A few months ago, a dyke friend came to me and said that a girl she had spent the night with this summer was accusing her of rape. She was, understandably, quite distraught about it. Everything had seemed to her to be consensual at the time. She said the girl she was with had not said no to what she described as “things heating up” between them, and she hadn’t noticed any body language that indicated a “no” either. She simply didn’t understand how this could have happened.
We had a lengthy email exchange about it — about what she thinks happened and what her accuser thinks happened, about what steps she might take to make things right with her accuser, about what she could learn from it and how she might do things differently the next time she found herself in a sexual situation with someone new.
It was a thorough, thoughtful exchange.
As a survivor of sexual abuse (and a few messed-up sexual scenarios in my adult life), I was surprised that I was able to have such a steady, calm and dare I say compassionate conversation about the complexities of consent and the difficulties in communicating clearly in sexual situations — especially with someone who had been essentially painted as the enemy by admitting this accusation. It probably would have been more comfortable for me to dismiss her as a bad person, to tell her we could no longer speak because of her actions. But, for whatever reason, that wasn’t my instinct.
I know from personal experience that the tendency toward shaming in situations like this is strong: Quarantine the person via social isolation and no one else will fall prey to her. If we get far enough from rape, it loses power — it can’t get us, right?
I’m not so sure. What happens if we never talk about it? I don’t just mean sexual partners talking privately between themselves after something non-consensual happens. Obviously, all kinds of tumult and pain results whether these things are talked out or not. I mean to ask what happens to our community? How many experiences of rape and sexual assault between queer women go unreported out of denial or a false sense of loyalty toward our own? How many potential assaults could be prevented by talking about it when it does happen between people in our lives?
And it does happen in our circles, believe me. How? Why? Well, it’s my feeling that one of three things takes place:
1. A selfish asshole (a) forcibly takes what she wants, regardless of the wishes of her sexual partner, or (b) manipulates someone to get what she wants, using a variety of techniques that don’t include brute force but rely instead on verbal-emotional manipulation, drugs or alcohol.
2. A woman is disconnected, emotionally unaware or under-experienced in communicating about consent and sexual boundaries. She makes a move on someone, following her (misguided) instincts and prioritizing her own desires without checking in with the other person. This includes people who don’t know how to read a “no” from someone but who may have stopped if a no was understood. This is not to say no wasn’t communicated — just that it wasn’t understood by the assaulter.
3. On the other side of the equation, a woman with a trauma history or other stuff going on may not have the skill yet — or in specific moments, with specific people — to communicate a no even when it’s clear internally, leading to the violation of deeply felt boundaries that go uncommunicated. In other words, she feels a strong no and can’t say it. In this situation, the lack of true consent may be communicated afterward rather than in the moment. Or it may never be acknowledged.
These are complicated dynamics to sift through when it comes to consent. The actual experience of rape — in essence, compromised sexual boundaries — is much broader than many people’s current understanding.
So we need to teach each other to broaden the definition and act with more sexual integrity.
In this instance, I felt proud of my response: that I stayed open to talking about something that I didn’t want to know about or face. It felt like a better option than what I had seen and done in the past. During this conversation, I related a similar experience in which I was in her accuser’s position. I talked about my difficulties in speaking up that day, why I didn’t say no, what kept me from setting a boundary with my lover. And I talked about the anger, hurt and confusion we both experienced in the months that followed.
This conversation gave me the space to ask things like: “What did I believe in that moment about needing to do what my lover wanted?” and “If I couldn’t speak up, what other strategies could I have used?” and “Whose responsibility is it to secure consent — the initiator of sex or the person receiving sexual attention? If it’s up to both people, how does that actually work in practice?” and “Should consent always be verbalized, or can it be more subtle?” It felt constructive and important to have had a chance to bridge these two experiences, from either side.
Though my openness to discussing this topic surprised me, I was glad our conversation didn’t move into a space of shame and finger-pointing — which is what I normally see from the queer community in situations like this: End the friendship, don’t acknowledge the person anymore, shun them and tell everyone you know what they’ve done so they can shun them, too. No conversation. No mediation. No calling on that person to step up and grow.
As if social isolation actually holds people accountable for their actions.
Now, I understand this reaction. I really do. Shaming has its place in response to abhorrent actions — violence, violation, betrayal, taking advantage of people. It’s clearly wrong. And as progressive, feminist, queer women, we should just know better, right?
In an ideal world. But how can we expect this from each other if we don’t know how to navigate these things ourselves? I’m not sure that we’re the experts in sexual communication, boundary-setting and generally positive behaviour that we’d like to think we are. Most of us have private horror stories that we tell our friends: having your ass grabbed at the bar, feeling creeped out by would-be stalkers or experiencing non-consensual sex that, in the absence of force, might be labelled something other than sexual assault.
Now, I believe in being the perviest, kinkiest, sexiest person you want to be. But in our efforts to be sexually progressive, some of us have come to believe that we’re supposed to want sex and sexual attention all the time as queers. It creates a lot of pressure to be okay with whatever happens (with whomever), and it excuses some seriously problematic behaviour.
Are you sure that every experience you’ve initiated was consensual? What about that time she was drunk and you took her home? Or you didn’t talk about having sex, you just knew she was into it? What about all those times you haven’t asked your lover if it’s okay before you do something together? We all make assumptions about sex, and sometimes they’re dead wrong.
My conversation with my friend gave me a lot to think about — how we might be able to turn our usual responses around and create opportunities to learn better communication and more responsible sexuality, to have better practices when it comes to consent. The idea of moving from a place of shaming to taking responsibility for our community’s education inspired me. Not because I side with assaulters, because I side with progress. I don’t want rape to happen anymore. Not to me, not to my friends, not to anyone.
But then the plot thickened. About a month after the conversation that sparked all this thinking, another friend recounted a very upsetting experience she had had one night while on a date with a woman that she said I knew. Enough of the details lined up that I knew, before she said the woman’s name, that she was telling the other side of the same story.
I felt sick and sad and angry. After hearing my friend (whom I love dearly) recount her experience, I no longer cared about growth and engagement and community betterment. That was completely blown apart once I knew who had been hurt in this situation, once I saw her cry about it and heard the word rape come out of her mouth. My blood was boiling; it felt way more real.
Suddenly, I wondered if all the angry responses I had set aside were so wrong after all. But I also felt caught in the middle, and I felt the weight of expectation that I would do the right thing: that I would break off contact with the woman who had hurt my friend and then tell everyone what she had done.
I composed letters to the assaulter, but I didn’t send them. I talked to a few other people about the situation (what is the right thing to do here?), but I couldn’t come up with anything that felt right enough to act on.
Finally, the woman who had assaulted my friend wrote to me, saying she hadn’t heard from me in a while and hoped to reconnect. I sat on the email for about a week. I read it a number of times. Since I didn’t know where to start, I decided to lay bare my conundrum. I told her about my anger and confusion, which was now much deeper and sharper than before.
The concept of right action had me at a standstill.
In this situation, one friend did a fucked-up thing and another friend is hurting terribly because of it. What the assaulter understood that night, I will never know. I can’t get inside her head and prove that she did or did not intend to assault my friend. But because the pain exists no matter what her intentions were, I would say it’s a moot point.
In the end, I decided to focus on taking action that supports change. While how I address this issue may change over time, the bottom line is that I want to get to the heart of the problem rather than trying to “not-in-my-backyard” the situation through blacklisting. That means actively supporting survivors so that isolation and silence don’t take the place of healing, and it also means facing the person who did the harming.
I have a personal policy of believing and supporting women who say they were raped. I also feel invested in transforming our capacity as queer women to communicate properly about sex and respect sexual boundaries — no matter how ethically and emotionally uncomfortable it might be at times to engage with assaulters and listen to both sides of these stories. We can’t abandon this difficult work. The dialogue is too important.