“We have degrees of murder and of assault; we should also have degrees of rape.” – Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Consent: It’s Not Sexy”
“There is not a word for my experience. The fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist.” – Veronica Ruckh
**Note: This post was originally published on the blog for my Girls & Sex in the 21st Century course. Due to restrictions on word length, and a decision to keep my own personal experiences out of the post, I’ve decided to post an expanded version here.
Trigger/Content Warning: This essay contains explicit details of rape and sexual assault.
“Was it rape?” This is a question that so many (myself included) have asked themselves as they begin to process why that sexual experience didn’t feel super great, why, in fact, it felt downright awful. “Rape” doesn’t quite feel right; it doesn’t encompass the experiences that fall into the grey areas. I agree with the logic/reason behind Sarah Nicole Prickett’s statement in “Consent: It’s Not Sexy,” that there are degrees of experience when it comes to assault and murder, but we don’t have degrees for rape — and that’s a problem. As someone who has often felt wary of using the term “rape,” in order to describe my experiences of non-consensual sex, I was very appreciative of Prickett’s statement. But I’m not sure that I want to place my experiences under the category of “rape,” even if there are degrees. To say “I was raped,” doesn’t quite feel right. Perhaps that’s because the word rape carries certain popularly understood connotations: rape is a sexual encounter lacking any form of consent; rape means I said “no” and he didn’t listen.
That wasn’t the case for me, when I lost my virginity at 14 years of age to a boy in the woods, who I’d only met earlier that night. He was 16. He was cool. I was awkward, just about to start high school in a little under two months. That summer I spent a lot of time hanging out in the park near my house. I knew one of the boys. He was a year old than me; the son of my old babysitter. He and a bunch of boys would hang out there, smoking and getting high. One night they got me really, really high. I don’t remember much beyond walking into the woods with some of the guys. And then it was just me and one of the boys. I was sitting on his lap. And then suddenly my pants were down and he was penetrating me. It hurt a lot and after a couple of minutes I told him that it hurt and I needed to stop. He listened. I saw him again after that night. We would hang out in his basement and we would try to have sex again — but it always hurt too much and so I would stop. And he would listen.
Soon the rumours started. Despite having a girlfriend — a detail that he failed to mention — he spread the news that we were having sex. I entered high school and was labelled a slut. Boys and girls alike would yell that word at me in the halls, would whisper it under their breath in the classes they had with me. Girls would walk up to me after school, push me, threaten me (luckily it never went further than that). My two best friends from grade school abandoned me. They wanted to be cool and they couldn’t be cool if they were friends with me (years later they both phoned me, in tears, and apologized for their cruel behaviour — and I forgave them). I denied the rumours. I didn’t know what else to do. But denying that it happened didn’t change things. No one believed me.
It took over 10 years before I realized that the sex we had — at least the first time — wasn’t consensual. I was too high to really know what was happening. And even though he stopped, that didn’t change the fact that he started in the first place. The sex we had after didn’t feel great either. I think on a subconscious level, I always knew that there was something wrong with that first encounter; I believed that if we had sex again, but on better terms, it would make that first time okay. But it didn’t. I needed the sex we had to mean that he liked me, cared about me even. But he didn’t. In light of the Jian Ghomeshi trails, some might say that my choice to see him again, to have sex with him again, discredits my claim that it was rape. But saying so fails to take into consideration our desire, our need, to rewrite these traumatic narratives. It also fails to recognize the ways in which women are taught to desire any and all sex with men — because it’s about their pleasure, not ours.
I sought out other sexual encounters, often with boys older than me, boys that, like my first time, I met just that night. And again, like that first time, I was always high or drunk or both. Talk about repetition compulsion. But I did have sex that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol, and I did have boyfriends that liked me and respected me. But being in a relationship doesn’t protect you from sex that doesn’t feel good. When I was in my early 20s I was in a long-term relationship for almost three years. About 2 years in, my boyfriend started to slap me during sex. One time he put his hands around my throat. I told him that I didn’t like it. He apologized, told me it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. I slowly pulled away. When he wanted to have sex, I would feign being tired. Instead of accepting this, instead of curling up beside me in bed, he would angrily go downstairs for many hours. He was punishing me. Again, it took me many years before I realized that I had been sexually abused by him.
In both of these cases, the word “rape” didn’t feel right. While I appreciate Prickett’s gesture, her desire for their to be degrees of rape, I’m not sure if — at least at this point in time — we can introduce new ways of understanding that word. For some reason, I feel like the default assumption when saying “I was raped” would still result in your interlocutor thinking: “she said no and he didn’t listen.” As Katie J.M. Baker states in “Consent: It’s Not Sexy”: “All rape is presumably unwanted, but not all unwanted sex can be presumed to be rape, and we should be able to make these distinctions for ourselves without getting into what Kat calls the ‘Was It Rape’ debate. How can we talk about this without delving into the messy, complicated details?” In order to clear up the misconception, the ways that my interlocutor interprets “I was raped,” I might feel inclined to explain that that wasn’t exactly the case.
I don’t want to delve into the messy, complicated details, but I also don’t want to use the word that’s most convenient when it doesn’t feel right. So what other options are there? I could say “non-consensual sex,” but even that doesn’t feel right. I see “non-consensual sex” as the umbrella term, with “rape” falling underneath it. I guess I could say “sexual assault,” or “coercive sex,” but those alternatives don’t sit well with me either. I wonder what it would mean if we came up with a new word, a word that signalled to the world, as much as to ourselves (for some would rather not share their story, or cannot share their story because they are not the privileged body that makes rape more palatable) that whatever our experience was, it fell into that grey zone.
What I want is a word that gestures to all of the ways that women have been conditioned to placate men, to have sex with their significant other even when they weren’t in the mood or were tired. In Veronica Ruckh’s essay on “Total Sorority Move,” she tells us how she “felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.” She draws our attention to what so many of us already know: the ubiquity of these grey area experiences and the ways in which we are missing the language to describe our experience. Ruchk writes: “There is not a word for my experience. The fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist. Or maybe there’s not a word for it because we’re pretending it doesn’t exist. But this weird place in between consensual sex and rape? It’s there. It does exist. And it’s happening all the time.”
I’m thankful that the conversations are happening. As Kat Stoeffel tells us, in her essay “It Doesn’t Have to be Rape to Suck”: “Now women are speaking up about situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women sexually vulnerable.” But still, as Ruckh notes, “the fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist.” Now that we’re talking about it, maybe we can figure out a word that would enable us to describe our experience without actually having to describe all of its details. I’m not sure what that word would be, but I hope we can find it.
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This post was written by Margeaux