Beyond Consent: Opening Up a Dialogue About the Reality of Women’s Sexual Experiences

Slutwalk London 2011 - 23When reading and writing about what was arguably a rape scene in this season of Girls, I’ve been struck by how many of the comments from readers fixate on the debate over what does and what does not qualify as consent. This is a debate worth having, and I stand by my use of the word “rape” in this particular instance. But it seems to me that this debate often lacks nuance and that it’s stark black-and-white divide between rape and all other sex fails to fully account for the often painful reality of women’s sexual experience.

It matters a great deal that we recognize a more expansive definition of rape, and that we realize rape does not always include physical force or brutal violence. In both a legal and a social sense, we absolutely must be aware that rape includes any scenario in which a person does not, or is unable to, give consent–no matter how minimal the physical struggle, regardless of whether they acted flirtatiously or consented in the past, or any of the myriad other things that are used to excuse acts of sexual violence.

But even with that expansive definition, there is a lot of problematic, often dehumanizing or traumatic sex that still does not meet the technical qualification of rape. Women consent because they feel like they have to, because they are pressured, because they are afraid or embarrassed to say “no.” And all too often we find ourselves in situations which we feel we cannot reasonably label as “rape” yet nonetheless leave us feeling as though something terribly wrong has happened. I think we need to open up a dialogue about these situations without relying only on a dichotomy which says: Either you did not consent and it was rape, or you did consent and you have nothing to be upset about.

Part of this conversation is about the behavior of individual men. A conscientious and respectful sexual partner should not view a reluctantly given “yes” as free license to behave however he wishes. If a woman says “OK” yet continues to be clearly uncomfortable and distressed, then perhaps we can’t officially go so far as to label her partner a rapist–but I am certainly willing to say that, from an ethical if not a legal perspective, he is doing something wrong. And our conversations with men about sex and consent should not only be about what can or cannot land you in jail. They should be conversations about respecting women as human beings.

I’ve heard quite a few men claim that getting active consent for “every little thing” is unrealistic and completely ruins the mood. But it shouldn’t be absurd to expect that someone would check in every now and again if his or her partner seems at all uncomfortable, or if they’re about to try something new. The occasional “Is this OK?,” “Do you like this?,” or “Does this feel good?” can quite easily be a natural (and sexy!) part of intimacy–hardly the equivalent of pausing sex to fill out paperwork and sign waivers.

We also need to question what it means to live in a world where, for women especially, sexual experiences that are “not exactly rape, but still uncomfortable/violating/traumatic” are commonplace. Living in a rape culture means that women’s bodies are viewed as objects that exist for the use of men. This dehumanizing of women, of course, breeds rape. But it also perpetuates sexual dynamics in which women’s autonomy and desires are ignored, even in situations that are by all legal standards “consensual.” The acts we are confident in labeling as “rape” and those uncomfortable sexual encounters we place in the “not quite rape” category are not two wholly separate issues: They are different places on the same spectrum, and both are the result of living in a patriarchal, misogynist society. There may be a firm dividing line between them in a court of law, but that line is not quite so clear when it comes to how these experiences impact and circumscribe our lives and our sexualities.

Finally, this conversation needs to be about validating the trauma and pain that women sometimes feel after sexual experiences that are technically not rape. Too often, even those who would take seriously the voices and experiences of rape survivors do not extend that same empathy to women who are deeply shaken by sex that they agreed to have. Too often, women feel hurt and violated by sexual encounters but do not know how to speak about them. But we can’t hope to change a culture where so many of women’s sexual experiences feel demeaning unless we are able to speak openly. Subtly sending the message that women have no right to complain about any sex they consented to does nothing to help women who are feeling humiliated, hurt or confused by a consensual encounter.

Rape culture is about far more than just rape. The attitudes and views this culture perpetuates impact our lives and our experiences of sexual intimacy in a multitude of ways. And as long as we can only talk about those experiences that “qualify” legally as rape, we are only having part of the conversation.

Photo taken at Slutwalk London in 2011 by Flickr user garryknight under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Excellent article and one that has been needed for a long time. It’s important to be able to talk about such experiences without the fear that you be accused of labelling your partner a rapist. I’m sure many women and men will greet this with a sense of relief.

  2. I absolutely agree.

  3. A very good idea!

  4. Excellent article, and I couldn’t agree more that rape is a topic that needs to be discussed frequently in the arena of public opinion. I confess I haven’t seen any of the GIRLS programs, and I am now very curious. Could someone give me the details on the day, time, and channel the GIRLS program is aired on? Obviously, I can’t comment on a program’s contents until I’ve seen it, so I’d love to have the chance. 🙂

  5. BRAVO.

  6. Thank you for letting me know I am not an island.

  7. Excellent article.

    • Forgot to add that I don’t think the photo is necessarily the best one to use for this particular article.

  8. AMEN.

  9. Interesting article, yet I feel at discomfort, maybe not discomfort but just wondering, about why this issue should be discussed only from the women point of view.
    Men can also be pressured to have sex, the experience is probably very different than for a woman, but the issue is the same: a form of peer pressure, dictated by society, the media, etc… not necessarily criminal but still wrong, in a way.
    I’m wondering if it isn’t a mistake to make this talk exclusively about women. For 2 reasons.
    For one, I think it could maybe make the issue more universal and help the cause to not make it gender specific.
    Secondly, women should not only be portrayed as victims, but also as part of the problem: I know a lot of women who are very sexist and participate in maintaining this patriarchal and misogynist society.
    Good article, though.

    • Hi Oliver. I think you make some good points. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the writer of a specific article, as in this case, choosing to address the issue of traumatic consensual sex primarily from a female (or male) perspective. But collectively, I agree that it is very, very deeply important to help men feel that they also are allowed to talk openly about sexual experiences they’ve had that are uncomfortable, traumatic, or in any way negative, and that having those feelings doesn’t mean that they aren’t “real men”.

      I have known men who have been pressured into sexual experiences they didn’t want to have, and were — as anyone rightly would be — traumatized by them. In every case, the man involved expressed the feeling that he wasn’t allowed to talk about the experience openly, because he felt his feelings would be written off because he isn’t female. That is hugely wrong, and frankly heartbreaking. No one, regardless of sex or gender, should ever feel like they can’t say no to a sexual experience. Consent is a universal right.

      To your last point, while women are statistically more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men, I do agree that passive sexism (e.g. assuming that men think of nothing but sex, or that women can’t control their emotions) is something both sexes tend to be guilty of all too often — and that perpetuates the patriarchy and its issues for everyone, men and women alike. It bothers me deeply when I hear certain of my female friends talk about how “men are all like that”. I have known and cared for far too many men to think they all fit neatly in one box, and it upsets me just as much to hear them say that as when I hear someone imply that all women are the same. We are all individuals, and we all deserve to be respected as human beings, not treated as stereotypes.

      So, yeah, I just wanted you to hear an affirming voice, for whatever it’s worth. I think you’re absolutely right that more articles need to be written, and discussions had, about men’s experiences with being pressured into sex. That is an equally important part of breaking down rape culture and making life better (and safer) for everyone.

      • Thanks Sarah.
        That’s the thing, as long as the culture of “if you’re a man and you’re not getting laid you’re a **ssy” exists, sexual violence will never end.
        I’m not a “bigot”, I’m all in favor of casual sexual encounters, but only if you choose it and if it’s fun for you and your partner(s).
        And yes, the media has a lot to do with it. That’s the tough part…

  10. I’m really impressed with your article. Thank you for writing this.

  11. It is very good idea and i totally agree with you.

  12. Excellent article, I totally agree. Rape and sex are horribly entangled in our culture. They are entangled by romantic scenes in movies where the man and the woman are fighting one minute and then having rough sex the next. Sex that is not quite consensual is often portrayed as hot and appealing in the media. Pornography also plays a role in blurring the gray area between sex and rape.

    I also agree with the comment that said we should discuss the issue from a male point of view too. I definitely think men often feel silenced when they consent to sex but feel disturbed by it after. But it’s different for men because in rape culture, males are expected to be the aggressor.

  13. This is a great article. Women are condemned too often for being sexually active. I think one part of that regret comes from the fear of being labeled as a slut. It even comes from the complete opposite. Women feel pressure to please a guy they think is popular or they feel that by having sex they’ll gain social acceptance. What needs to be taught is that everyone is comfortable having sex at different points in their life and that is not for anyone to judge. As long as you are happy healthy and prepared to have sex, it should be a positive expirience

  14. Its the same from a mans stand point. They’re rushing into sex alot of the time to fulfill that idea of manhood

  15. There is another range of nuances as regards rape which I feel is too often overlooked (or only considered law-wise), probably because the term “woman” or “man” is too broad. One qualifies as “a woman” (or “man”) from as early as 18 up until one’s death. A young woman of 18 who has been in her new body for little more than 3 years, has very little mileage in adult negociation, has very little experience sex-wise, and whose behavioural references are an awful mush of conflicting media stereotypes and tacit cultural norms, is clearly not the same person she will be when she is 40, when she has infinitely more tools to know what feels uncomfortable, what can be traumatizing, and also more self-awareness as regards consent (as in being able to answer the question “do I want this” with a yes or a no, which seems obvious to some, but which is really not that simple when you are learning about sex, about people, about being an adult, at the same time you have to answer it).

    After all, rape, even when no physical violence or coercion is involved, is about someone forcing one’s will onto someone else’s body — and the younger one is, the more traumatising it may be. Sex does not even have to be involved for this to hold: it would probably be almost as traumatising to be force-fed oysters or pushed off a bridge with a bungee tied to your ankles — and much more traumatising when you are just out of high-school and have never skydived or have not learnt to appreciate sea-food.

    I hope I am not being insulting, but I feel that the spectrum of shades of rape should more often include some consideration of the age/experience of the victim (be they boy or girl), and that many acts that are “not exactly rape” for a (really) grown-up are in fact exactly rape for a teenager or a young adult.

    • this is such a good point. when i was fifteen, i experienced my first sexual assault. it was very traumatizing though the physical violation was not that extreme. i had trouble coming to terms with it due to the fact that i wasn’t “raped” and didn’t come to see it that way until i was a freshman in college. i realized that because it was my first experience with anything sexual, it was all the more powerful because of my age and situation. if we didn’t shame people so much for technicalities, and took into account other specific factors in their lives (such as age, personal gender/sexuality identification, race, and other things that can effect people’s sense of self in society and relationships) then i believe coping and moving on could be a much smoother process. also, perpetrators would understand that they don’t have to insert themselves into another person forcibly in order to cause lasting damage.

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!