Almost a year ago, I wrote an essay about having been date raped in college. The piece got a strong reaction from commenters, many of whom debated whether or not I had given or not given consent for this guy to have sex with me. Much of the back-and-forth centered around the fact that I didn’t realize that penetration had actually occurred until days later. I had had a few beers, it was dark, I was a virgin and generally sexually inexperienced, and I had told him explicitly that I did not want to have sex yet, all of which added up to me not realizing what had happened until he told me.
I perceived this man to be “a nice guy.” (We had a good date. He was funny and smart and liked animals. He seemed trustworthy.) He genuinely seemed surprised that I hadn’t realized he had penetrated me, that he wasn’t able to “help” himself. That’s what he said: “I couldn’t help myself.” I still clearly remember his tone — it was sort of sheepish, but also complimentary, as though he was trying to flatter me by saying he couldn’t stop himself from doing what I said earlier not to do. As I thought about it in the days after, I excused his raping me as a breakdown of communication. He hadn’t meant to rape me, so therefore it couldn’t be rape. Besides, he was a nice guy and nice guys just don’t rape.
So why did I feel so weird about it? I knew there was something wrong with him penetrating me after I had explicitly told him that I didn’t want to have sex. That I was virgin and wasn’t quite ready to go there. But then later on, I didn’t stop him — because I didn’t know it was happening — so he kept going. It took me years to really process the experience and what effect it had on me, perhaps because I wasn’t deeply traumatized by it and was therefore able to ignore the subtle ways in which it impacted my ability to trust men and understand my own sexuality. But perhaps the biggest impact it has had is in making me really think hard about what it means to give and get enthusiastic consent from our partners and how important it is that we use every opportunity something like this happens to drive those points home.
That seems to be Alyssa Royse’s overall goal in a piece she wrote for The Good Men Project (also crossposted on xoJane) called “Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too.” Unfortunately for her and the many readers and other bloggers who have criticized this piece, her overall desire to discuss how signals can be misread, that men could think they have consent when they don’t, and the role society plays in muddying those waters, is majorly overshadowed by the example she uses of a “nice guy” who committed raped. Royse — who, full disclosure, wrote one piece that was crossposted on The Frisky and is a Facebook friend of mine, though we don’t know each other personally — kicks off the piece with the story of a male friend being accused of rape. Here’s how she explains the incident:
On the night in question, there was drinking. A lot of it. I wasn’t there, but there was probably some drugging. There was music and dancing. At some point, people started clustering off into smaller groups, some of which turned sexual. My friend and this woman fell asleep together. And by all accounts, when she woke up, he was penetrating her.
Royse goes on to emphasize multiple times throughout the piece that this friend of hers did rape this woman. She does not deny he is a rapist. However, many who have read this piece have a hard time with this being an example of a “nice guy” who “accidentally” commits rape, as there was no confusion or misread signals as to whether this woman wanted to have sex. She was asleep. She could not give consent. Period. “Nice guys” don’t stick their dicks in sleeping women. While some long-term couples may have agreed upon what sexual contact is acceptable during a sleep state — “Yes, honey, you can wake me up with a blow job!” “No dear, I don’t ever want to wake up in the middle of the night with your penis inside me” — this twosome had no such agreement and had never even slept together before even once. Royse’s description of the incident is also his description of the incident and it’s safe to assume that it’s been presented with him in the best possible light. He’s supposed to be seen as a “nice guy,” after all.
The fact that most commenters on the piece balk at that description unfortunately means that Royse’s overall intent — “that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing … no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood” — is lost. It’s such a shame that Royce’s example of a “nice” guy who misread signals to the point of “accidentally” raping a woman is so terribly off-base because I do think there are many examples of blurred lines, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved, and that it would behoove those of us who are concerned about the high occurrence of date and acquaintance rape to discuss them. As Royse writes, “We need to teach people that anything short of verbal consent is not an invitation to stick any part of your body on or in any part of anyone else’s body.”
The fact of the matter is, most rapes do not involve a stranger jumping from out behind the bushes and dragging his victim to an alley. Many of them, yes, occur between people who know each other, where the rapist knows what they are doing, that are about control and dominance and violence. But I fully believe, having been the victim of one myself, there are also those rapes that occur because the rapist has allowed himself to believe he has consent, and then finds out after the fact that he didn’t. Those are still rapes. Those men are still rapists. But those types of rapes and rapists can be stopped if we are willing to really look hard at at the nuances of what caused them to occur. Intent isn’t everything, but it does matter. We have to be willing to call things what they are — rape, rapists — with conviction, while also being brave enough to sift through how they came to be.