Monday, September 11, 2006

Why men's verbal sexual coercion is rape - not just unwanted sex

An essay by Jennifer (Truth About Rape Campaign) on why verbal coercion IS rape.

I was recently researching the subject of language and gender, whereupon I chanced upon a book entitled Language and Sexuality by Deborah Cameron and Don Kulik. In one of their chapters, Cameron and Kulik write that in the early 1990’s Antioch College in the US, introduced a campus-wide Sexual Consent Policy. This Policy clearly stated that consent to sexual activity was to be defined not by one partner saying ‘no’ but rather by saying ‘yes.’ Central to this policy was the requirement that an affirmative yes must be obtained, before either partner proceeded to perform any sexual act upon the other person. In other words, neither person was to presume they knew precisely what their partner wanted or desired sexually, but had to actually ask for permission! (Cameron, D. & Kulik, D. 2003: 36). Of course the US press and even international press heard about this new Sexual Consent Policy and the media’s opinion overwhelmingly was one of ‘political correctness gone mad.’ Sexual activity according to the US and international press was one of spontaneity not one wherein one person had to seek active consent before engaging in any sexual act with their partner (Cameron, D. & Kulik, D. 2003: 64). Sexual activity, according to the media is always ‘spontaneous’ and having a set of so-called rules would ruin a passionate and sexually desirable encounter! What appalled these critics most was that both parties were actually being asked to speak their desires. In other words, both parties would have to actually say what sexual acts they wanted or did not want enacted upon their bodies.

Deborah Cameron subsequently interviewed students attending Antioch College and learned something totally different to the media’s interpretation. Antioch’s administrators had imposed this Policy in an attempt to reduce the numbers of men raping women. However, Cameron when asking the women students if this policy had reduced the numbers of men committing rape received a very different answer. A number of women spoke about not of feeling safer but rather of having better, more exciting, more varied and more pleasurable sexual encounters. When these women students were asked how this policy had achieved such a difference, their response was it had compelled women to develop a language for representing their desires, both to themselves and to their sexual partners. These women discovered that talking more explicitly than they had done previously, had enhanced their experience of sexual activity. As Cameron says, this view was at odds both with the Antioch authorities and also the media’s interpretation which presumed Antioch were intent on suppressing young people’s (sic) ‘natural’ sexuality. (Cameron, D. & Kulik, D. 2003: 37)

Later, I happened to visit a blog entitled Den Of The Biting Beaver and the author has written several pieces on the subject of men’s sexual coercion and also the denial of women’s sexual autonomy. Biting Beaver wrote a piece entitled ‘Consent = Desire??’. In this article Biting Beaver describes how many men do not use force or threats to gain unwanted sexual intercourse with a woman, but instead resort to verbal and continuous coercion. Biting Beaver describes how many women upon saying no to sexual intercourse with a man; his immediate response is ‘why not?’ Many men refuse to accept a woman’s right of saying no and instead either wants an explanation or simply ignores her answer and instead continues verbally pressurising a woman, often for hours until eventually the woman is utterly worn down and submits. Note she does not actively and freely consent, instead she submits because of such continuous verbal harassment and coercion. In other words, as Biting Beaver says, unless a woman can provide a solid reason which the man will accept as reasonable in his opinion, then the woman has to have unwanted sex, or she really wants it (in his opinion). In order for a woman to believed, the assumption is a woman must use some form of violence if she is to be taken seriously and for her sexual autonomy and agency to be accepted and respected by many men.

Biting Beaver also discovered that a number of her male friends could not understand why verbal coercion is another form of sexual abuse against women. One of the primary reasons is men as a group grow up with the belief since they are male; they have the right and entitlement of having their heterosexual desires satisfied by any woman. That it is acceptable and normal heterosexual male behaviour to continue verbal sexual harassment against any woman or girl who dares to say ‘no’ to any sexual act, since she is being ‘unreasonable’ in his opinion. In other words it is about power, the power to define supposedly normal sexual scripts. Both women’s and men’s sexualities have historically been defined solely from the male-standpoint wherein male sexuality is active and dominant with female sexuality seen as opposite, namely passive and receptive. Society also continues to reinforce these supposedly biologically ‘natural’ views by controlling and constraining women’s sexualities. Which is why any woman society perceives as deviating from what is presumed to be the ‘natural female sexual role’ is punished and judged to be a slut, whore etc., since unlike men, it is a woman’s sexuality which defines her identity. Therefore, it is no wonder so many women find it difficult not only to express their sexual desires and needs, but also for them to be heard and accepted by men as valid.

Verbal sexual pressure or harassment continues to be viewed by many men and women as just part of the ‘normal heterosexual male sex drive.’ Such common-sense views, render abuses of power invisible and at the same time deny women the right of sexual agency and autonomy. This is why so many men believe it is ridiculous having to actually request a woman’s permission before initiating any sexual touching. As Biting Beaver says, it is a man’s right and entitlement to initiate and control any sexual interaction, since society reinforces the belief that a man’s sexual desires is more valid and takes precedence over any woman’s. It is all part of the heterosexual script which is still widely accepted as normal and fixed heterosexual behaviour, not one which has been socially constructed and therefore is changeable.

Such beliefs feed into Biting Beaver’s other very insightful article about women’s sexual autonomy and ownership of their bodies. This article is very interesting to me personally, because at times I have wondered if I am the only woman who believes my body and sexuality belongs to me alone and is not owned by any would-be sexual partner. That no one has the right of presuming to initiate any sexual contact without first seeking mutually and freely given consent. (

Like Biting Beaver I have often thought what a man would say if I were to remove his trousers and suddenly insert a vibrator into his anus whilst at the same time telling him ‘you will enjoy this, I know you will because it will be good for you’. I am certain the man would protest in the strongest terms that I shouldn’t have done that and even possibly I am committing rape (horrors!). The difference of course, is that men as a group do not routinely experience unwanted sexual activity, do not have their bodies routinely groped by women who believe it is their right and entitlement, or have unwanted sexual activity forced upon them without their permission. Instead as boys, they are taught their bodies belong to them, that being male it is their right and entitlement to seek out sexual encounters and most importantly, they alone are the ones who initiate and control any sexual encounter. Since male sexual pleasure is primary and a female partner’s is very much secondary. Men committing rape and/or sexual abuse against women is a violation of all women’s right to bodily and sexual autonomy, but in saying this, I am not excluding the fact some men rape and sexually abuse other men and boys, but the numbers are far less than men raping and sexually abusing women. Myths still perpetuate the belief that only homosexual men rape other men, whereas in fact the majority of male on male rape is committed by heterosexual males in order to degrade, dehumanise and control a man/boy who is perceived as being not a ‘real man.’

However, unlike heterosexual males, it is women of all sexual orientation or identity who are still denied sexual autonomy and sexual rights. The sexual double standard still exists and it is women’s sexualities which continue to be socially controlled and ‘policed’ by a male-dominant society. Male homosexuals too are subject to social control, but obviously this does not apply to all men unlike women. Women who are perceived as transgressing their sexual role are termed slags, sluts etc. but no such sexist insults exist for heterosexual male behaviour. Instead their actions and behaviours are praised and are considered to be ‘real men.’

There is still a widespread belief that women’s bodies and sexualities belong to men and it is a man’s right to touch his female sexual partner, remove her clothing etc. all without having to ask her permission. Why? Because as Biting Beaver eloquently says, asking a woman for permission before enacting any sexual act upon her is irrelevant, she is only a woman. Asking permission is vital, because it means the partner and this applies equally to both heterosexuals and same-sex couples, that both partners respect the other person’s sexual and bodily autonomy and agency.

Of course one of the embedded rape myths is what Wendy Hollway calls the ‘male sexual drive discourse’ (Hollway, W. 1984 & 1989). Hollway describes the male sexual drive discourse as one wherein men’s need or desire to have penetrative sex is so strong, that it is almost an overwhelming drive and that it exists in all healthy, normal heterosexual men. As such, this is one of the reasons why so many men will go to any lengths to have penetrative sex, including using prostituted women. The media too plays its part in perpetuating this myth, by portraying men as always wanting and needing penetrative sex on a regular basis. Therefore, whilst men are the subjects of this male sexual drive discourse, women are its objects. Men therefore are ‘naturally’ always ready and willing to engage in ‘real’ penetrative sex and it is women, their bodies or pictures of women’s bodies which activate the male sexual drive. (Hollway cited in Gavey, N. 2005: 104). Heterosexual women’s only sexual role is one of gatekeeper, wherein she can only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, she must not under any circumstances express her own sexual desires or needs. Which is partially why so many men refuse to accept a woman’s ‘no’ to sexual activity as authentic and a woman’s right. It also links into the idea that when a woman says no, she is a ‘tease’ or she ‘must have led the man’ on etc. All of which are entrenched rape myths and which serve to deny women’s right of sexual autonomy and agency.

Imagine what would happen if the legal system and society were to actually recognize and accept that both women and men have the right and ownership of their bodies and sexualities. That any man using verbal sexual coercion against a woman is in fact rape and not just ‘unwanted sex’ since the woman was so worn down by a tirade of constant pressure she eventually submits. Such actions are rape not ‘unwanted sex’. Male rapists would then be less likely to be acquitted of raping women, since the courts and society would finally recognize and accept that the right of bodily integrity and sexual autonomy is NOT the prerequisite of just heterosexual men.

Cameron, Deborah & Kulik, Don: 2003: Language and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press
Hollway, W. 1984: Gender Difference and The Production of Subjectivity. In J.Henriques, W. Hollway, C. Urwin, C. Venn and V. Walkerine, Changing The Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity, London Methuen
Gavey, N. 2005: Just Sex: The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape, Routledge


At 2:15 pm, September 12, 2006, Blogger trollbuster said...

"I, Mortimer Brezney, am an over-wordy, completely off-topic, BDSM-obsessed troll. I promise not to troll here again."

Mort, your irrevelance to the main topic at hand set off the Automated Troll Alert System (ATAS) at this blog. Please do not waste your time, or ours, with such diatribe again.

At 2:40 am, September 13, 2006, Blogger Norihok said...

I might get hit for this...

But I do most of my partners and friends. (Male and Female) that when you get to a certain point in your relationship...then verbally asking may i and can i is no longer required as long as you still respect the word "NO".

At 6:22 am, September 26, 2006, Blogger Professor Zero said...

Great post!

(And yes Norihok, that's generally true in non-coercive relationships, but the post is about coercion.)

At 8:11 pm, October 01, 2006, Blogger Moridin said...

According to some transgendered men (women who decided to have hormonal treatment to become men), the effects of the hormones that they were given, like testosterone, was quite strong. One of them defined this experience, that is much like the one boys pass through puberty, as different from everyhting he experienced before. His music and entertainment preferences changed, much to his friends surprise; hair started growing in the most unexpected places; and, this is the important point, his sexual drive skyrocketed compared to the one he had when he still was a woman. Don't know if any of you experienced male puberty, but you feel horny all the time. All the time. The character Xandler form the Buffy TV series wasn't lying or exaggerating when he said he had a hard-on even by looking at the carpet. It's something that you really can't control, and if you do it just ends up in various psychological problems in the future.

One other interesting story is that men who have hormonal treatment for one reason or another, prostate cancer or some other disease, and have to diminish their testosterone levels dramatically say that when the effects kick in their whole view about women changes. The things in their brains that made them evaluate women firstly by desirability and appearance (testosterone and other male hormones) disappear, and they can, for the first time since they were young boys, really look at women who aren't in their families and don't judge them by their appearace or think if they would fuck them. Don't know about you women, but this is the first response a normal man has when confronted with a woman, it's instinctive.

Of course this doens't make teenage and young boys thoughtless sex machines, and doens't justify any acts but it is a point in favor of men having a greater sexual drive than women.

At 5:26 pm, October 02, 2006, Blogger trollbuster said...

Even though your comment is very troll-like, it highlights a myth, and is worthy of myth busting.

Your basic ‘argument’ is men are ‘hardwired’ that way due to greater levels of testosterone in the body. (i.e. “they can’t help it [but to objectify women]”)

If feminists, and radical feminists thought this, then they would be calling for mass dosings of bromide or lithium for the male half of the population. BTW, testosterone (in lesser levels) is present in the female human as well.

The desire for sex is an urge, but it is a DESIRE and not a NEED like food or sleep. The socialisation of men, particularly in the last two generations, has taught them that they are ‘entitled’ to have sex, at any time, with any woman, and latterly, whether she is willing or not. This is the determental effect of ‘rape porn’ and porn in general. The lie told to men in pornography is that women, even if initially they appear not to want it, actually did want it, or had to be shown/convinced by the man (who apparently knows better [than the woman]). This is why rape and ‘date rape’ are on the rise. And this is why coercion is still rape.

But hey, if you want to rely on the ‘men can’t help it’ school of defence, then Trollbuster will happily dose up all water reservoirs to shrivel your testicles.

At 3:06 am, October 27, 2006, Blogger CatOHara said...

Jennifer, althouth I enjoyed your essay and found it informative, it didn't tell me "Why men's verbal sexual coercion is rape - not just unwanted sex." BB didn't convince either, by the way, that coercion is rape. I do believe that in cases in which the woman is fearful of saying "no," as was the case with BB and other women in abusive relationships, coercion is equal to threats and force so therefore is rape, I don't believe that coercion is equal to rape in all situations.

By the way, I'm not a troll. I'm a regular reader at BB's blog (where I clicked the link to this blog) and many other radfem/feminist sites, and a member of Genderberg. So, I'm still not convinced yet I remain open-minded.

CatOHara aka CoolAunt

At 12:09 am, October 29, 2006, Blogger stormy said...

Hi CoolAunt, welcome.
Sorry for the delay in letting your comment through, this blog has been quiet for a while as we all have been busy with other projects. BTW, why the name change?

I will let Jennifer know of your question, and she will respond more fully.

In my view, if a woman says "no" and he persists, then it is rape. Unfortunately, in porn the lie that is told is that women say no when they mean yes, or he just has to convince she wants it, or she was playing hard to get and wanted it all along. So porn is a training manual for coercive rape. With the proliferation of porn, these occurrences are becoming far more frequent.

At 2:18 pm, October 29, 2006, Blogger stormy said...

Jennifer's response:

CoolAunt the reason I say coercion is still rape is because basically if we accept and believe that both women and men own their own bodies and that both genders own their sexualities, then no one has the right to use coercion, intimidation or threats in order to gain unwanted sexual access to another person's body.

It is about whether or not a male and I use this term advisedly, accepts and respects that a woman has the right to decide for herself whether or not she wishes to engage in sexual activity. Coercion is all too often very subtle, in that it feeds on rape myths and also the belief that male sexuality is uncontrollable once aroused and must be sexually serviced. Add on the fact that male sexual violence is still widely excused and it is women alone who are still held responsible for a man/men raping them, it is no wonder, many men use coercion, since they know the woman will feel threatened and she will be naturally afraid that if she dares to say no to the man, he might use physical force.

It is the unseen threat which is behind coercive practices. Let me give you a clear example, it is still widely presumed that in heterosexual relationships and also often in same-sex relationships that penetration is essential in order that 'real sex' has occurred. Some women I know do not desire penetrative sex but they face almost insurmountable problems in having their right of non-penetrative sexual acts accepted. Let me say I am not saying penetrative sex is rape or that it is wrong, what I am saying is that the belief that penetration = real sex is so embedded in our society, it leaves women little room to negotiate what they desire sexually. Therefore many men, as BB says herself, believes that it is logical and acceptable for him to proceed to penetration, no need to ask if the partner desires it, because of course she does, she has accepted it previously therefore no need to ask and if she does not want penetration, then she is frigid or cold! This is male-defined views on female sexuality and as such, still controls and limits women's right of having their sexual desires or wishes accepted and respected.

Essentially, it is about respect - respecting the other person's right to own their bodies and decide freely without coercion what sexual acts they will engage in and to have that right respected. I still maintain that many men would protest in the strongest terms if their female partner suddenly penetrated them without asking, whether it was manually or with an object.

The only way to ensure that a man/men are not committing rape is to ask.

Easy to say I know but oh so difficult, given that males are socialised to believe that their sexual desires take precedent over a female and that it is part of the male sexual script to use pressure and coercion, whether this is physical or psychological wherein the male refuses to listen to the female's no and instead just continues knowing that eventually he will wear down her resistance. Using coercion is rape in my view, because the man will not accept or respect a woman's wishes or desires. Communication is essential in all sexual situations, but I know only too well, that 'communication' is a dirty word, sexual activity is supposedly spontaneous, no need for words, action is all that is needed.

Also, of course, if a man actually takes what he perceives as a risk in asking whether his partner wants to engage in sexual activity, that makes him very vulnerable to rejection. Far better to go ahead and use the excuse, 'well I thought this is what you wanted, you didn't say no'. As Stormcloud said in her response to your comment, pornography is an excellent training manual for teaching men that women routinely do not know what they want sexually. That women always say 'no' when they mean 'yes' and of course, what women want is precisely the same as the man's desires. Sexuality is not a one-size fits all, which is what our society and pornography in particular is teaching both women and men: That women will freely engage in any sexual act, no matter how degrading to the woman, because she 'likes it'. She likes to be dominated, degraded, abused etc. All women enjoy being sexually dominated and controlled, it is 'natural'. Rape only happens when a man/men uses physical violence against a woman/women and even then all too often men and women believe the woman/women must have wanted to be physically abused.

Using Prof. Liz Kelly's definition of rape - it is a continuum – wherein there are a lot of 'little rapes' meaning that verbal coercion, threats, intimidation, blackmail, such as the man saying 'I will leave you if you don't have penetrative sex with me', all of these are on a continuum and it is about power and control. The man's right to define and decide what sexual activity he will engage in and all he has to do is to keep pressurising the woman. Such 'normative' views leave I believe all women no room to freely decide for themselves what sexual acts they will engage in freely, they can only say 'yes or no' since once they have said 'yes' the presumption is the man has the right of forcing any sexual act on a woman because she said 'yes'. But did this woman say 'yes' to anal penetrative sex say or to fellate the male - we don't know since there was no communication just a presumption that 'yes' means yes to anything the male desires.

The legal definition of rape is still very narrow, wherein legally it is rape in the UK ONLY if the 'victim' does not give informed consent, but with the proviso, that it is perceived as being 'reasonable'. However, 'reasonable' has not been legally defined and what is termed 'reasonable' to a man is all too often different to a woman's viewpoint. In other words, if a woman has engaged in mutual consensual sexual activity with a man on a previous occasion, then many men and women still believe that the alleged subsequent rape could not possibly have occurred, because the couple previously had consensual sexual relations and therefore the alleged subsequent rape could not possibly have occurred.

I know it is very difficult deciding what is coercion and what is not coercion. As always it is about power - who has the socially sanctioned power to decide what is coercion and what is not. If we believe that female sexualities are autonomous and independent of male sexualities - then that means women too have sexual agency and their right in deciding what sexual acts they wish to engage in must be respected. Of course, this too means that men have the right of refusing to engage in any sexual acts without being accused of not 'being a real man'. However, if we believe that female sexuality and expression is not autonomous but only responsive, then it is all men's right to decide for the woman what sexual acts will take place, since she cannot possibly decide for herself, she can only respond when a male initiates sexual contact.

Women who are sexually active, initiate sexual contact and actively ensure they have sexual pleasure are still termed sluts and whores because they own their sexualities and do not believe that male sexual pleasure supercedes their sexual rights. This effectively challenges male-defined beliefs of what supposedly comprises female sexualities (which of course is supposedly only heterosexual in orientation).

Challenging such 'commonsense' views of what supposedly natural sexual behaviour and acts of both genders is so difficult because males and females have been socialised into what is supposedly 'normal and natural' sexual expression wherein 'real sex = penetration and everything else is 'foreplay'. Plus, males are supposed to initiate and control sexual interaction, females can only respond or withhold access to their bodies, they are not supposed to say what they want or even to say they are not sure.

There is only a 'yes or no' nothing in between.
So, it is no wonder male sexual coercion is still widely seen as not 'real rape' but just part of the normal heterosexual interaction between women and men.

I hope this answers your questions and I know you are not a 'troll' but merely seeking to find answers to some very difficult issues concerning human sexualities. I know you are not convinced, but in seeking to find answers means of course you, unlike so many individuals, do not have a closed mind as to what supposedly comprises male on female rape.



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