It’s not a secret code word.
Somewhere in Cambodia, a few years back, I’m sitting in a hotel room with some fellow Peace Corps volunteers. They are all women, and all several years younger than I am. They are recounting the sexual escapades of their college years, and I am listening with deep fascination. Where did they learn to be confident in their desire? How did they find the courage to ask their partners for what they wanted in bed? I grew up in a particularly conservative bubble of evangelical Christianity, where female sexuality was something to be smothered and unacknowledged. Put that away, young lady, nobody wants to see that.
Somewhere in America, in another time and place, I am talking with a man. He is telling me about his sweet young high school girlfriend, how as a 17-year-old with a 17-year-old’s libido, he had wheedled and nudged her into eventually sleeping with him. Lots of girls do that. They say no at first, but then they enjoy themselves because deep down they really want it.
He will not contend with the idea that perhaps she did not want it. That maybe she eventually gave in not to serve her own desire, but his. This would grate against his image of himself — a good guy who respects women. A generous lover who treats a lady right. The kind of guy who doesn’t need to coerce a woman into sex because he’s confident and charming and, honestly, fine as hell, so who wouldn’t want to sleep with him?
I wonder how, or if, I should tell him about what it feels like to have a reluctant orgasm. The pleasure you didn’t mean to experience, that weighs heavy in your bones, the wrongness of it echoing in your chest. I think about the feeling of having a man on top of you, enjoying himself, believing that you’re having just as much fun as he is because it’s the truth he wants. I think about the way your mind drifts away from your body, and how your body ceases to feel like yours while he is in it.
I don’t tell him any of this. I tell him that women throughout history have been handed the burden of male desire. Our purpose is to serve as vessels for male pleasure. The Handmaid’s Tale, I tell him, is only partly fictional. The last few decades of female sexual empowerment have not been enough to erase centuries of programming. So few of us are able to say no without guilt, without the urge to apologize and make excuses. We can’t let them feel undesired. We must have another, neutral reason. The famous headache, perhaps. I’m on my period. I’m not feeling great. I’m really tired, babe. Sometimes those reasons aren’t quite enough. Okay, how about a blow job then? I really need this. Just a quickie. You don’t have to do anything, you can just lie there. There is no glowing EXIT sign in these moments. Only degrees of loss. How much of ourselves can we give away and still have anything left? We let the rough friction of male desire chafe away our resistance, our sharp edges worn down to nothing.
We cannot simply say I don’t want to. That is not an option. That would make them feel unwanted, and that would never do. Men, he tells me, always want it. Why wouldn’t a woman always want it? If she won’t give it to him, he’ll just have to get it elsewhere. All that sexual energy needs a release, after all.
Can I make him understand that feeling of being invaded, of having another person inside your body, when your body is not yours for a little while? That perhaps, sometimes, we might need our body to be solely ours?
He doesn’t believe me. He brims with a different kind of historical programming, that mixture of confidence and entitlement that all children have, and that in boys, society has not seen fit to whittle away at.
I suggest that perhaps he should actually listen to women when they say no, and not continue to push it. He claims that if he did that, he wouldn’t have nearly as much sex, as if that would be the worst possible outcome. I tell him that horniness is not a medical condition and that it is not our responsibility to alleviate it. He argues. I don’t know what it’s like, so how can I say that? It’s part of our evolutionary biology, he tells me. Since the first protozoan wiggled a come-hither flagellum at another protozoan, the prime directive of male beings has been copulation. Go forth and multiply. All the feminist ideology in the world can’t stand against the instinct to mate, and women can fight it, or just go with it.
Just go with it. How many times have I taken this particular path of least resistance? How many times has a man decided that his access to my body was more important than my ownership of it? How many times have I been laid down on a bed, or a sofa, or in the back of a car, and let someone else take his pleasure of me while I gritted my teeth and tried not to feel it? How many times have I, because I cared for this person, pretended to enjoy it so he wouldn’t be upset? How often have I carried the burden of his pleasure without handing him mine?
Rape feels like too strong a word here. We need a different word for this. No one has ever pulled me into a dark alley or shoved me down or covered my mouth to silence a scream or slipped something into my drink. The word rape feels like swift violence, like bruises and a hand at my throat. This is different. This is something that one man could not create in me. This is something our culture created. We tell women that they are responsible to coddle and satisfy men. We tell men that they can expect such treatment. Advertisers spread wet-eyed, open-mouthed women across billboards and screens. Cameras linger on breasts cradled in a tight top and pan down over waist and hips. Pornography looks at every part of a woman but her eyes. If a boy first hears the sounds of pleasure from a woman in a porn film, how will he know what we really sound like?
We’ve all been fed a false narrative. Women have begun to resist. We begin to say no. We don’t make excuses. We don’t have to sleep with you.
Some men are listening, and some don’t want to hear it. After all, if they listened, they might have less sex, and then where would we be?
A more equitable sexual understanding could lead to less sex. As a woman, I’m okay with that. I wish that more men would be too.