I wrote a lot about rape when I was a teenager.
I didn’t write stories about rape. But most of the stories I wrote—and I wrote a lot of them between the ages of 12 and 18, some of them hundreds of pages long—included some form of forced sex. It’s kind of horrifying to realize that my teenage brain, processing thousands of hours of music videos, novels, comics, films, TV shows, and songs, had come to the conclusion that sex always had an element of coercion to it. That it was something men did TO women, not something two people did together.
Re-reading these stories as an adult, I spend a lot of time laughing. My prose is a mix of romance novel flowery-ness and awkward potboiler exposition. There’s a sweetness to it all. Reading these stories, I remember what it was like when everything was new and undiscovered, when my writing seemed original and daring.
The rape scenes break my heart, though. My female characters cry and plead and repeatedly blame themselves for what’s happening to them. They’re helpless, while the male characters are smart and in control. The rape is usually interrupted—back then I didn’t know the exact mechanics of sex, so I had to (thankfully) stop writing before the language got too detailed.
What I wrote back then isn’t so different from hundreds of bodice ripper novels, and even as an adult I find the occasional dominant male / submissive female storyline titillating or engaging. But bodice rippers are fantasies, written and read (mostly) by women who know they’re writing and reading fantasies. As a teenager, I thought that what I was writing was “real,” that this was the way that sex played out among adults.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the wake of the Steubenville verdict and the (long overdue) national conversation about rape that it’s inspired. In particular, I’m deeply disturbed and saddened by the idea that the two men in question didn’t know that what they were doing was rape.
Let me be clear: as many others have said, ignorance is not an excuse. Penetrating an unconscious or intoxicated woman with your fingers is rape, and a guilty verdict is a just verdict in this case. I have no patience with conversations about the perpetrators’ “promising futures” or the ludicrous idea that the victim (who committed the crime of going to a party and getting drunk) somehow “ruined” these men’s lives.
But I am still deeply saddened at the thought that these two men grew up in a culture that clearly failed them. That they somehow thought it was acceptable to penetrate a woman who was incapable of giving consent.
I wonder if they got a lot of the same contradictory messages about sex that I got as a teenager. Messages like:
1. A man rapes a woman when he loves her and she doesn’t love him back.
2. Men can’t control their sexual urges and it’s a woman’s job to protect herself against those urges.
3. A woman is supposed to dress sexily and make herself available to men, but she’s supposed to protest and push them away when they try to have sex with her.
4. Sex is something that men want and women put up with.
5. “Good girls” don’t want sex, or at least they act like they don’t want it.
6. If a girl stays sober and dresses conservatively she won’t be raped.
This was what I saw around me: in the relationships and quasi-relationships my friends were having, in the way that sex was depicted in all the media I absorbed. My own writing at that time is a reflection of the confusion I saw everywhere.
I was one of the lucky ones. My early sexual experiences were all consensual. But I shudder when I hear that large numbers of people still think it’s all right to force sex on a woman if she has “led someone on,” or if her date has spent a lot of money on her, or if he just can’t control his urges. Or when I hear that plenty of teenage girls don’t think sex is supposed to feel good for them, that it’s just something they’re supposed to do to make boys happy.
Steubenville has inspired a conversation not only about rape, but also a larger conversation that needs to happen, one that moves beyond legality and toward decency. As in, if a woman has only consented to have sex with you because you’ve bullied and guilted her into it, you may not be legally liable, but you’re still a raging asshole. And if you regularly have sex with no regard for the feelings, pleasure, or desires of your partner, you’re not a criminal, but you’re a raging asshole.
If I could go back in time and talk to my teenage self, there are a few things that I’d want teenage-me to know about rape and sex. They’re the same things that I wish all teenagers—really, all human beings who have sex—could understand today.
- It is not a crime to go to a party and get drunk.
- If you’re drunk, you can’t give reliable consent.
- If you’re sober, it is unethical (and usually illegal) to try to initiate sex with someone who is drunk.
- Rape is not inevitable.
- It is not women’s responsibility to prevent rape.
- Have sex with people who REALLY WANT to have sex with you, not people who are just going along with it.
- Never have sex because you felt bullied or pressured into it.
- Don’t automatically assume that rape victims are lying.
- It is never okay to force someone to have sex. Never.
There you go, teenage self. May future teenagers be better informed.