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My Bad Sex Wasn’t Rape

The outcry over a recent "Girls" episode startled me. What happened to a woman's sexual agency?

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It’s sad to me that we are still buying into a puritanical vision of women and saying that when they willingly participate in something and don’t like it they have been assaulted. It’s sad to me that we are teaching kids that if someone is too emotionally immature to give proper consent, it’s rape,  as the generally terrific site Scarlteen does.

(So now it’s up to our partners to determine if we have the emotional maturity to give consent? Or is it just that we want them to roll the dice that after the fact we won’t turn around and say, “I wasn’t mature enough to give consent, so you raped me.”) So much of victim blaming relies on these outmoded views of women’s sexuality.

We should never blame victims of sexual assault because they are in no way to blame for the crimes perpetrated against them. At the same time, it is not helpful to label every murky sexual encounter as rape or to say that anything any woman states is rape is, in fact, rape. To say so is to render the word meaningless.

I agree with the notion of “enthusiastic consent” advanced by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman in the landmark collection they edited, “ Yes Means Yes.” As Jill Filipovic says there:  ”Women are not empty vessels to be fucked or not fucked; we’re sexual actors who should absolutely have the ability to say yes when we want it.”

At the end of the scene in “Girls,” we see Natalia tell Adam that she really didn’t like what just transpired between them. That happens sometimes in sex – we do things that we don’t like – that’s part of how we learn what our limits are and what we like, isn’t it?

Defining regret over a consensual experience as rape conveys the message that women who experiment with something sexually and do not like it means that a traumatic crime has been committed. Nonsense. Has everyone who has ever consented to trying anal sex and hasn’t liked it been raped? I think not. The next time we see Natalia she is again in bed with Adam, being very clear about what she wants and what she doesn’t want – and getting it. Isn’t that what sexual autonomy is? When did we get confused and start to think that everyone was going to like every single thing they consented to? Isn’t it valid to sometimes do some things you “don’t like,” either to simply try them or to please a partner? And to negotiate with your partner whether to repeat them or limit them or continue to do them?

The idea that what happened in Steubenville, with Natalia on “Girls ,” and with me in the park 30 years ago are all rape is ridiculous. Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent given are two different things. Women and girls should be told they can chart their own courses. If they don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control — like the women I knew in college who blamed alcohol or drugs for their own sexual adventures or misadventures, or the adult women I know who are still using sex to “get” and “keep” men.

Our culture needs to make space for young girls, as well as young boys, to safely explore their maturing bodies and initial erotic longings. It’s critical to allow for sex roles that are broader than the ones that we have been clinging to for generations. Women and girls need to be able to make mistakes. Emerging sexuality needs to be approached honestly and openly, and not as a pathology. Sex should not be seen as something that girls and women engage in merely to please or keep a man, nor as something that sneaks up and takes them unawares in the night.

 
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