Sweden just passed a law stating that sex without positive consent is rape. In a facebook group I participate in, there was a discussion about this law, and some (both women and men) expressed consternation about the unintended consequences of this law. Julian Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct was brought up as an example. One participant said that his alleged behavior was “not rape by any definition I understand it. Yes it was nonconsensual – but there was no force, coercion, or restraint involved.” Another said that the woman stopped consenting because she discovered he wasn’t wearing a condom (implying that this weakened her right to not consent).
I found myself getting madder and madder. This was a group focused on psychological and spiritual growth. I was so angry that I knew a rapid reply would likely be hurtful, and would certainly be unhelpful. So I slept on it — and woke up at 4am, and stewed, staring at the ceiling. I’m still angry, but hopefully I can clearly articulate why this bothers me, and why I believe Sweden got it right.
Remember the movie “50 First Dates,” with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? She has a brain injury which wipes out any long-term memory, so she “resets” every morning when she wakes up. He starts dating her. They go out on several dates, but for her every date is a first date (hence the title). At one ponit, he tries touching her breast, and she objects. He mansplains to her that they’ve gone on a dozen dates, so — and I quote — “I’m entitled to unlimited boob access.”
The operative word, of course, is “entitled.”
The notion of a woman’s (or man’s) right to withdraw consent at any time certainly has perils. If used capriciously or cruelly, it would be toxic to any meaningful relationship. And, even if not used capriciously or cruelly, the partner would likely feel frustrated and rejected, and possibly hurt or humiliated.
But what if there was a “point of no return?” What if, after a man reaches a certain level of arousal, a woman were obliged to continue sexual behaviors, even if she didn’t want to? Is it truly my right, as a man, to ejaculate every time I get an erection? Is a woman compelled to let me finish? What about oral sex? Does she have to finish every blowjob she starts? If she lets me touch her breast, do I also get to touch her vagina? If she kisses me, am I entitled to unlimited tongue access?
The belief that men have a right to use women’s bodies sexually has a long, ugly history. We try to pretty it up with romantic notions, but it’s fundamentally ugly.
Sex without consent is, and has always been, rape. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, for any (or no) reason. Yes, this could be frustrating, confusing, humiliating, hurtful to the man. He might not get his sexual needs met.
If we allow men to have this power over women, then women are not free.
Think about that. Our society says, in myriad ways, that a woman does not have control of her own body. She is not free to say no. Men get a veto.
There’s a word to describe one person having control over another person’s body. No, the word isn’t rape.
Of course, in any healthy relationship, there is give and take, compromise, putting the other’s needs and wants first sometimes. Of course sexual satisfaction is a crucial part of a healthy romantic relationship. Of course sex should be fun, and ideally everyone should get to climax.
But the discomfort of men suffering from withdrawn consent is NOT morally equivalent to the damage inflicted by nonconsensual sex. If it’s nonconsensual, there is always force, restraint or coercion involved.
Dismantling unhealthy beliefs and changing one’s world view necessarily involves discomfort, especially for those giving up perks inherent in power inequalities. Cognitive dissonance makes you squirm. You don’t know how to be in the world, you’re unsure of how to act. You don’t feel comfortable in your own skin.
Get over it.