sex? yes. ok.

Rape culture is a contract we never actually signed

Rape culture is a contract we never actually signed. It’s a contract that says Hey, sure, you can totally say and do anything you want to my body — you deserve it! The contract is signed for us before we are born, and it’s waved in our faces throughout our lives. 

There are a lot of bylaws in this contract. Like Section I, Article 3: Do I Look Fat in This? Or Section VIII, Article 7: Your Biological Clock is Ticking and You Need To Get Knocked Up. Or Section I, Article 9: Come On, Get My Dick Wet.

There are lots of other sections in this contract. A lot of them have to do with sex. Here’s how some of these bylaws play out.

Scenario 1:

Me: Hey bro, can you maybe slow down a little bit?

Sexual Partner: Um yeah no. Section III, Article 9: Bitch, I Don’t Have to Listen to You During Sex.

Scenario 2:

Random Person on the Street: Baby, I’d love to feel those hands on me.

Me: Maybe can you not?

Random Person on the Street: LOL no. Section IX, Article 2: Honey You Look Good in That Dress.

Scenario Three:

Dude On Dance Floor: [Grabs boob]

Me: Nope! [Deflects hand]

Dude On Dance Floor: Sorry lady, Section XXIV, Article 7: If You’re Dancing With Those Titties, I May Just Have to Grab.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because recently, I had sex with a man I heard afterward is a rapist.

Rumors are hard to pin down. Rumors are not things upon which to build Title IX cases, or court cases; rumors are not things on which to publish news. But there is information we do not get in the news, that we do not file under Title IX, that only come back to us as stories at parties, through friends of friends, of someone else’s “bad night.” It’s shitty, because gossip can be incorrect, and can hurt people, and can also make the people who had the experience being gossiped about feel really fucking vulnerable. But if we are women, if we are queer, rumors are often the best we have to keep ourselves safe.

I was sitting with my friend, drunkish, on the green quad lawn when she asked me about the night before. I uttered his name. She made a face and I knew it was bad. She had heard, she said, rumors. For years. Times he did not take no for an answer. Times he finished regardless. Things he said. (“I would have told you that about him,” said another friend, later, when I asked her. “Everyone knows.”)

As you can probably imagine, I felt a lot of feels.

But through the disgust, and the weird sense of guilt, and the retrospective fear, something clicked: A feeling I’d had through the sexual encounter, a feeling that wasn’t — but that related to — rape.

There are a couple aspects of this experience I want to tease apart to think about consent. About how messed up it is sometimes to fuck under that rape culture contract signed for us before we are born, and what a different kind of sex might look like.

Sometimes there’s a moment when I’m having sex that I think a lot of us have felt. I feel it with particular frequency with straight, cis dudes, but we can feel this across all kinds of gender and sexuality experiences. It’s the fear that, if I asked the person to stop, they wouldn’t.

I don’t mean when we say stop and someone keeps going, or uses threats, or pressures us. I mean another, subtler feeling. It’s not necessarily wanting to say no. It’s the fear that, if we were to say no, we wouldn’t be heard.

Sometimes, I test this feeling: Slow down. Stop. Not so fast. And mostly, people listen.

But sometimes, when I feel this feeling most strongly, I don’t test it, because I don’t want to know the answer.

That’s what happened the other day, with the dude about whom I later heard the rumors.

“I just hadn’t been with someone for so long who cared so little about me as a human,” I texted a friend immediately after the encounter. “Just feeling like a rag doll, like I might as well have been inanimate. Knowing that if it weren’t the kind of sex I wanted I probably wouldn’t have been able to opt out. You ever feel like the difference between getting assaulted and not getting assaulted is just whether you decide to want it?”

“He wasn’t very — present” said another friend of mine who also slept with the same dude, when I texted her about it, too. (She hadn’t heard the rumors.)

I don’t think that if a sexual experience is not affirmatively consensual, it is definitionally assault. I have had experiences that have not felt consensual in a deep way, but that also did not feel like assault. We live constantly under the violence of patriarchy; a lot of our daily micro-interactions are coercive. These undertones of coercion don’t just disappear when we get into the bedroom (or the living room, or the car). And they create a lot of experiences that are hard to find language for. 

We need more ways of thinking about what it means to survive in a culture that is structured around an agreement we never made.

This is where what my friend said about presence made a lot of sense.

It made me think of consent, of deep consent, of affirmative consent, as a question of showing up. That is: Not all sex needs to be some kind of soulful, look-each-other-in-the-eyes, make-sweet-love, emotional-intellectual experience. Sometimes you wanna be fucked vigorously by a dude you don’t know. Okay, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want that. And that’s fine. With one caveat: Affirmatively consensual sex requires all participants to be present.

Okay, duh. It’s hard to fuck if you’re not, like, physically there. Or at least behind the webcam. But I mean this on a deeper level. I mean, what was so weird about that sexual encounter — what made something click in my head, in my heart, when I heard that he had raped — is the way it felt like he didn’t need me to be there. He didn’t need me to have a head. He didn’t need me to have a heart. He didn’t seem to even need me to be awake.

He didn’t need me moaning, he didn’t need me drawing his hand toward my clit, he didn’t need me saying more or there or harder, he didn’t need me saying sure, turn me over or great, do that with my legs or yes! I’d love to feel your entire weight on my neck and shoulders!

He didn’t need any of that. He didn’t want any of that. He didn’t ask for any of that.

A lot of sex feels like this. Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, where we’re even into it, but where we fear — some little voice in us fears — that if we did say no, if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count.

This feeling isn’t necessarily assault, but it is certainly on a continuum with it.

And that’s fucked, right?

Because if we live under patriarchy — if we live under this contract we didn’t agree to in the first place, the terms of which are our own flesh — sex should be another kind of agreement. We should agree, for the period of time we are together, and for whatever our dealings are afterward, to exist with each other. For it to matter that the other person has a head, and a heart, and feelings. When we commit to having sex with another person, we also commit to their personhood.

Affirmative consent is not a contract, but a verb. It is something that we write and make and remake and sign and unsign and resign together. It is always in flux. It is, fundamentally, an agreement to show up. I imagine what these bylaws might be:

Section XII, Article 3: If This Doesn’t Feel Amazing, We Can Try Something Else.

Or Section III, Article 8: You’re, Like, Absurdly Beautiful and Good at Math. Can We Have Sex?

Or how about Section IX, Article 9: Hey, This Is Awesome! I Care That You’re Here With Me, You’re Hilarious, and Now, If You’re Into It, I Will Proceed to Give You a Mind-Blowing Orgasm.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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