It may be comforting to believe that all rapists are bad people, but in truth, rape most often happens between friends, lovers, acquaintances and pals.
We see it all the time in the movies and on TV.
There’s a guy and a girl, and you know they’re gonna end up together. They have a super-hot dynamic that consists of witty banter, challenging each other, and doing things to really piss each other off. They may fight, but they also watch the other walk away with a combination of both longing and disgust.
Eventually, there’s the scene where the two of them hook up. They’re arguing, and it’s intense. There’s a lot of sexual tension. They watch each other, connecting through their eyes. They’re both fired up and have flushed cheeks. Maybe she bites her lip…
He steps forward, grabs her arms and tries to kiss her. She says, “No, stop. I can’t—”
He interrupts, “You can. You know you haven’t stopped thinking about this since we met.”
“I have,” she says. “It’s just…” She turns away from him. She’s torn.
He spins her back around, pushes her up against the wall. She turns her head, but she doesn’t pull away entirely. He takes her face in his hands, his body pressing into hers, turns her lips to his, and kisses her forcefully. She pushes him off for a moment, then she gives in to the passion, kissing him back and wrapping her arms around him, maybe her legs too.
At this point, they may move to the bedroom and have the best sex of their lives, fueled by conflict and heat and challenge. Or maybe she walks away, conflicted but breathless.
Either way, we know they’re going to end up together.
One thing we know for sure is that she’s not going to press charges against him for sexual assault.
But what actually was it that happened between them? Regardless of whether she walks away or consents to glorious sex, she said “no” and he didn’t stop. In fact, he pressed her against the wall and held her arms. Or maybe he did something more forceful, like in the scene below between James Bond and Pussy Galore.
It’s a scene so common I bet you can think of 5 or 10 movies and TV shows where it happens. Moonlighting, 9 and a Half Weeks, Boardwalk Empire, An Officer and a Gentleman, Goldfinger, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and almost every made-for-TV movie and soap opera.
And it has everything to do with Alyssa Royse’s article, Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too, where the author tells the story of a guy she knew well—a guy whom she believed was a nice guy—who was accused of raping a woman by penetrating her while she was asleep.
How are the two things related? Because the forceful kiss is an easily-relatable example of how our society actively teaches people about consent in a way that is incredibly dangerous.
She says “no”? Nothing to worry about. Just push her up against a wall. He says he doesn’t want to? It’s okay, just take off your top and press your breasts into him.
My husband and I recently watched an early release of the film Save the Date. In this sexy, fun, edgy drama, Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) goes through a big break-up but quickly becomes interested in a new guy, Jonathan. When Jonathan (Mark Webber) goes to her house for a date, it’s clear the two are interested in one another. Sarah acts adorable, Jonathan acts adorable, they flirt, and she makes eyes at him. He smiles and says something like, “I really want to kiss you right now.”
She replies, “Then why don’t you?”
“Because you just went through an awful break-up”
“I want you to kiss me,” she says.
And he does. And it’s hot.
I turned to my husband and said, “I believe that may be the first time I’ve seen a model for sexy, healthy communication about consent in a film. I mean, maybe ever.”
Now, I’m paraphrasing the dialogue above, but he told her what he wanted, how he felt, and was considerate of her emotional state. She replied, communicated directly and clearly what she wanted, and he gave it to her. And it was sexy as hell.
But Save the Date is a rare exception among thousands of forceful TV and movie kisses. And it’s the direction we need to be moving in. As Jamie Utt explains in his piece Want The Best Sex of Your Life? Just Ask!, enthusiastic consent is hot because it helps us know what will turn our partners on, and makes very clear the fact that we are desired.
Since the publication of Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too both here at GMP and at our content partner magazine, xoJane, Alyssa Royse has experienced a lot of fallout. She’s been called a rape apologist by people like Ally Fogg, and been told that she is making excuses for a rapist, by GMP’s own Matthew Salesses.
The truth is, Alyssa Royse is not apologizing for her friend having raped a woman. In fact, she puts blame squarely upon him many times, including saying, “what happened to her was wrong. My friend raped her.” But there is a misunderstanding in some of the response pieces and many of the comments, about the way in which responsibility can be divvied up here.
Alyssa’s guy friend is 100% responsible for the rape he committed. In saying that society is also partially responsible, we aren’t now making Alyssa’s guy friend less responsible. Responsibility is not a pie to be divided. Instead, these are overlapping responsibilities. The space where they meet is what we need to talk about.
Alyssa’s guy friend AND society are responsible. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Below are two wildly crude diagrams I just scribbled on my legal pad. I hope you’ll forgive the elementary school-quality of my artwork and handwriting.
On the left we have our either/or pie. In this model, when we give some responsibility to society, we are taking some responsibility away from the rapist. This is wrong. It is a false binary.
On the right, we see how the two different forces come together to create a rape. Alyssa’s guy friend entered that situation with problems, clearly. His ideas about sexuality were deeply flawed and his ability to empathize with another person was probably also lacking. Along comes society, with James Bond (the model of successful masculinity) and Pussy Galore and every other forceful kiss that leads to super-hot sex, and it overlaps with this guy and his issues, and what we’re left with is a grey area of consent that leads to a woman being raped.
Matthew Salesses may be right. Alyssa’s guy friend may have never actually been a nice guy at all. He may have been a guy that seemed nice but was actually really bad. I don’t know him, neither does Matthew. But I’m more likely to believe Alyssa that he was generally a good dude. A good dude who had a very messed-up idea about consent. A good dude who raped a sleeping woman.
See, he can be both. No, seriously, he can.
Let me tell you another story. I had this guy friend in high school whom we’ll call Rob. Rob was a cool guy that everyone liked, not a jock but very popular. He came to me one afternoon, confused. At a party he’d hooked up with a girl named Maria, whom he’d gone out with a few times. They were making out heavily, rolling around, and engaged in heavy petting. He was cool with her putting her hand down his pants, but when she lifted up her skirt and pulled over her underwear, he got nervous and said, “No, I don’t want to do that.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked, flabbergasted. He’d had sex with girls before.
“I didn’t want to have sex with her right then. I don’t know.”
“But why not?” 17 year-old me couldn’t quite grasp it. I mean, he wasn’t a virgin, wasn’t a born-again Christian who was waiting for marriage. And he liked Maria.
“I just didn’t. But she sat on top of me anyway and, like, shoved me inside her.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I pushed her off and said I didn’t want to.”
It was disturbing, but also confusing to me.
I don’t think Rob felt like he was raped, but it definitely seemed fucked up . And while he didn’t go out with her again, he wasn’t exactly mad at her. He just felt weird and sort of irritated about it. I’d guess that if you’d asked him if he’d been raped, he would’ve said, “no way.”
But if you ask me, she raped him. Did she know she was raping him? Almost certainly not. Did she set out to rape him? Definitely not. In fact, I asked her about it a few years later. She told me that she regretted it terribly and felt like a horrible person. She was 16 when it happened and had been fed a story her entire life about how all guys want is sex, and how guys will screw anything that walks. She also had a profound problem with insecurity and only later did she realize that her main sense of validation came from being sexually desired.
Maria simply couldn’t conceive of a guy saying “no” and meaning it. Not a guy like Rob, at least, a guy whom she knew had hooked up with, and even had sex with, a few girls from our school. She also thought it would make him like her more if she were sexually dominant, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, whose no-panties leg-crossing scene was considered the sexiest thing ever in the 1990s—when in reality, it is disturbing and intrusive.
Is Maria a bad person? I don’t think so.
Did she do a bad thing? Absolutely. And in my opinion, it was rape.
Does this story sit with you differently than the story of Alyssa’s guy friend and the girl whom he penetrated while she was asleep? Why or why not? Be honest with yourself here.
If it does, it’s probably because of a number of factors. First, in our society, a woman raping a man seems impossible. I mean, if he didn’t want to have sex, why would he have an erection?
Also, don’t guys always want sex?
The truth about male sexuality is that contrary to what we’re taught, guys do not always want sex. As much as Rob desired Maria and was enjoying their make-out session, he didn’t want to have sex that day. His desire may have given him an erection, but an erection does not equal consent.
We might also ask why he didn’t stop her before she forced penetration? Wasn’t he stronger than her? It doesn’t matter. His “no” should be enough to make her stop. But it wasn’t.
So what do we think of Maria? Should she have been tried in a court of law? Should she have gone to jail and been put on a sex offenders list?
God help me, I have no clue.
There are a number of factors that make Alyssa’s guy friend different from Maria: First, and foremost, he was an adult. And the situations were different.
But what else? Alyssa’s guy friend is a man and Maria was a young woman?
Maria got a clear “no” when she proposed sex, but did it anyway. Alyssa’s guy friend put his penis inside a sleeping woman with no warning at all.
Both seem equally bad, for different reasons.
But are either of these people “bad people”?
I don’t know what the rest of Maria’s life has been like. We’re in our mid-30s now, and I know she is married and has a family. Even at 19, she was hugely regretful of how she’d violated Rob, so I assume she never did that again. And while I know nothing about Alyssa’s guy friend, I believe Alyssa when she says that he was truly remorseful about committing rape. I looked in Maria’s eyes and saw her pain and remorse, and I do not think that Alyssa’s guy friend’s maleness makes him exempt from feeling the exact same way.
So, does saying Alyssa’s guy friend is a good guy and a rapist excuse his rape? Certainly not. As we said before, I believe a person can be guilty of these types of rape and be good. Would I trust him alone in a room with me? Probably not. Would I set him up with my little sister? Absolutely not. But would I say he’s all-bad? No. Or at least I would say, “I don’t know.”
I understand some critics’ fear that saying Alyssa’s guy friend isn’t necessarily a bad guy might cause people who have raped, or will rape in the future, to think it’s okay. I think both Matthew Salesses and Ally Fogg believe that saying a rapist could be a nice guy might minimize the act of rape he committed, and I respect that. I understand it. What would happen if a person thought he could rape a woman and then walk away as a good guy? That would be a dangerous precedent to set.
But I also think it’s dangerous to continue framing rape as a “bad guy thing” for many reasons. First, when we say “only bad guys commit rape”, we’re disengaging any guy who thinks he’s a “good guy” from having a conversation about how he can help prevent rape. And we’re also disengaging all women from that conversation.
That’s why our understanding of who rapists sometimes are needs to change. First, we need to have active, engaged conversations with everyone—young people especially—about consent. We need men like Jamie Utt speaking and writing about sexy ways of communicating desire, boundaries, and limits. We need mainstream media examples of healthy, sexy conversations about consent—like in the film Save the Date—to be replicated everywhere, and we need the forceful, non-consensual kiss to no longer be an example of what’s hot. Let James Bond and Pussy Galore’s scary sex scene die with Sean Connery’s reign as 007.
And we need to be able to recognize the nuances of humanity. That a good person can do a very bad thing. That people can see the harm they’ve caused, feel great remorse, seek help and make real change to become a good person once again.
If we say “only bad guys commit rape” we’re actually creating a more dangerous society for both men and women. We need everyone to recognize the fine line we dance when we engage in sexual acts with another person. We need women to realize that guys have as much right to sexual autonomy as women. We need good guys and girls to realize that even if you’re not trying to hurt someone, without clear, direct and specific consent, you could still rape them.
Because the truth is, as Alyssa Royse said, the majority of rapes don’t happen in dark alleys where predatory men wait for a victim to pass. They happen between friends, between lovers, between partygoers and schoolmates. Rapes sometimes happen when someone thinks their partner really means “yes” when he or she says “no”. They happen when girls are taught that guys are sex-obsessed animals. They happen when people aren’t taught the communication skills that educators like Jamie Utt, Alyssa Royse, Cliff Pervocracy, Scarleteen, and others are trying to teach.
They happen, sometimes, when good people do bad things.
For articles and resources on enthusiastic consent, please visit the pages below:
Want the Best Sex of Your Life? Just Ask! by Jamie Utt
Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent from Scarleteen
A Concise Kink Worksheet by Cliff Pervocracy (a consent tool for the Kink community and others)
Lead photo: Flickr/pheezy