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Sex can be entirely legal and also really bad

I really liked Rebecca Traister’s piece on bad consensual sex in this week’s New York mag. Maya wrote earlier this week about the article, which quotes her, Reina, and me. But the big takeaway is Traister’s call for an affirmative vision of female sexual pleasure that challenges the broad scope of inequality built into young women’s sex lives, rather than just violence. Part of that paradigm shift would involve treating consent as a basic requirement rather than our ultimate ambition. As Maya says at the end of the article, “God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”

I found it interesting that a lot of male commenters, both on Twitter and a Digg Dialogue (which I did not know was a thing) misunderstood the article as a call to punish men who have sex with women who “only” consent. “The bottom line is that if you consent at a point in time, it has to be enough,” one wrote. Another complained, “This is getting out of hand… Are we going to need a trigger-warning type culture for every sexual encounter these days? The people who sounded the alarm on campus sex policing looked crazy at the beginning but maybe they were right.”

They probably stopped at the headline. Traister very clearly calls for a cultural, not punitive, response to bad consexual sex. Still, it’s telling that so many people automatically conflated “bad” sex with “punishable” sex. The commenters just assume legal sex is fine because it’s legal; then they hear a women critiquing a form of sex and assume she wants to formally prohibit it. In doing so, the commenters prove Traister’s point that we have so little space and language to discuss unequal, unpleasurable sex that is entirely legal. “If you agreed to have sex and didn’t like it or what you did, as long as anything illegal didn’t go down, you’re kind of on your own,” wrote one. Legal sex, he writes, is a “personal” rather than “societal” problem, as though society’s only tool of condemnation is criminalization.

But, of course, people criticize — and encourage others to criticize — all kinds of behaviors and beliefs that break no laws. Among those is sexism, which isn’t on its own illegal. Only a narrow band of misogyny’s specially prohibited manifestations may be (and still, then, rarely are) prohibited by law. Not inviting Jane to your party because you think she’s a slut or bossy or a prude (or whatever other sexist stereotype you like) isn’t illegal– but it is deplorable. If you sleep with Jane, checking off the “affirmative consent” box but then prioritizing your sexual needs over hers such that she, as a human being, disappears from the bed altogether, you act unethically even though you’re legally in the clear (assuming you’re both of age, you’re not her professor, etc.).

It’s easy to dismiss Traister’s all-legal-sex-is-good-sex commenters as disgruntled MRAs. But the parallel between the response to Traister’s piece and the piece itself warns against that comforting conclusion. How many people, most of them men, believe they have no responsibility to their sexual partners beyond what the law requires? How many of us have tolerated disrespectful or cruel or just plain bad sex because it wasn’t rape?

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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