Sexual Coercion is Part of a Larger Culture of Coercion
One of my biggest fears, when talking about sexual coercion that has happened to me, is that other people will not take me seriously. They will tell me I’m making a big deal out of nothing, and that I should just shrug it off.
Just grow up, and deal with it.
When I did start talking about my experiences, honestly, I was surprised at how few people told me that — but, a few did. One experience, in particular, was the subject of debate and several people told me I was a special snowflake who should just get over myself.
There are two major sexually coercive experiences that have marked my life. The most recent one was when a longtime friend put his fingers in my vagina after I accidentally got very drunk. Nearly everyone agreed this was a sexual violation, and people were very supportive of me. The fact that I was intoxicated and that I physically resisted as best I could given my state of intoxication made this a more clear cut case of “sexual assault” in the eyes of other people.
However, emotionally to me, this experience felt very similar to another more “ambiguous” experience, an experience I now consider “date rape” or “partner rape.” What happened in this one, was that my boyfriend repeatedly asked me to have sex with him. I said no, over and over, but he would not listen. At some point, I became exhausted and stopped saying no. We had sex, and it was one of the most painful sexual encounters of my life. When trying to figure out what had happened, I became hyper focused on whether I’d said yes or not. I couldn’t remember, but I believed that if I had said “yes”, then it wasn’t rape because I’d given my consent. However if I’d simply stopped saying “no” and retreated into silence then it was rape. Other people seemed to agree with me on this point; it was ambiguous, and this one got some of the special snowflake comments.
Oh you feminists, you whine over every little thing. Which, to be honest, was something I was already thinking; I was making a big deal over nothing.
However, when I flipped the question to be “how could I have not had sex with my boyfriend that night?” my entire perspective on the situation changed. I do not believe there was any way for me to get out a sexual encounter, except with other high risk gambits. For instance, maybe I could have left, but the subway was closed and Uber wasn’t a thing yet. Where could I have gone? I would have just had to wonder around the city until daybreak (in retrospect, this is the choice I wish I’d taken, but I understand why I didn’t.) I could have physically confronted my boyfriend, but even if we dismiss my reluctance to punch someone I loved in the face, the dude had 80 pounds on me. I could have kept saying no, but I had said no repeatedly for a very long time and it was not having an effect. (I should note this man went on to stalk me for many years, and has a level of persistence I have never witnessed in another human being before.)
When I saw that there was no safe way for me to reject sex in the situation I was in, that’s when my perspective changed. If there was no way to say no, consent cannot be given, and that’s why I believe I was raped that night.
The way I tumbled this whole thing was actually in an argument with my current boyfriend. He did something I perceived as slightly passive aggressive, and I had a very big reaction to it. A large enough reaction to buy this book, Living with the Passive Aggressive Man. It actually didn’t shed too much light on my current relationship, but it shed a lot of light on my previous experiences — especially my rape.
One notable thing that about my ex was he never displayed any anger. The night he raped me, he seemed to be in good spirits, buoyantly asking me repeatedly if I would have sex with him. No matter what I said, and no matter how annoyed I got, his tone would not change. After reading The Passive Aggressive Man, I actually see that this is kind of weird. Who manages to stay cheery and upbeat when their girlfriend is yelling at them? I don’t know what he was really feeling, but I’d guess that there must have at least been some annoyance at me for rejecting him. However, he hid any sort of emotional response to my anger, and this is part of the genius of passive aggression: you give your opponent nothing to hold on to.
If anything, *I* looked like the crazy one. I was getting angry with someone who just seemed to be playful. (Come on! It’ll be fun, come on! Come on!) And yet, despite his cheery exterior, he was setting up conditions that would render me unable to refuse to have sex with him. Because the thing is, his constant questioning, his refusal to acknowledge or in any way respond to my emotional state, was actively causing me pain. How much pain? Well, enough pain that I think of the four options I see I had — endure his questioning and keep saying no, punch him in the face, consent to sex, and walk about the city until daybreak — I now believe walking around the city until daybreak would have been the safest and least painful option.
What he was doing, was to try to put me in enough pain that I would bend to his will. And, he knew he was putting me in pain because of how I responding: I was getting angry with him, and I was asking him to stop.
Yet, he was relying on a cultural bias that we have, where we believe the emotional pain we cause people doesn’t count as real pain. After the fact, when I tried to evaluate what had happened — did I feel threatened? Was he shouting at me? Was I worried he’d use physical violence on me? — I kept coming up with nothing. What escaped my notice, was that his persistent questioning itself was painful, and I stopped refusing to have sex with him to escape this emotional pain.
And, I think other people struggle with recognizing this because they are also regularly manipulated by emotional pain. I remember talking with my zen teacher once, and she said to me that sometimes it’s hard for people to acknowledge our pain because they haven’t fully acknowledged theirs. And, I think that’s what’s happening. If you don’t accept that my ex’s persistent questioning was painful for me, then the whole thing falls apart. However, if you replace emotional pain with physical pain — if, for instance, he was slapping me in the face until I consented — then it the entire situation becomes pretty un-ambiguous.
The thing is, much of our culture is based on coercing people into doing things they don’t want to do by causing them pain. We force people to bend to our will by making them suffer for not listening to us, and people with more power basically just have more means of causing disobedient people pain. Back in the day, we’d accomplish this through more direct force — like physical fighting, wars, and corporal punishment. We still do that sometimes, but as we become more “civilized” our methods of causing other people pain become more subtle — such as economic disenfranchisement, or emotional manipulation. However, the fundamental system remains the same; it is considered socially acceptable to get people to do what you want them to do by punishing them when they don’t.
For example, giving your husband the silent treatment is seen as more socially acceptable than, say, shouting at him or getting physically violent with him. However, giving someone the silent treatment is actually very painful:
The silent treatment, even if it’s brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies.
When you try to get someone to do what you want them to do by giving them the silent treatment, what you’re really trying to do is put someone in enough pain that they bend to your will. I mean, I think most people don’t think of it this way — I’m certainly guilty of giving people the silent treatment myself, and I didn’t consciously perceive what I was doing — but when you see this, how is it any better than trying to manipulate someone with vocal anger or physical punishment? All work on the same principle: punish someone by putting them in pain until they do what you want.
Yet, we don’t count emotional pain in our society, so these kind of manipulations typically go unnoticed.
I should point out, sometimes when setting boundaries with people, we do have to cause them pain. However, I’m not convinced that emotional pain is more ethical than physical pain. For instance, I actually think I would have been ethically justified in punching my rapist in the face — but, most of society would have said that to respond to verbal harassment with physical assault is unjustified. However, if he was punching me I would have been seen as within my rights to punch him back. Yet, this differentiation is what part of what allowed me to get raped in the first place; I couldn’t identify his manipulation because my emotional pain was denied the same legitimacy as physical pain. But, the pain was severe enough to cause me to consent to sex that I didn’t want.
Anyway, for some reason, we’ve started to pull this apart with respect to sexual assault. We’ve started to acknowledge that people can be manipulated into sexual behavior that they don’t want via non-physical means of coercion. However, we haven’t begun to acknowledge other areas of society that people are facing coercion, or that the major method we use to change other people’s behavior is punishment. I view “liberal call out culture” to be a major propagator of this. We try to curb problematic behavior by shaming and humiliating people to get power over them, but we may as well use cattle prods. The only reason people comply is they’re afraid of the pain associated with being humiliated, not because they have a deep understanding of what they did wrong.
And, like, sometimes that’s important. I would happily taze someone in the nuts if it meant I didn’t have to get raped again. However, every time we do this, we deepen the legitimacy of a coercive culture. We create “acceptable” methods of causing people pain, and “unacceptable” methods then act like there’s some ethical difference between them. I don’t think there is.
In a situation where you believe someone doesn’t deserve physical pain, I also believe that person doesn’t deserve emotional pain. If you wouldn’t punch someone in the face over something, I think you shouldn’t twitter shame them over it either.
We need a new system. We need a new way of interacting with each other that involves making requests without the element of coercion.
Our culture is an evolved form of colonialism where controlling and exploiting people is at the base of societal interaction. Over time, we’ve just created more subtle ways of controlling people that can escape social criticism. We find it reasonable that poor people should have to take exploitative jobs because they are otherwise denied the means of life. We find it reasonable to try to curb other people’s behavior by calling them “deplorable” or “ignorant.” We find it reasonable to mock young men who don’t get laid rather than helping them build the skills to engage with people in a productive way.
And we do all this to try to force people to do what we want. I’m a strong feminist, but I am deeply against memes like this:
I view memes like this to be a way of shaming men for their social needs, and socially ostracizing them until they mindlessly conform to the feminist agenda. But, this legitimizes the system of emotional manipulation. This legitimizes causing people pain to force them to do what you want. And, I also believe this is why there is a massive MRA backlash right now.
As (some) feminists try to impose their will via various forms of emotional manipulation, (some) men try to impose their will via different forms of force. Force is generally met with force, and punishment met with counter-punishment, which is why we so often end up with a “backlash” against socially progressive movements. People resent being coerced into doing things when they don’t understand how their previous behaviors were damaging.
We need to develop other methods of social change. We need to start asking for cooperation without demanding it. This is what I aspire to do with my current boyfriend; when something hurts me, I try to explain what is hurting and why, and he generally responds by trying to modify his behavior. Not because he “has” to, but because he cares about me and doesn’t want to cause me pain. I hope that anyone who has read this far will be careful when pressuring other people for sex, not because they “have” to be, but because they don’t want to hurt anyone. Frankly, I don’t think even my ex wanted to hurt me, I think he just didn’t think the pain he was putting me in “counted” because it was emotional and not physical in nature.
Yes, there are some mean and sadistic people out there, but I don’t think most people are mean or sadistic. I think most people haven’t learned how to request what they need in ways that don’t involve coercion. When you start looking for coercion, you see it everywhere, everywhere, in our society. So, of course people have trouble identifying sexual coercion; it looks so similar to other forms of coercion that they think is acceptable.
But, I believe all forms of coercion are damaging. I hope our current focus on sexual transgressions will build more empathy for sexual coercion, but I also hope it will begin to shine a light on other forms of coercion as well.