My bad sex wasn't rape

The outcry over a recent "Girls" episode startled me. What happened to a woman's sexual agency?

Published March 22, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

 Adam Driver and Shiri Appleby in "Girls"        (HBO)
Adam Driver and Shiri Appleby in "Girls" (HBO)

Thirty-some summers ago, when I was 15, I lost my virginity to a boy who didn’t care a bit about my emotional well-being. He was very popular, on his way to college in the fall, and sleeping with any girl who would spread her legs to have sex with him that summer.

Two weeks after we had sex for the first time, he and I and his best friend got drunk — me for the first time in my life — and I ended up having sex in a park with both of them. It was somewhat miserable for me to have sex consecutively with two young men, ages 17 and 19, and to hear the second one ask, in the midst of intercourse, “Are you using birth control?” and quickly add, “Oh, who cares — if you get pregnant, it’s your fault,” and to have my bra and panties left behind on the grass when they drove me home. I was shaken both by the degrading nature of the incident and by the fact that I had allowed it. But allow it, I did.  Was I raped? No. Did I ever for one second think that maybe I had been raped? No.

Many would disagree.

* * *

I thought of this incident often over the last week, while watching pink smoke waft across the TV screen during the conclave electing the new pope (protests against the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women in leadership roles –huzzah!); while watching two young men be convicted of raping a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio (terrific that some sort of justice has been served); while watching the discussion about whether the coverage on CNN after the conviction was too sympathetic to the rapists (perhaps CNN went too far, but I’m filled with compassion for teens who commit crimes, whether they go to jail or not, as well as their victims); and while reading numerous discussions about whether a sex scene on Lena Dunham’s smart HBO show "Girls" was actually rape (it was not).

The outcry about the "Girls" episode truly startled me. I was surprised when several bright writers whose work I admire labeled the scene rape, because to me and to so many other bright writers whose work I admire, it so clearly was not rape. Categorizing it as such is an intellectually unsound discrediting of women’s power. Natalia was not raped and to call the sex she consented to rape is to demean actual victims of sexual assault and devalue the crime. Further, it is paternalistic in its approach to women, as though women are helpless beings incapable of voicing their wants, and, absent violence and/or threats of violence, can’t or won’t say no.  If we want to argue that women are so limited by the patriarchy that they can’t say no, how do we counter the arguments that women can’t handle jobs in the military or working as police officers? If they can’t escape the narrow roles that a male-dominated society allows them (which some offer as a reason why a woman can’t say no in bed), how will they be able to embrace their power as a soldier or law enforcement officer?

It’s exciting to see so much vigorous debate about feminist issues, but as someone who’s been concerned with combating sexual violence for more than 25 years, there’s one message I think gets undervalued or too often dismissed when we talk about how to erode rape culture: women’s sexual agency.  As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.”

* * *

It’s sad to me that we are still buying into a puritanical vision of women and saying that when they willingly participate in something and don’t like it they have been assaulted. It’s sad to me that we are teaching kids that if someone is too emotionally immature to give proper consent, it's rape, as the generally terrific site Scarlteen does.

(So now it’s up to our partners to determine if we have the emotional maturity to give consent? Or is it just that we want them to roll the dice that after the fact we won't turn around and say, “I wasn't mature enough to give consent, so you raped me.”) So much of victim blaming relies on these outmoded views of women’s sexuality.

We should never blame victims of sexual assault because they are in no way to blame for the crimes perpetrated against them. At the same time, it is not helpful to label every murky sexual encounter as rape or to say that anything any woman states is rape is, in fact, rape. To say so is to render the word meaningless.

I agree with the notion of “enthusiastic consent” advanced by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman in the landmark collection they edited, "Yes Means Yes." As Jill Filipovic says there:  "Women are not empty vessels to be fucked or not fucked; we’re sexual actors who should absolutely have the ability to say yes when we want it.”

At the end of the scene in "Girls," we see Natalia tell Adam that she really didn’t like what just transpired between them. That happens sometimes in sex – we do things that we don’t like – that’s part of how we learn what our limits are and what we like, isn’t it?

Defining regret over a consensual experience as rape conveys the message that women who experiment with something sexually and do not like it means that a traumatic crime has been committed. Nonsense. Has everyone who has ever consented to trying anal sex and hasn’t liked it been raped? I think not. The next time we see Natalia she is again in bed with Adam, being very clear about what she wants and what she doesn’t want – and getting it. Isn’t that what sexual autonomy is? When did we get confused and start to think that everyone was going to like every single thing they consented to? Isn’t it valid to sometimes do some things you “don’t like,” either to simply try them or to please a partner? And to negotiate with your partner whether to repeat them or limit them or continue to do them?

The idea that what happened in Steubenville, with Natalia on "Girls," and with me in the park 30 years ago are all rape is ridiculous. Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent given are two different things. Women and girls should be told they can chart their own courses. If they don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control — like the women I knew in college who blamed alcohol or drugs for their own sexual adventures or misadventures, or the adult women I know who are still using sex to “get” and “keep” men.

Our culture needs to make space for young girls, as well as young boys, to safely explore their maturing bodies and initial erotic longings. It’s critical to allow for sex roles that are broader than the ones that we have been clinging to for generations. Women and girls need to be able to make mistakes. Emerging sexuality needs to be approached honestly and openly, and not as a pathology. Sex should not be seen as something that girls and women engage in merely to please or keep a man, nor as something that sneaks up and takes them unawares in the night.

The more we learn to claim our own sexual power, the more we will contribute to changing the landscape of sexual violence.  We can say yes and we can say no. As feminist writer Mary Gaitskill writes about her own experience, “Many years after being raped, I finally understood that in failing even to try to speak up on my own behalf, I had, in a sense, raped myself.”

* * *

Discussing these issues over the past week, I have been reminded of how fraught with divisiveness they can be. When I shared some of my opinions – in both real-life discussions with friends and Facebook conversations – I was told that I needed to “talk to some actual survivors,” that I didn’t understand what rape was, that I was distracting from the “real” point of convincing men to stop raping, that I had no right to say what was rape and what wasn’t. In fact, I worked at an urban rape crisis center and helped launch the U.S.’s only nationwide sexual assault hotline, RAINN. I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault and have written about that in assorted publications, including here in Salon, but for my various opinions, I was told that I was not a feminist.

We need to stop cannibalizing one another over our differences, and instead invite broad discussion.  Yes, we must teach men not to rape, but it’s not as simple as that. In order to end sexual violence, a number of strategies must be employed and to talk about them too often gets incorrectly dismissed as victim blaming.  Men should be encouraged to take more active roles in the fight against sexual violence. Sex should be discussed in terms that describe a shared perspective rather than as something that is done to a person by another person.  It’s a pretty short walk from trying to “talk a girl into” sex to taking the sex, from cajoling to coercing to forcing. Let’s rewrite the story by respecting women’s sexual choices — even when those choices lead to sex that makes us feel bad, pretending that we enjoy things we don’t.

We expect society to do what we are not doing on an individual level: establish clear boundaries and guidelines, show men what is right and wrong, etc. I don’t believe that any amount of cultural messaging is going to ultimately be effective in combating what we all know to be true: that people give conflicting messages, that much of sex is a negotiation, that not everything either side does is done with complete enthusiasm. Many men and women will tell you they don’t perform oral sex because they love it but rather because their partners do.  Do we want them to stop?

For most of us, we don't come into our own about articulating our specific wants and desires until late in life, if ever. Let us encourage a culture where everyone – regardless of gender, orientation, etc. – does so openly, honestly, respectfully. Let us all learn to say, “I don’t know how I’m going to like that, but let’s try it out.” (We could take some lessons from the BDSM communities where boundaries and limits are strictly negotiated in advance.)

If we treat sexual encounters such as my encounter in the park as sexual assault, we are in fact failing to respect the "victim's" agency. We have to respect that agency no matter how someone chooses to enact it, whether that's having sex they don't really want to have in silence, or saying yes to it, or saying no and walking away. For women, claiming our sexual power is an integral piece of ending rape culture, not to mention realizing our own sexual fulfillment.

* * *

It was quite a week in feminism, but every week is quite a week in feminism. I believe we should live our feminism every day, and not just around the sensational cases.

It’s important to individually adopt the practice of enthusiastic consent and then teach it to others so it can become a standard value. To do so would be to render what happened in the Steubenville trial impossible.

It would shift the focus when someone is raped from whether or not she effectively said "No” to “What did you do to make sure she wanted to have sex?

Today I’ve been hearing that any extended discussion of the plight of the rapists in Steubenville is wrong.  I think that if we want to teach men not to rape, showing the consequences of punishment is a good thing.  I keep hearing that to explore rape prevention strategies for women is wrong, though we teach people how to prevent crime all the time (lock your windows, don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket, turn your lights on when you go out of town, etc.). That statistics from within the rape crisis movement about lesbians being raped are not possible (but we’d better not question statistics about how many women are assaulted – that would be paternalistic!).

It is, of course, vitally important to work against sexism, but trying to hang on to sexual violence as something that only men do to only women is not going to help in that struggle. We can honor the victim and still feel empathy for teenagers convicted of the rape. We can put responsibility on men not to rape and still discuss prevention strategies with women. We can acknowledge that women are perpetrators, too, and we can make room for the fact that men are sexually assaulted in vast numbers (primarily by other men).

Twenty years ago, it was argued by some inside the rape crisis movement that estimates of prison rape and of boys being sexually abused were wrong and that it was merely a diversionary tactic to move attention from women. Of course, now we know those numbers were far too low. We should look at how we’ve evolved over the last 40 years and acknowledge that we will evolve over the next 40.

We need to work toward the day where we can talk about sex openly and where the morning after is neither blame nor condemnation, nor anger or shame. A day when both the rape that happened in Steubenville and the way the victim has been treated would seem bizarre. That would be a great thing for everyone, wouldn’t it?

For me, I had sex that night in the park for all the wrong reasons – to keep the attentions of a boy I liked, to seem cool, to seem older. I didn’t like the sex but I don’t regret the decision. The two boys in the park were friends of a sort, and remained friends of mine into adulthood. From that event I learned an awful lot about good reasons and bad reasons to have sex and while I can’t say that I never had sex to please someone else again, I will say that I extricated myself from a lot of future sexual pressure in various situations because I learned, early, that sometimes the thing you do in the moment sexually makes you feel bad after the fact.

Sometimes, that’s the cost of having the power to say yes.

By Anna March

Anna March’s writing appears frequently here in Salon as well as in The New York Times' Modern Love column, New York Magazine and The Rumpus. She is the Publisher of the magazine Roar. Her essay collection, "Feminist Killjoy," and novel are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @annamarch or learn more about her at

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