My straight male friends are terrified of the morning-after lady brunch when women, they are sure, swap stories of their dexterity and stamina over mimosas. Ha ha! say the women they’ve slept with to all the women they would one day like to sleep with. (“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.”) Perhaps some 20-something, cocktail-sipping ladies do just that. But I rarely hear lurid details fit for a “Sex and the City” brunch after the good or uneventful nights; women I know save that precision for something darker, when the answer begins “it’s not that bad, but.”
Carrie: So, how was it?
Samantha: I don’t know. I mean, it’s not that bad, but he did that thing where he kept trying to negotiate with me when I said I wouldn’t sleep with him.
Samantha: It’s not that bad, but when I wanted to leave he called me a cunt and blockaded his door.
Samantha: It’s not that bad, but he was really rough, like choking shit, even after I told him it was too much.
Samantha: It’s not that bad, but he took off the condom without telling me halfway through.
This is no rape crisis center call. All four of these lines I’ve heard not as tragic confession or plea for help but half question, half resignation. That felt fucked but it’s fine, right? It’s normal.
It is normal but it is not fine.
I don’t have the language for this substratum of violence we refuse to name as such. I don’t mean the non-rape-rape, the recognized assaults that don’t result in bruises. This article is not a repetition of the now-cliché reminder that most rape isn’t a stranger jumping out of the bushes. I mean the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.
We chalk it up to awkwardness, or kink, or just plain old misogyny that is so commonplace and inevitable that resisting it would be like protesting the weather. I find that friends who have been raped before and named that for what it was are no more willing to insist upon the inexcusability of this excused category. Nor are the organizers, the feminists with boots on the ground and the right vocabulary at the tip of their tongues. A woman is only allotted so much anger in her life. In crossing that limit she is rendered hysterical and invisible all at once. What is bad enough to cash your tokens? We’ve decided that if it isn’t what we call violence, we will count our blessings and take it like a woman. (“Women are afraid that men will kill them.”)
The ubiquitous negotiations and morning-after bruises and disappearing condoms aren’t what we talk about when we talk about sexual violence. Samantha needs it to be “not that bad,” but so too, it seems, does the movement. I’m thinking of a little graphic that I saw on a friend’s Instagram feed a few weeks ago. It’s a flowchart. “Do you believe women are equal to men?” If you follow the “yes” arrow, you’re a feminist. If not, you’re an asshole. It is this same principle behind the #AllMenCan hashtag campaign that overwhelmed #YesAllWomen. The latter documented widespread gender-based violence in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting; the former insisted that men can just lean into not being misogynists and we’ll all be fine.
The flowchart and all the men who can insist that feminism is easy. It’s so obvious. This vision depends on an assumption that violence is a discrete patch on our community, the outline already visible and perforated: if we just push gently, it will pop out of our lives like a paper doll from cardboard. That’s a comforting idea for those who lack power (change is possible!) and those who hold it (but not that much change is needed!). And because the narrower definition of violence is more palatable to men, it is also strategically useful. Nice girls with proper manners are allowed at the dinner table and on Upworthy if we don’t ask for anything too disruptive.
But this isn’t a contained infection. We can’t just cut it out. It’s a cancer, a pernicious proliferation of what we already are: the “not that bad” is cordoned off from “real violence” only for our own convenience. So we will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount. The flowchart is less appealing when it demands, in successive boxes, Do you believe you are entitled to the fulfillment of your fantasies? Do you believe the women who refuse to oblige deprive you unjustly? Do you believe sex is yours? You do. You do.
It won’t be pretty or comfortable to change not only what heterosexual sex looks like but who gets to judge it and who is allowed to be angry in the morning. Who is allowed to stop excusing and forgiving and so who is no longer–endlessly, endlessly–forgiven and excused.