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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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The more we learn to claim our own sexual power, the more we will contribute to changing the landscape of sexual violence.  We can say yes and we can say no. As feminist writer Mary Gaitskill writes about her own experience, “Many years after being raped, I finally understood that in failing even to try to speak up on my own behalf, I had, in a sense, raped myself.”

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Discussing these issues over the past week, I have been reminded of how fraught with divisiveness they can be. When I shared some of my opinions – in both real-life discussions with friends and Facebook conversations – I was told that I needed to “talk to some actual survivors,” that I didn’t understand what rape was, that I was distracting from the “real” point of convincing men to stop raping, that I had no right to say what was rape and what wasn’t. In fact, I worked at an urban rape crisis center and helped launch the U.S.’s only nationwide sexual assault hotline, RAINN. I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault and have written about that in  assorted publications, including here in Salon, but for my various opinions, I was told that I was not a feminist.

We need to stop cannibalizing one another over our differences, and instead invite broad discussion.  Yes, we must teach men not to rape, but it’s not as simple as that. In order to end sexual violence, a number of strategies must be employed and to talk about them too often gets incorrectly dismissed as victim blaming.  Men should be encouraged to take more active roles in the fight against sexual violence. Sex should be discussed in terms that describe a shared perspective rather than as something that is done to a person by another person.  It’s a pretty short walk from trying to “talk a girl into” sex to taking the sex, from cajoling to coercing to forcing. Let’s rewrite the story  by respecting women’s sexual choices — even when those choices lead to sex that makes us feel bad, pretending that we enjoy things we don’t.

We expect society to do what we are not doing on an individual level: establish clear boundaries and guidelines, show men what is right and wrong, etc. I don’t believe that any amount of cultural messaging is going to ultimately be effective in combating what we all know to be true: that people give conflicting messages, that much of sex is a negotiation, that not everything either side does is done with complete enthusiasm. Many men and women will tell you they don’t perform oral sex because they love it but rather because their partners do.  Do we want them to stop?

For most of us, we don’t come into our own about articulating our specific wants and desires until late in life, if ever. Let us encourage a culture where everyone – regardless of gender, orientation, etc. – does so openly, honestly, respectfully. Let us all learn to say, “I don’t know how I’m going to like that, but let’s try it out.” (We could take some lessons from the BDSM communities where boundaries and limits are strictly negotiated in advance.)

If we treat sexual encounters such as my encounter in the park as sexual assault, we are in fact failing to respect the “victim’s” agency. We have to respect that agency no matter how someone chooses to enact it, whether that’s having sex they don’t really want to have in silence, or saying yes to it, or saying no and walking away. For women, claiming our sexual power is an integral piece of ending rape culture, not to mention realizing our own sexual fulfillment.

 
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