On rape and consent

Cross posted

A month or so ago, Anita wrote a fantastic post at Kiwipolitico: Friends don’t let friends rape, calling on men, and all of us, to call out rapists. She made what was to me an unremarkable statement:

The reality is that we all know people who rape, just as we all know people who have been raped. I’m talking about the fact some of the people we know have raped people they know, and they way they’ve talked about sex and dates and partners so we’ve had every opportunity to hear that true consent isn’t an issue for them.

But it inspired a long and agonising comment thread, with both men and women participating. As the thread developed, I began to hear people talking past each other, with the split mostly, but not exclusively, down gender lines. One group of people (mostly, but not exclusively men) was asserting that they did not in fact know rapists, and if they did, they would shun them. Others (mostly, but not exclusively women) were saying that of course they knew rapists, yes, they had had sex without consent, yes, they had been raped. But it seemed to me that the difference turned on what consent looked like. In fact, this was critical. Many of the people who were saying that they did not know rapists are people I respect, people I know to be people of good will, people who try to do the decent thing, to live good lives. Yet they clearly had a different understanding of what consent looks like to me and to others in the second group of people, that is, the people who had no doubt that they knew rapists.

I’ve been reflecting on this discussion ever since, and I’ve tried to write this post several times. I’m giving up on trying – I’m just going to write the damned thing.

Last year, the writers and readers of The Hand Mirror put together a submission in response to a government discussion document, Improvements to Sexual Violence Legislation in New Zealand. (Note to self: most do OIA and follow up on what is happening w.r.t the legislation.) Here’s what we said about consent:

…behaviour that indicates “consent” is a continuum, ranging from behaviour that indicates total non-consent, such as saying, “No,” to behaviour that indicates full consent, such as saying, “Yes.” As with any continuum, it is easy to make judgements about each end of the continuum. However in between there is a grey area, where behaviour may or may not indicate consent.

The continuum can be illustrated like this.


Until recently, the absence of denial was treated as consent. That is, any behaviour that didn’t fall between A and B, explicitly denying consent, was taken as giving consent.

Attitudes and the law are now changing. Consent is now taken to entail a positive process, not just an absence of a particular behaviour. However, it needs to be made very clear that, “She didn’t say no,” does not mean she said, “Yes.” That is, behaviour in the grey area, from B to C, does not mean that consent has been given. For there to be consent, there must be behaviour in the area from C to D. Consent must not be just the absence on non-consenting behaviour, but the actual and unequivocal presence of consenting behaviour.

I assume that this is uncontroversial, that people are happy enough with the idea that consent must actually be given. But it seemed to me that there was a fair bit of confusion about what kind of behaviour might or might not fall either side of “C” i.e. the transition from “grey area” to “consent.”

I think this is where many women may feel that they have been coerced into sex, that they may have given up saying no, or possibly even said yes, but that “yes” was not freely given. So they have had sex without consent. That is, they have been raped. And if they have been raped, then by definition there must be a rapist.

Before I carry on further with this post, I want to make it very, very clear that what I am writing does not reflect in any way my own experience with my husband of many years.

The thing is, even longterm and / or loving partners will sometimes coerce a woman into sex. A man who harumphs and grumps and makes it clear that he will sulk and complain if he doesn’t get his end away pressures and coerces his partner into giving consent. Sure, it’s not as obvious as a gun pointed at your head, forcing you to sign a contract, but it is forced consent nevertheless. A man who wields financial power over his partner can force her into giving consent. If you have no money and no resources, if your partner is the person who earns the income that feeds and clothes and houses you and your children, then if he makes it clear that he wants to have sex, and makes it clear that he expects you to provide it, and that there will be trouble if you don’t, then you have very little choice about giving consent. The consequences of refusing sex are simply too costly.

I think there must be many, many women who have spent at least some nights with tears sliding slowly into their ears, trying to come to terms with having been forced into sex. And the thing is, that’s the definition of rape. Rape is forced sex, or sex without consent, or sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat. I suspect, although I don’t know, that if many, many women have one way or another been forced into having sex, then there must be many, many men who have forced women into having sex. That is, there must be many, many men who have committed rape. That’s why Anita’s original statement, that we all know rapists, rings true for me.

I am reluctant to lump a man who perhaps on occasion sighs and grumps and harumphs because his partner doesn’t want to have sex, into the same category as violent, serial rapists. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of behaviour that is designed to pressure and coerce, to “persuade” someone to change her mind. Straightforwardly, it is unacceptable. Not criminal, perhaps, but nevertheless wrong.

Quite simply, consent to sex must be freely given. If there is not, then by definition, what takes place is not lovemaking, not sex, not even forced “sex”. It’s rape.

I know that’s a very tough definition of consent. However, if we need to draw a line between consent and no-consent, then surely it needs to be drawn on the side of caution. And in that case, it means drawing it on the side where we can be sure that consent has been given, not on the side where we enable someone to think that it’s acceptable in some circumstances to coerce another person into sex.

I know this definition demands a very high standard of behaviour. I know it means that people will have to be much, much more careful about their sexual behaviour. But I fail to understand how this could be anything other than a good thing.


Other blog responses to Anita’s post:

Sandra at Luddite Journo: What kind of feminist is ok?

Maia at Capitalism bad, tree pretty: Othering rapists (also posted on The Hand Mirror)

Labellementeuse: More on the rapists among us

More on rape at the boundaries of consent:

Bitch PhD: A different kind of rape (Though this one doesn’t look to be a “boundary” issue at all to me.)

Shakesville: Yes means yes virtual tour

More on sex without real consent:

Bettina Arndt seems to be saying yet more silly things about women being required to have sex even if they don’t want it. The Sydney Morning Herald has swallowed it all:

Arndt said low-libido partners, which are mostly women, needed to put sex on the “to-do list”, even if they didn’t feel like doing it.

“The notion that women have to want sex to enjoy it has been a really misguided idea that has caused havoc in relationships over the last 40 years.”

With the right approach from a loving partner, if women were willing to be receptive “and allow themselves to relax … they would enjoy it”, she said.

…but the Canberra Times, thank goodness, has at least one writer who is capable of critical thinking.

Now, if that sounds like great-grandmother’s advice, ”lie back and think of England my dear”, it is. The notion of women passively submitting to uninspiring sex is an archaic and unforgivable suggestion that takes us back to some very dark old days indeed. Which makes one wonder why Arndt isn’t turning her spotlight instead on the reason some women may have lost interest in sex. In addition to being worn out and over-tired, the real reason might have a lot to do with their uninspiring, unstimulating partners.

Where is the focus on how unsexy it is to try snogging a dull, lazy, tenderless man?


For Arndt to suggest that women should simply put out, in order to keep a marriage alive, is a frightening, but timely, reminder of why we clearly need a sexual revolution. But this time, a real one. A revolution that places the sensual needs and desires of women on equal billing with a man’s…

There is a fantastic response from Blue Milk: Sex to save the family, and Hoyden about Town has a great discussion thread on Arndt’s nonsense.


39 responses to “On rape and consent

  1. I agree, with only one small quibble:
    “Nevertheless, it’s the sort of behaviour that is designed to pressure and coerce, to “persuade” someone to change her mind.” Those sort of men don’t care about what’s going on in your mind. They aren’t trying to change your mind, they just want you to give in, to give up, and change what you say. Which is rather different from changing what you think.

  2. Good point, icg. I was using ‘change your mind’ a bit loosely there, because of course what they really want is to change your action.

  3. Thank-you!!

    I actually found the whole comments thread pretty distressing, Like you I thought that paragraph was unremarkable and I was taken aback act the distress and vitriol and misogyny and regurgitated rape myths. I am lucky to live in such a lovely liberal cocoon … but not one without rapists.

    But back to your main point, I agree about the grey-ness of consent. When does expectation and emotional investment in that outcome cross the line? I’ve had fully consensual sex on occasions that I may not have chosen if it was entirely up to my but I knew it would make my partner happy and it was totally worth it to me.

    Other times I’ve felt pressured by a partner’s expectations because I knew it was going to take an out loud “no” to stop them, and that I would have to deal with their feeling of rejection. But is that their fault? They would have stopped the moment I told them to, their desire was real, their feeling of rejection would be genuine.

    Huh, I haven’t got an answer, just more grey 🙂

  4. reading this made me uneasy.
    because I was in a long term relationship with a man who went off sex while i was pregnant.( he had a much lower sex drive than me anyway.)
    We were together – and he didnt want sex at all – for 2 years after the baby was born. It was a big problem for me, and I repeatedly asked him to seek counselling/get help. And suggested we both got help. Found out about courses run by sexual health to help people reconnect. You name it. ( the seduction scenarios were too humiliating because he would just not respond.)
    He ended things by telling me the problem was mine because I was so unattractive. Which has made me hate him for years. But reading this, i wonder now if he said that was because he felt that i was pressuring him so much I made him feel terrible.
    The two occasions we did have sex in that time was very much at my instigation. He did not, as you say, like dealing with my feelings of rejection. he was not wildly enthused. Both occasions left me feeling horribly depressed, because it was so obvious he did not really want me.

    the stupid thing is he is around here every weekend now to parent our child, and trying very hard to be my friend.
    As far as i know he is not seeing anyone else (its been 2 years.) – so he obviously hasn’t dashed off to get it somewhere else.
    Maybe this – coercive, wrong bullying person is actually me.
    Yet at the time it felt so terrible, i felt so utterly rejected and unloveable, it made me even more desperate for just one gesture, just one little bit of affection, to reassure me that he cared.

  5. Interesting post.. and thanks for the link love.

  6. I am a man who has only read part of this blog. I think that it would be intelligent for people to set boundaries in dating. I think that hugging and holding hands is as far as unmarried people should go. You’re right, I have not always lived up to this standard.

  7. Regarding the initial paragraph from Anita, while I’m sure she is correct that at least some of the men I know have raped, I disagree with the theory that I am aware of this and with this statement “we’ve had every opportunity to hear that true consent isn’t an issue for them”. I can’t think of a single man I know where this is the case. I assume this is because all the men who know me well enough to talk about sex with me also know me well enough to know I would react with extreme hostility to even the implication of the possibility of rape.

    Also, while I certainly acknowledge that a woman can be raped by her husband through the use of subtle economic coercion and/or emotional blackmail I disagree with this: “I am reluctant to lump a man who perhaps on occasion sighs and grumps and harumphs because his partner doesn’t want to have sex, into the same category as violent, serial rapists. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of behaviour that is designed to pressure and coerce, to “persuade” someone to change her mind. Straightforwardly, it is unacceptable. Not criminal, perhaps, but nevertheless wrong.” I disagree because it implies that I as a woman am not really capable of ever giving consent freely because one pout from my husband and my free will is compromised. If my husband is unhappy because I don’t feel like having sex and so I freely agree to sex even though I am not in the mood, I have not been coerced and I have consented. If my husband wants to have sex and I don’t, I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with being disappointed and letting it show. When I want to have sex and my husband is too tired and I am disappointed I don’t make any real effort to hide that, and I’ve probably even pouted a little on occasion. Are you saying that I have done something “not criminal perhaps, but nevertheless wrong”?

  8. I see your point, Adele. And maybe I am drawing the line at too hard a point. Or maybe the line falls somewhere in the group of emotional responses to refusal, some of which are going to be quite ordinary and reasonable, and some of which are going to tip over into bullying. And like all sliding scales, in this case ranging from, “Oh, I’m disappointed, and I feel sad about it” to “you’re ruining my life, you’re telling me I’m not worth it, you’re a mean, nasty person, and you are yadda yadda yadda (I’m finding it hard to write this because it’s not really within my experience), I can see that one end of the scale is fine, and the other is not, but I don’t know exactly how to describe the middle.

  9. Sera, your story made me feel very sad for you. And I think this is such a complex issue that I don’t know what else to say. I do think that emotional coercion for sex is not the same thing as physical forcing – a person does have the choice to refuse emotional coercion, although there may, as Deborah points out, be a high price to pay for that. Physical coercion leaves the woman without a choice.

  10. Sera, I’ve been thinking about your story (and I see M-H has too). Relationships are outrageously complicated, and difficult. I think that I too would start to wonder what was wrong with me if I was in that sort of situation.

    This post is up at The Hand Mirror too, and here’s what I wrote over there at some point in the discussion.

    I think we also need to recognise that there can be something special about sex. Sometimes sex is just a casual and cheerful transaction. That’s fine by me, as long as there’s consent. Other times, it’s not sex – it’s lovemaking. It’s part of the relationship of love between partners. I know, from my own experience, that there are times when you make love to your partner, even if you don’t feel like having sex, because you know they need the love, the connection, the reassurance.

    And lovemaking is very, very intimate. You bare yourself to the other person. That’s one hell of a thing to do.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to want connection and reassurance and love from the person who is supposed to be your partner. But it is problematic and difficult and deeply fraught if that person feels unable to give it to you through lovemaking (or sex, if that’s the term you prefer to use). I suppose that if your world is fraying about you, then you do crave reassurance, and it can be very hard to recognise that your partner may not be able to provide it.

    As you can see from my response to Adele, I’m grappling with drawing a line. And that’s a very difficult thing to do, given all the complexity of human relationships. And I think that sometimes we have to admit that, whatever the reasons for it, we have nevertheless acted wrongly, even if the other person has acted wrongly too.

    But all the same, what a wretchedly awful situation, for both of you.

  11. Deborah –

    It is complicated and after further thought I think part of the problem is that maybe we can’t draw the line between certain responses to refusal because we need to consider intent. I realized that my example of myself pouting wasn’t really fair because my goal in doing so is not to change my husband’s mind (or action). It’s just an automatic response, and because I have absolute confidence that my husband is secure enough in our relationship to not be unduly pressured by my disappointment, I don’t need to hide it. If my husband (or a wife) felt that providing sex whenever the spouse wanted it was an obligation and my disappointment would make him feel guilty and horrible, then things would be completely different. It would certainly be wrong of me to knowingly take advantage of my husband’s feelings to try to influence his decision even if the actions of doing so are the exact same responses that I used in my earlier example as being just fine. OK, now I’ve confused myself. 😀

    Sera – I’m so sorry. That sounds like a very difficult situation and I don’t think you should feel guilty that you may not have always responded perfectly to it.


  12. Deborah, I appreciate your consideration when you discuss these sorts of things. As I’ve said before sexual abuse is far from easy to categorize. However lets talk about male perpetrated sexual abuse of women for now.

    I’ve been thinking about this today, trying to access my own truth. The easy option would be ether to get all defensive of my gender or flop over the other way and bullshit about how adorably attentive I have always been to women’s perspectives. But instead I’ve decided to say it how it is.

    I can offer my own experience of male heterosexual teenage-hood during the mid 1980s in Auckland. I thought that sex was something that happened if I got lucky. I soon learned that them drinking alcohol made me luckier. fortunately I never seriously crossed the line before I gained the maturity to question my own belief system, along with the predominant culture around me. However one of my female friends, did informed me years after the fact, that she had felt upset I had gotten her drunk then taken advantage of her. It wasn’t rape, we didn’t have intercourse, but the fact that she felt disempowered by what I thought was seduction, makes me feel creepy.

    I think discussions like this one should be happening in secondary schools. Or are they already?

  13. I don’t know what they talk about in schools, but I do know that I will be talking about these issues with my daughters, in part so that they are not the people putting unfair pressure on their partners, but in part so give them a sense of what is and what is not acceptable, and I hope, to give them some resilience when it comes to negotiating their way through sexual relationships.

    Thank you for your support, Steven. I really appreciate it, and I appreciate your honesty. As I appreciate the feedback and comments from other people, both here and at The Hand Mirror. This is not an easy topic to discuss, not for reasons of taboos and the like, but just because it is very hard to work out what is right and what is wrong at the boundaries.

  14. This is a really interesting discussion. I think you’re right about drawing the distinction between consent and simply not saying no, and of course how difficult it is to find the line for a standard of behaviour. And also pointing out that criminality doesn’t cover all behaviours that are wrong. I read your original post yesterday and have been thinking about the role of persuasion, which is something that I see has come out in the comments. If I am persuaded to do something I may be perfectly happy to do it, despite my original position. However if I’m bullied into doing something I’m might do it and not feel happy about it. Many sexual interactions involve some degree of persuasion, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are not consensual. And as you and many of your commentors point out there is often a degree of wanting to please the other person even though you may not be inclined yourself, which again would be considered consensual.

    In thinking about this I’m wondering if there is some use is considering the possible hypothetical secnario of the same situation but one where the woman was in control of all her faculties (not drunk etc) and free from consequences and see whether she would want sex or not. So for example you then distinguish between situations where you have sex with your partner because you want him to have enjoyment, and situations where you have sex with your partner because otherwise he’ll be very angry with you and make your daily life difficult. I don’t know if this is useful at all, but I thought it might be something to think about.

    Sera – your comment makes me think of another element to this too (and also my heart goes out to you). Marriage/long term “romantic” commitment is a relationship that has an implied sexual content, I think. Now I’m not saying that means any person in it gets to demand sex or has a right to it, but the complete absence of it is something most people would find very difficult – I suspect. I think your partner was very unfair to you to expect you not to have a problem with the complete absence of. And I would think that if the shoe was on the other foot genderwise as well.

    There are so many factors to consider in this topic, but I think more consideration and discussion like this really helps

  15. Sera’s comments sort of rang consistent with the only real objection I had to this carefully put argument – it assumes that men who have coerced are actually aware that they have done it (again, restricting discussion only to men raping women).

    Certainly there are just about weekly occasions where, particularly in emotional issues, my husband and I completely mistake each others intent and feeling. Presumably this can happen with sex too. She’s crying, feeling used and abused, and he’s thinking “I must have got it right this time.” One woman’s coercion is another man’s persuasion. Genuinely, not just spun that way.

    I am certainly not saying that this is the way it always is, just that the grey area gets a whole lot greyer when you include genuine misunderstanding.

  16. Hi All, The word ‘Rape’ contains the other word ‘unwilling’ in it. But in Indian society, there are hundred & thousands of women who in spite of not willing to bed with their Ex, just do it just because of family and social pressure. Through My poem ‘Rape with consent’ I have highlighted this issue. I guess it will give a new direction to the ongoing discussion on rape.


  17. Deborah,

    I find it interesting that when a woman admits to doing the coercing, it’s suddenly just a “wretchedly awful situation,” where both parties have “acted wrongly.”

    By your own tongue, sera is a rapist.

  18. I see your point Nougat, but bear in mind that what we are trying to draw here is the very difficult line between “yes” and “not-yes.” That grey area is very, very difficult to understand. Going back to my diagram, it’s line C. If you read teh comments thread again, you will see that people are grappling with exactly this issue.

  19. When logic leads you to absurd conclusions, you need to check yourself. You are saying that showing disappointment (knowing it may affect my partner) is “rape”. If that’s the standard, then I am a rapist, and one who has a good relationship with the person I raped. And this sort of relationship is common. To consider this rape is absurd, it doesn’t fit any model or idea of rape that is respectful to the fullness and complexity of relationships, and it is not respectful of the idea of rape itself.

    There are shades of gray, but “rape” is not a gray word.

  20. Incidentally, this article has spawned a comment thread on another site (which is how I came here): http://www.reddit.com/r/Equality/comments/85p99/on_rape_and_consent_in_a_strange_land/c08bezg

  21. “A man who harumphs and grumps and makes it clear that he will sulk and complain if he doesn’t get his end away pressures and coerces his partner into giving consent. Sure, it’s not as obvious as a gun pointed at your head, forcing you to sign a contract, but it is forced consent nevertheless.”

    This is no more rape then a person whining and complaining for another person to buy them something is robbery.

    This is no more rape then a person whining and complaining for another person to come on a trip with them is kidnapping.

    Each person has free will. Responding to someone’s bitching and moaning by giving into their desires specifically means that the person consented to them. They saw the situation, they were faced with putting up with bitching and moaning, leaving or having sex with them. They made their decision of free will and mind and specifically consented to having sex.

  22. I’m not suggesting that browbeating someone into a behavior they would prefer not to engage in is nice, or even ethical.

    My kids try to get me to let them watch more TV, stay up late, and play more computer games all the time. Sometimes I give in, even though I know I shouldn’t, and sometimes I really feel bad about it later.

    But my children are not responsible for my decision to let them have their way. I am. Even when I make a decision that I later regret.

    Whenever you get into the area of drawing lines, the closer you get to the line, the fuzzier it gets. The closer you get to the line, the more details about an individual incident are required.

    The word “rape” is loaded with all kinds of meaning. There are legal meanings, depending on jurisdiction. There’s the women’s rights connotation. There’s the issue of the powerful vs. the powerless. There is an aspect of rape used as a tool of war. There is a flipside regarding mens’ rights, when the word “rape” is used to frame men as scoundrels and criminals.

    I would argue that sex usually occurs when one of the partners wanted to have it more than the other, and the one who wanted it more (usually a man) employed some kind of social tool to make the event easier, quicker, or in some other way *more.*

    The real question, I think, is “what social tools are acceptable, and to what degree?” Obviously some social tools are acceptable; simply asking outright is a social tool.

    I’d say that we’re all in agreement that threat of injury (to anyone) is an unacceptable tool. Threat of financial hardship would also be unacceptable, I believe, though promise of financial gain is arguable.

    Is begging all right? Pouting? Whining? A little or a lot? What about promises of love, or marriage?

    And then the other side of the coin. If men, having the generally stronger libidos, want to meet that libido with a partner who has a weaker one, then some social tools are going to be employed. A woman partner with a weaker libido only needs to use a small number of low-level tools to fill her sexual needs; she has a partner who is more ready and willing than she is.

    Women, on the other hand, and again, generally, have a stronger desire for family, stability and security. The act or promise of sex is the perfect tool for women to use in acquiring those things in a human culture where men are breadwinners and providers.

    We all want a lot of different things. For the most part, we need other people to cooperate with us in order to have those things, and that usually requires us to do some convincing, or at least suggesting.

    However, just because Person A has successfully convinced Person B that having sex is less annoying than not having sex, that doesn’t make Person A guilty of rape.

  23. “This is no more rape then a person whining and complaining for another person to buy them something is robbery.

    This is no more rape then a person whining and complaining for another person to come on a trip with them is kidnapping.”

    Indeed. It’s like saying we women aren’t capable of making decisions when someone is trying to persuade us of something.

    Oh we weak and whimsical women, easily swayed and ever at the beck and call of our men!

  24. So you’re essentially saying women are so weak that they can’t stand up for themselves and say “no”?

  25. [abusive comment deleted]

  26. Interesting extension of your “coercion = rape” theory. Marketers, advertisers, and Britney Spears are all then rapists; they present an image of women being “sexually free”, which influences a woman’s free will, and choice for sex.

    I wholeheartedly agree that sex with a “yes”, when there is an underlying threat of harm (said threat should either be explicit or unmistakable) is rape.

    However, try to give women a little credit. They do have a mind of their own, and can stand up on their own. If they say “no”, and pressure is still exerted with some threat of harm, then it becomes rape.

  27. With all due respect, your analysis would not merit a serious response if some persons weren’t taking it seriously.

    Your continuum trivializes rape. Worse, it accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of insulting two genders at the same time: it brands men, who have a higher sex drive (we’re not supposed to mention that), as the moral equivalent of rapists for asking for sex, and it treats women as the equivalent of infants who lack the capacity to say “no.”

    At some point in most relationships, the couple are not in synch in terms of their sexual desires. Usually the man wants more. That’s a fact of life. If he raises this as a problem and tries to convince his wife to have sex, in your world he is no better than a rapist; the alternative, is not to say anything and file for divorce. How absurd.

    Take this example. A young couple is trying to have a baby and the young woman politiely chides and pressures the young man to have sex at certain times when he may not really want to. That’s rape, right? You can’t have it both ways. It’s either rape or it’s not.

    Or does this only apply to the male? (Hmm, I think that’s really the crux of what you’re up to here.)

    OK, since men want sex more than women but women want other things more than men, what about non-sexual verbal pressures? How about when she prods him against his wishes to drive halfway across the country to visit her mother? You know, pouting — the stuff women know how to do better than men. Or she cajoles him into buying a new house? Or to buy her a ring somewhat beyond his economic means? Or to allow her sister to stay with them for a couple of months? The list is endless.

    Is any of that the moral equivalent of “rape”?

    No person in her right mind thinks that grudgingly consenting to do something for your loved one could ever, in a thousand years, be the moral equivalent of “rape.” When it comes it sex or anything else.

    And what of a wife who never wants sex, much to her husband’s unhappiness. Isn’t that the moral equivalent of “rape”?

    Now if the man wants sex all the time, that’s a problem that he needs to correct for the sake of the relationship. The same if she never wants sex.

    You see, your continuum analysis trivializes the meaning of rape. Rape is a brutal act that is not born of love. In every relationship, couples acting together will always have one who wants to do something more than the other. That’s called “reality.” Sex is part of that.

    And yes, I suppose you could have a continuum for anything: a “murder” continuum would include mother disgustedly rolling her eyes at her daughter or father raising his voice to his son. What a useless exercise, and how foolish to mention “murder” with such actions.

    If we want to reduce rape and false rape claims, we need to teach young people what consent really means. Not the Alice in Wonderland version that you’ve posited. They need to be taught that valid consent to intercourse can be manifested in a variety of ways — by oral affirmations or by non-verbal conduct; that it need not be “enthusiastic” and often isn’t; and that it may be effective even though – horrors! — the woman previously had said “no” (this falls under the legal principle that women are permitted to change their minds). A woman’s secret, undisclosed intentions are impertinent to the question of whether she manifested consent. All that matters are her outward manifestations of assent. Likewise, a woman’s after-the-fact regret has no bearing on whether consent was manifested at the time the sex act occurred. A young woman can validly consent after imbibing alcohol so long as she is capable of making a rational decision.

    Teaching young women about consent is all the more important in light of recent studies that show women experience greater after-the-fact regret about sex than men. Sometimes those feelings are misunderstood by the woman, and one of the common motives cited by experts for false rape claims is “remorse after an impulsive sexual fling . . . .” Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, S. Taylor, K.C. Johnson at 375 (2007).

    Let’s reserve the term “rape” for real rape. The things you are talking about have nothing in common with rape.

  28. Interesting comments. What about having sex with somebody who has passed out? I would call that rape, but it doesn’t seem to fit the black and white definitions offered by recent commentators.

    Or sex with somebody you don’t really know who is barely conscious? Is that rape? Might be, but we are starting to get into a grey area.

    And all these recent comments seem rather holier-than-thou coming in from a comments thread where somebody described K-Y gel as “liquid consent”. Eww. Gross. In fact, that’s rape talk, flourishing under the protection of these criticisms. Or didn’t you notice?

  29. (Response to Pierce Harlan)”If we want to reduce rape and false rape claims, we need to teach young people what consent really means.”

    What discussion was supposed to be about, is establishing this definition.

    “Let’s reserve the term “rape” for real rape. The things you are talking about have nothing in common with rape.”

    Actually, Deborah is talking about “real rape” you just haven’t managed to understand the intent of her article.

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  31. A couple of thoughts, after listening to all the discussion above.

    I’ve found this a pretty difficult post to write, and then absorb the comments on it. One of the things that has become very clear to me is that consent lies somewhere between a pout and a sulk, and a full on emotional hissy fit. There are some vexed issues around expectations in a sexually exclusive relationship, but even so, consent is obtained by the uncoerced word “yes,” not by not hearing “no”. That is, it lies somewhere around line C in my diagram. Just exactly where is not clear, and it probably varies from case to case. But that variance lies in the amount of emotional pleading / pressure, and that’s a long, long way from our traditional understanding of consent. And it certainly seems to be a long long way from what the various objectors above have in mind about what constitutes consent. Maybe that’s why they’re so uptight about it.

    One of the things that we are often told is that “men can get raped too.” One way to think about my account of consent is whether it works for men too. If it doesn’t, then maybe the claim that men can get raped too is not a sensible claim to make. Alternatively, if you want to claim that men can be raped too, then just maybe you need to come up with a definition of consent that allows that claim to work. And I’m guessing that an account of consent that enables people to claim, reasonably, that men can be raped too, is going to look very much like the account of consent that I am trying to work with.

    I will keep on thinking about this, and working through my understanding of what consent means. But so far, I still pretty comfortable with what I have already written, and although I might want to tweak it a little, I’m still very, very clear that consent is only obtained by a freely given “yes,” whether that “yes” is expressed verbally or non-verbally.

  32. Perhaps at the heart of it is a subjective matter – why did the person who wasn’t keen for sex initially change their mind?

    Was it because they thought, actually yeah I’d quite like that. (Clearly consent)

    Or because they thought, well my partner would really like this so why not (Probably consent)

    Or because they thought, it’s just less hassle to give in (Probably not consent)

    Or because they thought, I better or else xyz might happen (Not consent)

  33. Or because they thought, well my partner would really like this so why not (Probably consent)

    Yes, I think this is probably consent too. Desire is not the only reason for consent; sometimes the willingness to give your partner what she or he needs, for whatever reason, can be the reason that you consent. And I really don’t have a problem with consenting out of love instead of consenting out of desire.

    Less hassle…. hmmm. I agree, not consent.

  34. This post put words to an intuition I’ve had for a long time. When I read it, I was really messed up for a few hours, because, IMHO, everything you said was sadly true. Thank you for putting this out there.

    Pierce pointed out that when a man tries to convince his wife or lover to have sex it is not rape. But, what if “trying to convince” and coercion are completely different things. The difference, it seems, is manipulation. Like Deborah said, there is definitely a difference between willingly, sincerely wanting to please your partner and being strong armed by guilt and emotionally abusive tactics.

    I really believe, Tom, we are able to say no. But as women we are not taught to stand up for ourselves. We’re really not. We CAN say no. We DON’T sometimes because we’re conditioned to meet the needs of others over our own.

  35. Hmmm, I think “less hassle” is the pointy end of this debate. This is exactly the part of the spectrum that Nougat and Michelle were having problems with. I am pretty much with them.

    A decision based on less hassle is still a decision. It is fundamentally deciding that sex is less onerous than listening to whinging or putting up with pouting or whatever.

    The confusion really sets in when you add the rape definition. I can see why you might not regard that decision as consent. It is borderline, but if you decide it’s not consent, you end up with two conclusions that are, in my mind, incompatible.

    You end up with the act being rape. And you end up with the act being less consequential than listening to someone whinging and whining (if you grant the woman the agency to make a valid decision). I think most people have a “natural” understanding of rape that rejects the coincidence of these two conclusions, which is where all the strong emotional responses come from.

    There is no doubt that you started from the right point. When I first read this post and the comments that followed, I couldn’t think of a coherent answer to what constitutes consent. After reading all the responses, I’d have a stab at saying (for me at least) the definition is this:

    In the grey area, a person not able to make a decision is clearly not giving consent (drunk, asleep, mentally incapable etc). If a person is capable of making a decision, that decision should only be regarded as “no consent” in the context of rape if the perceived consequences of not agreeing are significant and comparable with “rape” – threat of harm, threat of withholding the means of support (money, whatever) and so on.

    I know this is not unproblematic, as I suspect it would require a bit of resetting of general opinion of what is regarded as “significant”, but I think it is a better approach than calling the “less hassle” situation rape.

    Just as an aside, based on my definition of consent, I don’t think rape can occur when both parties are plastered. If you can’t consent when you are drunk, then equally I don’t think you can have intent to rape. This doesn’t sit easily with me, but I can’t see a way out of it that doesn’t involve hypocrisy.

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  37. Thank you so much for bringing the “grey” area problem up. I have been looking for this kind of reference all over the internet – obviously, it related to something very important to me.

    I guess when you talk about the grey area, I can be one of the examples. A good while ago, a guy I was dating knew that I was a virgin and how I took my virginity very seriously. The relationship went fine for a good while till one day, while kissing he asked if he can do something, and I said ‘Ok’…

    Little did I know for the next fraction of the second I was done for.

    I knew he was not raping me (because I said ‘ok’), but had I know what he was up to, both of us knew that I would break up with him and run. But it happened so fast that I had very little time to react.

    Ever since then I was in this entrapment. I knew I have to leave him but I was so attached to him (which later I learned it was because of my hormone). I did eventually make a clear decision but I’m still very hurt until this day (been several months at least).

    I knew he’s not exactly “raping” me, but from the bottom of my heart I also knew that I was taken advantage of – that “first night” really hit me hard every time I thought about it…. Oh well…

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  39. I may not be *correct* in my opinions but I think we need to address the “darker areas” of rape before we address the lighter areas.

    To me there should be no grey zone. It only adds an iffy-ness of what rape actually is, and confusion about consent. We already have enough problems addressing a “black zone” as it is.

    As a society I feel like we have no sense of boundaries, in terms of consent anymore.

    I have been raped, and where the issues *REALLY * need to be addressed is in the black zone.

    It’s the fact my ex-partner drugged me, and when I try to explain this to someone they gloss over the fact it is without a doubt, rape, and then call it sex. No I wasn’t drinking. No something was really given to me, as I woke with injuries, a huge chunks of missing time.

    It’s a problem when I walk into my therapist’s office and when I say what happened, she says, “I am sorry you were taken advantage of,” and I have to correct her and call it by it’s correct term; it’s rape.

    The term “taken advantage of” adds my complicity to the problem even when I was not in any way complicit to the crime that was committed against me.

    And there is really nothing unique or confusing about what happened to me. If I wrote out some of my experiences you would without a doubt think they are rape, and rethink the idea of holding a victim solely responsible for his/her rape. Yet in public, and therapeutic settings I have not always gotten this understanding.

    I feel held more complicit and to blame for my experiences of sexual abuse, and violence than for my experiences of just giving in to a grumpy horny, whiny partner.

    Start talking openly about the black areas. Start opening up the more truthful and difficult discussion on sex and violence, and we will address the problem better.

    And women completely financially dependent? Are you fucking kidding me? I think having half a brain makes you capable of earning a living. It’s called self respect, and if you have kids there is all the more reason for having self respect, and leaving his dumb ass if he is a dick. It can be done, and your kids will thank you in the end.