As it so happened, I did enjoy being slapped that night, it fitted my mood and the exchange got me energised. In fact, my return slap had been a move to try to escalate the potential play. Afterwards, however, I was left mulling it over. Why had Mano been surprised to be slapped back?
I have a theory. His shock revealed, for a brief moment, a deep, murky belief, held fast by the patriarchy at large: women don’t want to have sex.
That might seem a little far-fetched, so let me explain:
Firstly, it was clear that when Mano slapped me he hadn’t considered that I might slap him back. He was clearly not treating me as an equal player in our shared activity. He just went for it, regardless. He had no expectation of reciprocation and therefore no empathy towards my experience of being slapped. Secondly, he hadn’t considered that he might need my consent before slapping me. He did what suited him and it was pure chance that I happened to not mind it.
It seems, therefore, that Mano saw our roles in the bed to be fundamentally different: I was there for him to get off on. He didn’t think that I might be getting off on him, that I might be getting the same kicks out of fucking him as he was out of fucking me, or that my sexual desire might match his own.
Sexual assault towards women is to do with power, aggression, oppression, greed, fear… etc. It is also to do with a deep-set assumption that women don’t want to have sex and that sex is therefore something that can be used to humiliate, shame and embarrass them.
As a woman, society taught me that I had a modest sexual appetite, and I had to shake off that belief to reveal my true (pretty large) appetite. I still, however, find myself encountering men who think that I am somehow lacking the will. A low libido is not something I would be ashamed of, but for someone to presume it of me, is dangerous. It assumes that I will always be less keen to have sex than my male counter-parts, therefore normalising lack of consent, and it assumes that I will always follow rather than initiate sexual activity, which disregards female satisfaction and orgasm as a motivation for sex.
A few years ago I met up with an ex-boyfriend, let’s call him Jack. Jack and I would hang out occasionally, as friends, and talk openly about new relationships and life in general. I remember enjoying being able to casually tell him that I was having sex with other people, and proving to him (maybe unconvincingly) that I was over us: "look how well I have moved on!"
On one occasion I told him I had had sex with an old school teacher, a man about 15 years older than me. We laughed and I got a kick out of sharing this slightly clichéd sex story. I saw Jack again a few months later and the same story came up in conversation and I mentioned I had had sex with the same teacher a handful of times during those past few months.
Jack was confused, he said, “What? You mean you slept with him again? I thought you were just doing him a favour.”
I didn’t really know what to think. Had Jack assumed that, for some reason, the first time I had sex with the teacher it hadn’t been something I desired? Was having sex with the teacher a few times proof that I actually wanted to do it, yet once hadn’t been? Did he think I just slept with people to do them favours? Or for a laugh?
These assumptions seemed so fucked up: apparently it was normal for me to have had sex without wanting it; my role as a woman was to serve the wishes of the male teacher rather than my own; and presumably the teacher had initiated it because he must have had more desire to sleep with me than I had to sleep with him.
This assumed version of events couldn’t have been further from the truth. I had absolutely wanted to have sex with the guy, I had absolutely been serving my own desires (I have long-standing teacher fantasies) and I had absolutely initiated it (the teacher was relatively cautious in his approach the first time we had sex, not wanting to abuse any power).
More recently, after a night out with friends I got into a conversation with two drunk men. Barely minutes into the conversation they were asking me fairly direct questions: was I was a lesbian, what percentage did I considered myself to be lesbian, did I want to get a drink with them, did I want to go back to their flat, what was my body like under that coat…? etc. They were annoying and a little bit xenophobic. Eventually me and my friends decided to leave. Feeling, against all odds, surprisingly fond of these two idiotic men, I went to hug one of them good bye. He unashamedly groped my arse. I pulled away and slapped him across the face, quickly beckoning my friends before running away.
It was truly horrible to be groped without consent. Slapping the perpetrator was incredibly satisfying but it did not undo my sense of being violated (it was also depressing to realise that my grope-reflex was ‘on point’ thanks to so much practice at being sexually harassed.)
This guy was clearly a twat. However, if we are in the game of seeking equality, then embracing complexity is key. It is important not to reduce the above situation to a single moment of ‘the perpetrator and the violated’. Instead we need to understand and locate the deep inequality that was present throughout the whole conversation and incident, which lead towards the moment of abuse.
I will take a guess that the man who groped me thought that he was the one who was directing the path of our conversation. He thought that he was playing me. Yet, in reality, I was playing just as much as he was. When the two guys were asking me if I was a lesbian I actually enjoyed telling them "yes, I am a little bit gay", and imagining how that might shock them or turn them on; when they were testing to see if I might be interested in another drink I was also testing back to see if they might be my type or whether we might actually have a good night together. Ultimately I was not interested, but for a while I was playing them at their own game. (Shock horror! I also get turned on by talking to strangers about sex in the street.)
I was in it for myself, yet it was the groper’s belief that I was in it for him, and this is what lead to him abusing me. Throughout our dialogue this man had assumed that:
- my engaged answers were a ‘yes’ to his agenda alone.
- I didn’t have my own agenda.
- my body was there for his pleasure.
- I was not out to find pleasure for myself.
- I was giving time to his cause rather than my own.
- I had no desires for my evening, aside from saying yes or no to him.
- if I was still talking to him then I was his.
Why is it such a stretch of the imagination for a man to understand that I might be playing the same game as he? That I might be hanging around for my own pleasure.
Women be loud! (Or not, actually, do whatever you like.) We must continue to have desires and express them and not be simplified. We must not be scared to be complex and sexual for fear of being accused of being responsible when we are violated.
Filth is not filthy.
Lack of consent is.