Heads up: This article talks about sexual assault.
“Your no makes way for your yes. Boundaries create the container within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes your yes a choice.”
- adrienne maree brown
The word no was not a part of my sexual vocabulary for years. After traumatic experiences during which my no was not respected or I was not given the opportunity to say no before my boundaries were crossed, I didn’t see the point in saying no. Why try to voice a no when it seemed like partners weren’t listening to or caring about my preferences anyways? Always saying yes seemed easier than facing the reality that my nos had not been valued before and could be stifled again.
Written by Lori S., Pleasure Pie contributor. Graphics by Nicole Mazzeo.
Look, I’m not trying to romanticize this crap. Pain sucks. Sometimes, when it feels like I’ve been jinxed with the ability to pee sulfuric acid, or my clitoris is in no-chill, angry-like-the-Bride-in-Kill-Bill mode, I curse whatever vengeful deity is messing with my genitals.
But as much as I’d love to completely indulge in hyper-cynicism, I have to admit that dealing with pelvic pain has, in some ways, made my life better. And yes, that includes my sex life.
I know. Bear with me.
guy we went to
high school with –
was he a friend of yours? –
I was struck by this recommendation while reading Survivor Theatre Project’s email newsletter this morning. I’ve often assumed that in order to fully process trauma, a person has to have some kind of emotional breakdown, and then build themself back up (like in the movies). But what do you do when that breakdown never comes? That’s why I love what the newsletter said about the many ways that grief can look:
There is a new apparel company in Boston whose mission is to promote consent! They’re called Let’s Be Clear, and I asked the founder, Rachel Verner, a few prying questions. I don’t know about you, but whenever I find out about someone doing creative consent education in my city, I want to know more
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I am a rape survivor, and I like sex.
And I have nightmares about my abusive ex. And I have trouble orgasming with other people. And I worry about being assaulted most days. And I think I probably have PTSD. And I love being touched. And I like casual sex (and that doesn’t have to be an “unhealthy coping mechanism”). And I like loving and being loved. And I find my body really sexy. And I get insecure about whether I’m “doing” sex right/well. And I communicate about consent, STIs, and desires (theirs and mine). And I have creative, weird, kinky, complicated fantasies. And I remind myself all of the time that my desires (and lack of desires) are valid, and that my pleasure is worthwhile!
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
[Content notice: Rape and sexual coercion]
Last night I went on my first Tinder date, and it was horrible!
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I regularly see people proclaim that rape is not sex, and should not be called sex. As someone who has experienced rape, this feels unnecessarily limiting.
I think that this sentiment is coming from a good place. It seems to be a reaction to people trying to make the issue of rape sound less serious than it is. I can absolutely see why, when someone calls rape “non-consensual sex” in that context, people would say, “call it rape!”
However, I want to use whatever words I like when talking about my non-consensual experiences (as long as I’m not being insensitive to struggles that I haven’t experienced myself – in other words, I’m not giving myself permission to use racist slurs or anything).
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I’ve always been a very polyamorous person, long before I knew the word for it. I feel like I tend to be very open-hearted, and very trusting. When I was in high school, I participated in a group trust fall exercise, and was about a thousand times better at trust falling than anyone else in the group, to the point that I sometimes fell before my partner was even ready to catch me (they did catch me though).
About a year ago, I went on a date with a guy I didn’t know very well, and he raped me.
I was really surprised by what happened. I mean, he did seem like a sketchy guy, but I didn’t anticipate that he might hurt me in such a serious way. We had had conversations. He had looked me in the eye. My status as a fellow human being should have been apparent to him. Why would someone do that?
It made me question the way I view strangers in general. I had spent most of my life trying to assume kindness and trying to love everyone, unless I was given a whole lot of reasons not to (i.e. the person threatens to kill me or something). Now, this doesn’t mean that I liked everyone. But I did have some form of love for people as a whole.
In the year since my rape, I’ve been in a mostly monogamous relationship, until a month ago.
When that relationship ended, I was excited to be free to be polyamorous again. I’ve gone on two dates so far, and I’m finding that dating feels very different than it used to.
I’m finding that I’m afraid of men until they are proven to be trustworthy. I have been doing “background checks” by asking mutual friends about how safe it is to be alone with them. I can now see why many people are afraid of online dating, because you can’t ask a mutual friend to vouch for the people you go on dates with.
I’m also finding myself having confusing feelings about casual sex. Questions are coming up for me, like, “Is it really worth it to have sex with this person?”
Worth what? What am I losing to connect with this person sexually?
I’m also finding myself asking, “What’s the point of sex without love?”
The space between casual sex and a relationship isn’t usually acknowledged in our culture. It’s usually thought of as either completely casual, or a relationship. But it’s completely possible to experience sex, feelings, caring about the person – even if only for one night.
How this used to feel for me:
Sexuality was a way to connect with new people on an intimate level. I got to see their bedroom, their body, the way they interact with their own body, the way they touch and look at my body, how they express being turned on (like the noises they make, the things they say, the things they ask for, how they express feelings of pleasure, etc.), etc. And I never wondered if sex made sense without love because there was always an element of love: my general love for them as a fellow human being, regardless of how much I liked them or could relate to them or connect with them emotionally, intellectually, etc.
I want to learn to open up my heart again and love people in general, while still trying to do my best to protect myself from assault (i.e. by trusting my instincts when someone seems sketchy). It’s confusing for me to know to what extent I should heed my safety concerns, and to what extent they are a not-useful reaction to trauma. For now, I’m going to try to be careful with my safety, while still pushing past my emotional comfort zone when I do feel physically safe.
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I had a dream last night that I was raped by a neighbor when I visited his house. In the dream I was fifteen years old and he was in his late 30s or early 40s.
When I was reflecting on the dream this morning, what struck me about it was how I reacted to the rape in the dream. I was unsurprised. I felt broken, but it felt normal to feel that way. I felt like I was used to being raped all the time.
This got me thinking about how I felt when I was raped in real life. It didn’t feel that strange or unusual, though I had never been raped before. I think I’d had an image in my mind of what being raped would be like, and it was much more violent and out-of-the-blue than what actually happened.
What actually happened was that I went on a date with a cute guy and agreed to sleep at his one room apartment. I was really clear with him that I just wanted to cuddle when he asked me to come over. When we got to his room, he wanted to have sex. I said no, and he didn’t listen to me. We had sex and I was pleading with him to stop the whole time. I didn’t try to push him off of me, and he didn’t physically hurt me. He didn’t use a condom. He stopped when he came.
It took me a couple of days to call what happened rape. I think this was mainly because “rape” sounded like a huge deal, and I thought it would be unlike anything I had ever experienced before. But my rape didn’t feel so unfamiliar. I had been touched without consent many times before (sometimes sexually, sometimes not). This was just a more intrusive version of the non-consensual touching I was familiar with.
You know what this makes me think of? Rape culture. To grow up in a world where being raped doesn’t feel so out of the ordinary because multiple men in my life have touched me without my consent – that’s messed up.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Kids should grow up hearing, “Only have sex with people who want to have sex with you,” not, “Women who respect themselves don’t dress like that, and you have to respect yourself first if you want guys to respect you” or any of the other harmful messages prevalent in our culture about sex and consent.
I usually avoid using the phrase rape culture because it is pretty controversial, and it seems to pit people against each other. Some people are adamant that it is an accurate way of describing our current society where rape is a big issue that affects a lot of people, and where people often don’t get very good support after being raped, while other people are adamant that our culture is anti-rape and offended by the idea that the general population is being described as condoning rape. So I often prefer to talk about how rape is an issue in our culture (and in my personal experience) without using the phrase “rape culture” because I don’t want people to write off what I’m saying because of that one phrase.
But sometimes it just feels so accurate.
One survivor’s reflections:
Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to live in a body that wasn’t repeatedly touched, fondled, and/or used without my consent. My relationship to my body has been shaped by all these experiences of people touching me against my will, since I was a kid.
When I was raped at age 23, it felt weirdly unsurprising and familiar because I had experienced so much non-consensual sexual touching in my life already.
I decided to make a map of my body that shows where people have touched me against my will.
Why do I want to share this with the world?
1. To say, “Hey! This is what sexual assault looks like (or can look like). Recognize it! Acknowledge it!”
2. To share what has happened to me as a part of my own healing process.
3. To bring attention to the complex, confusing, and deeply internalized ways that non-consensual touching can affect a person.
I am trying to reclaim my body as my own – to unlearn all of the experiences that have taught me that my body exists for other people’s whims, and to proclaim that I am the ruler of my body – the only person who gets to decide what I do with it. I have bodily autonomy and I will not give it up!
One survivor’s thoughts after a rape. Names have been changed.
I’m writing you to share my feelings about our interactions in the past couple of weeks. Some of your actions have been hurtful to me, and I thought that maybe if I put my thoughts into writing, you might be able to see where I’m coming from.
When you came up to me for the first time in the market, I assumed that your interest in me was based on my body, including my whiteness. That was fine with me – my body is a part of who I am and I enjoy when people enjoy it. I wasn’t looking for anything serious, and I was totally cool with enjoying each other’s bodies, as long as I felt safe and my boundaries were respected. I had a lot of fun cuddling with you. I was really missing touching someone and being touched. You were very sexy and it felt good.
But I was clear about the fact that I wasn’t comfortable with kissing you or doing anything more than cuddling. I told you that crossing that line could ruin my relationship with my boyfriend, and how sad that would make me. I wasn’t sure whether or not you enjoyed cuddling without having sex, and I didn’t want us to be doing something that was only fun for me, so I asked you. You said you liked it.
I was excited to go to the bar with you, and I had a good time there. Your friends were nice and I had fun talking to them. I accidentally got drunk (I know it’s weird, but I’m sensitive to alcohol and two drinks is a lot for me) to the point where my eyes kept closing and I felt like I needed to lean against something to stay upright. I assume you noticed how drunk I was, because I’m not subtle. I also told you, “I’m really drunk; I’m trying to slow down.”
This was around the time that we went to the jungle gym and you kept trying to kiss me. I kept avoiding you, but I still liked being close to you, so I didn’t move away completely. Eventually, I was too slow and you caught my lips with yours. I didn’t kiss you back at first. I think I was making it pretty clear that I didn’t want to kiss you, by telling you and avoiding your kisses.
At your house, I repeatedly moved your hand away from my vagina while we were kissing and cuddling. At some point you started fingering me and I said, “No, no, stop, please don’t, let’s not do this, no” etc. until you stopped. I think you could see that I was upset by this, because when I tried to sleep on the couch, you asked me if I was okay. You eventually convinced me to come back to bed by promising over and over again that you wouldn’t go inside me again. I trusted you when you said this. Then you insisted that I let you rub your penis on my vagina. I told you that I wasn’t comfortable with that. I don’t understand why you didn’t care about whether or not I was comfortable with the things you wanted to do with my body.
You promised again that you wouldn’t go inside me. Eventually I let you rub yourself on me because I wanted you to fall asleep so I could be alone, since the situation was making me uncomfortable.
Your rubbed your penis against me for a little bit, and then started fucking me. Again I said, “No, no, I don’t want this, stop, let’s not do this, please stop” etc. You didn’t stop until you came.
I know that you didn’t use violence against me, you didn’t force me to go to your house, you didn’t hold me down. But you did completely disregard the fact that I didn’t want to have sex with you. You ignored me when I said no. If you have sex with someone when they say no, that is rape. It can be traumatic even if it isn’t violent.
I’m asking you to please be considerate of what a woman wants when you want to have sex with her. If she doesn’t want to, please stop there. Sex should be pleasurable for everyone involved. I feel violated and disrespected by the way you treated me.
I am only writing you to ask you to think about the way that you treated me, and whether or not that is how you want to treat women in the future. I am not interested in contacting the police or anything like that. I don’t trust the criminal justice system and I think it often makes people worse off. I’m leaving for the US tonight and you’ll never see me again. If there is anything you want to say to me, you can contact me at [email address].
As a teenager, I was really confused about the concept of a “tease.” I heard some of my male peers say, more or less, that teases were the worst and they hated them. I weeded out from their comments that the basic definition of a tease was a girl who fooled around with a guy, but didn’t have sex with him. Wait, did that mean I was a tease?
I would often have long, steamy make out sessions with whichever lucky guy was my boyfriend at any given moment (wink), and these make out sessions would never turn into sex. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t want to have sex with these guys, it was that they never initiated sex (and at the time I felt that, as a female, it wasn’t my place to initiate it). When I heard my guy friends lamenting the existence of “teases,” I started to worry that all this making out with no sex might make guys hate me (my worst nightmare as a boy-crazy teenage girl*).
To add to my confusion, the things I heard about sex weren’t lining up with what was happening in my own sexual experiences.
Here’s a brief sampling of the messages about sex I received from the media, adults, and peers (with commentary):
If guys only care about sex, and don’t value relationships or foreplay, why weren’t my boyfriends trying to have sex with me**? They all seemed to be in less of a rush to get to sex than I was, and I was (according to what I had noticed people expected of me as a female) the one who was supposed to be in charge of withholding sex until an appropriate time.
But wait, doesn’t withholding sex make me a tease? And doesn’t having sex as soon as a guy wants to make me a slut? So many conflicting messages!
Let me set some things straight.
Guys care about more than just sex.
To my surprise, the guys I dated appeared to have feelings about sex other than Must Have Sex ASAP — feelings that probably included wanting to feel ready, caring about not making me uncomfortable, wanting to live up to their religious beliefs and family’s standards (which sometimes told them to wait until marriage), being nervous about how to initiate sex, how to know what I wanted, and how to have good sex, and even (get this!) enjoying our lengthy make out sessions. And those were just their feelings about sex. They also had all sorts of other feelings about all sorts of other things, unrelated to sex. They were at times sentimental, shy, creative, caring, romantic, anxious, etc. They wrote songs, loved their pets, tried to help me through my issues, cared about school, cared about our relationship — all the cares and concerns any multifaceted person might have.
These guys, while their brains might have been flooded with hormones and they might have been thinking about sex much of the time, also had real thoughts, feelings, and priorities other than “Must deflower girlfriend NOW.”
Guys don’t always want sex.
I know what you’re thinking: “But every sitcom I’ve ever watched has told me otherwise!” These sitcoms are exaggerating. While many men want to have sex frequently, many others prefer occasional sex or no sex at all. Even the men who crave sex frequently have plenty of moments when they’re, say, stressed about work, on the phone with their mom, or really into a good movie. I’ve tried to initiate sex in these moments. It was through being rejected that I learned that these moments of preferring not to have sex exist.
Girls and women sometimes do want sex.
Why else would lesbians have sex?
This also applies to straight and bi+ girls and women, many of whom want to have sex more often than their male partners do. It is perfectly okay for a person of any gender to want to have sex very frequently, or never at all.
Which brings me to my next point…
Not wanting to have sex is always okay.
While our culture teaches that sex is dirty and secret, it is also widely believed that a lack of desire for sex (especially in the context of a committed relationship) means that something’s wrong, either with the individual or with the relationship. This is often not the case! Many people’s sex drives naturally fluctuate. Many others prefer never to have sex. This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience love, intimacy, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, or any other emotion.
Gender roles and rape culture
Our culture teaches guys that they’re supposed to keep pushing to get as far as they can in any sexual encounter. We also teach girls and women that they’re supposed to say no a certain number of times before “giving in” to sex, because being hesitant makes you less “slutty.” Because of these teachings, when a girl/woman says no to sex with a guy:
And what happens when a guy is sexually assaulted? People’s responses tend to line up with the dominant cultural teachings about guys and sex:
What about when a woman is sexually assaulted by another woman? Again, cultural understandings of gender tend to add to this problem. Many people don’t take it as seriously as sexual assault perpetrated by a male because we’ve been taught that women don’t have the same capacity for violence and aggression as men do. This leads to many survivors not getting the support they need to address the emotional effects of the assault.
As a culture, our dominant messages about sex should include that:
The psychological effects of gender roles
The simplistic and often unrealistic messages our society teaches about what to expect from girls/women and guys/men have clearly caused me a lot of unnecessary confusion, but the negative effects of this misinformation don’t end there. For instance, a rigid view of gender roles tends to go along with lower self esteem and prevents people from expressing themselves fully. Many people feel stuck expressing their gender in a way that fits with their gender role in order to gain approval from a partner, or from society in gen(d)eral. This leads to less sexual satisfaction in relationships and more sexual repression.
Transgender people and gender roles
While rejecting gender roles can be hard for anyone, it may be especially difficult for many transgender people who, already marginalized for their gender identity, are more likely to face harsh discrimination and even violence for challenging cultural norms. Though many trans people adhere to gender roles in their relationships, buying into the idea of gender roles tends to go along with higher levels of internalized transphobia. It isn’t uncommon for a trans person to feel afraid of talking with their partner about their trans identity, or to prefer sex in the dark so their bodies are less visible to their partners. If we, as a society, had a more fluid understanding of gender, less common gender expressions wouldn’t be seen as such a problem.
I wasn’t a “tease” for having dozens of make out sessions that didn’t end in sex. Why?
The whole concept of a tease is unhelpful and often inaccurate. It’s tied to the male pushing, female withholding model of sexual progression, which can be harmful in heterosexual encounters and fails to acknowledge same sex encounters. The idea of a tease wouldn’t be so prevalent in a world where sexual activity is thought of as something people engage in and move forward with together for their mutual enjoyment.
*Not all teenage girls are boy-crazy, but I was.
**Shout out to all my teenage boyfriends, now in your mid 20s: Thanks for not getting me pregnant, xoxo.
This article was written by Nicole Mazzeo for Fabulously Feminist Magazine.
4 Things You Can Do to Help a Friend Take Care of Their Health After a Sexual Assault (trigger warning)
1. Give them information on their risk reduction options.
For pregnancy, they could:
3. Go with them to the doctor, clinic, or pharmacy to get treatment and/or medication.
4. Force their rapist to get tested for STIs, and go with him/her/them (with your friend’s permission). (Note: STIs often don’t show up right away on tests, so if they got something recently it could show up as a false negative. But it’s useful information if they do test positive for something.)
Bonus thing you can do: Talk about it with them. Read 6 things to say if your friend tells you they were raped.
You want to show your support and say the right thing, but sometimes it’s hard to know what will help and what will be triggering.
Here are six ideas for the right things to say from a survivor who has had dozens of these conversations.
1. “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Simple as that. It’s the “I’m sorry for your loss” of the rape conversation. It doesn’t matter if everyone else saying it too. It’s validating, sensitive, and it shows that you’re taking your friend seriously and that you’re on their side. If you’re not that close with your friend, you can stop here.
2. “How are you doing?” Acknowledge that your friend is probably in a healing process, and that self care is especially important for them right now. Also point out that there are places for them to get help with this process. If you don’t know resources offhand, offer to look into free/affordable counseling services and/or support groups, ideally specific to sexual assault survivors. If they’re not interested, let it go. If they are, research it later and remember to get back to them! Following up is a great supportive gesture.
3. “What he/she/they did to you is not okay.” It seems obvious, but it’s really important for your friend to hear. Even if they seem like they know it already. Explicitly confirming that they were mistreated is validating and it helps to combat any shame they might be feeling.
4. “Is there a chance of pregnancy or STIs?” While it isn’t normally your place to take charge of your friend’s health, they might be overwhelmed by the trauma, so ignoring the health risks of sexual assault might feel like the easiest option right now. If they’re not seeking treatment for any possible health risks or unwanted pregnancy, it could be really helpful for you to be the annoying, pushy friend who won’t leave them alone until they do.
5. “I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.” Make it clear that they are welcome to trudge through every detail with you, or not share any details at all. But only say this if it’s true.
6. “In the future, is it okay if I ask you how you’re doing in regard to this? Or would you rather I wait for you to bring it up?” Your friend might want to talk about this with you in the future (i.e. the next time you talk), but if they’re the only one who ever brings it up they might feel awkward and think you’re sick of hearing about it. Or they might not be ready to talk about it more yet. Ask them to find out how you can continue to support them on their terms.
**They might not be clear on what their feelings are, or they might be in shock and not have any feelings about it yet (even if it’s been a while since the traumatic incident). These are both okay. Be supportive of your friend wherever they are in their healing process.