There is an unspoken idea in U.S. culture that women owe sex to men, and that men are within their rights to take sex regardless of women’s desires. This is called “rape culture.”
This is not to say that all men are potential rapists, nor that they in fact have the right to be so. But the idea exists that they do have that right, and it’s so ingrained in our general culture that many people can’t even see it until it’s pointed out to them.
Not only women get raped, and not only men commit rape, but statistics show women are at 14 times more risk for assault than men. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a 2011 study that approximately one in five women in the U.S. suffer attempted sexual assault, sexual assault, attempted rape or rape sometime during their lives. A 2010 CDC study found that one in 71 U.S. men would be raped or sexually assaulted in their lives.
The body can respond to physical stimulus regardless of what the heart and mind want. Bringing a woman to orgasm or making a man’s penis erect doesn’t mean they’re enjoying your actions.
Even with the birth of the Women’s Rights Movement in the ‘60s, the idea of male right to dominance persists. We have only just started addressing the problem in the last decade or so. Some California schools have adopted a “yes means yes” policy, encouraging students to get enthusiastic consent from sexual partners.
It’s important to understand what rape and non-consent are, because it isn’t clear to everyone. Rape culture is so pervasive, even some victims of rape can be confused about them. When you’ve been taught since childhood you don’t have the right to refuse sexual behavior, it can be hard to consider any other viewpoint.
Sexual behavior with someone who has not consented to it is assault at best, rape at worst. Both can be traumatic to the victim.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell when someone is refusing consent. When the person being approached says, “No,” “Stop,” “I don’t want to,” the message is clear.
Then there are responses that might seem less certain. “I don’t know,” “Okay, I guess,” or a hesitant silence may sound like an opportunity to press the issue. Don’t. If your prospective partner shows any sign of reluctance, she or he has a good reason, even if the reason is just that they don’t feel like it. Respect that.
Some people aren’t comfortable saying “no,” because the rape culture message has been so deeply instilled in them. They may respond to a come-on by changing the subject or drawing another person into conversation. If neither of these actions are possible they may physically withdraw, seeming to shrink in on themselves or gradually backing away until they are literally backed into a corner. If you have to slowly chase someone across the room, he or she is trying to run away from you. Stop.
There are people who think it’s OK to take advantage of someone who’s drunk or passed out. They miss the point that “taking advantage” means using a situation to one’s own favor at the expense of the other person. If you wouldn’t trust someone to drive safely, don’t try to have sex with that person, even if they say “yes.” To do so is rape, plain and simple.
If you’re drunk too, there’s still no excuse. Just like it’s your responsibility to arrange safe transportation for after a party, you’re responsible for not sexually assaulting someone. Ask your designated driver to keep you out of all kinds of trouble.
Being in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean you get sex whenever you want. Consent once is not consent for always. You wouldn’t borrow your buddy’s car without asking just because he loaned it to you once before. Don’t expect your regular sex partner to put out every time you want sex. Forcing yourself on your spouse is rape.
It’s important to be clear when you decline an offer of sex. Use the word “no,” and say it clearly. Even if you’re tempted but you have a reason not to have sex with the person offering, be clear and emphatic. Leave no room for confusion.
If someone refuses sex with you, be respectful. Start by not making the person feel crowded. Take a small step back, or lean back a bit if you’re seated. Literally give her or him some space. Watch your tone when you speak, don’t be accusatory or whiny. If the person doesn’t want to give you an answer, that’s OK. She or he probably hasn’t been treated with respect in a situation like this before, and may not know what to expect from you.
The goal is to make her or him feel heard. Showing this respect improves your chances of a satisfying emotional and physical relationship later. When everyone knows they can say “no” and be safe in doing so, rape culture will be a thing of the past.