When is violent sex OK?

A report of a woman's "brutal" but "consensual" encounter with Dominique Strauss-Kahn raises a crucial question

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published July 19, 2011 10:50PM (EDT)

The latest allegation in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga has sex educators worried. Some fear it delivers a dangerous message about rough sex and consent.

The French weekly L'Express reports that Anne Mansouret -- the mother of Tristane Banon, the journalist accusing the former IMF chief of attempted rape -- told Parisian investigators that she had sex with DSK three years before the alleged incident with her daughter. (Cue classy quips about how IMF really "stands for International Mother F---er.")

Mansouret, according to the newspaper, described to officials sex that was "consensual but clearly brutal." L'Express reported that she told authorities Strauss-Kahn behaved like an "obscene" (or "lewd," depending on your translation) soldier. The newspaper also claims that she "describes DSK as a predator who isn't looking to please but to take, and behaves like an obscene boor. Sexual lust makes him want to dominate."

Neither Mansouret nor Strauss-Kahn have responded to the L'Express article -- and even if the reported details are true, they are also incredibly vague. So, a grain of salt. But beyond the DSK case, this story does raise questions about violence and sexual consent: How should rough (or "brutal") sex be appropriately negotiated? What should we call an encounter where brutality and dominance is not requested, but also not objected to? Is it the responsibility of the aggressor to OK it with their partner, or is it the "receptive" partner's responsibility to object if it's undesirable?

"Too many people think, 'I can take a step and if they don't say no, I'll take another step further,'" Susan Wright, a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, told me. "You can't assume consent. If you cross a line, you're responsible." Jaclyn Friedman, editor of the feminist anthology "Yes Means Yes," which grapples with these same issues, agrees. "Especially if you're with a new partner, you absolutely have to ask explicitly," she says.

Of course, people are notoriously bad at actually communicating during sex -- whether it's outright stating what they want or asking what their partner wants. Friedman says there is a middle ground, though. "Even if people aren't sitting down and talking about limits and safe words beforehand, there is a way to test limits where each partner feels empowered to say 'no' or 'yes' at any time," she explains. "You could try one thing and see what their response was and then try an elevated level of that, all while paying close attention to be sure that that's turning them on instead of turning them off."

That's the thing about responsible kinksters: They are not only concerned with consent but also desire. Tristan Taormino, a wickedly smart sex educator, told me, "The person who does the roughing up, part of the pleasure they're getting is that the person they're roughing up is getting off on it," she says. That isn't what L'Express describes: "At least in the quotes that I'm reading in the press, she didn't say, 'It was brutal and I loved it' or 'It was brutal and I asked for it,'" says Taormino. "Once you have gotten into the realm of holding someone down, being forceful with them, doing something that could leave a mark on their body, you better hear a loud, enthusiastic and sober 'yes.'"

OK, so what's described by L'Express is clearly not the sort of rough sex that progressive sex educators stand behind -- but is that at all relevant to the rape allegations against DSK? Taormino points out that "'consensual rough sex gone wrong' has been used as an excuse for a defense in other sexual assault cases" -- and successfully. It's plausible that Mansouret's alleged claims could be used to support just such a defense.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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