Sometimes life feels like a wooing lover, full of sweet caresses and sunny days. And sometimes it feels like a stranger on the street giving you a swift sucker-punch to the gut and walking away.
Recently I had one of those sucker-punch days. I was emotionally raw after a recent breakup with my partner and best friend. I’d just been yelled at by a supervisor and was still carrying the stress with shaky hands and regular reminders to breathe deeply. And now I was at work reading a Jezebel article which was about to hit me in the gut in three…two…one… my ex is now a convicted serial rapist.
Before I can stop myself I’m reading all the horrible details and calculating dates and trying to remember exactly how it all went down between us so long ago. I’m filled with panic and questions. I try to remain calm and remind myself to breathe but in the same moment my hands go rogue and I start furiously searching the internet, as if more information will somehow make it all make sense. I keep replaying the one memory I have of he and I having sex, and it feels like my mind is trying to torture me, interspersing the scene with memories of how we met and how it ended and these new words I can’t help repeating: rape, kidnapping, child pornography. We humans are meaning makers and my mind is going a mile a minute, trying to make some meaning of it all. I work up the calm to walk out of my office and get in my car. I text and call my friends. I don’t know what I’ll say or what I want them to say, I only know that I cannot carry this alone right now.
It’s been an emotional time since I discovered this information about Tom. I’ve sobbed and asked to be held and wondered how many people I would have to tell before it felt like I was no longer the only one carrying the weight of it. I’ve felt ashamed for having such a dramatic response when so many women had it much worse than I did. I’ve felt ashamed for willingly having sex with a man who forced so many others. And I’ve felt ashamed for recently breaking up with someone who would never violate my consent, considering that my dating history has included such monsters as Tom. But, I’m no stranger to the shame game and I remind myself that there is only one person who ought to feel ashamed. And it’s not me. And though I don’t recall my role in that relationship with pride, I know I’m a different woman than I was when we dated.
I’ve had some time to think about my relationship with Tom, if you can even call it that. I’ve often regretted how it all went down, though time has dimmed the memory and the hurt. We met, dated briefly, and stopped seeing each other when I said the sex was too rough and too cold for me. I was young and didn’t know my worth and took it as a loss. For awhile I hoped I would get him back and compulsively followed his career online. Over time, I moved on and forgot about Tom. I never expected he would drop back into my life in such a disturbing way.
But, in a way, I’m glad he did. Knowing his disturbing history explains a lot of the ambivalent feelings I’ve had about Tom. Technically speaking, I’d given my consent to having sex with him. But if that was so, why have I always felt so confused about him? For years his name has sat in the middle of a list I wrote in my journal: “Men who have made me feel unsafe”. He has been a mysterious piece in the puzzle that makes up my experience as a woman in our culture.
Consent is Complicated
I know now that it is not Tom I have felt confused about; it’s the nature of consent which concerns me. Technically, I’d given mine. But I remember now that I’d also expressed a lot of other things to Tom. He knew I was uncomfortable with our sexual interactions, and he also knew that I continued, despite my discomfort, because I liked him and wanted him to like me. I was hoping that over time he would come to care for me. At that point in my life, I’d learned that was how relationships worked between men and women: women gave, and men took, and if what was given was good enough, perhaps it would build itself into something resembling a relationship. Tom knew all of this and had sex with me anyway. Because he did not respect me enough to want my true consent; the consent of a woman who felt no pressure to participate in anything except that which was pleasing to her, regardless of culture or family history or life experience.
To respect a partner we must do our best to acknowledge the context behind their decision to engage sexually, and try our best to take it into account when a potential partner says “yes”. We have to understand that sometimes a “yes” is not enough. Especially when accompanied by many other words that sound a whole lot like “no”, as was the case with Tom and I. Knowing Tom’s history shows me just how important this distinction is. Rape isn’t unrelated to fully consensual sex; both exist on a spectrum where the gradient is often unclear and the work must be put in to ensure that our sex is not only enjoyable, but ethical. To Tom, this distinction was unimportant. To me, it is everything. It is key to having both good sex, and sex I can feel good about.
This experience, and the lesson I learned from it, highlights one part of an Ethical Sex piece I have been working on over the last year. It’s a very personal piece I’ve been writing about what makes sex moral outside of religious doctrine. I hope to publish that piece soon and engage with you even more on the topic of ethical sex, so look out for it in the coming weeks!