Ongoing battles with rape culture (TW for rape and sexual assault)

I’ve been meaning to talk about rape culture and my experiences with it for quite a while, but something always puts me off. It’s not a ‘fun’ feminist topic. I don’t get to disclose tantalising details about my sex life and offer tips on how to try some of the kinkier stuff, and I don’t get to justify my writing with ‘this will help you have much better sex!’, as I do with so much else. But I think it’s something more than that. I am proud of my sex life, proud that I have managed to get to a point where I can talk openly about what I want and where I’m not ashamed of what I enjoy. In real life, I sometimes get accused of showing off, and while I don’t mean to, I can see how it might come across that way, because damn it, I have great sex and I know it.

I am not proud of being sexually assaulted. I am not proud of being raped.

Even typing those words took a lot more effort than writing that I enjoy being handcuffed down and lightly choked ever would. I still hesitate using that word. Rape. Was it rape? It didn’t fit into any of the narratives I’d heard all my life about what rape was, so I always assumed it wasn’t. I’m much more comfortable now saying I was sexually assaulted (that that least is certainly true), than of using a word I’ve been attacked for using so many times before. And while if anyone came to me and told me that something similar had happened to them, I would have no problem calling the perpetrator a rapist, somehow I struggle in relation to myself. There is doubt there. Am I misremembering? Did I just change my mind after the event, as so many people claim rape accusers do? Was it all just a big misunderstanding?

I got all of those excuses and many more when I was dealing with the aftermath. The first time, I was reminded that I’d been drunk that night, and that I’d been flirting with Tarquin and just about everyone else. The second time, well what did I expect, getting into bed with Domitian? And the third, Tereas and I were already sleeping together. We had been, for a year. I’d allowed him to handcuff me down, and I even gave in towards the end, begging him to go slower rather than to stop. Clearly it was all just miscommunication, a case of mixed signals, these things can be so unclear. Obviously he didn’t mean to rape me.

And just as obviously, the people telling rape jokes in my presence don’t mean to offend me. Of course it’s just a joke, clearly they don’t mean anything by it. I’m just being over-sensitive, failing to really understand.

And I tell them no. I tell them they have no idea when they tell those jokes whether or not their in the presence of a sexual assault survivor. They look at me oddly, as if I’m exaggerating hugely. I hold my ground. After all, I say, we don’t exactly wear badges.

This is the part of my identity that I most want to hide, and that I am least willing to. I watch eyes widen in shock, people around me stumbling over themselves to take back what they’ve said, desperately trying to reassess our relationship in the context of what I’ve just told them. I hold eye contact and refuse to look away, to laugh and take it back, to make a joke out of it. I get asked if I’m okay, if I want to talk about it. I say I got over it years ago. They ask why, if that’s the case, I choose to bring it up now. I wonder that myself sometimes. But the truth is, no one ever stops to consider whether the person they’re talking to might have suffered sexual assault, why a trivial joke might be more triggering for them than for the teller. The number of stunned responses I get when I admit that I fall into that group tells me one of two things. Either it’s never occurred to them that something like that might have happened to someone they know, which is statistically pretty much impossible, or it is inconceivable to them that anyone might admit it in public, might risk the shame and stigma that goes with it for no apparent reason.

Is it that I’ve been raped that shocks them, or that I refuse to hide and be ashamed and pretend it never happened?

I see where they’re coming from. I know a lot of survivors, and the vast majority of them would never mention something like this in public, among near-strangers. Some hardly talk about it at all. I am certain that I know more, who have never told me, or indeed anyone else. The reactions hurt. The shock, then, if you’re lucky, the pity. If you’re not, the interrogation, a barrage of questions to determine what, precisely happened, and whether it actually, you know, counts as rape. The assessment inevitably ends up being that it doesn’t. I would not ask anyone else to open themselves up to that, especially not someone who has already suffered the actual assault.

But I do it. And it is not because I am braver, or stronger, or more ‘over it’ than anyone else. It is because the only way I can overcome the total humiliation I feel at having let this happen to me, not once, not twice, but three fucking times, is to do my damnedest to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. Part of that is writing this blog, and encouraging my friends to communicate better and have a clearer understanding of what they do and don’t want. But part of it is challenging others, even if I don’t know them that well. Part of that is saying yes, we exist, we don’t blend into obscurity and disappear just because it’s easier for you to think that no one you know could possibly be a victim or a perpetrator, so you can tell your rape jokes in peace. I’m not going to be silent so that you can feel better about yourself, and if my presence, my admission, makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you need to reevaluate a few things.

It is not strength that makes me do this, it is pride. Fighting the urge to forget it all and pretend it was just ‘mixed signals’ and ‘a drunken mistake’, in the vaguest hope that maybe something I say might stop it happening to someone else. That is the only way I can overcome the humiliation and powerlessness that I still feel today. It still hurts, every time someone tells me it wasn’t ‘real rape’, or accuses me of overreacting and seeking attention. But it hurts a little bit less every time. And that too is something that I am proud of.

A guide to the not-just-one-night-stand

I promised a post on one-night-stands, so here it is. I’m curious to see whether this gets as many hits as the threesome post, since me talking personally about kinky sexual experiences I’ve had seems to be more popular than me talking abstractedly about vaguely feminist issues. Anyway, we shall see.

I am not as experienced with one-night-stands as I am with threesomes, and there is a very good reason for this. Alexander put it best, when he told me ‘anyone worth screwing is worth screwing twice’. Sex doesn’t have to be a one-off for it to stay casual, and if you’ve got good chemistry with someone and had a great time, there is no definite reason why you should stop there. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I wanted to start with why someone might want a one-night-stand in the first place. And by someone, I mean me, since I can’t speak for anyone else.

Sex can be hugely emotional, and intimate, and if it’s good, the sudden release of so many endorphins can be incredibly powerful. It’s intense, and intense emotion (if you count feeling happy from endorphins as emotion) can lead to a form of emotional connection. But it doesn’t have to. Some people are very good at separating sex and emotions. Some are not. I don’t buy into the view that ‘sex can never be fully detached from emotions’, but nor do I think that it’s always as purely physical as some people claim. Again, it depends on the person. It’s also not necessarily a gender divide. The narrative that men want sex while women want emotional intimacy is so generalising and out-dated, not to mention dismissive to female sexuality, that it’s not even worth commenting on. Maybe gender does play a part, or hormone levels, or cultural factors, but that’s not what’s important here. All that matters is that sex means different things for different people, and that’s okay.

So where do I fit in on this spectrum? I have, over the last six years, had a lot of casual sex. Some of it was with strangers I’d only met that night, some with friends after a few drinks, and one memorable time with the man I would end up spending two years with in a committed, long-term relationship. Of these encounters, only about three of them actually ended up being one-night-stands. Because Alexander has a point: if you’ve gone through the games and the flirtation, put aside the awkwardness of sex with a new partner and got to the point where you’re doing something deeply intimate with them, why not do it again? For me, sex makes me see a person in a different way. Even if I don’t want a relationship with them, the fact that we’ve been in bed together changes the way we act around one another. He touches my hand as he passes me a drink and I remember other places his hands have been. She gives me a hug goodbye and I’m struck by a sudden flashback at the smell of her hair. That doesn’t mean I desperately want to do them again (although I often do), but just that it’s hard to see someone in exactly the same way once you’ve had them naked in your bed.

Casual sex gets dismissed quite a lot in our society, especially when it’s women seeking it. It actually has some pretty major advantages if you have a ridiculously high sex drive (or even just a moderately high one), but for whatever reasons don’t want to be in a relationship. Or, of course, if you’re in an open relationship, but don’t want to get too deeply involved in other partners. Also, it’s fun and new and exciting, and you get to find out all sorts of interesting things about another person and possibly learn something about yourself too. I’ve done everything from walking up to a complete stranger in a bar and asking if they want to take me home, to spending two weeks talking to someone online about exactly what we were going to do to each other when we met. Right now, my preferences lie more towards the latter, because I have a very clear idea of what I want from a sexual partner, and it’s much easier to gauge whether that’s an option if you’ve had a decent conversation with them. But I won’t deny there’s an incredible thrill in taking a stranger back home, and knowing that you could be anyone to each other. That’s not a narrative we see very often, and that’s exactly what makes it so incredibly hot.

So why do I want casual sex right now? I’ve just got out of a serious relationship, and not only do I not feel emotionally ready for another one, I don’t want one. I like being able to flirt with anyone, and to decide at a moment’s notice whether I want to go home with someone. It’s fun and it works for me. But I am painfully aware that it doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve been the girl who swore blind she was okay with casual sex when she really wanted an exclusive relationship, and I’ve been one pretending to believe a partner who said the same. Both hurt, and neither are particularly healthy. So now I have rules. One of the great things about being so forward is that I don’t feel uncomfortable telling people in no uncertain terms what I want. (That is, ‘I want to be able to fuck you a few times but I don’t want a relationship’, rather than ‘I want you to handcuff me down and spank me’, although I’m working on the latter.) I don’t want someone who is looking for more, hoping a casual fling will become a serious relationship. And, just as importantly, I don’t want someone who’s up for the casual fling, but whose other partners aren’t.

This is a big problem when it comes to one-night-stands: a lot of the people who are also looking for what I’m looking for have other partners. And this is a good thing – I have other partners too. But when they don’t tell these people, when they lie and pretend to be exclusive, or else maintain an open relationship with someone who clearly wants monogamy, that is an issue. I’ve been the ‘other woman’, several times, as well as being the one being cheated on, and I like to think I’ve grown out of it. No, it’s not my responsibility to make sure someone else’s girlfriend stays faithful, to avoid any contact with their boyfriend in case he has a moment of weakness and jumps me. Not my relationship, not by problem. But on a purely selfish level, it makes me uncomfortable knowing that I’m doing something incredibly intimate with someone who can’t be honest with the people who are close to them, who is, intentionally or not, hurting those who trust them. If they’re like that with their serious partners, then how on earth can I trust them with me? How can I be sure that they will respect my boundaries in a sexual context, if they don’t respect their other partners’ in a relationship context?

This, sadly, narrows down the number potential casual partners quite significantly. And I guess for an actual one-night-stand, maybe it wouldn’t be an issue. But I know from experience that if I enjoy fucking someone once, I will want to do it again. (And again and again, until we either end up in a relationship or one of us gets bored.) I like sex too much to give it up with someone I find attractive just to stick to the ‘one night’ part. And for that, there needs to be trust, even if that trust only goes as far as ‘I trust you to make me feel amazing, be honest about your emotions, and not hurt anyone else by being with me’.

If we find each other attractive and you can promise me that, then I can guarantee we’ll have a lot of fun together. And if not, I wish you the best of luck with your other relationship(s), and I really hope you grow up enough to be able to deal with the drama that will almost definitely ensue. I’m here to offer advice if you need me.

The bitter aftertaste of too many lovehearts

Only two days to go before Valentine’s Day! You see, I have a feminist blog, and I feel that what the feminist blogosphere really needs right now is another post on how ridiculous Valentine’s Day is. Not really. But I have thoughts on this, and no time like the present, so I’m going for it. If you wish to discount this post as just another single lady whinging about being alone on February 14th, feel free to skip it. Everyone else, it’s good to have you on board.

I have been in and out of a variety of relationships for over six years now, and I have never had a date on the infamous Valentine’s Day. This is for a number of reasons: I wasn’t actually anyone’s ‘girlfriend’ for quite a long time, and the casual on-and-off relationships I had didn’t really lend themselves to this Hallmark holiday. Last year, when I was in a committed exclusive relationship (not that this is to be valued any higher than any other relationship), I worked a barshift on Valentine’s Day, while my boyfriend was on a business trip overseas. The best thing I have ever done on February 14th is to go ice-climbing up a frozen waterfall, while on holiday in Switzerland with my parents. This was fucking awesome. Seriously, it is one of the most incredible and terrifying things I have ever done, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think any other Valentine’s Day could possibly live up to it. It’s hard to argue with a frozen waterfall.

I’m not one of those people who hates the occasion, who thinks it’s all just a commercialistic excuse for card companies to make a fortune. I’m fairly sure that everyone thinks this deep down, but I know how it all ceases to matter when you’re with the person you love. Just like that new couple in their honeymoon phase is the most nauseating thing ever, but when it’s you, calling each other pet names and kissing in public just feels perfectly natural. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a specific date to show someone how much you care about them, although I’m a little dubious about that date being the same for everyone. (Personally, I find anniversaries much more important, but who says it has to just be one day?) And if you want to spend money and go out on a lovely date, then again, I’m happy for you. Just because the card companies are making a fortune out of it, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be happy. (They make a fortune out of Christmas cards too, but no one is suggesting we ignore Christmas.)

What I really dislike is the mad frenzy to find a date. All the sitcoms and pop culture show a sad, unhealthy view of this holiday, where single women cry and are snapped up by pick-up artists on the prowl for some easy prey, while women with partners stress about it not being special enough. If Valentine’s Day is about spending time with someone you love, then dating a stranger for the night just seems a little pointless (and this is coming from a girl who enjoys dating strangers). And similarly, if you and your partner really do love each other, it shouldn’t matter what you do, if you can’t afford that meal in a fancy restaurant or don’t want to spend money on the perfect card. My best friend and her boyfriend are doing Valentine’s Day for 35p each this year, and I think that’s beautifully romantic. (I have suggested that she buys him an onion, complete with this poem.) Alexander and I went out the weekend after, and had a lovely dinner for prices that hadn’t been raised extortionately for that one special day.

I also have an issue with the idea that grand gestures can fix an unhealthy relationship. If your partner doesn’t care about you for the rest of the year, if they forget the things that are important to you and don’t make the time you feel your relationship needs, then why should one ‘perfect’ night change any of that? I would much rather have someone who treated me with respect all year round than someone who felt a card and some chocolates could make up for a year of disappointment. And the idea that it’s men who will give presents to women, in return for sex that is perhaps kinkier or more adventurous than usual is also total bullshit. Sex should be something awesome that you do (or don’t do, if you’re not a couple with a high sex drive) all the time, not something that needs to be bought or bartered for.

Then there’s the hierarchy of relationship that Valentine’s Day inevitably evokes. At the top, monogamous heterosexual couples, followed by gay couples, as long as they’re doing something suitably traditional. But what about people in open relationships? Or threesome situations? Or casually seeing each other? Or in the first tentative stages of a relationship where doing something for Valentine’s Day seem a bit over the top? What about me, in my series of ridiculously complicated situations? My style of dating and sex just doesn’t fit with the standard Valentine’s Day dynamic, and I’m mostly okay with that. I think if you’re with someone you really care about and you want to celebrate, then it can be lovely to have a special occasion to do that. But if you’re not, it doesn’t make you or your indefinable unconventional relationship any kind of failure. There isn’t a card that says ‘I like fucking you and I hope to continue doing so, along with various other people’, and maybe that’s a good thing! Not all things can be printed on cards with cute little messages. Not everyone likes flowers and chocolates, just like not everyone likes bondage and erotic asphyxiation. But I’d never call anyone a failure because of it.

So what will I be doing on Valentine’s Day then? Well, I’ve got a two-hour dance class, and then I’m heading off to the theatre bar with a group of friends, and we are going to drink G&Ts and sing songs from musicals. And the next day, we will all still be happy, successful, sexually confident people, whose lives don’t quite fit with the pink heart scenario right at this moment. Maybe next year, maybe not next year. I don’t need an anonymous card to know that I’m sexy and desirable, and I’m sorry, but if you need to mark this day somehow to be sure that your partner really loves you, then maybe your relationship needs some work.

As Holly Pervocracy put it so beautifully, I don’t need you, I want you is one of the sexiest things you can hear. And I hope to be hearing it a lot.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (kinda, not really though)

The play is over, which I am both relieved and very sad about. It went incredibly well, and was a lot of fun, and I am so very pleased I took the time out of my degree to really give it everything I had. And now it is over and normal life resumes. Hello normal life! How have you been? I missed you.

Somehow, over the course of the play, I have ended up in a position I never thought I’d have to face: I slept with a younger guy. This should not be a big deal, but I have always dated people significantly older than me. Electra: two years older. Salmacis: four years older. Alexander: three years older. A mad mad French girl who doesn’t have a pseudonym: five years older. And okay, Leander was my age, but that was an exception. I have never had much time for people younger than me, male or female, at least not as sexual partners. It just didn’t seem right.

Alas, one of the downsides to being  third-year at university (other than exams and actually having to work, of course) is that the supply of people older than you tends to fade away. And what’s replacing them? Bright-eyed, naive, innocent freshers. Oh dear god, I sound like Mrs Robinson.

Marcus is certainly not naive or innocent, though I suppose he does have rather bright eyes. He is, however, a teenager. Eighteen, to be precise. And this feels rather strange for a girl who prefers experienced partners because, well, less goes wrong that way. Plus it means I can learn new things, and I enjoy learning a lot. Teaching is all well and good, but learning means you can make sex even better, then go on and transfer these amazing new skills to another partner! How awesome is that?!

So why did I sleep with him? Aside from the fact that I find him hot and want to do him (always a good start), because I spent my teenaged years spouting the mantra that age doesn’t matter, it’s the people who count. Admittedly, this was just to reassure my concerned friends that I really was alright with all these exciting older people, but there’s truth to it too. People mature at different times, and age really isn’t everything. When I was fifteen, people my own age bored me, and I really did get on better with university students. And if Marcus feels the same as a first-year, who am I to question that?

Of course, I need to be careful. Dan Savage’s ‘campsite rule’ comes into play here: if you’re the older or more experienced partner, you must leave whoever you’re involved with in the same sexual, mental and emotional state than you found them, or preferably better. Even if he’s no blushing virgin (hah), I need to make an effort not to make assumptions, to be extra clear with communication, and maybe take certain things slow.

It’s the same technique I’d use on anyone who’d never done BDSM before. Just because I’m usually the submissive one who likes to be dominated and taken, doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility towards the other person, making sure they’re okay with how things are going. Safewords work both ways. I know from experience that sometimes it’s terrifying being in control of someone else, and there are times when you just want to stop the scene and go back to cuddling. So if I’m teaching a new partner how to top me, even if they’re the one fastening the handcuffs, it’s still my responsibility to make sure they’re okay with that, and to help them if they’re not. And that’s mostly how I feel now, with Marcus. I trust him to tell me what he wants and does not want, but it’s still my responsibility, as the (just slightly) older woman to check that nothing makes him feel uncomfortable. Because I know, again from experience, that sometimes it’s hard to to admit that everything might not be entirely okay if you’re trying to feel all confident and grown up.

And speaking of growing up, I have to do that too. I am just a little bit used to being the one who needs looking after in any kind of relationship, letting other people take care of me and being lazy with communication and boundaries, because I take it for granted that my partner will do the hard work for me. I’m not saying for a moment that Marcus needs looking after – I don’t think he does, not seriously, or else I wouldn’t trust myself with that responsibility. But I do need to look after myself, and remind myself of all the useful tips I give to first-timers. Now is a great opportunity to put what I keep going on about into practice. I hope so, anyway. We shall see how it goes.

Other things I plan to talk about in the near future:

* One-night-stands: why do it, and how?
* Online dating and all the fun it entails
* Rape culture: an update on my own experiences
* More on privilege (everyone’s favourite)
* Feminism in real life, aka why ‘I support women’s rights but I’m not a feminist’ is bullshit

Oh, and if anyone’s wondering, I was as sexually forward and open about what I wanted as I have always been, and you know what? It worked perfectly. Screw you, Atratinus, and everyone else who thinks that sexually assertive women are broken and damaged. We are awesome, and we are having much better sex than you are. So there.