I find it interesting that while for most human interactions we leave room for growth, change, human misunderstandings, imperfection and fallibility, when it comes to sex, it is either completely “enthusiastic with ongoing consent” or rape. The flattening of a wide variety of human experience into this binary is dangerous, not solely because the conversation loses meaning and gravity, but because we cannot actually move from a rape culture to a nurturance culture if we cannot name with nuance and clarity the variety and range of sexual experiences one can have. If we cannot clearly name the unease we feel in reading grace’s account, we lose the opportunity to discuss how indeed ansari’s actions were still wrong, very common as a measure of pushing boundaries, *and how to address it in future and create a world where people of all genders stop doing that*. Naming everything as rape flattens the discussion, reduces complexity, and is an insistence on our part to read requests and harassment by men as commands in the bedroom not due to any force or threat….but just because they are men and are somehow wielding patriarchy in the bedroom.
Think of the dangers of this. We are implicitly saying then that only men have the power to rape. We are saying that women NEVER cross lines (which is not true – women do). Sometimes we twist this and say: “welll when women do it, they don’t have patriarchal power so…” So what. So. What. Are we saying that because women are not men, they cannot rape or sexually assault or cross boundaries? Are we so invested in a narrative of our own powerlessness that we believe we cannot and indeed, do not exert power over other people? Worse, are we not saying *negative perceptions* of masculine initiation is tantamount to rape? Think of the implications of this – do you know what cis men say about trans women? They say trans women raped them by trapping them by not disclosing their status. Do you know what white women have said for centuries about black men? That they are sexually threatening by *virtue of existing* – this was the basis for lynchings, for inscribing a violent patriarchy into a man rather than understanding that we – all of us – enact kyriarchal violence in complex ways.
Are we then slipping into the second wave feminist years? Are we then saying that every interaction with every man risks rape if the sexual encounter wasn’t 100% satisfying? Even if it was satisfying, clearly patriarchy still exists even though we enjoyed it and agreed to it so are we still saying all sex comes with a power differential ie: patriarchy and therefore all sex is Rape? Is this dworkin 2.0? Or are we even more absurdly saying that the power differential is somehow eliminated when we consent?
Why am I living in a world where if I say I am equal to a man in a bedroom, the first people to disagree with me are feminists? I anticipate their argument clearly: They would say I’ve internalized patriarchy and am lying to myself but I would argue I’ve resisted patriarchy and come out the other side where in personal encounters I am indeed equal and act from a place of complete ownership of my actions and demand that men do the same in owning theirs.
Agreeing to a sexual act because you feel threatened is not the same as agreeing to a sexual act because you’re uneasy with the request.
But look I get it: I wasn’t always able to do this. My journey took time. It took self compassion. It took a fine, fine balance of understanding my own agency and power in situations where I may have internalized the notion that I am helpless *when in fact I wasn’t*.
Because to be empowered means to have power , to act from a place of power, and to quote a tired cliche: with great power comes great responsibility.
And I am starting to really see that many feminists are not afraid of men. They are afraid of power. Not other people’s power! Their own. We have inculcated an idea in the left that a position of marginalization and lack of power confers moral superiority and defers responsibility to the self and to others – If to be empowered means to have responsibility, we have at points subconsciously or not, as a movement, chosen to not be empowered in order to avoid that responsibility to ourselves.
And if that hurts, it should. It’s normal to feel hurt by this not because it’s victim blaming but because it hurts to recognize and know that we can do better for ourselves and *haven’t yet*. It is our deepest selves crying out for more not from the world, but from ourselves. This is hard work. It is unfair work. And this is the real reason why misogyny and patriarchal violence is a question of power – because we have to do this work to be really and truly ok in this world.
Part of the unease and insistence that this was sexual assault on the part of many cisgender feminists I know and respect is that we never talk about the management of our own actions as women and how we have also internalized patriarchal standards of “giving in” to repeated harassment. I mean we talk about it as men pushing our boundaries and men needing to change, which I agree with. But we do not talk about “giving in” as something we have power over, have control over, and which can change through an understanding of what we owe ourselves. We speak of harassment only from a place of fear and never with a critical mindset to undo, in the practice of our every-day lives, the socialization we have endured our whole lives to put other people’s desire – especially men’s sexual desire- ahead of our own needs for comfort and safety. Undoing our socialization as women means that we let go of *our* tendencies to manage men’s feelings. Undoing this socialization means we don’t make empty demands that they respect our no – we do not “plead” with a no, or beg with a no; we *assert* our no just as they *assert* sexual initiation. It means when they do not respect our no, the consequence is NOT that we “give in”! It means we fundamentally see no reason to give in! The consequence is that they are left WITHOUT us emotionally and sexually managing their sexual needs, because we have a right to our boundaries!
Just as men must do the work of stepping back and critically reflecting on how they make us uncomfortable, we must do the work of deconstructing all the ways we learned to say yes without ever learning to really say no.
And then we must say no. We must act on a no. We do this not from a a place of sexual gatekeeping but from a place of highest and deepest responsibility to ourselves, our bodies, our personal sense of comfort and boundaries that no one else defines and for which we seek no external validation for.
Moments like these call on us to also ask ourselves how can we hold ourselves compassionately through choices we make that we would like to resist making in future? How does desirability factor into the compromises we make on boundaries? How important indeed are our own boundaries to us?
I refuse and reject wholeheartedly the sentiment that men are responsible for managing my feelings in the bedroom; I would give no one that power. If we are constantly telling men: “please, stop asking us to manage your feelings. Please we don’t want this work”, it is time we *acted* on that and STOPPED investing in this way in their needs. It is time we learned that the flip side of men demanding we nurture them is that we constantly seem to *acquiesce* and we constantly seem to say EVERY time we acquiesce it is because we are threatened and this is not true. This is a dangerous lie because we harm ourselves with this lie. We reify our position of relative powerlessness and cling to it as a moral high ground, when it is in fact a disempowering position.
Men are not responsible for managing my feelings in the bedroom, but they are however wholly responsible for their actions and this is why there is a difference between *acquiescing* to sexual activity after being harassed vs being coerced. Coercion requires force and threats as part of the equation of power. Rape and sexual assault requires sexual violation of a physical boundary, a body, not just verbal pestering.
In asking men to be more responsible in their initiation of sexual activity, we too must be more assertive about our terms of sexual engagement and stand in our own confidence and sense of self worth.