[Caveat lector: This is a small and rubbery slice of a large and tender topic. If you can’t courteously and thoughtfully stay on my topic, I totally understand — it’s a toughie — but I am invoking the Gitcher Own Damn Blog Rule in advance. ]
So: lately I have seen a lot of women exhorting men to STOP if the woman you are pursuing is sending mixed signals, because it’s monstrous to be with someone who is checked out of her body and not care, and if she is scared and sad, it’s not okay to have sex with her.
On the face, I get it: pay attention to those mixed signals. If things aren’t full speed ahead, don’t go there. Some say, at this point, “It’s not fun or worthwhile for either of you,” some say, “that’s where rape begins — not with lack of consent, but lack of wholehearted consent.”
I hesitate to disagree as loudly and firmly as I would like, since I already feel alienated from young feminists and would like to strengthen those ties rather than weaken them. But there are so many reasons I disagree with that line of thinking, or that it invalidates my own experiences.
1. Don’t Interpret Me. Let Me Do That.
Telling a guy not to take me at face value, but to interpret me and think he knows better than I do, is insulting as hell. Don’t train men to patronize us, please; there is too much of that already.
2. Don’t Expect Me To Be Of One Mind About ANYTHING
I was sexually abused as a child. There was physical and emotional abuse in the same milieu. In order to parse out my feelings and where I stood, to derive a sense of body ownership and control, to learn to enjoy sex and move independently of my trauma, I went through a long period of having sex with people I did not have relationships with, some of whom I barely knew. It wasn’t always easy, fun, or pleasant, but it was always profound, important, educational — I learned from it and took it to heart. The regrets and pangs and bittersweet moments were all learning opportunities. Mostly it was a blast, to be honest. What I learned could only have had the value it did in the context of broad experience and taking risks, choosing to have some dodgy sexual experiences (or having some sexual interactions with a higher ambivalence quotient) simply to have them. For science, yes; but also to follow my inner demons down their rabbit hole, to test out the stuff they whispered in my ear. I had to do it for myself. But any dude going into that experience with me, had he listened to the modern feminist chorus, would have run screaming, and I would not have had those chances to work out my ya-yas, would not have had those chances to experience loving generosity with near strangers who may still have fond recall of a grinning girl, glad to be grabbed, with or without the shadow behind her eyes.
3. Don’t Ask Me To Hide My Ambivalence & Mixed Feelings
Having to hide how I really feel in order to meet your excruciating consent standard isn’t just ironic, it’s absurd.
But there is also the fact that getting-to-know-you sex can be deliciously thrilling due to emotional exposure — honest needs and vulnerabilities, showing and trusting, being trusted with someone else’s raw fears and needs, feeling protected and protective, feeling that collaborative joy, or even feeling the delicate sense of exposure and discovery — including some fear / sadness / ambivalence, some acknowledgment of the same in the other person. Just because you are a raging horndog doesn’t mean you run free from all shame, sadness, guilt, whatever. But saying DON’T DO IT IF IT’S NOT FREE OF THOSE UNSIGHTLY EMOTIONS is to deny any sex that isn’t flawlessly perfect between flawlessly perfect people. Which I am not, will never be, and do not wish to be. Honest intimacy must admit imperfection.
You might think Barbie and Ken in their pink plastic Hilton represent the acme of human decadence, but the real juju comes from humping on a pile of our collective emotional baggage, and keeping each other safe as we go.
4. Let Me Own My Mistakes; Don’t Take Consent Out Of My Hands By Making It All On Him
There is a profound difference between being raped and making a decision you regret: consent. If I go into sex with doubts and misgivings, and end up having regrets, I learn from that and act accordingly. If I am taught that my dance of ambivalence ended in regret and that equals rape, then consent is out of my hands, and HE should have known better (known me better than I know myself!) and I have no agency. Unless you are perfect, freedom means making mistakes and living with the results.
I know we all feel we *have* to be perfect — some quadrants of feminism (not my own, obviously) demand perfection, and that’s a pretty raw place — but I would argue that’s a holdover from the madonna-whore/pedestal-gutter dichotomy and should be discontinued.
5. This All Changes In Relationships
My many one-night stands were lovely. No emotional demands, but some lovely emotional dividends; sincere effort; cheerful greed; and better or worse manners, noted and forgotten, with no lasting impact other than pleasant memories. Consent in brief clashes is great collaboration, like splitting a bottle with the next table in a restaurant. Consent in ongoing monogamous relationships has multiple layers. There is the assumption that, because we are monogamous, we only have each other as a sexual outlet and must always or almost always say yes. That if we say yes, it must be to everything. That if I have reservations, you must feel their burden, or at least care about the burden I feel. That sex has to happen with a certain frequency Or Else We Fail As A Couple. On and on.
This topic is uncomfortable to me, and I don’t particularly want to talk about it. But the fact is, I had a boyfriend in and after college who made me cry at least once per day, usually when we were having sex, which we did every day. He later figured out he had a personality disorder that made him abusive and controlling, especially in sexual contexts, but that didn’t help when we were together. He was also a serial cheater. But when I hear women exhorting men to stop pushing for sex if you see her struggling with guilt / shame / fear / sadness under the superficial acquiescence, I would rephrase it as a plea for empathy, as well as practical advice:
You Might Not Want To Make Her Hate Sex With You.