What the hell is “non-consensual sex?”

David WuIn the media coverage of Congressman David Wu’s resignation some disturbing language jumped out at me, from the biggest, most mainstream papers to smaller and even feminist online publications. The phrase “aggressive, unwanted sexual encounter” or just “sexual encounter” seems to have originated with The Oregonian and spread freaking everywhere (with some minor and even more disturbing alterations). Then there were spins on the wording like “unwanted sexual activity.” Oh, and of course there was “sex scandal.” Then there’s the version that for some reason has disturbed me the most, “non-consensual sex,” which even appeared on RH Reality Check.

Seriously, what the fuck is “non-consensual sex?”

There is no such thing. Sex is something that happens when the parties involved are all consenting. Rape isn’t sex, it’s an act of violence, and if there’s no consent it’s rape. (I can’t believe I actually just wrote that. Haven’t feminists already made this one clear, over and over and over and over and over again?)

The details of the case are vague, so perhaps sexual assault would be the more appropriate term to use. A few outlets, like the Daily Mail, actually did use “sexual assault,” though I haven’t seen “rape” anywhere. Which just makes the use of a phrase like “non-consensual sex” even more baffling.

As Zerlina pointed out when discussing a passage in Bristol Palin’s memoir that seems to describe a rape, putting that label on your own experiences can be incredibly difficult. The word has a lot of stigma surrounding it, as has been made obvious in recent cases where accusations of rape seem to reflect worse on the accuser than the accused in the public eye. But the media has a responsibility to report ethically about sexual violence.

If members of the media have been informed the accusations are of actions that would be defined as rape, they should call it that. If the information is more vague, they should say sexual assault. Repeating The Oregonian’s “sexual encounter,” calling an act of violence a “sex scandal,” and spreading the dangerous false category of “non-consensual sex” is lazy, irresponsible journalism. And it’s part of how rape culture spreads.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • red_haired_dancer

    My major in college was Women’s Studies. In one of my classes, we were having a discussion about rape, and I said that rape is not sex, but an act of violence. The *entire class* insisted that rape is sex, that it’s forced sex, but still sex. I was baffled. These were all self-proclaimed feminists, majoring in Women’s Studies.

    I could see where they were coming from, seeing that a common way many rape survivors describe their attack is something along the lines of “he forced me to have sex with him,” but I’m still not calling it sex, even “forced sex.”

    • http://feministing.com/members/kaitmauro/ Kait Mauro

      I believe this distinction is incredibly important and this discussion crucial to a conscious, civilized society. As a Women, Gender and Sexuality studies major myself, and a feminist/humanist/advocate of equality for all people, I want to say, without pause, that sex without consent is not sex, it’s rape. I think this point was beautifully made in this post. I want to say this because I have heard people make statements along the lines of, “Rape is just sex, even if you don’t want it, it’s still just sex, I don’t see why anyone would be so traumatized by it.” Obviously, that statement comes from someone who doesn’t really “get” rape, in my humble opinion, but technically speaking – rape, though it is so many other things, is sexual. So I guess, I don’t have an answer to this (and honestly, I believe the discussion is more valuable than any definitive “answer” that may be decided upon) but I’d like to say that what it is really going to come down to is whether you consider sex to be the very literal, physical act of intercourse or to be the connection (emotional, romantic, passionate, whatever) between the two people having sex. Of course all of these things are just my opinions and I would love to hear what other people think about the matter.

      I agree that “non-consensual sex” seems like a really [REDACTED], insensitive and muddy way of phrasing anything.

  • idiolect

    For those of you who are curious as to how feminists could possibly see a relationship between sex and rape, I’d suggest reading some Catharine MacKinnon. I realize a lot of her work might rub contemporary young feminists the wrong way (or anyone the wrong way, given her provocative style) but essays like e.g. “Sex and Violence: A Perspective” absolutely changed my sense of the relationship between “sexuality” as it is construed heteronormatively and rape.

  • idiolect

    To clarify: I think that the “non-consensual sex is not sex” line might be really useful as a political sort of stance, i.e. “We reject your notion of sex that relies upon the oppression of women and instead demand that sex be reconstrued as as strictly a consensual activity between equals,” and I can get on board with that. I just think it’s a little unfair or a little hasty to jump on the “Anyone who thinks there’s any relationship between sex and rape is stupid” bandwagon, since there’s a lot of enlightening things to be said about the current social norms surrounding sexuality in light of their possible relationship to rape.

    • http://feministing.com/members/shomerchampagne/ C. H.

      Fascinating distinction! Thank you! I hadn’t thought of the subtleties and baggage that the terms “sex” carries vis-à-vis “rape.”

    • http://feministing.com/members/wwitness/ Emily

      Thank you! I was thinking much the same thing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/michelletait/ Michelle Tait

    I think there might be a difference between non-consensual sex, and rape, depending on how the person themselves identifies the experience.

    For me personally, I experience non-consensual sex sometimes with my partner. However, I’ve consented, overall, in our relationship, to nonconsensual sexual encounters (consensual non-consent). So, I think there is a gray area when it comes to that, as many people disagree on the correct term for what it is that I engage in.

    However, I think using “nonconsensual sex” as a term to mean rape, when the victim identifies it as rape, is pretty shitty.

    • http://feministing.com/members/natemyers42/ Nathan Myers

      Way to point out the link to consensual non-consent. I was wondering, after reading this post and the comments, how to bring that up without sounding like an insensitive asshole. You did rather well, so thank you.

  • http://feministing.com/members/redrightankle/ Meg

    My experiences are very similar to Michelle Tait, when I see “non-consensual sex” I see “non-con” which at least in fandom is kink lingo for rape-play. And as a BDSMer who’s into that kind of thing, I quite enjoy non-consensual sex (that I have previously consented to.) Non-con to me is kink, while rape is…well rape.

    So it’s always kind of creepy to me when I see people conflating the two. A survivor should never have what they’ve identified as a rape or sexual assault compared to a consensually non-consensual sex act.

  • http://feministing.com/members/alltomorrowsparties/ A.C.

    While it pisses me off to no end to see plain-as-day rape softened as “non-consensual sex” in the media, I think it is extremely important to be open to including “non-consensual sex” in a definition of rape. For many women I know, rape is restricted to “guy-lurking-in-the-bushes-attack”, not something that happens with someone you know or are even dating. By describing it like “non-consensual sex,” I’ve found a lot of discussion has opened up by including that in a definition: yes, even if you were drunk, even if you said “no” a few minutes into it, it was sex without your permission, and that’s rape.

  • http://feministing.com/members/wwitness/ Emily

    “Rape isn’t sex, it’s an act of violence, and if there’s no consent it’s rape. (I can’t believe I actually just wrote that. Haven’t feminists already made this one clear, over and over and over and over and over again?)”

    I’m not loving the implicit generalization here. It really isn’t the case that all feminists are on board with the “Rape isn’t sex, it’s an act of violence” mantra. For example, there are plenty of radical feminists who (a) strongly believe that a relationship exists between rape and sex in a patriarchal society and (b) would question or wholeheartedly reject the idea that consensual heterosexual sex is even possible as long as men oppress women. (I have some mixed feelings about that last position, but it does seem that, in a culture that so thoroughly fetishizes violence against women, dismissing the relationship between sex and rape might have the unintended effect of camouflaging the pervasiveness of the problem.)

    • idiolect

      You can sort of get out of the uncomfortableness of “heterosexual sex is rape” by remembering what exactly “heterosexual sex” generally means in these types of claims — Here, “heterosexual sex” does NOT mean “any sexual activity between people with different biological sex organs” at all, it means more something like “sexual activity between two people adhering to hierarchical gender norms.” The thought is that, if it’s analytic to “adhering to hierarchical gender norms” that one of the parties involved is being on some level coerced (and I think it probably is), then heterosexual sex (construed as above) is in some important way indistinguishable from rape. (Cf. Marilyn Frye, “Willful Virgins,” etc.)

      (Also, to everyone: Apologies if this is all kind of overintellectualized for blog commentary — I’ve been getting into this stuff academically lately :)

      • http://feministing.com/members/wwitness/ Emily

        Yeah, that’s a smart way of framing it (it also helps to make the whole enterprise feel less like a soul-crushing bummer, although I try not to let my desire not to be soul-crushed and bummerfied dictate what I do and don’t believe). It generally seems that, if you have two (or more) egalitarian people who treat each other like, well, people, then those individuals could have consensual sex with each other. Unfortunately, that probably only describes a minority of het relationships.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I’ve often felt perplexed, both as a survivor of rape and a feminist, when people say rape is about violence or power/control, but not sex. I personally feel it’s about all of the above. I mean, if it were just about violence, he could have just stopped after beating me up? If it were solely a power trip, he could have forcibly coerced me to perform any other activity? But it moved into a sexual area, the things he did. So yeah, while I definitely believe rape is about violence, power, subjugation, hatred, etc., I also feel it’s about sex.

    As for the term “non-consensual sex”, it seems to be a more delicate wording? It might be interesting to start keeping track of what and who is involved when articles use terminology like this, vs. when they do use the word “rape”.

    • honeybee

      I’ve always thought the exact same but have been afraid to voice this. Thanks.

  • http://feministing.com/members/desi/ Desi

    Great article. Euphemism is something I’ve been thinking and writing about lately, and this is definitely a situation of euphemism gone wrong. I wrote a short blog post in response: http://desigonzalez.tumblr.com/post/8140229048/on-euphemisms-for-a-third-time

  • http://feministing.com/members/iris/ Ann Cahill

    As several folks have mentioned, defining rape as not-sex is not a universally held position among feminists, and for some good reasons. Some states (sorry, don’t have my hands on the specifics right now) used this line of thinking to folk rape into existing legislation against assault, thus making it legally impossible (or at least difficult and/or irrelevant) to talk about the specifically sexual aspects of this act of violence. Of course there are problems with the Catharine MacKinnon line of argument as well, but if you’re interested in hearing a compelling argument for why it’s difficult to draw a clear line between rape and (heteronormative) sex, I’d recommend Nicola Gavey’s Just Sex: The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. In it, she seems to do the important empirical work that MacKinnon tended not to do.

  • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

    Two debates are streaming through these comments and the post, so this is my attempt to separate them (and throw in my two cents).

    Debate 1: Rape is an act of violence, not sex.

    People say this a lot, but it has many meanings.

    The pure meaning is that this refers to the experience of the victim. The victim experiences the act as violence, not as “sex”. This is important to emphasize: Think of people like Bobby Knight, who said that if a woman is being raped, she might as well lay back and enjoy it. This is clearly someone who can’t wrap his mind around the idea that the woman is primarily experiencing a violent act, not a sexual act.

    Some people have tried to expand this meaning to describe the experience of rapist, not just the victim. The rapist experiences the act as a form of violence – a method of control and domination – rather than as “sex”. This is valid in a few cases (e.g., a rapist targeting 80 year old women is a common example). But obviously many rapists experience rape as an act of sex – for example, a male who perceives that the “lack of verbally expressed ‘no’ means she is a willing participant” doesn’t realize/acknowledge that he is committing rape. To him it is an act of sex, his motivation is sexual gratification, whereas to her it is experienced as an act of violence (or as a harder to define experience given many women’s acceptance of rape myths).

    Debate 2: What is Sex?

    The author of the post appears to be promoting a classification system where “rape = violence” and “sex = consensual intercourse+”. So in this framework, the idea or phrase “consensual sex” would be a meaningless term, because “sex” already implies consent. Also, “non-consensual sex” is meaningless because sex is by definition consensual.

    But in lay language, the idea of consensual sex clearly has meaning to people. People think of sex as “intercourse”, and therefore consensual sex is intercourse that people agree too. This makes sense to people. Non-consensual sex in this framework makes sense (as long as people realize that this is a synonym for rape/sexual assault.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cookiemonstah/ Nikki

    Dear heavens, why are people avoiding calling what happened (rape) what it is?!

    “aggressive, unwanted sexual encounter”= when your partner wants to try something aggressive and you arent really interested in sex in the moment but say `why not?` because you want to make them happy. same thing goes for unwanted sexual encounter or activity.

    sex scandal= why did that even show up in a rape case? anyway a sex scandal is when a well known person who does something scandalous pertaining to sex, example cheating.

    non consensual sex= what a news corporation that supports rape culture calls rape, perhaps trying to make this girl`s rape sound less harrowing.

    Jos you are completely right, this is lazy and irresponsible journaling, that supports the continuation of a rape culture.