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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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Adam Driver and Shiri Appleby in "Girls"
Photo Credit: HBO

 
 
 
 

Thirty-some summers ago, when I was 15, I lost my virginity to a boy who didn’t care a bit about my emotional well-being. He was very popular, on his way to college in the fall, and sleeping with any girl who would spread her legs to have sex with him that summer.

Two weeks after we had sex for the first time, he and I and his best friend got drunk — me for the first time in my life — and I ended up having sex in a park with both of them. It was somewhat miserable for me to have sex consecutively with two young men, ages 17 and 19, and to hear the second one ask, in the midst of intercourse, “Are you using birth control?” and quickly add, “Oh, who cares — if you get pregnant, it’s your fault,” and to have my bra and panties left behind on the grass when they drove me home. I was shaken both by the degrading nature of the incident and by the fact that I had allowed it. But allow it, I did.  Was I raped? No. Did I ever for one second think that maybe I had been raped? No.

Many would disagree.

* * *

I thought of this incident often over the last week, while watching pink smoke waft across the TV screen during the conclave electing the new pope (protests against the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women in leadership roles –huzzah!); while watching two young men be convicted of raping a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio (terrific that some sort of justice has been served); while watching the discussion about whether the coverage on CNN after the conviction was too sympathetic to the rapists (perhaps CNN went too far, but I’m filled with compassion for teens who commit crimes, whether they go to jail or not, as well as their victims); and while reading numerous discussions about whether a sex scene on Lena Dunham’s smart HBO show “Girls” was actually rape (it was not).

The outcry about the “Girls” episode truly startled me. I was surprised when  severalbright writers whose work I admire labeled the scene rape, because to me and to so many other bright writers whose work I admire, it so clearly was not rape. Categorizing it as such is an intellectually unsound discrediting of women’s power. Natalia was not raped and to call the sex she consented to rape is to demean actual victims of sexual assault and devalue the crime. Further, it is paternalistic in its approach to women, as though women are helpless beings incapable of voicing their wants, and, absent violence and/or threats of violence, can’t or won’t say no.  If we want to argue that women are so limited by the patriarchy that they can’t say no, how do we counter the arguments that women can’t handle jobs in the military or working as police officers? If they can’t escape the narrow roles that a male-dominated society allows them (which some offer as a reason why a woman can’t say no in bed), how will they be able to embrace their power as a soldier or law enforcement officer?

It’s exciting to see so much vigorous debate about feminist issues, but as someone who’s been concerned with combating sexual violence for more than 25 years, there’s one message I think gets undervalued or too often dismissed when we talk about how to erode rape culture: women’s sexual agency.  As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

 
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