[CN: references to sexual assault]
In my last article on this topic I suggested that simply doing things to a sexual partner which they hadn’t agreed to – particularly if those things involved penetration or hitting them – was close to the definition of sexual assault. I thought that’d be pretty uncontroversial, but one commenter left a set of replies strongly resisting the idea. He put forward a view which I’ve heard elsewhere: that it’s perfectly natural to try new things in bed, and if your partner doesn’t like it, she can tell you to stop. I think there are a number of problems with this assumption, – which sounds convincing on the surface – so I thought it was worth going into more detail.
Firstly, there’s an issue with deciding unilaterally that you would like to do something when it involves someone else’s body. I really don’t understand having seen something in a film, or read about it, thinking “I’d like to do that” and not also realizing that it makes more sense if the other person involves is keen as well. Either you think it doesn’t matter whether they do or not – which betrays a really dangerous attitude towards sex – or you’re going to guess about it, which seems chancy. Admittedly this is part of a much bigger narrative around sex in our culture: the idea that men just doing things to women is the height of romance and sexual excitement. Though this is peddled by an awful lot of films, dating books and magazines, it is both risky and clearly set up to benefit one particular group. It rigs social interactions so that men have a higher chance of getting what they want, and women have a higher chance of ending up in an unpleasant experience. One person in an encounter shoulders the risk, and the other person stands to benefit from the reward.
And people are personal about their bodies. We are embodied beings, and one way in which people have been damaged and oppressed in our culture is by denying this. By not respecting the specificity of people’s bodies, regarding them as imperfect, defective or deviant versions of someone else’s. By creating an ideal to which no actual body can match. By insisting that people separate their mental and physical states, with the former being considered more pure or more worthy of respect. Someone else’s body is not signed over to us because we are sharing a sexual experience with them. They are still in it, and it is still a massive part of them. The “thing” you might want to try won’t simply involve their body, it will have their body (and them) as a component part of it. I think we’re much too quick to imagine that sex somehow immediately translates people’s bodies into a different category. So a man deciding that he wants to try something won’t suddenly stop involving the woman if it “works”.
If it doesn’t “work” – by which I’m assuming we mean they don’t enjoy it – it won’t necessarily be reversible by just stopping or even stopping and saying sorry. As another commenter on my previous piece highlighted, physical damage can occur from relatively common forms of sexual activity if they’re done wrongly, and/or to someone who wasn’t expecting or wishing for them. If there is no physical harm, then they may still experience it as traumatic or unpleasant. There may be specific reasons why they don’t enjoy or want that particular activity, and so “just trying” it will be shocking and hurtful. If they didn’t consent to it, whatever the reason, there’s no reason to think they want it – or that it’ll be fine if you just stop when they tell you to.
Embedded within this is another risk: that they may not make it clear that they are finding the experience deeply unpleasant. There are various reasons this might happen. Many women freeze up when something is done to their body which they do not want and which they find frightening, a fact that has to be continually reiterated in the face of people asking “why didn’t she fight back/ gouge his eyes/ sprint away?” in rape cases. Other women may have had experiences in the past of men who didn’t stop when they were asked – a disturbing number of articles have pointed out that when men are asked about their experiences of “bad sex” they often talk about unsatisfactory or embarrassing sexual moments, whereas women often talk about being forced or coerced. They may only be putting up with something they didn’t want, because our culture socializes young women to value men’s desire for pleasure over their own needs, or they may be scared and just getting through in the hope it will end quickly.
They may also not object because they are afraid of “escalating” a situation in which a man has just stepped over the boundaries of what they agreed. If a woman is experiencing a sexual encounter as a physical violation, she may worry that this is not the only boundary he will ignore. They’re not concerned that a man might “turn violent” when rejected – as far as they’re concerned he has already become violent, and they want to make sure he doesn’t become more so. Rough sex which a woman didn’t ask for (as in the Metro article) isn’t just a warning sign for sexual assault: it is that assault. A man “just trying” it takes a gamble that his partner won’t experience it as assault. It may be fine, and she may like it, but he has no evidence to base that upon. He risks being someone who just committed a sexual assault, however unintentionally and however much he’s convinced he’s not that sort of guy. But, much more seriously, he imposes a risk on his partner, which she did not agree to, that she may become someone who was just sexually assaulted. Once again, the odds are stacked so that one person takes the risk, and the other person deals with the consequences.
It’s not easy to imagine how this situation must feel to a woman, and we will never quite get it, but perhaps a very crude (and frankly over-extended analogy) might help me and my male readers explore it. Imagine you’re sparring in a boxing ring, wearing gloves and a headguard. The bout’s going well, and you’re enjoying it, when suddenly your partner launches a full-speed kick at your knee. Unsurprisingly, you’re totally unprepared and it takes you down painfully. But a lot of people like martial arts where strikes to the knee are used. How was your sparring partner supposed to know you didn’t fancy mixing it up a little? Maybe his last couple of bouts involved people who couldn’t get enough of kick-boxing, or maybe his best friend won’t stop going on about how Muay Thai is the greatest discipline they’ve ever tried, and he fancied giving it a go. Maybe he trains at a gym where everyone’s into MMA, and he gets called “Queensberry” because he’s never tried any other style. Or maybe he’s just watched a few martial arts movies, and it looks like the coolest thing ever – and they’re all totally having fun on screen.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that you would like to give kick-boxing a go some time. It’s not as if you’re totally unaware that those kinds of techniques exist – your partner isn’t the only one who watches martial arts movies or follows Pride. In fact, you might have kick-boxed in the past – though he hasn’t asked you about that, so he has no way of knowing. He also has no way of knowing why it is you said you wanted to box today: whether you’re just in the mood for the gloves, if you tried other styles but really didn’t take to them, if you have a strain in one of your calf muscles. Or if you have an old rugby injury which means you never want to kick-box, and in fact he’s just smashed your knee joint. Because, incidentally, he’s two weight divisions bigger than you, and has a longer striking reach.
Even if you did want to suddenly start kick-boxing, and doing so right now, without having given him any indication that’s what you were thinking, a strike to the knee isn’t a good way for him to determine that. There are practical reasons. You’re in the wrong stance, you need to shift your guard, and you need to be watching for those kinds of moves. If you’ve only trained as a boxer, you may well not know how to breakfall properly, and a simple takedown – which another fighter would know how to roll with – may mean you slam your head on the ground and do serious damage.
And once you’re down, what is he going to do? This is a serious question. A boxer would stand back and go to a neutral corner whilst you find your legs. But your partner isn’t a boxer any more. He’s made that very clear. Though he hasn’t explained what he thinks he is. As you go down from that totally unexpected strike, you have no idea whether he’s going to let you get back up, or whether he’s going to ground and pound you. Should you try to recover your breath, or should you expect him to smash an elbow into your ribs? If you were still boxing, you could signal to him to stop. But he’s not boxing any more, and you don’t know what he thinks this situation is now. One option is that you could drop your guard, take out your gumshield, and explain that you only wanted to box. What’s your problem with doing that? He was only trying something new…
 For the purposes of this discussion, and given the gendered dynamic of the debates around sexual assault, we’re assuming that the sex referred to is between a man and a woman.