The Accidental Rapist

Just because your partner isn’t saying “no,” Hugo Schwyzer writes, it doesn’t mean it’s a “yes.”

 

Note: As with many articles about sexual violence, particularly those that include anecdotes, this may prove triggering for some.

“Sometimes I say ‘yes’ when I’d rather say ‘no.’”

It’s been nearly 25 years, but I can still remember the beautiful Berkeley fall afternoon when I heard those shattering words. Katie and I were sitting in a coffee shop just off campus. What had started as a “friends with benefits” situation had blossomed into a sophomore year romance with this dark-eyed dance-and-philosophy double-major. Katie and I had been sleeping together for more than two months—and saying “I love you” for about a week—when she summoned up the courage to bring up this one very painful truth.

At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She spoke so softly I had to lean across the table to hear her. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said, “but sometimes I really don’t want to have sex. Sometimes I do, but not as often as you want it. And sometimes I want to tell you ‘no,’ but I can’t bring myself to do it. So I try and send you signals, hoping you can just tell how I’m feeling. But that doesn’t work, so it’s… it’s just easier to say ‘yes’ or just say nothing at all.”

My face flushed. I felt nauseated. I thought instantly of the previous night, where we’d grabbed what I thought was a hot half-hour when my roommates were both gone. Katie had seemed so passionate when we’d been making out, but then gotten very quiet once all our clothes were off. I’d told myself she wanted to have one ear cocked for the sound of a key in the door. I hadn’t considered—or hadn’t wanted to consider—the more obvious possibility: she was trying to tell me that she didn’t want to have sex.

I looked out the window. I couldn’t meet Katie’s eyes. My gaze fixed in the distance, my voice trembling, I asked what seemed the only possible question: “Are you trying to tell me I raped you?”

I was in my first women’s studies course, and just the previous week we’d been reading about sexual violence and the law. In class, where I was one of only three men, I’d felt rage thinking about all of those cruel assholes who didn’t understand that “no means no.” But now a dark and unseen possibility was opening up: not every “no” could be spoken. Maybe, I realized, sometimes even a quiet “OK” could be a “no” in disguise.

Katie started to cry. “Oh God, Hugo. No. Not rape. It’s just… I wish you could tell the difference between when I really want you and when I’d just rather be held.” She began to cry harder. “Fuck. It’s all my fault,” she wept. “I can’t expect you to be a mindreader. I’m so sorry.”

I begged Katie not to apologize; the responsibility was all mine, I insisted. I came around to her side of the table and held her. But something had changed for both of us, and the relationship was never the same. The one time we tried to have sex after that conversation, we were both so tentative (and I had, not surprisingly, a difficult time getting hard) that we gave up halfway through. We broke up two weeks before Christmas.

♦◊♦

Most “good guys” take a woman’s firm “No!” for an answer. (Those who don’t are best left to the ministrations of our criminal justice system.) But lots of men are like the guy I was at 19—assuming that while “no means no” anything short of a firm “no” is either a “yes” or a “keep at it, boy, because you just might get a ‘yes’ soon.” Call it male sexual legalism, the first rule of which is “All that is not expressly prohibited is assumed to be permitted.” That legalism can turn many men into accidental rapists.

While the legal standard of rape is increasingly well-defined (and what happened with Katie fell well short of that legal definition), common sense suggests that at its most basic, rape is nonconsensual sex. Too many of us, men and women alike, define consent as the absence of a clear “no,” rather than the presence of a clear, unmistakable, eager “yes.” The opposite of rape, in other words, is mutual enthusiasm.

The root of consent is the Latin consentire, which means “with feeling.” Consent is not just about words “no” or “yes”—it’s about the unambiguous presence of desire. That’s a very different and challenging standard. No, I didn’t legally rape Katie. But her reticence and my sexual legalism conspired to leave us having sex that at least some of the time fell well short of the standard of consent we should all want in our intimate lives.

I’m not putting all the blame on myself, or on men alone. It’s not fair to expect men to read minds, or even to perfectly intuit subtle body language. As I tell the teens with whom I work, a precondition for being ready for a sexual relationship is having the courage to say a firm “No” to the people you love. Overcoming the training to be an acquiescent people-pleaser is hard-but-necessary work, and because of the way we socialize girls, difficulty with saying “no” tends to be much more common among young women.

But guys have work to do also. Too many play what I call the stoplight game. Traffic signals, of course, have three colors: red for stop, yellow for caution, green for go. Good drivers are taught to stop on “red,” which functions as a “no.” But of course, even at the busiest urban intersections, no light stays red indefinitely. If you wait long enough at a stoplight, every red will become green. And when all we do is teach young men that “no means stop” when it comes to sexual boundaries, we often send them the message that if they just wait long enough (or pester, push, nag, beg, play passive-aggressive games) they’ll get the “green light” they’re so hungry for.

In both traffic and the bedroom, the most misunderstood light is yellow. Though driver’s ed classes teach that yellow means “slow down,” most of us see it as a warning to speed up to get through the intersection before the light turns red. Sexually speaking, the yellow means what it ought to mean on the road: “slow down, son.”

♦◊♦

Most of us are good at saying “no” to something or someone we don’t like. Most (sadly, not all) find it easy to flash the red light at a creepy guy who doesn’t interest them at all. But it’s tougher to say “not yet, I’m not quite ready” or “slow down” or “maybe later” to someone to whom you’re genuinely attracted. Reflecting on the sex Katie and I had so often, I realized that she often felt rushed and pressured to go to intercourse every time. She knew how to tell me when she wasn’t in the mood to do anything sexual at all, which was when she could “flash the red light.” But on those not-infrequent occasions when she wanted to make out and “fool around” but nothing more—she had no vocabulary for that. And over and over again, I took her reticence as a sign to “try harder” rather than to slow down. The blame for that rested on both of us.

Determining what another person really wants isn’t as easy as it should be. It’s further complicated by the reality that many women (and more than a few men) want to make their partners feel good—even if they don’t desire sex itself. Distinguishing between the desire to be desired, the desire to please a partner, and the desire for sex itself isn’t easy for any of us. Sometimes we need to do more than talk about what we want—we also need to clarify for ourselves and our lovers why we want it. That’s not easy, but it’s essential. We deserve that clarity.

Katie and I lived on different sides of campus; we each walked home separately from that devastating conversation in the café. I remember the guilt and the sadness I felt on that walk, but I also remember the determination I felt. I liked sex—I loved sex—but I knew I’d rather never have it again than have it with someone who was only doing it to soothe me, to please me, or because she couldn’t find the words to say “no” or “not now.” To the best of my imperfect ability, even at my most promiscuous, I have sought to live up to that promise I made to myself on the long walk home through the Berkeley streets.

I knew I hadn’t committed any crime. But the sense of sadness—tinged with disgust—at what Katie and I had conspired to allow to happen made me feel very much like an accidental rapist. Years of working with other men around issues of consent and sexuality have taught me I’m not the only one to have felt those feelings.

We all deserve better.

—Photo kainr/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Your situation is a complicated one because it was her responsibility to give an answer, though it is in both party’s responsibility to pay attention to what their partner needs/desires instead of being blinded by their own.

    I had a boyfriend that didn’t listen to “Not tonight, please. Can we just ___ because I love spending time with you.” He laughed and said, “C’mon” or turned it around to manipulate me, saying I obviously wasn’t attracted to him and what could he do different. Even if I explained that it wasn’t a problem of attraction, it wasn’t something I wanted to do all the time. I tried to cite literature showing him that it’s very common for girls to be cyclical with desires, due to hormones/birth control and that we aren’t had our sexual peaks at the same time as men, but he kept at it until he’d coerce me. Sometimes I would bat his hand off of me and ask him to stop but he wouldn’t take his hands off. I could have put my foot down more, but that always started a fight, which led to more issues and I couldn’t hold him off any longer.

    Looking back it’s easy to see that he was very controlling and we were in an unhealthy relationship. I’ve always been a people pleaser and hate upsetting my loved ones and he, possibly subconsciously, picked up on that. It was abusive and awful. He took the yellow light as a time to speed up and the red light as a time to vroom his engine and wait for it to turn green. Then he didn’t seem to care that I got absolutely no pleasure out of it because I just wasn’t into it. Sex was about him.

    The sex talk needs to include self-respect, self-esteem and self-worth. We need to teach our kids to be secure in their feelings and their ability to say no as well as how important it is to respect their partner.

    I don’t know if there is a great term for this situation but maybe tentatively adding the term “rape” to it, gives this situation the gravity it needs to get both men and women to pay attention.

  2. See, here’s the thing. I’ve been the girlfriend in this situation, and I will be the first to say – I should have spoken up. It is NOT the man’s exclusive fault, and it is NOT rape. But, as Hugo rightly points out, that doesn’t make it right or healthy.

    What I think is basically being said here is that women are told, even today, to basically “lie back and think of England.” Literally every facet of society tells me that I owe my boyfriend sex, just like how every facet of society tells my boyfriend that he owes me chocolate on Valentines day (which, I should mention, I very explicitly told him was not necessary). Don’t get me wrong – he was attractive, and I was pretty frequently into it. But sometimes I just wasn’t, and the few times that I did put a stop to things because I just wasn’t feeling it anymore, I felt horribly guilty – and my boyfriend made it worse, whining and asking if I would just give him a handjob, and then finally storming out. Every time this happened, I felt like I was the one doing something wrong.
    A little discomfort wasn’t worth losing the relationship, so I would do exactly what Katie did in this article – go as far as I actually wanted to (which was less and less each time this happened), and then go very quiet and just let the rest happen to me. Guys have to hold shopping bags in the mall, and I have to help him get off. (You think that’s an unfair comparison? I was told that by my own cousin. In many relationships, they really are seen as equivalent.)

    Was it my boyfriend’s fault? No. Was what he did rape? Not really. Should I have spoken up, despite what society tells me? Absolutely.
    Would he have been a better lover, a better man, and been showing far more respect for me as a person if he responded to my sudden (and very obvious) silence and disinterest by asking what was wrong rather than taking my pants off? Yeah. He really would have.

    • Transhuman says:

      What we have is some partners who do not want to say no to sex, but want to imply it and be assured they are understood. I think it is more a case of poor communication than accidental rape. Considering consent can only be given by an emotionally mature person, perhaps these partners should not be engaging in sex until they can make plain what they do or do not want.

    • Isn’t what he did classed as coersion?

  3. Did you really learn your lesson, Hugo? Did you really, truly understand that many women, particularly young women, have a difficult time articulating their boundaries, comfort levels, and consent, especially given the enormous pressures placed on them by society and by ignorant young men? You claim to have learned from your sophomore experiences. But didn’t you (by your own admission) to continue to sleep with co-eds long after you were made a professor? What is your excuse there? Did you not also admit to having sex with a women clearly not in a position to give consent- you know, that time, in 1998, when she had just been raped and was high on drugs? You didn’t ask her consent before you turned on the gas, did you? You talk a good story about remorse and reform, but your actions paint an entirely different picture.

  4. Lora Hughes says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I was raped by man who was and still is my best friend and I plan to this show him. My hope is that he might find some comfort and closure in realizing that he’s not the only person out there who has “accidentally raped” someone they cared about.

    I’d like to make clear that legitimizing a category of rape under the title-veil of “Accidental Rape” is not okay. Attempting to legitimize what really is and isnt rape is to go forth with the underlying assumption that women and their experiences are not to be trusted (Eve Ensler). Hugo, that doesn’t seem like something you would do on purpose, so perhaps you are only accidentally adding to our problems.

    Regardless of our differences, I’d still like to thank you for writing this piece so honestly. We’ll never move forward unless we can ALL start talking to each other calmly, respectfully, and honestly. So, thank you Hugo.

    • Not buying it says:

      @ Lora Hughes

      You were & still are best friend with a man you believe that had raped you.!!!
      There is something wrong with that, specially when you are able to talk & show him this article to inform him that he raped you & hopefully he will find some comfort & closure in this article since he is not the only rapist. !!!hmmm.

      There is something wrong with that & if you can’t see it then understanding what constitute the definition of rape is the least of your problems.

      • Hey, not buying it: language is messy. I think what Lora was saying is in her case it was accidental rape, i.e. nonconsensual but also somehow at the time unclear.
        Also, please, no need to attack. Especially in this sort of conversation.

      • People stick by others n forgive them for all sorts of crimes n wrongs. Cheating, rape, abuse, it’s up to the victim to decide for themselves who they want to know. Rape is a serious crime but from the sounds of it the rapist had no intention of raping, a fuckup in communication? I class people like that far different to people who willingly know they are raping. You can accidentally rape someone if you’ve both been drinking and the alcohol kicks in during sex for your partner past the point they’re able to consent, and reading various blogs there seems to be quite a lot of people who’ve had sex n had their partner fall asleep during it without realizing for a few seconds (which means they are now an accidental rapist). Would you hate your partner if you passed out during sex and you both were very drunk and it takes a few moments to realize wtf is going on? Some people probably like to be woken with sex and communicate this with their partner the night before, but it’s still technically rape so should they automatically hate them for it?

        The acts are wrong but the intentions behind them matter quite a lot as well, if my partner accidentally raped me I dunno if I’d hate her for it. If she had no clue I took consent away and I made no clear indication of that consent taken away, can I really fault her to the point of hating her for it? It sounds like a very complex and very individual thing people need to work out for themselves on how they feel towards those who’ve done wrong to them. I don’t think it’s a good idea at all to automatically hate n lock people up for accidental rape, I’ll save my hate for those who are willfully n knowingly harm others vs those who make a mistake on a matter which seems to rely largely on body language which can be hard to read at the best of times let alone times with alcohol involved.

        If anything we need far more education on consent, and a real emphasis that only a yes mean’s yes, that there may not be a no and people need to be careful with alcohol/drugs n having sex.

      • I was sexually assaulted by my boyfriend and we are still together. It required a lot of work and time to fix things, and we still have issues over it sometimes, but every survivor’s story is different. Please don’t generalize or accuse.

  5. I’ve always told people that direct communication was way more practical than hints and body language.
    And I was always met with the argument that people just should learn to read people better. And even though that is valid a LOT of misunderstandings could be avoided if we as people in relationships were more supportive of bluntly saying what is on your mind or heart.

    • @d’artagnan, also a lot of misunderstandings can be avoided if you *ask* what is on someone’s mind/heart.

    • One more thing. Responsibility for communication aside, there is still the subtle discourse operating that women are default people-pleasers, or should be. This makes it more difficult for them (us) to assert ourselves, whether that’s by enthusiastically engaging in sex (whore) or choosing to refuse it (prude, or cold). This seems to me to be the backdrop for this conversation. Once at least for myself I’ve addressed this tendency or expectation, I can feel freer to act as others have called for “woman” to do, with respect to speaking up.

  6. Why people still make use of to read news papers when in this technological world the whole thing is presented on net?

    Bernd

  7. Powerful writing; thank you for sharing.

  8. “The root of consent is the Latin consentire, which means “with feeling.” Consent is not just about words “no” or “yes”—it’s about the unambiguous presence of desire”

    1. “consentire” is a verb, not an adverb, silly!
    2. “consentio” and “consent” share a definition that “feeling” and “desire” are entirely absent from
    3. “consentio” has another meaning which the english didn’t espouse: to plot, conspire. food for thought.
    4. etymologically speaking, “consentio/ire” is of “con” (with) and “sentio/ire” (to hear, feel, or smell, ie. to sense). consentio does not mean “with feeling”, “with smelling” or “with hearing”.
    5. if you don’t know enough about latin grammar to identify a fourth conjugation suffix, don’t pretend you do, because you will look like an idiot more often than not.

    I stopped reading your article when I got to this point because this annoyed me so much.

  9. Rossana says:

    I take an issue with the part of the article that talks about men not being able to read body language-the fact to the matter is, that some men, for whatever reasons or scenarios, are desensitized to body language, NOT clueless or poor readers of body language: huge huge difference. If a woman tries to push a man off or cover herself and never says no or does not verbailize a no, it’s still rape, and this is something rape victims have to face. Women are raised in ways that bind them with invisible chains, very frequently emotionally abused and personal boundaries not regarded even in ‘good’ homes and they shut down. Accidental rape is possible yes, but do not put the onus on ‘oh, just bad body language reading-woops’ because that is exactly what excuse intentional rapists are using. The article is great for men, to show them how a woman can feel violated, and I generally respect the writers efforts and motion, but it is sugar coating it and spreading blame on women who already blame themselves that lead to that issue to begin with

  10. bananaslugs says:

    Of course men should be more considerate of women and what they want. That being said however, this ex-girlfriend sounds like a very PATHETIC and WEAK people pleaser. A strong woman would be able to say to her partner (assuming he’s not threatening or coercing her), “Honey I’m not in the mood now.”

  11. Smilingpistachio says:

    This article is yet another example of male-female rape being mansplained.
    She: ‘No, I didn’t mean “rape”. What I’m trying to say is…’
    He: ‘Darling, you don’t understand. Let me ‘splain to you: you were RAPED by me, although accidentally.’
    Oh well.

  12. I agree with smilingpistachio… it was rape, but only in his imagination or wishful thinking…

    She clearly wasn’t hot for him (at least at that time and place and in that situation) and he in retrospect — either while talking to her in the coffee shop or in that article here — “rapes” her for making that explicit to him…

    “maybe”, “ok” or no protest from a receptive partner often means just what it says: well, it wouldn’t be my greatest desire or fulfilment, but there is that natural or social pressure that sex is supposed to be fun etc. if I waited until I find a partner who really arouses me I’d have almost no sex at all anymore etc…

    Also I’d like to comment on that point that she is allegedly a people-pleaser and weak and that a “strong”, “emancipated” woman would have said “Honey, please, I’m not in the mood!” To me, this seems to affirm this lack of male understanding or detecting of non-horniness in their partner. If I even utter that pretty obvious message in explicit words, I am already a man-pleaser… Quite the opposite, emancipation starts by realizing and stating that one is being victimized, not justifying it or denying it. And I think she was brave because she explained to him that she was unhappy with the situation. Emancipation is a process not a static thing where some women are “fatale” and “fragile” by nature already…

  13. I just had to chime in and give a male perspective here. There have been plenty of times that I haven’t been in the mood for sex when a girlfriend did. What did I do? I’d have sex anyway, of course. Why? Well, if I love the woman, I want to give her pleasure. But there’s a second very important reason…..I don’t want to look like an emasculated wimp who can’t sexually please his partner There’s a ton of social pressure on men to be DTF 24/7 robotic f*ck machines. Don’t get me wrong…. I’m not complaining because I do enjoy sex a great deal but painting this topic as “ONLY women have pressured sex” is BS.

  14. Yeah, well, there were times when my wife wanted to visit her family and I didn’t really feel like it, but I did it anyway. There have been times a girlfriend has wanted to go shopping while we were together and I didn’t really feel like it, but I did it anyway. Likewise, I know there have been things I’ve nonsexual things I’ve wanted to do that my wife or subsequent girlfriends didn’t want to do, but they did them anyway.

    A relationship–or, at least, a healthy or healthy enough relationship–is, in part, about compromising and occasionally giving in to the other partner on some things, even if you’re not absolutely cartwheels thrilled about it every single time. Hopefully this is done on a more or less equal basis, but no, not always. Deal with it or get a sex doll or a vibrator.

  15. “he in retrospect — either while talking to her in the coffee shop or in that article here — ‘rapes’ her for making that explicit to him…”

    I disagree with this. The author seemed deeply shocked and aghast, sick in the pit of his stomach, to learn that his partner had not only not been enjoying but not wanting sex. Going back through the whole catalogue of sexual memories with a person and having to ask, “What about then? What about then? Should I have noticed this or taken that as a sign?” to me would warrant a sort of knee-jerk question of “Are you saying I raped you?” as a gut reaction to a very haunting possibility.

    I also disagree with the commenters saying that sex is a “grin and bear it” sort of thing. I can’t really explain it on a more distanced objective level, but sex is certainly tied to our deepest selves both in carnal and “prototypical” senses and also in a way very tied to our ego, sense of self-worth, but also our sense of being violated or voided. Sex is just…different! Hence the “Special” Victims Unit, requiring unique approaches. I don’t really know what I’m saying at this point, haha. Perhaps sex within the context of a loving marriage, sex that’s usually “with feeling,” is free of some of these conditions and ramifications. But not all of us have had the right of such an unfettered and fortunate sexual past, and that informs our “sexual future,” and our ability to trust others. Sex is a thing weaved into a delicate interconnected fabric with other emotional factors, it is certainly not isolated or meaningless, which to me troubles the idea that one should do it less than whole-heartedly.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] his dues to feminism, Hugo Schwyzer trots out a new rape category:  “accidental rape”.  His post begins with an anecdote from his early college years: At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She [...]

  2. [...] is  a story recently posted on The Good Men Project under the title “Accidental Rapist“: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said, “but sometimes I really don’t [...]

  3. [...] Western world tacitly endorses, excuses and tolerates the many forms of identified and heretofore unidentified rape through it’s institutions, traditions, cultural practices, laws and religions (though [...]

  4. [...] The Accident Rapist (The Good Men Project) [...]

  5. [...] that they have caused pain to someone else (I repeat: not all. Some.). In his article “The Accidental Rapist,” Hugo Schwyzer addresses his challenge, as a young man, to understand and respect subtle [...]

  6. [...] that they have caused pain to someone else (I repeat: not all. Some.). In his article “The Accidental Rapist,” Hugo Schwyzer addresses his challenge, as a young man, to understand and respect subtle [...]

  7. [...] This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project’s blog on September 26, 2011 and can be read here.  [...]

  8. [...] “Accidental rape” and enthusiastic consent: [...]

  9. Website Trackback Link…

    [...]the time to read or visit the content or sites we have linked to below the[...]…

  10. [...] discovered Hugo’s writing when our blog cross-posted his piece for The Good Men Project, The Accidental Rapist. Our team was struck by his honesty, progressive takes and eye-opening recollections from his [...]

  11. [...] black man could have his status as feminist ally defended while blaming an ex for making him an “accidental rapist,” soft-pedaling his predatory behavior towards female students, or writing that cisgender men are [...]

  12. [...] is the New Skinny kept drawing my attention as he wrote on everything from body image and consent to jizzing on someone’s face. And I my admiration for his writing grew: both as a man skilled [...]

  13. [...] am frustrated that many of my critics misrepresent my work. My column at Good Men Project on consent has been misread as both a confession of rape and a celebration of victim-blaming. My more recent [...]

  14. [...] “What do I do with my penis during spooning?” There are creepy headlines like “The Accidental Rapist” and “Why Your Daughter May Be the Most Popular Drug on the Street.” There are [...]

  15. [...] remarks surface issues that a lack of dialogue can foster.  This article is an interesting perspective on what consent means and how even in the most common situations [...]

  16. [...] The Accidental Rapist (goodmenproject.com) 0.000000 0.000000 Share this:Share on Tumblr Pin ItDiggEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  17. [...] not want to find out down the road that his partners were unwilling. (I highly recommend reading The Accidental Rapist, an article that talks about how guys are somewhat trained to think anything that isn’t a [...]

  18. [...] said yes and later expressed discomfort myself. A while back I read Hugo Schwyzer’s post “The Accidental Rapist” and thought to myself, that sounds distressingly close to a situation that I’ve been in, and [...]

  19. [...] not want to find out down the road that his partners were unwilling. (I highly recommend reading The Accidental Rapist, an article that talks about how guys are somewhat trained to think anything that isn’t a [...]

  20. [...] Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this. This entry was posted in Attempted Murder, Domestic Violence and tagged Business, Crime, Hugo Schwyzer, Los Angeles, Oven, San Francisco, Sierra Madre Boulevard, Vodka, Ziploc on February 17, 2013 by bugbrennan. [...]

  21. trim down club

    The Accidental Rapist — The Good Men Project

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