We need to move away from the oppressive myth that rape and assault only happen in violent fits of rage, a narrative that reinforces the idea that “real” rape is uncomplicated and straightforward.
Content warning: rape and sexual assault
My friends and I are telling the types of stories that only come out with a combination of drinks and late nights. We’re telling stories of embarrassing moments and awkward experiences and first times, circumstances surrounding the hows and whys people rounded the bases.
The more we talk the more it becomes clear that somewhere along the way every woman has picked up a story of when “no” didn’t cut it, when “no” wasn’t quite enough.
There is the story of when a boyfriend didn’t accept a “no” and whined, begged, and cajoled for weeks, repeating rumors that others had done it and that the girl was being childish. “No” turned into “yes.”
There is the story of consent given once and then ceasing to be a question and becoming a definite, pushed further and further, hands on the back of her head, guiding it where she didn’t want it to go while watching movies in the basement, fingers probing places she didn’t want under a blanket.
There is the story of protestations met with pouting, moping, intense arguments and debates in which partners try to man-splain away reservations, with reminders that she’d already agreed to it so it was silly and stupid to go back on promises.
Consent, we lament, was supposed to be simple: Just say “no,” they’d taught us in health class, in those very-special episodes of popular TV shows, and that was supposed to be the end of it.
But it wasn’t that way, I discover as we talk. “No” wasn’t easy. “No” wasn’t simple. “No” was messy and difficult and confusing.
More often then not, we didn’t say “yes” but it didn’t matter.
“Every woman has been a little bit raped,” my friend says. We pause. Think on the statement. And then nod in agreement.
I say this in no way to trivialize the severity of rape as we currently think of it, or make light of such a horrible crime. But, it seems, if nearly every woman has a story of coercion, a story of being taken advantage of or pressured into completing a sexual act she initially didn’t want, then something is wrong. Then, we might have to begin to broaden our definition of rape and sexual assault.
Society has always had a two-fold definition of assault. There is the unquestionable, everyone-shares, no-two-sides assault that nearly everyone thinks of first: big, scary men, hiding in the dark corners or sneaking into bedrooms in the dark of night and forcing themselves on someone who fights, fights, fights to stop it.
But while that is the prevailing narrative, the truth is, rape and assault can exist in so many other ways. We need to move away from the idea that force is only about being pinned down, and move toward the idea that force can mean leveraging any position of power (societal or financial or cultural) into getting what you want despite what the other person wants.
This idea, that a woman’s denial of consent is something to be brushed off or trivialized or fought against, has become commonplace thinking. It wasn’t until 1979 that marital rape became illegal, based on the simple, and obviously false, idea that marriage granted constant consent. And colleges nowadays appear to be incubators for this kind of toxic thinking. In the last few years, two frats have been investigated for either chanting or displaying a sign with the slogan: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”
The message is clear, consent is less about what she says and more about the games someone can play to manipulate her into what they want.
This is a message that is also relayed on TV and in movies. Men who doggedly pursue women even after they have repeatedly shown they are uninterested are often the protagonists of romantic comedies (I’m looking at you Say Anything, Love Actually, and Big Fish.) And far too often TV shows that feature scenes of questionable or dubious consent are forgotten the next week. Joan forced to have sex by her fiancé on “Mad Men,” Adam escalating the intensity of a sexual encounter on “Girls,” and Julie being pushed further than comfortable on “Felicity” all launched waves of “think pieces” on the Internet, but made virtually no ripples in their characters’ fictional worlds. By blowing quickly past the seriousness of these encounters, these examples work to reinforce the notion that a “no means no” assault is the only type of assault worthy of significance and study (and multiple episode storylines.)
Our society is playing with fire when we refuse to acknowledge the rape culture this type of thinking perpetuates. An article published in New York magazine showcases the danger, revealing that many men don’t think rape is rape. Drawing on a recent study of male college students, the article reveals that there is a huge divide between men who say they would “rape” and men who say they would “force a woman to have sexual intercourse in a consequence-free situation.” It seems men are far more afraid of being caught and labeled the “big scary rapist” than they are of committing the actual act.
All of this shows that we need to broaden our definition of assault. We, as a society, need to consciously choose to move away from the oppressive myth that rape and assault only happen in violent fits of rage, a narrative that reinforces the idea that “real” rape is uncomplicated and straightforward. Instead, we need to acknowledge that grey areas exist between what is and isn’t assault, areas that women experience on a near universal level.
The change is starting. Women are sharing experiences, hitting a nerve for everyone who has experienced this pressure, making people reexamine those encounters that left them feeling used, but unable to articulate why. Women are realizing, as Laura Gianino discusses in her personal essay published on Bustle, “’Rape’ covers a multitude of experiences…In calling what happened to me ‘rape,’ it now has a name that takes the responsibility off of me.”
Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do in understanding these new nuances within our narrow definition of rape. As that same author discusses in a follow up piece also published on Bustle, many still think that by even acknowledging that rape and assault can be messy or that it may be broader than originally thought means the feminists have won. Sadly, as the comment section showed after the essay was posted on Bustle’s Facebook page, it was majority women in their obtuse reasoning that rape and sexual assault must be one-size-fits-all. Scarily, that same comment section showed, it was majority women who were continually perpetuating the idea that “stopping once promised” was wrong and that a woman should follow through no matter how uncomfortable, painful, upset, or scared she becomes.
There is much work to be done. We need to figure out what is being continually reinforced in our cultural zeitgeist that makes women think that they are not in control of their sexual experiences. But in order to do this, we must first acknowledge that what so many women are experiencing is not OK, and is not how sex, sex acts, or relationships should be. Only when this happens, when we take a good hard look at the various ways “no” continues to mean “yes” to so many people, only when that type of emotional manipulation and power bargaining is seen with the same disgust as physical assault, can we truly begin to discuss consent.
Elizabeth Skoski lives in New York City. She is the author of the novel, For Girls Who Find Themselves With Child, the proceeds of which are donated to The National Network of Abortion Funds. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Bustle, and A Practical Wedding, among others.