Why men's verbal sexual coercion is rape - not just unwanted sexAn 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. (http://bitingbeaver.blogspot.com/2005/09/hey-its-my-tree.html).
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