The Good Men Project and “Accidental” Rape

When the writers at the Good Men Project began putting up a series of posts addressing rape, they were right to point out that most rape occurs between friends and acquaintances. They were also right to point out that many of society’s messages about sex and gender – for example, that men are supposed to keep pushing when a woman originally says “no” – feed into rape culture. These are excellent points, and are things feminists have been saying for quite some time. Unfortunately, though, the Good Men Project’s writers didn’t stop there. Let’s start off with this example:

The confusion about when social intercourse turns into sexual intercourse is real, and we are all, in large part, to blame for it because we don’t address the underlying mythologies and mixed messages about what sex is. Without letting anyone off the hook for committing rape, we have to look at how we are all accomplices in making women’s bodies and sexuality a prize and something to which some men feel entitled, especially when they’re wrapped in pleasing packages and smiling in an inviting way. So while the individual rapist is solely responsible for the rape he committed, we all—as a society—are responsible for the culture that created the confusion.

It’s true that society, and especially the media, sends some pretty messed up ideas about women’s body. However, despite what this writer wants to maintain, there is no way to blame society for creating “confusion” around ideas like consent and rape without also removing some of the responsibility for rape from rapists. By arguing that “nice guys” commit rape too, and in placing the blame on society’s mixed messages (and also on women themselves, with their “inviting” smiles), the writers at the Good Men Project remove responsibility from the men who commit rape.

The original story about rape that went up on the Good Men Project recently was by writer Alyssa, who wrote that a friend of hers confided in her that he accidentally raped a woman. He told her that the girl he was at a party with had been flirting heavily with him, and that when she passed out he didn’t realize it would be wrong to penetrate her unconscious body. Alyssa blames society’s messages for leading to a situation where her friend could accidentally rape someone. In a follow-up post, Alyssa, insisted that she was not removing any of her friend’s responsibility for the rape, or placing any blame on his victim. She included this image to clarify:

The image shows two graphs, the first labelled “Wrong” and the second labelled “Right.” The first is a pie graph broken up into “Alyssa’s friend’s responsibility” and “Society’s responsibility.” The second is a Venn diagram, with two overlapping circles labelled “Alyssa’s friend’s responsibility” and “Society’s responsibility.” The part where they overlap is labelled “the space where society’s damaging model of consent (or lack thereof) meets a person capable of rape.” In other words, the writer is insistent that Alyssa’s friend can be 100% responsible for committing rape while society also shares responsibility.

Unfortunately for the Good Men Project, offering these graphs as explanation fails. Why? Because the original post about Alyssa’s friend included this excerpt:

To a large degree, my friend thought he was doing what was expected. And while he was wrong, weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. Many people watching it unfold would have thought that, too.

Of course they would all be wrong. But if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck? Our binary language of “yes means yes” and “no means no” doesn’t address the entire spectrum of both spoken language and body language, which mean different things to different people.

I would love for “no means no” to work, but it doesn’t.

How do I know it doesn’t work? I know because my friend raped someone and didn’t even know it. I know because on any given night, people who think they are having drunk party sex with a partner who wants it are actually committing rape. Rape, although clear as hell at the ends of the spectrum, often exists in the dark murky world of mixed signals, confusing messages and alcohol. It happens to “good girls” who didn’t ask for it, and it happens at the hands of “good guys” who honestly didn’t know that’s what they were doing.

The Good Men Project writers can claim all they want that they think Alyssa’s friend was 100% responsible for the rape he committed, but they cannot claim that and say that Alyssa’s friend had honestly no idea that what he was doing was wrong, and that he simply thought he was doing “what was expected.” What the Good Men Project is doing, no matter how it tries to deny it, is shifting blame for the rape committed by Alyssa’s friend from him to society as a whole, and the messages people receive about gender and sex.

The Good Men Project may acknowledge the existence of rape culture, but I think at some level its writers fundamentally misunderstand what “rape culture” is. Rape culture is not a culture where it’s easy to “accidentally” rape someone. Instead, rape culture is “a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” In other words, rape culture is not about poor confused guys accidentally raping girls, but rather about people making excuses for guys who rape girls. The Good Men Project writers think that they’re valiantly fighting rape culture, but what they’re actually doing is feeding it.

The Good Men Project also fails when its writers declare that “no means no” and “yes means yes” does not work. To be clear, they don’t say that the simple idea of consent doesn’t work because rapists don’t care about consent, but rather because consent is just too confusing. In fact, they act act as though it can be challenging for a man to go through life without accidentally raping someone.

I have a brother who is both in college and in the Army. He’s in the demographic the Good Men Project is talking about, so I talked with him about these articles. “Is consent confusing?” I asked him. His response was to act both indignant and a bit offended. No, he told me. Consent is not confusing. He went on to tell me that he has been through numerous Army rape prevention programs, and that he has been taught not only that you need sober consent before having sex with a woman, but also that you need a verbal “yes.”

At the end of the day, consent is not confusing, ideas like “no means no” and “yes means yes” are not complicated, and arguing that nice men commit rape accidentally because they are “confused” by how “complicated” consent is is not okay. The writers at the Good Men Project are right that society sends people some pretty messed up ideas about women’s bodies and about proper gender relations. They’re also right that most rapists are normal guys, not monsters in back alleys. Unfortunately, though, they fail miserably when they move beyond this.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • BabyRaptor

    I read that article. It was enraging.

    She. Was. Asleep. For any thinking person who is honestly concerned about consent, everything goes out the window at that point because a sleeping person can’t consent.

    Am I saying people doesn’t send mixed messages? No, no way. Not what I mean at all. But her friend didn’t accidentally rape someone because he was confused about the messages she was sending and he felt societal pressure. He decided to stick his dick in an unconscious woman. That wasn’t an accident.

    And seeing her defend him was just…Yeah, enraging. Especially since the first part of the article was her bragging about how usually she gets it.

    • BabyRaptor

      *people don’t. L2English, Raptor

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! And let’s pause to linger on that point again: She was asleep. She was UN-FUCKING-CONSCIOUS! The idea that somebody could honestly not know that it’s not okay to sexually penetrate somebody who is unconscious, who is not actually capable of sending any kind of signal about anything to anyone, is just absurd. This is not some “gray rape” type scenario (like “she was drunk and seemed into it” etc.), which would not actually make the argument any more valid or any less toxic, but might make it something other than completely ridiculous. There is nothing or “gray” about having sex with an unconscious person. If you are a guy puzzling over a woman’s “mixed signals” towards you and trying to figure out if she wants to have sex or not, her being passed out ought to make it very easy for you because an unconscious person is not capable of having desires. Unconsciousness is just about the least confusing state anybody could possibly be in. I feel ridiculous just typing this!

      Who knows? Sex MAY have been on this woman’s mind and it MAY have been “the logical conclusion of their social intercourse.” But sex while one person is unconscious is not the logical conclusion of any social intercourse, not if a woman is dancing provocatively, not if a woman was flirting, hell, not if a woman has already been physically intimate with you! I think it’s pretty safe to say that no woman–certainly not me–has ever communicated sexual attraction to a man before and gone “I really hope he fucks me when I’m not even capable of knowing it’s going on!” This does not happen. This is common sense. Once again, I feel ridiculous just saying it. The moment this woman revealed that her friend’s “accidental” victim was passed out at the time of the rape should have been the moment where every single person reading it, even if they were inclined to shift responsibility from the rapist to society, should have said “Are you kidding me?” I am absolutely floored by the fact that anyone anywhere is taking this seriously.

      Seriously, rape apologists, you can do better than this. Try harder next time.

  • jemand

    I actually think there is another issue here I haven’t yet seen discussed. It spins off of the idea of the existence of “good guys” who rape. It’s part of how people promoted Sandusky’s philanthropic work as evidence he couldn’t *also* be a rapist. I think it also ties into why so many women and girls who are raped struggle for years sometimes to name what happened to them rape, and might never do so. Precisely because rape is so often from their friends, family, acquaintances… people they *liked,* and maybe even still continue to like. People who are complicated, nuanced, maybe even a lot of the victims themselves would even call “good” because they have good parts. Are good to most people. Are good most of the time, etc.

    I think part of the problematic nature of that post comes because the writer is *friends* with the guy. She *likes* him. He probably IS a good guy the way we usually use the phrase, good enough she likes to hang out with him, have fun, etc. The cognitive dissonance involved when good people do bad things… it’s a lot. And I think it’s so strong that I dunno if we can always fight it to the point where the people who know the rapist intimately are going to be comfortable just resolving that by categorizing them totally as bad guys.

    I mean, I think this also is partly at work in some murder cases, “he was such a nice guy!” is such a common phrase– I think it may be more common in that case for people to resolve that “nice” into the past but still I think a LOT of people have trouble with that. With rape… I think it’s even harder.

    Polite people can rape, pleasant people can rape, friendly people, generous people, gentle, fun, cheerful, etc. etc. etc. All those things “good” usually stands in place of actually aren’t really logically incompatible with being a rapist, and someone who knows all those other aspects of the person *even the victim* may take a LONG time to reclassify the rapist as “not a good guy.” Might never actually do so, really.

    I actually think if people accepted that… realized the cognitive dissonance and didn’t try to immediately *fix* it… we would have less of this knee – jerk victim blaming nonsense bullshit. Because I think, given the culture we have, when people face this kind of cognitive dissonance, the most *comfortable* way to fix it immediately, is just to slide down into rape apologetics. And not sit in the uncomfortable space between liking a person and accepting they did something totally, absolutely unequivocally awful however long it takes to resolve it without blaming the victim.

    • Jaynie

      I completely agree with this, actually. We have a lot of trouble with the concept that “good” people can do “bad” things. It’s really hard to say “this person I love and trust raped someone”. I guess in a way it feels like you* were *wrong* to love that person, which in a sense shifts responsibility onto YOU (rather than the rapist), at least in your mind. So I think that’s why people get defensive, because they’re defending the fact that they liked the guy, not so much because they’re defending the guys actions, but it all blurs together a bit and the victim is the one who loses.

      I’ve been thinking for a while now that teaching some basic psych as a mandatory class would be a good idea. If all high school graduates had some awareness of these kinds of biases we might just be able to make progress.

      *general you

      • Leigha

        I have a reply to both your comment and jemand’s, so I’m just going to put both here. First, to you, I absolutely love your conclusion that we’re uncomfortable with it because it makes us doubt ourselves and our view of the person. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but I think it’s brilliant and absolutely right, especially considering how very much most people hate to be wrong. I would also like to add that it casts your entire ability to judge people into doubt and (particularly for women, who generally have been raised to fear rape) makes you fear that someone you trust could do the same to you (or someone else).

        And to jemand’s comment, this is something I have thought about a great deal and really struggle with. I know someone (an adult, with children and grandchildren of her own) was was every bit the stereotypical idea of a “daddy’s girl” while her father was alive, and was absolutely devastated when he died, who was sexually abused by her father as a child, as were her older sisters (and she flat out said that had one of them told someone, she feels strongly that it wouldn’t have happened to her). I still can’t wrap my head around how someone can love their father so much after that. I know most victims of child abuse (of any kind) feel very conflicted emotions towards their abuser(s), but I still can’t make sense of it. If someone can feel loving devotion towards someone who sexually abused them as a child, even many years later as an adult, OF COURSE people would struggle with reconciling someone they see as a good person with them being a rapist. After all, rape, unlike child molestation, does have *some* grey areas, however slight (NOT this story, by any means, because she was freaking unconscious, but there are some situations where it is feasible that a man could truly not realize that the woman might perceive it as rape), and therefore can be argued away with some fancy (and often forced) logic.

    • Carys Birch

      I don’t know. Someone I respected and trusted assaulted me, and looking back it’s pretty easy to trace the trail of “this guy might rape somebody” back through our prior interactions. In other words, once his badness was revealed, I was able to better see through his “good person” mask. /shrug I know, of course, that my experience isn’t like anyone else’s and others might not have had the same awareness of the guy’s real character after the fact like I did. Maybe the difference is that I don’t believe this guy was a good guy who did a bad thing. I think he’s a bad guy who does bad things a lot, but only happened to do it to me on one occasion.

      NB: I hesitate to talk in rape-survivor discussions because while what he did was abusive and coercive and awful, it didn’t rise to the level of rape. But it could have and we both knew it. Which was pretty awful in itself.

  • smrnda

    Consent is not difficult, particularly not when the other party is unconscious.

    Society it to blame for sending bad messages about rape and consent and expectations regarding men, women and sex,, but these messages have been analyzed and critiqued so much that nobody can really claim that they’ve just been helplessly brainwashed into accepting rape myths and rape culture. The real excuse making is committing rape (knowing full well that it’s rape) and then busting out with the ‘rape culture made me do it’ afterwards. If you can cite mixed social messages in your defense, you’re already undermining the idea that mixed social messages really controlled you and you just didn’t know any better.

  • jose

    The poor guy! Nobody told him he wasn’t supposed to go around sticking his dick in people while they’re sleeping. I mean who could’ve thought of that, right? It’s not like he could have thought if we would have liked that applied to himself, which takes about .2 seconds of thought. It’s not as if the girl right there were another person like him for whom the same rules apply. This guy isn’t a victim of rape culture, he’s an active participant.

    I don’t buy the ignorance excuse. There is a myriad of everyday life examples that shows how clear the idea of consent is for people in every other context. The last example I read somewhere was your roommate falls asleep and pizza delivery arrives. Do you awaken him for dinner or do you just shove portions up his mouth? Would you do that if he had talked about how much he liked pizza before falling asleep? Nobody is ignorant for other contexts; but when the consequence of not being ignorant is that he doesn’t get to “hit it”, then of course he was a poor victim of misinformation and confusion. Bull.

  • Shira

    Why is no one giving the entirely accurate message to men: If you get drunk, you are likely to have impaired judgment. You may make mistakes about whether a woman wants sex, and those mistakes are likely to be biased in the direction of what YOU want at the time. You are responsible for what you do, even if you are drunk, just as you are responsible for mistakes you might make while driving drunk. Therefore, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t put yourself into a situation where your poor judgment gets you into trouble.

    • Basketcase

      AND, if a woman appears drunk, dont assume that her actions mean yes. The number of cases I’ve seen here where a guy has had sex with a woman, claimed it was completely consentual (ie “She said yes”) and had her say she didn’t agree / couldn’t agree because she was drunk? Huge. And you cant go back and prove which way it went, which means you will forever be noted as potentially a rapist.

  • mary

    Also- um, maybe tmi here, but since when is one-sided sex ok? Any decent guy is going to be concerned about whether his partner is having happy happy fun time too, and when last I checked that usually doesn’t happen when you’re passed out. What an idiot.

    I will say- I’m not sure that a verbal yes is always required, especially if you’re in a relationship- if a girl is actively trying to physically get you to do stuff I’m pretty sure that means yes, she wants to do that. =) If there is ANY doubt, though, about whether the other person (and this goes both ways) wants it, TALK to them and if they can’t give you 5 reasons why yes, thank you, they’d love to get it on right now, then there’s your answer.

    • Christine

      I dunno, sometimes my first reason drowns out any others…

      I agree with what you’re saying about in a relationship, except there was, at some point, a verbal yes. I know this gets into the “can you pre-consent to something” (Which is not the issue if she never actually consented in the first place), but if you’ve had a discussion and made it clear that you’re generally ok with having sex with the person, and then give at some later date give non-verbal postive cues, the verbal yes was still there.

      • Kodie

        Consent can be revoked too you know. If you are having a sexual relationship already with someone, and say, it’s your anniversary and you go out, and she is giving cues and you know each other well enough that you don’t actually ask permission every time you have sex, then you think, after we get home, we’re going to have sex tonight. But in the case where the woman may have had too much to drink, or she ate something and feels sick, she may have to say “sorry, not tonight”. If she can’t say that, it doesn’t mean she still says yes. If she can’t say anything because she drank too much and passed out – does not mean well we had planned on ending our night out this way, so I’ll go ahead with the plans. It means “no”. Dating or married people who are already having sex are still capable of rape. There is no “pre-consent” at the beginning, where one time sex was ok, does not give permission all day every day to have sex from then on.

        And this is the part of rape culture where I think women get confused whether they can call that rape. They love someone and had sex with them already and then they do something against her will, pressured her to have sex when she didn’t want to or got her too drunk, just as if they had started dating and hadn’t had sex yet. I remember a lot from when I was a teen not to cave in to pressure if you’re not ready – if he loves you he will wait, that sort of thing. If he loves you enough to, say, marry you or live in with you, when you say no or cannot say yes, he should love you enough to wait until you both want to do it. Put the responsibility on the same person who deserves all of the blame – not the victim.

        In rape culture, a woman’s sexuality is suspect – once used is owned. A woman who had sex with someone else, even a lot of other people, is no longer considered a person who can choose who to have sex with and when. Let’s put responsibility on the man for a change. If he has demonstrated his respect for a woman, if he has demonstrated a loving relationship to her, then he abstains when she wishes. In rape culture, it’s the other way around – the woman has demonstrated sexual activity with someone, so is to blame if he gets confused that it means she will give it up any time he wants, even if she is sleeping. Let him have demonstrated love and respect, and the rape is uncharacteristic of those qualities he has – we’ll call it – pre-consented.

        If the woman, Alyssa, had said earlier, “I like you so much and tonight’s the night!” or something like that, he might look forward to it, but he should know better than to just take it if circumstances change obviously. Rape culture seems to give men some allowance for being too stupid, and for calling women too confusing and never saying what they mean. It is weird. There we speak the same language to each other, and for some reason, it’s women who are aliens who don’t say explicitly what they want and don’t want, not men who are responsible for pressuring, bargaining, or just plain taking what they decide. If you’re honestly confused by someone, don’t have sex with them.

  • Rachel

    A few months ago, I was talking to some family friends of my husband — young men who are in their late teens/early twenties, in college, and generally intelligent and well-brought-up people, people who had grown up idolizing my husband as their big brother. I don’t remember how we got on the subject of consent, but we did. Both young men were unsure of how to ask for consent, because it went against everything that they’re supposed to be: confident, in control, experienced, invulnerable. To ask consent would make them vulnerable — to ridicule, to lowered expectations, etc.

    And my first response, in my head, was, “you’d be willing to rape because you’re not willing to possibly be embarrassed for a moment?”

    Out loud, I talked about how consent isn’t weak, about how asking for consent can be powerful and sexy, about how my husband and I regularly ask consent — and for powerful, yes means yes consent rather than “uh, sure, I guess.” And then I realized they were embarrassed at hearing about our sex life, and talked a little more generally.

    I really wish TGMP hadn’t turned into a continuation of rape culture — she asked for it, indirectly — and instead was telling men, “no, this is not the only way to be a man.”

    • luckyducky

      I immediately thought of boys and young men — teens and very early twenties — with this whole discussion — possibly because I married young and didn’t have opportunity to have casual sexual encounters through my twenties but has my share fumbling teenage encounters where occasionally things when further than I wanted (but never so far I would call it rape). Royce’s was an extraordinarily weak example — he’s well past old enough (and I presumed experienced enough) to know what consent is and that she was completely incapable of providing it.

      However, there is this space in time where boys (and they are boys) are both very, very desirous of engaging in sexual activities and, frankly, demonstrate the reasoning capacity of a box of rocks, even the smart and well-behaved ones, but often do not yet have a great deal of information, particularly because of prevalence of abstinence-only sex ed (or just generally crappy sex ed). When do you squeeze in requirement that consent be given when you are telling them they are going to die of STDs if they have pre-marital sex and the underlying concept of sex has nothing to do with consent?

      I think it would be a mistake to discount how confusing the messages they get are — and it isn’t just limited to the boys. Girls are getting equally confusing messages, compounding the problem because they aren’t clear about what they are supposed to want vs. what they do want, what they can and cannot say yes/no to, etc. It is still no excuse but asserting that it isn’t part of the problem is, well, helping them.

      It isn’t that what they are doing isn’t rape or even that they don’t know that is wrong, it is that they don’t fully grasp the magnitude of the act or their failure to get consent — they know it isn’t right but they don’t know it is rape. They know it isn’t right to push a girl into doing something she doesn’t want to or have sex with some who can’t consent (I am thinking drunk, sleeping is still beyond the pale as far as I am concerned) but they also “know” good girls are supposed to say “no” but don’t really mean it, guys are supposed to “pursue” girls, etc.

      • Leigha

        Fortunately, my school’s sex ed class put a great deal of emphasis on consent. What always confused me (as a girl) was that, while there was a constant refrain in health class, magazines, books, TV, etc. on waiting until you’re “ready,” no one ever explained how to know WHEN you were ready. I had no idea how to make that decision, absolutely no concept of what “ready” would feel like. And while I hate to lend any credence to the rape apologist argument, there are some occasions (far less than they claim, I’m sure) where a woman consents, regrets, and claims rape. And I think failure to teach girls (and boys) how to decide when they’re ready contributes to that. If a girl thinks she’s ready simply because she physically wants sex, but then realize she’s emotionally distraught afterwards, she may very well question whether she truly wanted it in the first place or was pressured into it, and may blame the guy (who, to be fair, may very well have pressured her into it).

        What really, really needs to happen (though I’m not holding my breath) is for every adolescent, regardless of gender, to be taught that it’s okay to want sex (since many teach that girls shouldn’t), it’s okay not to want sex (since it’s often assumed that boys always do), how to tell if you’re ready to have sex, and that not only is it important to get/give consent, but also that consent can be revoked at any time–the second before having sex, halfway through, or afterwards (for future encounters, of course–because many assume that once you’ve had sex, consent is implied).

        This is actually the biggest problem I have with abstinence-only sex ed. Not the lack of education about safe sex, because that’s relatively easy to learn in ten minutes on the internet if one so desires (though it absolutely should be taught), but the lack of any thought whatsoever to responsible decision-making, which many people don’t even think about. If you teach kids that they will feel guilty and wrong after having premarital sex, they won’t know that maybe they’re feeling that way because they weren’t ready or chose the wrong person, and may conclude it’s the natural trade off and just something they’re stuck with if they want to have sex. I realize, of course, that the abstinence-only proponents don’t want to teach this because it requires teaching kids that you CAN have sex with someone you aren’t married to and feel good about it (gasp!), but it’s still wrong and still contributes to unhealthy relationships and regret that could easily have been avoided with responsible teaching.

  • James

    i’m absolutely gobsmacked that I just read the line “he didn’t realise it would be wrong to penetrate her unconcious body”. WHAT?????? How can that ever be in question???!? If you don’t know that penetrating an unconcious woman is wrong then you’re not a “good” or “nice guy”; at the most charitable possible interpretation, you’re a very selfish man who views a woman’s body purely as a device your own pleasure. and you’re a rapist.

    • Kate

      This is exactly what I was thinking. What I find particularly enraging about his “accidently” raping the woman was not just that this really should be a no-brainer, but that it reduces a woman’s role is sex to that of a blow-up doll. For him to say that he thought he was supposed to have sex with her even though the was passed out because of the signals she sent means that he doesn’t see sex as something women participate in. To him, it is something men do to women. I think this is supported by the rape/purity culture that implies that a woman’s enjoyment of sex is only in that it gives men pleasure. It does not recognize that women enjoy sex for themselves and want and expect to be an active participant. To these idiots, a woman is not supposed to enjoy sex so it doesn’t matter to her if she is actually awake for it. Did he really think that she would be glad to know that he enjoyed himself even if she had fallen asleep? All the decent men I know want their partner to enjoy sex as much as they do. That’s not possible if your partner is unconscious.

  • Elin

    There might be gray areas, yes, but having sex with a sleeping woman is no gray area!!!

  • Tracey

    I’m glad you commented. You said stuff I would have said if I was more eloquent. I’ve been wanting to comment but frankly, I was afraid. Trying for days to figure out what to say without accidentally being insulting. I’ve seen the way people jump on others who they see as apologists. It upsets me that I can’t just say what I’m thinking. I do think there’s a lot to talk about regarding rape and society. I was a girl getting those same confusing messages. I still have trouble requesting sex because I always understood I wasn’t supposed to. My first relationship involved pressure to have sex and I’ve regretted agreeing to sex under that pressure. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I was a potential victim of that gray area. Would that (my confusion/lack of knowledge) be my fault? Society’s fault? The education system? Or does it not matter whose fault it is? We need to talking about it. I don’t want to be scared to ask questions in working out my views and evolving my understanding.

    • Anonymous

      I agree that there are a lot of confusing messages. I usually hate divulging any information about my sex life, even anonymously online (for the record, I’m a regular poster omitting my name for this), but I feel it’s appropriate and warranted here.

      I still have trouble when it comes to changing my mind. If I start things and then decide, after my boyfriend gets turned on, that I don’t want to have sex after all, I usually feel guilty for doing that to him and obligated to follow through with what I started (even though he’s told me numerous times that he doesn’t want me to do that). Usually it’s because I thought I wanted sex but in reality, some kissing and cuddling turned out to be what I really wanted. Sometimes it’s because we’ve gotten out of sync over the past few days and I just want to reconnect in some way, but realize halfway through that sex isn’t the best way to do it. In fact, the reason I just gave those explanations is because I feel defensive about the fact that some people might accuse me of “leading him on” and say that I shouldn’t be allowed to change my mind if I’m the one who starts things.

      I also have trouble turning him down if he wants sex and I don’t, because I tend to want it more than he does and I hate having to turn down one of the few times he’s the one asking for it, especially if I’ve recently requested he do so more often (every once in awhile, being the one who usually starts things will bother me and I’ll ask him to make more of an effort to make me feel desirable–hooray for self esteem issues). (To clarify, it’s not that he doesn’t want sex very often, it’s just that I want it sufficiently more that he won’t feel the need to ask for it in the amount of time between when I do. When I get frustrated at always being the initiator and back off to let him do so, it only drops off a little. And he’s made it perfectly clear that he’s almost never opposed to it, just may not always think about it.)

      Our society makes things way too complicated when it comes to sex. I think if we were more open about it–especially the emotional aspects (and not just the “having sex destroys you emotionally” perspective of those who push abstinence-only sex ed)–we would all be much better off.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        My husband had to make it clear to me that when he wants to cuddle, it isn’t some secret handshake to let me know he’s in the mood, he just wants to cuddle! I think that is another huge issue in many relationships…not being honest and direct and always tip-toeing thorough the damn tulips when it comes to letting our partners know we want sex.

  • Miranda

    It took me a terribly, terribly long time to come to the conclusion that my rape was NOT my fault. Everything around me seemed to demand that I “take responsibility” for what had happened. I shouldn’t have been there, I should have fought harder, I shouldn’t have led him on, it wasn’t my PLACE to say no once I’d gotten him that aroused. He couldn’t help himself! You can’t say no when the clothes come off!
    Recently someone verbally attacked me and asserted that victims of rape who do not report rape, or do their best to get their rapist to face the consequences, are guilty of perpetuating rape and allowing it to happen. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever heard, and definitely caused a serious regression in my ability to come to terms with the way I reacted post-rape and how I feel about myself today. This whole victim-blaming concept is really apparent and so damaging. I had a girl comment on my copy of Libby’s post (How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement) echoing this concept of victim-blaming. She went to the same Christian school I did, and it’s still cemented in her mind. Terrible, terrible.

  • Arium

    Libby Anne, I am not following your line of reasoning here.

    I disagree with your contention that responsibility must be divided. Alyssa’s friend is 100% responsible (as in culpable) for having committed this rape in the eyes of basically everyone I’ve read. I don’t see where you are leaving any room for discussion of how he could have ended up so ignorant on the subject of consent without such discussion amounting to “shifting blame.”

    You provide an anecdote about your brother who “has been through numerous Army rape prevention programs.” This is all well and good, but how does this negate the anecdote of a man who hadn’t had the benefit of such programs claiming an incomplete understanding of consent?

    I really like your blog, I have great respect for you, and I regret that I picked possibly the first post of yours that I find disagreement with to make my first comment here.

    I liked your post on the rape awareness PSA, but I don’t see that as completely different from this. In both cases acknowledgment that increased education regarding issues of consent is needed should not be construed as excusing rape for those who haven’t gotten the message.

    I acknowledge that Alyssa’s handling of such a sensitive topic was, to say the least, clumsy, but in my judgment she is right that the conversation is worth having.

    • lucrezaborgia

      Why assume he was ignorant?

      • Arium

        It is entirely possible that this guy is just another predator who completely snowed Alyssa. We cannot be certain either way. I don’t think the validity of the conversation hinges on this one case.

        I too was quite ignorant of concepts of consent when I was younger. Most of my enlightenment has come from reading the feminist blogosphere over the past 8 years.

    • Danielle

      Arium – I see what you are saying and that is what I have been trying to figure out how to express. I was raped by someone I loved years ago. I am sure that he has no idea now that that is what he did that one time that I did not physically resist after I verbally expressed that I did not consent. I think that the fact that he was raised his entire life to believe that the godly order of things is that women always submit to men probably had something to do with it. That does not absolve him of the fact that rape happened, but its an explanation that reveals a root problem.

      I think Alyssa’s friend was ignorant, as evidenced by the fact that he had to ask her if she thought it was raped. Yes, penetrating sleeping people should be a no-brainer, but obviously its not. There is a lot more to do to change the cultural understanding of what consent means. The “no means no” part is a lot clearer in public perception than the “lack of clear affirmative yes means no” part.

      I think the “good guy rapist” discussion is important because it expands the public perception of the rape problem beyond the creepy dude in the alley. Rape is a social problem. For example, every man throughout history who entered into an arranged marriage with an underaged girl was not a sociopath. It It doesn’t change the fact that rape occurred to say that the rape was influenced by social factors.

    • Anonymous

      She was UNCONSCIOUS! This is the exact opposite of anything even remotely resembling a grey area. If he was truly oblivious to the fact that having sex with a woman when she’s unconscious constitutes rape, then he is a complete idiot who is incapable of logical thought. Can consent be misconstrued in some situations? Yes. Can any sane, rational person truly think there was consent when the person who supposedly consented wasn’t even conscious? NO. Hell no. Abso-freaking-lutely not.

      He was not “ignorant on the subject of consent.” He either deliberately and knowingly raped this woman and is lying about it (likely to himself as well; I doubt he actually flat out thought “I am going to rape her” but rather told himself at the time he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and tells himself now that he didn’t do anything wrong, while knowing deep down that he did) or he is incredibly stupid and not capable of functioning as an adult.

      That said, we do need to make more of an effort to educate people on the subject of consent, in general. But is “Don’t have sex with someone while they’re unconscious” really something that needs to be explicitly stated? Honestly, how dumb can people get?

  • Adrian

    Obviously, the example in Alyssa’s post isn’t much of a grey area. Unconscious=lack of consent is fairly obvious. That being said, grey areas do exist that aren’t so cut-and-dry, and it’s important to address those areas completely. For example, my current girlfriend was extremely drunk when we first had sex; so drunk that she didn’t really remember what had happened the next morning. However, I had no idea that she had been drinking, she did not seem obviously drunk, I’d never seen her drunk before so I didn’t know what less-obvious signs were signs she was drunk, and I was half out of it from exhaustion at the time so wouldn’t have seen those signs even if I knew what they were. She didn’t regret it after the fact (as [I hope] implied by the phrase ‘current girlfriend’), but it probably wouldn’t have happened sans intoxication, and it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for her to have regretted it. Where does this put me? She was drunk->couldn’t consent->rape. But I didn’t know she was drunk and couldn’t reasonably have known, so rape but not culpable, like a minor in a bar with a fake ID? And she initiated; if she wasn’t drunk consent would have been unambiguously ‘yes’, so not culpable? I don’t think it was rape, since after the fact she affirmed that it was fine, but it could have easily been rape. What could I have done to prevent it? I don’t think anything, since I had no way of knowing she was drunk, and no reason to suspect she might have been drunk, but that implies that rape can occur where the rapist has absolutely no intention to commit rape, and no reasonable way not to commit rape, which is a problematic conclusion. We’ve been together for more than a year now, and I still don’t know how to parse it. Opinions?

    • Niemand

      What could I have done to prevent it?

      Not had sex, especially with someone you didn’t know very well at the time, when your judgement was impaired, as it was by exhaustion in this case.

      • Adrian

        The problem here is that I didn’t have the information I needed and had no reason to expect things ere different than I thought. I don’t have a good idea of my bodily state until it reaches a failure point, which means I don’t realize I’m tired until I pass out (which is an issue, but not noticing I’m hungry til three days without food is useful when I regularly have to go two or three days without food, and I don’t think I could change it if I wanted to anyway). I did know her quite well; she was one of my closest friends for more than two years at that point. I had never seen her drink before largely because she had only done so once or twice in the time that I had known her, and not around me or anyone I knew. Even now, she can be drunk enough not to remember much the next morning and I can’t tell unless she says something, so even without the fatigue I would have thought everything was fine. I had no reason to expect her to be drunk, I couldn’t tell that she was drunk, she didn’t act like any drunk person I’d ever seen and known to be drunk, ergo I assumed she wasn’t drunk, not exactly a Holmesian leap of deduction. She initiated, reaffirmed consent at significant junctures when asked, lit up all the lights on the consentometer green, but it was still wrong. I had every reason to think everything was fine, but it wasn’t. Knowing what I know now, it’s obvious I shouldn’t have had sex with her, but with what I knew at the time, it looked like clear-cut consent. I guess that’s the point. I always have and continue to utilize good consent practices, but the best consent practices I can come up with still aren’t enough to protect people, and that terrifies me. I have more to say, but I’m having trouble articulating it and this whole thing is making me feel kind of queasy, so I’ll end here. Might post again later when I’ve calmed down a bit.

    • ki sarita

      I’m not a lawyer but my 2 cents is that not every sexual interaction with a drunk person is rape, a drunk person can want sex. if the person initiaties and remains actively participating throughout it isn’t rape, although it is irresponsible. but as I said I am not a lawyer.

      • Niemand

        Nonetheless, it seems to me that the prudent and responsible thing to do in such a case would be to say, “I’m not into this right now. Let’s wait until you’re sober and I’m awake and discuss whether we want to take things this way.” Then you don’t have to worry about the ambiguity of the situation because you’ve made it unambiguous.

      • Christine

        I agree that it’s not necessarily rape, but that’s only in a moral sense. What they taught us in orientation leader training was that even one drink means you can’t give consent. (I suspect in practice that if you can’t tell that they’ve had anything to drink you’re fine, but that’s practice, rather than by the book).

  • Sophie

    I was raped when I was 16. It was my first boyfriend and I had consented to sex at first but then got scared and said no. He just carried on even with me saying no and crying throughout. And afterwards he asked me what was wrong. I never reported it to the police because I thought since I had initially given consent I wouldn’t have a case. It wasn’t really until years later that I really accepted that it was rape. It left me with some serious issues with sex and horrific nightmares. My current partner knows about it and he has been incredibly supportive. He has always taken ‘no means no’ very seriously and is extremely vigilant about gaining consent. Six years into our relationship, he still asks me if I sure even if I initiate sex. I know that could be to do with my history but I think he would be the same with any women.

  • Incognito

    In this case it is pretty clear cut. She was unconscious. But, in other situations, it really can be confusing. People getting raped don’t always object. Sometimes they are too shocked. Or the victim may change their mind mid-way and the rapist may not stop to figure out whether this means yes or no during his passion if his his only rule is “yes means yes and no means no.” I was never educated about consent growing up. Not that I ever raped anyone, but I might have if I hadn’t been such a prude. I know a woman who raped a man who had been taught it was impossible for a woman to rape anyone. But yes, here they are using the ambiguity (where there wasn’t any ambiguity) as an excuse.

    • Anat

      Which means, when in doubt – don’t. It is better to skip some opportunities to have sex than to rape someone. This is especially true in new relationships when one isn’t familiar with one’s partner, their likes, dislikes, boundaries etc, but even in an established relationship there can be issues of this sort.

    • Lex

      The binary of “yes means yes” and “no means no” is not sufficient and can lead to spaces where people can defend the fact they raped someone. “Yes” means “yes”, anything else means “no”, and “no” means “stop now and take a step back.”

  • RomanticTantric

    What if in our sex-ed classes, we talked about sex not just in physical or even emotional terms but as a spiritual experience? I don’t want to sound weird about this, but isn’t it the case that when we’re having sex, we’re getting the closest to a person that we ever do? There is a striving to join with the other person – the rhetoric around sex has to do with “becoming one”, “joining with” etc.etc. It’s about overcoming the barrier between the two bodies – not too extravagent to talk in terms of union of spirits. So at least at the beginning of sex, if partners approached each other with reverence – not in the sense of church services, but in the sense of respect, wonder. delight – there may be a larger space to work out issues of consent – what each person wanted for themselves and what they knew the other one wanted.

    Now I realise that, given the comments above, it’s asking a lot to expect a guy to approach his girlfriend as if she were a goddess, (and hope that, equally, she will treat him like a god!!) but we’re talking about changing mindsets here – changing from a culture of rape – so perhaps rather than changing details, we aim to shift the whole paradigm.

    • The_L

      That’s an interesting concept, but no. Sometimes, when my boyfriend and I are having sex, we’re just trying to feel good together and get each other off.

      Some people engage in casual sex, but do so more or less respectfully.

      Besides, making sex a spritual experience can backfire horribly, because that’s basically what the Quiverfull movement did–took the Christian version of sexual spirituality to nightmarish extremes, then coupled it with equally-nasty views about child-rearing.

    • luckyducky

      Ick, ick, ick.

      I say this as someone who comes from a sacramental faith tradition and appreciates a sacramental view of marriage/sex. In my humble opinion, if sex is a spiritual experience for you and your partner, more power to you but it would be a mistake to teach that it is or should be for everyone (particularly in the context of sex ed).

      First, because not everyone is spiritually inclined or would not experience sex as a spiritual exercise. Are we to teach people that their sexual experience is lacking or wrong when they just don’t experience otherwise healthy, even loving, sexual relationships that way? Particularly tricky when you talk about sex ed in public schools.

      Second, because the trappings of spirituality are so often used to control people. Because it has to do with the divine (if you believe in such things), it gets all tied up with authority and who gets to speak for the divine, etc. Sure, it can be egalitarian but is often/usually is not.

      Third, I don’t want to be a goddess. It is dis-empowering to deprive people of their humanness, whether is it in the guise of putting people up on a pedestal or reducing them to less-than.

      Respect is enough.

    • Kodie

      If you put this another way, stereotypically – you teach this in sex ed, and what they already know. A young woman might feel that he is “the one” and the young man knows well enough to assure her that he “loves” her, so it all feels so magical and special but it’s not. It’s just a tool to get what you want by putting on a show. There is no ceremony or contract here, people can toy with each other’s feelings and expectations already, and they know how to do this already.

      Anyway, sex is a biological function – it can be more for some people, like eating. Some people need to eat anything, quickly, possibly while doing something else. It’s just to keep going, it’s not to set down for a magnificent feast. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when we have something a little more special going on. Sex should not be determined from external sources to be made into anything more than what it is – that’s a personal attitude with potential for disappointing results. “Spiritually” the way to become one has traditionally meant not to use birth control, no barrier or implement or process interfering with the utility of reproduction. It’s more like an itch that needs to be scratched, in all honesty – nature doesn’t care if you are gods or goddesses to make a baby. The sensible thing to do is clear all that superficial spirituality away and tend to the actual. Prevent pregnancy because you want to and you can, and, it’s entirely possible and anyone’s prerogative to have sex with a willing consensual partner without regarding them to be some higher form of life than a person. They can mean more to you than most other people, but that’s not vitally important – and to place that emphasis on people, especially young people still in school, is judgmental of them, and least helpful. It is really no better than drink-the-spit abstinence purity teaching.