This article may contain triggers for survivors of sexual assault and rape.
Some passages of this article also imply a heteronormative model that I don’t mean to assume – consent is obviously an issue in homosexual relationships, but just isn’t the focus of this article.
I have had sexual encounters that were not consensual with many men in my life, and none of them have been strangers in an alley, and none of them have involved physical force. And though this article will skim over the details of some of those incidents, it will not be the focus. The focus will be why. The focus will be who can stop it. The focus will be how it can be stopped.
Where we all agree
The first incident was when I was ten. A family member sexually abused me, and that I suppose, is the most clear cut case, the incident(s) that can be described as sexual assault, as ‘wrong’, and as blameless, with widespread agreement by most of society. The fact that I was sometimes asleep when it began, or wouldn’t move when I woke up (due to biological fear/awareness of the impact of acknowledging what had happened) would not, I think, change that perspective. It is more prevalent than you would think: 65% of women that contact rape crisis centres are adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Alcohol, drugs and consent
But what about the other times? The time when I was 15, at a house party, and so drunk I half passed out on the bathroom floor, and someone had sex with (read: raped) me? Or the time when I was on drugs and clearly out of my senses, slipping in and out of consciousness, when someone had sex with (read: raped) me, and I didn’t want it, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, and the drugs clearly affected my judgment. At other times, having drunk alcohol or on drugs, I have actually wanted to, but the possibility that I didn’t actually want to, that I only allowed it to happen because I did not have the wherewithal to know what I really wanted at those times, was highly likely. The point is, if you know someone is using alcohol/drugs, you have to be really, really, really sure that they want to have sex, and haven’t had too much of that substance to affect that judgment. And how are you going to know?
Coercion and power dynamics
But what about the even trickier, the even more supposedly ‘grey’ area. Like that time when after a date I explicitly said I didn’t want to have sex, and he – let’s call him Jack – nevertheless aggressively came on to me, pulled my clothes off, and we ended up, ultimately, having sex anyway. My body actions at the later point in the evening were in line with enthusiastic, willing, participation. Jack had reasonable belief that he had consent from me at that moment, though I doubt he actually cared much. I consented, participated, but only in response to overwhelming pressure, almost out of politeness, having not been taught to respond to a level of coercion that is not violent but certainly powerful. Consent cannot be promised in advance; and although it can be withdrawn in advance and later given, if consent has been withdrawn at any stage, the other person in the relationship (of any sort, from one-night-stand to partner) has a very great obligation to make sure that the consent later being given is absolutely genuine, and not as a result of pressure. I don’t think I would want to take the risk, personally. ‘Maybe another time’ is always possible. And avoids the possibility of having sex with someone who doesn’t really want to, which must be the priority, surely.
Why, who can stop it, and how?
I used to have a completely irrational, but apparently common, analysis of why I have experienced so many sexual encounters that were not consensual, several that I would now define as rape. I thought it was me; something to do with my behavior; even fate. I draw great strength from the women around me, who have shared their experiences; it undermines this analysis completely, but in fact points towards a much, much sadder explanation. It has happened a lot to me, because it happens a lot. At most my culturally liberal background has put in me in more ‘sexual’ situations, earlier, but they could have all been consensual. Instead, I simply had more of an opportunity to see what are horrifyingly usual ways of performing sexual activity in a way that often has little or no regard for the woman. The explanation isn’t one of individuals: instead of the irrational, self-blaming analysis, a political analysis is necessary. First let’s be frank: rape and sexual abuse is a gendered form of violence (to note one of many stats: 23% of women and 3% of men experience sexual assault as an adult in the UK). Rape and sexual assault happens because of the lies that are perpetuated about what is and is not rape in our culture; because of the impunity for rapists in our criminal justice system; because of power relations between men and women; because of the gender roles we are coerced into performing. The lack of thought, understanding, and sense of responsibility that comes with getting consent from a sexual partner is a part of this picture, a part of these causes. Despite this overarching analysis, we cannot ignore the agency of the perpetrators, and their decision, within our rape culture, to rape.
But it is a short, right answer, that isn’t getting us very far, to say that it is the perpetrators that can stop rape. Of course this is right, that it is their choice, their crime, and their responsibility. But we will never stop individual bastards (and I will use that word, because it is okay to be angry) from raping and attacking women by just saying that. But we can, and have to, look at the system if we want to make real change to the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in our society. ‘Addressing the power dynamic between men and women’ seems overwhelming and impossible, as does ‘ripping apart the gender roles we are coerced into performing’. These ideas needs to be boiled down and down into a million steps that need to be taken. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. But we must at least attempt to combat this pervasive, harrowing part of many women’s life experiences, with some concrete plans. Here is my suggestion – please feel free to comment and add your own ideas:
To include in basic sex education the following elements: (a) ways to be assertive outside of the aggressive/submissive way in which men and women are socialized to perform their genders, in the context of sexual activity of any kind; (b) the necessity to be actively thoughtful and aware of consent issues in relation to alcohol, drugs, and social pressure external and internal to the time when sexual activity is a possibility: ‘no is no’ but when is ‘yes’ really ‘yes’?; (c) emphasise that collectively society will not condone a lack of respect or consideration for what women want; (d) the truth about what is and is not rape – thoroughly disregarding the pervasive lies that are widely believed.
This sex education should take place in high school, but not just high school. It should take place in freshers’ week at Universities/FE Institutions, and in workshops available through community projects for adults. In addition, we must support and start political campaigns on these issues, and speak out in daily conversations about these issues when they are raised. And we must also support campaigners working on changes to the criminal justice system to improve rape conviction rate.
For now, for those women who have survived rape, sexual assault, or any kind of gendered violence, there are people you can go to now for support. You can speak to someone at Rape Crisis (http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/), and if you’re a student, talk to someone at the Student Advice Service (http://www.studentadvice.cam.ac.uk/) or University Counselling Service (http://www.counselling.cam.ac.uk/). You are not alone, you are incredibly strong to have survived what has happened to you, and there is a community of women at Rape Crisis that are there to listen if you want to talk.