Every time I sit down to work on this essay, I feel part of myself tensing up, building toward a blind rage. The other parts of me feel heavy. I want to crawl into bed and sleep until things start getting better. I want to talk (scream, yell, weep) about the prevalence of sexual violence in America today. I want to express how horribly urgent it is to address the problems with the way our culture deals with matters of ethical sex and rape and abuse. I want every single person, here and in every place on the planet, to be able to live without the fear of being hurt like that. I want every single person to be able to tell their stories without fear of ridicule or public shame.
I wrote about my own experience with sexual assault years after it happened, at which point I had still only shared it with a handful of people. It was a situation that began with drunken, uncomfortable no’s and concluded with a demoralizing and listless surrender. I still have trouble categorizing what happened at times; I wasn’t ambushed by a stranger, this was someone I’d known for years. I didn’t know what else I could do or where I could go. I didn’t fight for myself. I closed my eyes and gave up.
I didn’t know what to call it, but I knew how I felt. After taking a closer look at the context of the situation and replaying the details in my mind more times than I can count, I know that what happened was not consensual.
This wasn’t the only time I’ve felt like an encounter was more of a violation than sex and I know it’s not uncommon; not even among those closest to me. This is something that happens to an unintelligible amount of people all over the world. In the united states alone, the numbers are grotesque. The most recent data on the subject available on the United States CDC website comes from a survey conducted in 2011:
“Nearly 1 in 5 (18.3%) women and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives.”
“Approximately 1 in 20 women and men (5.6% and 5.3%, respectively) experienced sexual violence other than rape, such as being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or non-contact unwanted sexual experiences, in the 12 months prior to the survey.”
“4.8% of men reported they were made to penetrate someone else at some time in their lives.”
“13% of women and 6% of men reported they experienced sexual coercion at some time in their lives.”
These are just a few of the big takeaway points presented in a summary of the study. In other words, it’s not even the half of it. As I look through all this information, I wonder if those who answered that they had experienced rape or assault have to tell their stories to be counted? How many had to deny what had happened to them for fear that their experience wouldn’t be considered legitimate enough? Or because they themselves weren’t sure if it was? How many of those surveyed had to lie or remove themselves from the study because they were too traumatized to talk about what happened to them? How many breakdowns were spurred by that survey?
Through all of the confusion and disgust that these numbers provoke, my mind keeps making its way back to consent. Drawing from the indisputable prevalence of sexual violence, it is clear that there are far too many who don’t know consent when they see it. More importantly, there are far too few who recognize (or are willing to acknowledge) a lack of consent when they encounter it. One of the most unsettling aspects of this confusion is the possibility that many of those who rape don’t even realize that they’re doing it. It’s the idea that those who have done things like this could have gone on with their lives without inkling that they had done anything wrong; leaving the responsibility and trauma to fall on the victim.
I am very much on board with the belief that consent should be informed, enthusiastic, and ongoing; not only to ensure an ethical sexual encounter, but an enjoyable one as well. All involved parties should be certain that the others are willing and eager before it begins. If at any point there’s a question of whether anyone is uncomfortable, being coerced in any way, or flat out doesn’t understand what’s happening, the situation needs to stop. No matter the stage or fervor, definitive consent needs to be established.
I don’t know how to fix this problem. I only know that we need to talk about it. I need to talk about it. I understand that sometimes the lines seem blurry, but if a sexual encounter ends up deeply affecting an individual in harmful and painful ways, it’s necessary to look at the details of how and why those feelings came about; chances are, they’re warranted.
If situations this emotionally scarring are being brushed off as typical sexual encounters, there are definite problems with how a lot of people are thinking about sex in the first place. I think there’s an urgent need to reevaluate and redefine sex and sexual consent in a way that ensures pleasurable and emotionally healthy sex. If we keep allowing ourselves to accept that uninformed or unwanted encounters are just unfortunate realities, it’s going to be impossible to change the culture that allows these things to keep happening.