A dear lady-friend of mine has been feeling very frustrated at a very close guy friend of hers who forced himself on a girl at a party recently. I think she needs to read her words aloud to him but then again, what do I know?
Without further ado, an open letter from Ophelia Cumberbatch.
Dear Beautiful, Powerful, Well-Meaning Best Man Friend:
Listen up, because I’m only going to say this once: If you think for just an inkling of a moment that you raped her, you probably did. If she said that you raped her, you probably did. If you find your self making excuses about how she said “no” but kept going you raped her. You definitely did.
I say her because the anecdotal person here is a she but that she could be he or zie or ne or ve or xe, whatever that person’s chosen pronoun may be. (If you grumble about the pronouns we will have to have another conversation like this, about your position with kyriarchy and how sometimes I want to choke you because you don’t. Fucking. Understand.)
I am sick of having conversations with you about how things “weren’t clear,” and that she said no but her voice said yes and that she had been flirting with you all night. I want to be your understanding cool lady friend who watches baseball with you, who ties your tie, kicks your ass at Halo, and loves you like a brother, but I can’t do that after you tell me that “she said no but then I tried again and she said yes.” I love you, man, but really? You think it wasn’t rape because you’d been making out? Because you knew each other? Because you’d hooked up once before? Because you crossed the “she’s into me, she’s into it” threshold and now there’s no going back? Ever?
The hierarchy of rape (“forcible” or stranger rape vs. the much more common “date rape” or “acquaintance rape,” i.e. being raped by someone you know, or even love) is a completely unfair standard that cheapens the experience of one set of victims over another, favoring the black and white scenarios that allow for a ghostly masked rapist to absorb the ire of a community while keeping us from thinking about the attitudes of our friends, our family, and (most terrifyingly) our lovers.
It’s true that many cases of date and acquaintance rape and similar “confused consent” incidents are cases of misunderstanding, but they are also issues of disrespect and a failure to communicate, not in terms of talking but in terms of listening. Being a good sexual partner means noticing your partner’s physical cues. Being a good person means noticing their emotional state. That means knowing the person well enough to know when she’s scared or hiding something. If you don’t know them very well (which happens), you have to be even more vigilant.
Dearest bro friend, dearest unbelievably gorgeous bro friend, this is your girl talking to you, you intellectual fuck buddy, your mama and your little sister all rolled into one. I am asking, begging, no, demanding that you fetishize consent, dear. Fetishize it. It’s easy if you try. “Yes” is the most beautiful word in the world. “Yes” is what you want your partner to say all the time every time. “Yes” is the only thing that revs your engine. When you know the person, when you’ve talked about it beforehand, you can go through rape role play. You can go hardcore with the toys and the ropes and strange wrestling moves you learned in middle school. Have fun. (You big slut good for you!) but please, please, please, make “YES” in big huge, sunny yellow letters your big goal. “Do you want to _____ ?” “YES” “Are you sure?” “YES!”
“No” is not a turn-on. “No” is a huge boner-kill. It is not a negotiation. It is a huge red flag. Other things that are no include “Not right now,” “I’m not feeling well” and the physical moving of hands away from her or an area of her body. Your partner doesn’t have to “be clear” with you. If you’re making out and you try to move to another phase of lovemaking and s/he says no, that’s off the menu for tonight. End of story. The kitchen is closed. Don’t try again in twenty minutes. Don’t try again in three hours. Talk about it with your clothes on, after you’ve finished your meal. If you do your job right, you’ll be invited in again. (See what I did there?)
Yeah, I know. Sex is complicated. Love is complicated. You had to chase her for a while before she agreed to a date. Somewhere along the line, someone told you that you had to fight for your girl, that jealousy can be sexy, that protectiveness can be sexy, that control can be sexy. You were just giving her what she said she wanted. She said yes before. She was a little tipsy. More importantly, you were too. You can’t be held responsible for what happened. You had chemistry, there’s no denying that. Misunderstandings happen all the time.
Honey, baby, bear, kindly shut the fuck up. Unlike many misunderstandings, these mistakes have catastrophic costs to everyone touched by the incident. The person you raped or sexually assaulted is sitting at home feeling like they suddenly don’t know what they want. She’s trying to decide whether the helplessness, the emotional and physical pain she just went through was her fault. After a lot of self torture (probably days, usually weeks or even years), she might get up the courage to tell someone what happened: a friend, a parent, or a mentor. That person is going to feel just as helpless as your lover did. They’re going to feel angry and hurt and unbelievably frustrated because they don’t know how to fix it. They don’t know how to make it better. They’re going to wish they had been at the party. If they know both of you, they’re going to wish they had explained to you what it’s like to be a confused, scared rape victim, to try to make “no” sound like a nice, nonthreatening, nonjudgemental statement because nice girls don’t shut men down, because girls who say no don’t get asked back. They’re going to wish they had told you about how they were raped, and how it changed them.
That’s if that first witness believed her, but only if. That person might ask, “Well, what were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Did you flirt? Hadn’t you said you like him?” And so she disappears into herself, shackled in a subjectivity that society forced on her. She has no right to be mad or hurt. She should have said something other than “come hither.”
You may genuinely feel bad. Because I know and love you, I’m pretty sure you will. You’ll wonder how you could have let this happen. You’ll think of all the ways that she could have been more clear about saying no, trying to distract yourself from the multiplying ways in which you decided that she said yes.
You may feel so bad that you’re suicidal. I’m sorry, but I don’t care. This isn’t about you. This is about her. This is about us. You and me. Me and you. This wonderful sexual tension filled tornado of awesome that we’ve had going on since we were both scared and lonely so very long ago. Because you’ve scared me to my core. Maybe scarred as well. This word fills my head whenever I see you. When you hug me (RAPE), when you tease me (RAPE), when you put your hands over my eyes and make me guess (RAPE. YOU’RE A RAPIST DON’T TOUCH ME.) Because if you hurt her you could hurt me. And here’s our little secret: There was a time when I wanted you to hurt me. Just not like that.
You make me question every instinct I have, every deep dark turn on I’ve had, every man I’ve ever felt safe with. You make me afraid of the night. I used to be that girl who loved empty streets and broken street lamps, the girl who sought out adventure because I was immortal and safe and strong. I trusted my instincts, I kept my keys sticking out between my fingers. I thought that I knew how to say no, but it catches in my throat when you look at me, my eyes screaming it but my tongue saying nothing.
You’ve damaged somebody. Hopefully not permanently, but you may have. You drove drunk and you hit someone. That person didn’t have to say “Don’t hit me with a car.” You hit them. You have to live with that.
You don’t get to dismiss that guilt, that reality, so you can sleep through the night. Guilt makes you a better person. It keeps you from being a sociopath and a psychopath and all the other paths that I don’t want to walk down. I was pretty sure I wasn’t friends with a sociopath but hey, I’m a lady and I don’t know what I want, so who knows?
The sooner you admit that what you did was wrong the sooner everyone will heal, and the easier it will be for me to be your lady friend again, if at all. But if you ever say “She should have said no more clearly,” to me ever again, I will strangle you with your own tie. Got it, Master Chief?