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

When 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


Angi Becker Stevens is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in many print and online literary magazines, in addition to being anthologized in Best of the Web 2010 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared online RH Reality Check, AlterNet, Common Dreams, and Socialist Worker. As a member of The Organization for a Free Society, she participates in a variety of activist work for social justice.