognise the processes in their own minds that are leading them into situations they may mistrust, and to recognise pressure both from within and without, maybe that would help. Maybe a shift in the way we recognise consent would help as well – either way, a huge dialogue needs to open up to change the way that consent is considered; it is not always (perhaps never is) as black and white as a simple yes and no.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I just want to preface the following by saying that although I relate to what you’re saying I’m by no means claiming to have had the ‘same’ experience as you and don’t want to tell you what to think or how you should define what happened to you…

    However, I also lost my virginity with a guy I was with for nearly 2 years who I didn’t really want to have sex with. There were times when I thought outloud in my head “Gross, I don’t want to do this”. I was talking about this with a friend the other day and she said that there is a Graham Greene story about a woman whose husband is trying to poison her and she ends up basically thinking ‘sometimes its easier to be murdered than make a fuss’. It was kind of like that for me (except not the murder bit, obv). It was easier to have sex I didn’t REALLY want to have than make a fuss, have to break up my relationship etc etc. I also thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to have sex? What did that say about me? I thought I was a strong, liberated girl with the sort of ‘joie de vivre’ that would usually translate into loving sex and having loads of it. I associated people who didn’t enjoy sex with repressed 50s housewives. In the end I stopped having sex with this guy because it physically hurt too much. It was like my vagina expressed what I couldn’t say and then forced me to speak out, but only when it became so physically painful I realised something was definitely wrong. Emotional pain I could ignore more easily.

    I personally wouldn’t say I was raped. I consented to sex I didn’t want to have, oxymoronic as that sounds. Your situation could be different though and sometimes recognising what has happened to you as rape could be helpful because it recognises the wrong that was done to you by the guy involved or maybe by the situation or society. Can you be raped without there being a rapist? I think you can. I understand people’s point of view when they say that its the responsibility of your partner to make sure that you really are consenting and that if someone feels rape it means their partner hasn’t done this and they are, therefore, a rapist. I agree about the responsibility. In my case however, I faked enthusiasm and consent because of the pressures that external forces and I exerted on myself. And as a result I did sort of want to have sex, sometimes, just not for the usual reasons of wanting the sex in itself.

    One things for sure: I don’t think its helpful to beat ourselves up about having ‘allowed’ this to happen. I think you’re completely right that consent is such a complicated, grey area. BUT no one should end up in the situation where they are having sex they don’t really want to have and don’t enjoy. Equally, noone should be wanting to have sex without being absolutely positively sure that the person they are having sex with is really, actively into it.

    We need to change the culture around consent! And we need to have much more education for young people – like really young, pre-teen and onwards – about consent, sex, sexuality and manipulation and violence in relationships. What would it be like if everyone had to consider consent in the context of a relationship like this and not just in terms of what people generally imagine rape to be i.e. a one off with a stranger? When I was younger I thought about rape in these terms. As I’ve got older and more and more of my friends have been raped or spoken out about having been raped I’ve realised the reality of most rape or sexual assault/abuse. Its people’s boyfriends, friends, carers and parents who are doing this stuff most of the time.

    How about if all teenagers had to do roleplays where they practised how to explain to their partner they didn’t want to have sex? How about more testimonies and open discussion about these scenarios? I think one of the main problems in my case was not quite knowing or feeling confident to express my own feelings. I know its complicated to educate children about how to recognise their own reservations or discomfort but it would help to have had someone say ‘you can be vulnerable in a relationship to x, y and z happening and here are some warning signs… This is what you should at a basic level expect from a relationship.’

    Again thank you for writing such a brave and honest article. You’re not alone and I hope that you don’t blame yourself for what happened and continue to enjoy lots of good sex with people or a person you love!

  2. Thank you both for posting these

  3. Thank you both for writing these. Again as above I’m not trying to say I’ve had the same experience, but elements of both your posts spoke to me. I was involved with a guy and mine was a case of non-consent (not sex, but sexual activity) as he knew that I didn’t want what was happening, but I still blamed myself for not ‘trying harder to stop him’ and bringing it on myself by ‘being a tease’ as he told me. However, the thing that really bothered/bothers me, more even than the act itself, was that at a later date I went on to have consensual sex with him, which is something I’ve never quite been able to explain to myself. He apologised to me for the initial act, telling me that it was just because he fancied me so much, I’d got him so turned on, he’d never meant to upset me blabla etc. and I fell for it because I wanted to believe that he liked me, and he’d also spent a lot of time subtly undermining my self-confidence up until this point which probably contributed to it. And he then proceeded (of course) to screw me over afterwards, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever stop beating myself up and calling myself stupid for the whole situation (as much as I might tell myself that I shouldn’t). I don’t know if you’ve seen the adverts (generally they’ve been on 4od episodes) highlighting the issue of rape and portraying a girl who doesn’t scream or shout or fight, but quietly tells the guy she doesn’t want to and he continues anyway, but I think they’re a good start at beginning to change the perceptions of what classes as ‘rape’ as something that has to be physically forceful. Obviously it doesn’t even begin to touch on the issues as complicated as the ones here, but it’s a start.

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