Alyssa Royse believes that society’s relationship with sexuality is at least partially responsible when good men and women commit rape.
I am used to getting the call in which a reluctant voice says, “I was raped.” I used to carry a pager and get that call at all hours, racing to emergency rooms to counsel women through the byzantine maze of emotions, doctors, cops and—for lucky ones—lawyers that were soon to come.
However, I was not used to getting the call in which a dear friend of mine says, “I am being accused of rape.” And I was certainly not used to saying, “did you do it?”
It seems like a simple question to answer. But he, like many people, struggled with it. He didn’t answer. So I asked the question from another angle, “What did she say happened?”
“She said I raped her,” he answered.
“Well, then you probably did. What exactly happened?”
This is where this particular story becomes much more general. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is a scene whose generalities are probably repeated every night, somewhere. And they rarely happen in the tidy confines of a dark alley, with a stranger who is clearly a “rapist” and a woman who is clearly being victimized. More often than not, rape happens amongst people who know each other, and the rapist is not someone carrying a villainous cloak and look of ill intent. The rapist is just a person who may genuinely not realize that what he’s doing is rape.
My friend, for instance, was genuinely unsure, which was why he called me. At the time, I was fresh from giving a rousing talk at SlutWalk, in which I very clearly stated that the only person responsible for rape is the rapist. I said that no matter what a woman is wearing or doing, no one has the right to touch her without her explicit consent. It was a great talk.
But it cannot undo generations of training in which the goal of getting dressed and going out is to get the guy or get the girl and hook up or get lucky. In this training, we are taught that in order to get the guy, we have to look sexy—and sometimes have sex. The training has also taught men that the reason we dress up and look sexy is to “catch him”. We even use those words, as if our bodies themselves are the lure, and our sexuality the hook.
In this particular case, I had watched the woman in question flirt aggressively with my friend for weeks. I had watched her sit on his lap, dance with him, twirl his hair in her fingers. I had seen her at parties discussing the various kinds of sex work she had done, and the pleasure with which she explored her own very fluid sexuality, all while looking my friend straight in the eye.
Only she knows what signals she intended to send out. But many of us can guess the signals he received.
This is not a “some girls, they rape so easy” story. I promise. This is a “some signals, they read so wrong” story. And the fault is not hers, it’s ours—all of ours—for not explaining what these signals DON’T mean, even if we don’t know exactly what they DO mean.
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.
Which is to say that she was asleep when he started to penetrate her. She did not consent prior. Anything said after the penetration beside the point, so I’m leaving it out on purpose. It is the mixed signals of everything leading up to this moment that are the point of this story.
In my mind, this was rape. Because being hot, flirty, frolicky and drunk is NOT consent. Putting your penis in a woman without her consent is rape. Being drunk was not an excuse for either party. The responsibility was not on her to say “stop”, it was on him to ask if it’s okay before he did it. This part is simple.
To some of you, it may sound ridiculous when I say that my friend is a really sweet guy. He was devastated at the allegation of rape, and even more so at my confirmation that it was rape. We spent a week or so exploring how this could have happened. Not excusing it, but trying to understand it. With him, the conversations were painful and beautiful, and he understood. He claimed it, at least to me, and learned a hard lesson: he had committed rape. That “nice guys” can do that.
Still, the fact that he is a nice guy doesn’t make it okay. Ever.
Within the community at large, there were much harder discussions centering on how it was that he thought penetrating her while she was asleep was okay, but any discussion of her behavior leading up to it was taboo. Any suggestion that her behavior may have led to—NOT JUSTIFIED OR EXCUSED—the rape was met with screams of “victim blaming” and “rape apology”.
But to run from this part of the discussion is to let the problem stagnate and fester.
There are two simple truths here:
1. She had every right to do everything she was doing and fully expect to be safe from rape. (She was right.)
2. He believed that everything she was doing was an invitation to have sex. (He was wrong.)
The problem is not that she’s a “slut”. The implications of that word make my brain shrivel when sprinkled with the salty insinuations that so often accompany it: that a woman who exhibits a fondness for her own sexuality is somehow inviting anyone who sees her to have sex with her.
The problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist.
The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing. And no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood.
Just to be painfully clear, the ONLY thing that counts as consent to have sex is the word “YES”, accompanied with any form of “I would like to have sex with you”. But we need to stop denying that we sell sex as the reason for everything—from what car to buy, to why to work out to what clothes will help us “get ahead”. In our world, sex is the end game. Period. Anything shy of sex is quitting, or worse, losing.
We use other’s people’s assessment of whether or not we are “hot” to feel good about ourselves. After all, the question we ask when we get dressed is “how do I look,” not “how do I feel?” And “look” in this case is meant to mean, “will other people find me attractive?”
Magazines and web sites feature an endless barrage of “How to get your guy or girl to do _____” and most of it is based on using looks and/or sex to get something. We walk a really fine tightrope between seeking validation and sending out signals that are easily misinterpreted as an invitation.
To continue ignoring these truths is going to keep getting us in trouble. Not because we need to change how we walk, talk or dress (personally, I love putting on a corset and leather pants to go out), but because 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.
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.
But it’s still rape. We often try to call it something else. We give it the name “date rape,” as if that’s softer and gentler. My friend didn’t commit actual rape, it was “just date rape”. Nope. That doesn’t fly. Rape is rape. The question is, why is it happening?
In order to get to that answer we need to first abolish the idea that all rape is about power and violence. It’s not. Some rape begins as the earnest belief that sex is going to happen, and that it should. The confusion starts with misreading socially accepted cues. Like, for instance, the cue that says, she’s dressed in a way that I find sexy, and she’s flirting with me, so that means we’re going to have sex. That is not an illogical conclusion. A lot of times, that’s exactly the case. But not always.
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.
We need to change the emotional algebra with which we interpret social cues. We need to go from “sexy = sex” to “someone else’s sexuality doesn’t have anything to do with me”. We need to teach people that sex, as awesome as it is, is not the goal. We need to teach people that we each have the right to express our sexuality any way we want—in our movement, our dress, our language—and that it is not an invitation.
Just because someone has a sexuality does not entitle you to use it any more than someone else having a car entitles you to drive it.
Nice girls get raped. Nice guys commit rape. And it can happen the other way too. I have known men who felt violated when a date touched them in a sexual manner that they didn’t want. And certainly, if a guy wakes up to a woman “riding” him without his consent, that’s rape too. Whether or not it would be perceived as such is a much larger question, much less why. I know from experience that there are many men who feel they have been violated but don’t even know what to call it, because they have been led to believe that they are supposed to get—or at least want—sex all the time. But the simple fact is that consent needs to be the first order of business when having sex. Otherwise, well, it’s not sex, it’s rape.
Rape is what happens when we aren’t allowed to discuss sex and sexuality as if it were as natural as food, and instead shroud it in mysterious languages and grant it mysterious powers and lust for it like Gollum after the ring. Rape is what happens we don’t even understand what sex and sexuality are, but use them for everything anyway.
My friend ended up leaving town. He left for a lot of reasons, but this was certainly a major part of it. And when his name comes up, there are knowing glances—disdain and remorse and a sort of sadness because he “was such a nice guy”. I don’t expect to hear from him again. I haven’t heard from her either, though we were never friends and I’m sure that my willingness to explore the nuance was seen as excusing him.
What happened to her was wrong. My friend raped her. But I am still trying to figure out why. And no, it’s not as simple as the fact that he put his penis in her. It is a lot more complicated than that. And we need to talk about it.
Photo: Parody magazine cover courtesy of the author