Whose Pain Counts?
Many years ago, I had sex with a man when I didn’t want to. I said no a thousand times, then said yes once, so I consented. It’s not rape.
At least, I think I said yes. It was so long ago I’m not even sure at this point. But, I must have, I told my therapist. I’m sure I did.
Who are you trying to convince? she asked me.
Every time I call him a rapist, in my head, I hear the voice of a thousand men protesting. But you said yes! You’re a hypocrite! You consented, so it’s your own fault.
My own fault. I said yes so it’s my own fault.
At least, I think I said yes. I don’t actually remember saying yes. But, I must have, right?
Let’s assume I said yes.
Why does one little yes undo a thousand nos? End of the day, he knew I didn’t want to have sex with him. Because I said no. Repeatedly. Over and over. So, why did he keep asking? And, why did I “say yes?”
Because, in that moment, I believed the pain he would experience if he did not get sexual release was more important than the pain I would experience by having sex I didn’t want. Because he kept asking me. Why would he keep asking me if he wasn’t going to feel a lot of pain?
I was wrong though. That sexual encounter has haunted me for years. I can’t imagine having to jack off would have caused him anything more than a night of irritation.
Have your heard about this thing? 1/3 men would “rape” a woman if they don’t call it rape? Basically, many men admit they would coerce a woman into having sex if you describe the coercive act rather than calling it rape. People got upset about that statistic though. They said it was exaggerated. This guy says that we shouldn’t call coercive sex rape, because the women who experience it themselves don’t call it rape.
Women like me!
I wasn’t raped, because I said yes once — maybe — and that one maybe yes (or, perhaps I just stopped saying no, but isn’t stopping saying no as good as a yes?) that one yes/moment of silence counted more than all my previous nos. How many nos would have been enough to actually say no?
I’m not sure.
But anyway, let’s not call it rape. Let’s instead, call sexual coercion “a thing people do that hurts women a lot.” Would a lot of men be willing to to a thing that hurts women a lot (if they could get away with it) for their own sexual gratification? Sure sounds like it.
I tell you why I believe that 1/3 statistic. I believe it because it sounds about right to me. I’d say, of the men I had sex with, about one in three men was so unconcerned with my sexual pleasure that they would have done something that hurt me to get themselves off. And, it was rarely malicious. It was more numb. It’s more like, the men I was with hadn’t even imagined that I could feel pain in a sexually coercive situation.
We talk about “rape culture” and this, to me, is the heart of rape culture. Women are conditioned to be very aware of the pain men will feel if they are left sexually dissatisfied, but men are not conditioned to be aware of the pain women may feel around sex. It’s so saturated in culture that we use it in other situations. For example, little signs like this are left around college campuses as a fun way to remind people to turn off the lights:
However, the secondary message there is not being able to get off is a very painful thing for a man to go through. Women see these signs. Women get these messages too. And, ok, maybe there’s some merit to that. It’s not fun being left turned on, I agree.
However, there is no equivalent messaging for women. First of all, it seems culturally acceptable not to get women off — apparently 40% of women don’t get off during one night stands (but, most men do.) Researchers attribute this to “practice and men caring more about the satisfaction of women they are dating than women they ‘hook-up’ with.” Which is another way of saying, leaving a woman sexually dissatisfied is not culturally taboo. I couldn’t find the statistics on it, but I’m pretty sure most men do orgasm during one night stands.
As a bisexual woman, I can attest that I feel guilty when I have a sexual encounter and the man doesn’t get off in a way I don’t with a woman. We perceive women as “more difficult” to bring to orgasm, so that’s part of it, but we also just culturally have this belief that women are “less sexual” than men so we assume getting a woman turned on and leaving her won’t cause her pain. However, what I think this is really about is performance anxiety. I have some sympathy, cuz I get worse performance anxiety with women than men, but I think a lot of men emotionally numb out and disconnect from women’s feelings of pleasure because they’re worried they won’t measure up.
And while numbing out an awareness of women’s pleasure is bad, numbing out an awareness of women’s pain is catastrophic.
If a woman isn’t experiencing pleasure during sex, she is probably experiencing pain. Sex is not a neutral thing. Most people (I’m sure there are some exceptions) having a sexual encounter when they are not turned on are having a traumatic experience. And yet, we have no awareness of this or acknowledgement of this.
How many men believe they shouldn’t pressure a woman into having a sexual experience when she’s not turned on? Maybe… 2 out of 3? Maybe “most” but definitely not all? The problem isn’t that people are “bad people” — it’s that they are not knowledgeable about how bad it is for someone to have sex when they don’t want it.
How bad? Well, that event happened for me over a decade ago, and I’m still grappling with it.
Will I ever call it rape? Well, maybe in my head. Why not? It’s not like I’m going to charge the guy or anything. It’s not like I’m ever going to see him again. And, I don’t have another word for sex somebody else pressured me into that caused me immense lingering pain. But, maybe not. Right now, I call it “sexual coercion” and maybe that’s fine, if I acknowledge how damaging sexual coercion can be.
The problem of “who gets to have pain” however, is bigger societal issue we’re grappling with. In sex, we have a culture that legitimizes the pain of lack of release but delegitimizes the pain of coercive or undesirable sex. It’s often gendered, but it’s not just men vs women, because men on the receiving end of coercive sex can end up pretty messed up too. I’m a man, I’m supposed to like sex, but I didn’t. What the fuck?
However, it comes into play in other arenas — with race, with trans issues, etc. In the recent portland stabbing incident, Micah Fletcher, the man who survived, spoke about the media portrayal of the event:
An emotional Micah Fletcher said in a six-minute video on his Facebook page that Portland has a “white savior complex” and residents are heaping praise on him, but the real victims are the women. He says they must be traumatized from being targets of hate and from the deaths of two other men who also tried to intervene Friday.
The white men who died trying to stand up for muslim woman on the train are valorized as heroes, and perhaps rightly so, but who were the women? I haven’t heard one peep about them. As a culture, we’re not used to looking at the pain of muslim women, so we don’t think to ask about it. It’s not something that enters our brain, the same way the pain of coercive sex isn’t in our consciousness.
Some pain is legitimized and some isn’t, and the further you get away from the white masculine ideal the less pain tends to be legitimized. Which isn’t to say white male pain is legitimized, just white male pain that conforms to a white masculine ideal. So, the pain of not getting laid: legitimized. The pain of being bullied as a nerdy high school student: not legitimized. The pain of having your factory job taken away: legitimized. The pain of having to work ridiculous hours: not legitimized.
And of course, the pain of being looked down upon because of your race: not legitimized. The pain trans people feel when they aren’t allowed to go into the bathroom of their gender: not legitimized. The pain of not being allowed to marry who you love: recently legitimized, or partly legitimized.
As an example, consider the discussion on trans rights in bathrooms. We talk a lot about how cis women feel having a trans women in the bathroom, but we never talk about how a trans woman feels using the man’s bathroom. Instead, the liberals try to use their liberal mind control (it’s problematic! it’s transphobic!) to get what they want, but we are never asked to imagine what it feels like to be a trans woman using the wrong bathroom. We are never asked to imagine what it feels like to be trans.
I believe this is a huge omission, one that I’ve made the mistake of perpetuating on several occasions with my writing (most recently, with my article on the discussion of trans women being real women) and I’d like to write about it one day, but not today.
Right now, where I’m at, is in the middle of therapy. I haven’t fully empathized with my own pain, so how can I empathize with trans people? How can I empathize with people of color, when the inside of my head is still prioritizing white masculinity even to my own detriment? What advice can I give to people looking to free themselves from the pain of white masculinity when I haven’t even freed myself? (And, in white masculinity, I should note I tie in sexual orientation, gender and able-bodied ness because our masculine ideal is a straight, physically strong man.)
So, I’m taking a break for writing a bit. Well, not really, because I always write, but I won’t be publishing it as I write it. I may end up writing a book or something, or I may not. Who knows. I just don’t have the energy right now to put all my stuff out there as I go along. I have to get myself to a place where I can have empathy for the struggles of other people, and the first step is to develop empathy for the things that happened to me.
I don’t know how long it will take.