What is Missing from the Conversation Around Sexual Assault and Consent

By Tracy Naschek

An ad from the August-September 2001 issue of   On Our Backs  , source:   Vibrator Nation

An ad from the August-September 2001 issue of On Our Backs, source: Vibrator Nation

***Trigger Warning: Rape and Sexual Assault***

Last semester, I read Kristen Roupenian’s short story called “Cat Person” in a fiction writing course. I soon learned that I had arrived late to a burgeoning craze surrounding this story. Some disliked it for its persistent fat-shaming of Robert, one of the main characters. Other criticism is deeply rooted in misogyny. Nevertheless many appreciated it for its honest depiction of a young woman navigating an uncomfortable date and sexual encounter with an older man. As for myself, I saw this short piece of fiction as a reflection of a very non-fiction sexual reality.

The scene in which Margot and Robert prepare to have sex is of particular interest to me. Upon watching Robert undress, Margot realizes she is no longer attracted to him. However the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion deters her from saying anything. Margot laments that the situation require[d] an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. Her fear did not stem from her expectation of his force, but from what she assumed his resulting opinion of changing her mind would be, spoiled and capricious. Although their age difference is one that makes this situation unsettling for some readers, Robert does not reveal his specific age until the end of their sexual encounter, which matters because Margot’s hesitation appears to transcend a reluctance to sleep with an older man.

At this point in the story, Margot no longer wants to have sex but lacks the confidence and language to express that to Robert. Although she recognizes, her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, she nevertheless decides, she would carry through with it until it was over. Thus, what results is an awkward and disproportionately-pleasurable sexual experience. Magot has sex with Robert, but she drinks and dissociates in order to satisfy him. Margot never says no, yet it’s clear to readers from her internal narration that she does not enjoy this. Instead, her body follows Robert’s lead, like the polite woman she has been socialized to be. Like the polite women that those of us raised as women* have all been socialized to be.

These are the encounters that are left out of contemporary discussions about consent and sexual assault. Consent means getting a yes. Rape and assault involve getting a no or not asking at all but forcibly proceeding anyway. But as I know from personal experience, as many people (but especially those raised as women) know, there is a huge middle ground of not saying no but not feeling a yes either. And those who have experienced that middle ground can report, no I have not been raped, but yes, I have been violated or coerced, I have wanted to say no, I have wanted to stop but I didn’t know I could or I was afraid of how my partner would react or I just didn’t want to complicate things.

Framing sexual violence as a continuum is useful for validating that all unwanted, sexual behaviors should be understood as sexual violence. Naming these behaviors as unacceptable is important to dismantling a rape culture and patriachal attitude that justifies them repeatedly, one in which Margot has learned to endure her own “no” in pursuit of Robert’s orgasm. As it stands, the continuum recognizes that traditional gender roles may dictate that men typically initiate and/or dominate sexual encounters. However, it is necessary to also recognize norms of female politeness, which often translates into silence in any unwanted sexual encounter. This silence is what renders stories like “Cat Person” so widely relatable. Though the current discussion of consent is concerned with eliminating sexual assault, it does little to effectively address these silent and blurry non-consensual scenarios. An attention to pleasure and pleasure-informed consent is lacking from the conversation.

Pleasure. I can’t recall hearing the word in high school sex ed. Then again, consent and sexual assault were topics that I rarely heard about until college. High school sex ed was about pushing abstinence to protect students from STIs, teen pregnancy and other potential repercussions of sex. One step-up from an abstinence-only curriculum, my school followed an abstinence-plus curriculum, which included discussions of contraception and healthy relationships but ultimately aimed to scare students away from having sex; I even had a health teacher admit that her intentions were to frighten us. Though in the process, this scare tactic also left students with false information like the idea that all STIs are permanent, when in reality about half of the most common infections are curable and vaccinations can effectively prevent the spread of some that are not. And yet, I’m fortunate that I got the education I did since only 24 states and D.C. require public schools teach sex ed, 33 states and D.C. require HIV/AIDS instruction, and only 20 states require sex and/or HIV education be “medically accurate,” the definition of which is not consistent among states. 

College orientation flooded new students with consent and sexual assault information, which was just as important as it was overwhelming to recieve such startling yet validating information. Ultimately, it did illuminate the limited scope of my previous sex education and therefore prompted me on a path to self education. The following year, I went to a few workshops on my own, where I learned about pleasure as a guide to sex. Sarah Byrden spoke about attuning to your body as a barometer for pleasurable consent. One woman from Planned Parenthood showed us a diagram of a vagina and was point-blank like, here are places that are ULTRA sensitive if you’re looking to increase your pleasure during sex or masturbation. Neither of those talks were exclusive to those two messages, but in general those workshops redefined sex in terms of pleasure and sex positivity. These lessons were not divorced from caution and safe practices, but they were certainly critical of fear tactics. Additionally, these lessons were inclusive to people of all genders and sexualities, whereas my high school imagined sex as exclusive to heterosexual, cis-men and women. Across the United States, there are only 9 states that require discussions of LGBTQ identities and relationships to be inclusive and affirming and 6 states that either forbid or expressly disparage LGBTQ identities and relationships in sex education classes altogether.

The effects of a pleasure-based, inclusive and sex-positive sex education were numerous. Simultaneously, I was realizing the expansive nature of sex and that people with vaginas also deserved to enjoy its pleasure, pleasure that was previously more difficult to ascertain in a stiffling imagination that the goal of sex was for a penis to ejaculate. I was also learning that if something was not pleasurable, then it was not something I had to endure to get to a better feeling, which ran counter to a common understanding that the first time you have sex it hurts, but then it gets better...eventually. Instead, I deserved to say no to pain and discomfort. These lessons attuned me to my own body, a heightened attention that allowed me to determine, yes that feels good and no that doesn’t feel so good and subsequently establish that a “yes” belonged to sex and a “no” belonged to a sexual act from which I could revoke consent.

Planned Parenthood’s Pleasure 101 workshop planted another seed. Inside their goody bag give-away was an egg vibrator. What a party favor; I’ve been to like a million bat mitzvahs and no one has topped that. When I was younger, I did not know women masturbated. I thought masturbating was for men. It always seemed pretty unfair because women needed a partner to satisfy their sexual desire, while men could just do it on their own. But I didn’t question it much. Thankfully, I unlearned that lesson. Following their workshop, I took multiple trips to feminist sex toy shops, which were other inclusive, educational and sex positive resources in themselves. Wild Flower is an informative online store that is intentional about selling toys for queer and non-binary people’s pleasure and has educational information ranging from communication and consent to a comprehensive sex toy guide. It was resources like these that allowed me to get in touch with that elusive thing these workshops were calling “female pleasure.”

This is important for those who have and haven’t experienced pleasure in their sexual encounters because learning the source of your own pleasure on your own terms, without all the unwritten rules, speed and/or awkwardness of navigating a new or temporary partner, is helpful in getting specific with what you like and dislike. You don’t need to vocalize anything to yourself. You can navigate your body with your hand, vibrator, or whatever you choose to use and sometimes you’re like OH SHIT, RIGHT THERE and other times you’re like ehh, that’s not doing it and other times you’re like, 0o0o0o I wouldn’t have guessed that area and somedays you may think, that felt great last week, but it’s time to try something new today. Those are the complexities you can explore within your body by yourself first so that when and if you enter a sexual encounter with someone else, you are already intimate with what does and doesn’t bring you pleasure and what you will and won’t consent to doing. These boundaries can be flexible, and probably will change over time and based on whatever positive or negative sexual experience you’ve had or will have, but knowing and respecting your boundaries is an important component of pleasure-informed consensual sex. These are also the means by which we can close the gap between who experiences sex and who experiences pleasure. 

Now, there is still something that lacks in this self-discovery, which is a language (or method of communication) to articulate likes and dislikes, curiosities and boundaries. Communicating is a key part of pleasurable consent and still the crucial component that is lacking in non-consensual sexual encounters like Margot’s in “Cat Person.” In Pleasure Activism’s chapter on “Skills for Sex in the #MeToo Era”, adrienne maree brown challenges us to “practice liberating the language of [our] desire,” articulating our pleasurable consent or lack thereof with “no,” “not now,” and “I want [insert desire].” She teaches, “by practicing your no, you will cultivate a yes that is rooted in having agency, having power, and having respect for your own boundaries.” I want to add other phrases to this list as well, since pleasure is not bounded by yes’s and no’s. Phrases like, “that hurts,” “can we take a break,” “I am not into this anymore,” “can you put your finger there,” “can we try something else instead,” and on and on. 

Although they didn’t fit neatly into my timeline, mostly because they are in between each step, some close friends of mine are my most important resources. Having honest conversations with them, learning the truth about their sexual and/or masturbating experiences, determining the variety of the term “normal,” and ultimately realizing the term doesn’t have much basis in reality, are all crucial to undermining the shame and silence around whatever blurry spots lie in between consent and sexual assault, as well as building confidence to know and to articulate what is pleasurable and what isn’t. Trusted friends are people with whom to practice your “no’s” and “I want’s” outside of sexual contexts, which is not only a skill beneficial to sexual boundaries but also to boundaries in all relationships. 

Though intentionally electing policy makers who advocate for curriculum changes within school systems is essential to disseminating a sex education that is gender and sexuality inclusive, medically accurate and sex positive to everyone, in the meantime, while we fight for those rights for the next generation, everyone here can begin by intentionally getting in touch with what brings them pleasure and the “yes” in themselves.

*I use the term “raised as women” to recognize that people of many genders were raised as women. This is significant because those raised as women have been socialized specifically and differently from those raised as men. Additionally, I want to explain why I’m differentiating between those raised as men and those raised as women. Many men are also sexually assaulted. Their assaults carry no less gravity. The #MeToo movement and others like it are for people of all genders, especially since almost half of all transgender people experience sexual assault in their lifetime, the rate of which only increases in communities of color. One example of a man who has been vocal about his sexual assault is Terry Crews. I have the utmost respect for his ability to share his story and speak out for himself and other survivors on national television. However, if you listen to interviews with him, he explains that when an agent touched him inappropriately, he immediately responded by pushing the agent away and reinforcing the boundaries around his own body. His response is precisely the reason I am making this gendered distinction. Because many, many people raised as women were taught to be silent, to be polite, to smile and swallow their discomfort. This deeply embedded lesson bleeds into sexual encounters so that it not only becomes difficult to determine what is acceptable to have done to your body and not, but also to articulate how you feel about what is or isn’t done to you. Ultimately, I believe people of all genders could benefit from being more honest and open with their preferences and boundaries, sexual or otherwise. But this is the reason I am making such a distinction.