The Soapbox: Let’s Get Real When Discussing Complicated Sexual Experiences

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the media about sexual violence. Late last month, former CBC Broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi was fired amid allegations of sexual assault. A few weeks ago, Shia LaBeouf came forward with claims that he was raped during an art exhibition. And by now everyone’s heard of the sex abuse allegations first brought against Bill Cosby decades ago, which seem to just keep coming.

Then a little over a week ago, Rolling Stone released an editor’s note that undermined their own investigative account of a brutal gang rape that allegedly took place at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. It was a move that The Frisky’s Beejoli Shah astutely noted as “just another example of shifting the focus away from the real issue at hand: how we talk about rape, and how hard it is for survivors to come forward.”

As a former sex worker turned sex writer I think it’s good that people are talking about sexual health. It’s unfortunate, however, that we don’t know how to talk about complicated sexual experiences without focusing on two words: consent, and rape. In certain circumstances, I wonder if these aren’t the wrong words. Certainly, they shouldn’t be the only ones.

One time, in the midst of a sexual encounter, I slapped my partner in the face. After a moment of stunned silence, he burst into tears. At the time, it didn’t even cross my mind that I hadn’t had his permission. It was something we’d done before. Something he’d done to me. Something we both enjoyed. His reaction to that slap surprised us both, triggering something in him that neither of us were expecting. Certainly, I’d say it wasn’t assault. And yet, for reasons that remain vague to both of us to this day, what happened in that moment was also definitely not cool.

Sexual health is complicated. I’d venture to guess that “not cool” stuff happens all the the time, and it’s unfortunate that we as a culture — even those of us who write about sex all the time — don’t seem know how to talk about. I’m thinking of the conversation started last year by an episode of “Girls,” featuring a provocative scene illustrating what some called bad sex and others called rape. A term ”gray rape” was brought up and we on the internet fiercely debated whether gray rape was really rape, or whether it was not rape, as if these were the only two options. We have so few ways to discuss or describe negative sexual experiences that perhaps this is part of the reason why these negative experiences proliferate. Maybe our sexual health would improve if we had more language to make sense of it— words less loaded than rape but more significant than “not cool.”

We live in a cultural landscape where a woman (and it is always a woman) is raped, or she was not raped. There is a victim, or “alleged victim,” and then there’s a rapist. We’re always more curious about her (the victim) than him. Victims must be sympathetic characters, and reliable narrators or else everything that happened to them is somehow their fault. And yet, in the real world, negative sexual experiences— especially traumatic ones— are hard to recount, often making victims of trauma appear unreliable, even to ourselves. Experiencing prolonged or severe trauma can warp an individual’s personality, making victims behave unsympathetically and rendering them vulnerable to further abuse.

Even the ‘enlightened’ — the progressive and so-called ‘sex positive’ — have trouble seeing beyond the black and white categories of ‘rape’ or ‘not rape,’ ‘victim’ and ‘rapist,’ ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty.’ Maybe we avoid looking more deeply and critically at complicated sexual experiences in the media because doing so might lead us back to our own.

Prior to reading Lindy West’s piece in the Guardian, I hadn’t known LaBeouf struggled with substance abuse, or ever considered that he might be mentally ill. I found what I perceived to be his attention-demanding behavior annoying, and so I initially ignored his claim that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse. I did not put it together that the very conduct that makes him a target for ridicule and contempt, much like another celebrity for whom I’ve expressed sympathy, could be the sign of something troubling.  As someone who’s struggled with mental health and addiction, I get it.

The LaBeouf situation reminds me of when I worked as an exotic dancer. In many ways, it was similar. By dancing naked, I wasn’t implicitly consenting to be touched. And yet, touch they did. When customers touched me without permission — which happened all the time — those customers were wrong. He assumed he had consent, but he didn’t. At the time, I rarely felt the right to object. When I think about it now, I recognize that the customer was wrong — but his actions weren’t criminal. Not then nor now would I have called it rape.

Sometimes you don’t say no or stop it because you don’t want to interrupt the act. For complicated reasons, you wish to remain in character. We make no complaint, go along with it and even give consent, sometimes enthusiastically. Sometimes something feels one way at the time, or for some of the time, and then at some point it feels differently. Sometimes, our feelings — sometimes years later — surprise us. This may be especially true of, though is certainly not limited to, individuals struggling with or having histories of trauma, mental health issues and substance abuse.

When we talk about sexual health, there are a constellation of factors to consider besides consent — factors like pleasure, shared values, honesty and trust, freedom from exploitation, and protection from unintended pregnancy or STIs. Although I freely consented to sex work, for example, it wasn’t until years later — firmly entrenched in a program of recovery — that I began to view those encounters as exploitative. My customers weren’t bad people — and certainly I hadn’t been raped, as some anti-sex industry feminists label all paid sexual encounters — but whether they knew it or not, my customers were exploiting my poverty, my budding alcoholism, and my mental health issues including my low self esteem.

I exploited people, too. Desperate for intimacy, I pressured men I didn’t know into casual sex. I used bodies for entertainment, including my own. I preferred unprotected sex as a way of separating the professional from the personal. There were never any honest discussions of risk.

Sometimes, we don’t want to call what happened rape, because it wasn’t — but it was a violation. And some of us have been on both sides.

Susan Dominus wrote eloquently for the New York Times Magazine on her and her friends re-evaluating their own complicated sexual experiences, and coming now to view some of them as sexual assault. “We would have thought ourselves too enlightened, too freed from a legacy of shame,” she writes, “to have hidden those complicated stories all these years. But some of us did.”

My whole life — not to mention my sex life — has gotten a lot better since I’ve begun dealing with the trauma of my past, and learning new ways to respect myself and others. Getting real about those experiences and talking about them honestly was and continues to be a huge help — and it started by finding the right words.

[Guardian US]

[New York Times Magazine]