Is Something Lost When We Say Coercion Is Rape?

Coerce (v): 1. To compel to an act or choice. 2. To achieve by force or threat. 3. To restrain or dominate by force.

Rape (v): 1. a) archaic To seize and take away by force. b) Despoil. 2. To commit rape on.

An anonymous account of a horrific date with actor and self-avowed feminist Aziz Ansari has been posted everywhere on the Internet; responses appear to range from the self-proclaimed sensible guy saying ‘look, we can’t read women’s minds’ when women are not exactly saying, “no, I don’t want to have sex with you and please go away,” to a number of prominent feminists arguing that what is described is nothing short of rape. I am reading the arguments from my fellow feminists closely. I am receptive to considering these arguments. Still, I am left uneasy that we are missing an opportunity to talk about coercion on its own terms. After all, Ansari says he believed the activity was consensual and while I believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is sexual assault, I also believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is instead coercion.

Coercion and rape are cousins. They are part of a horrific continuum of what heterosexual sex has meant for too many women for too damn long. Coercion, or the act of making a person in some way or another go along with having sex with you even if and as they have serious misgivings, is terrible. Rape, or sexual assault, is terrible. They do not necessarily need to be the same thing in order to be terrible. I worry that by talking about coercion and rape as interchangeable we are losing an opportunity to address coercion head-on within mainstream culture, where, let’s be honest, coercion is a common part of women’s lives and a practice that remains largely unquestioned.

In the middle of all these linguistics, what men need to know is that a woman should be consenting to have sex with you. If you are not sure, you should check. Checking does not mean assuming based upon body language. Ask — Do you want to do this? If you don’t hear yes, then stop.

In real life, lots of sex does not work this way, with an explicit “may I?” and a corresponding “yes” proceeding with every step. Perhaps where we are headed is that everything that does not conform to that standard is now labelled rape. I am open to these arguments, and urge careful consideration of them. We live in a massively unequal society and with sexual relations between women and men in particular, it’s impossible to pretend like it does not matter that women have been socialized to not articulate their desires and men have been socialized to pursue sex until they get it.

Viscerally, the Aziz Ansari story and the responses I am reading leave me troubled and frankly very sad, personally. Like women the world over, I have experienced coercion and I have experienced rape. Notably, I have experienced repeated instances of coercion and other times rape at the hands of the same person. And when I think back, I am horrified, just horrified by my experiences with coercion; as a general rule, I am more ashamed of my experiences with coercion than I am of my experiences with sexual assault. I feel more culpability for them, as if the disgustingness imposed upon me and the memories searing my brain with a spiked hot iron are, in part, a measure of who I am and the depravity I am capable of, even though I know logically that the deck was stacked against me. I can’t even list the catalogue of horrors that happened; I am so deeply ashamed.

With the rape, at least, I tried harder.

I read these insistences that what Aziz Ansari did was rape, and I hurt. I want someone to go back and hug the emaciated young woman I once was, her back raking the carpet as she finally hit her breaking point after so many bouts of humiliating coercion, crying and openly weeping, whispering, “no, no, please stop, please please stop,” over and over. The physical pain and the white ceiling. The tears rolling slowly and sideways down, nobody catching them.

I had been coerced into so many horrible things, and so many times, but that rape was worse and I knew it then and I still know it now. I want someone to validate that. More than anything, I want someone to go hug that girl and acknowledge her strength and her gall for finally fucking saying no, getting raped anyway, and knowing for certain, for textbook certain, that she was getting raped and he was still going. It was different. And it’s easier to tell you about this because I’m not ashamed because I tried harder than ever before to make it stop, and it still didn’t work.

I also know that what led up to this rape was repeated, humiliating coercion. That it was coercion that brought me to that point, where doing degrading, despicable things to me while I openly cried and said stop could be ignored, because degrading, despicable things had happened to me without my explicit, verbalized entreaties to stop and so they could probably continue regardless. That it was coercion that brought me to that point where my feelings didn’t matter, even when openly you-can’t-miss-it expressed. That it was coercion that was part of the sexual histories of all of my young friends, in that age when Britney Spears dressed like a school girl who didn’t know. That we were socialized to be coerced and sometimes raped. That we more often went along with it, until, bravely, sometimes we didn’t.

I want to see the bravery of rape victims who tried to stop being raped acknowledged. I want women who couldn’t resist rape to be saluted for their survival and savviness to know that resistance might have meant death. I want to see the survival skills of women who experience coercion saluted, to the point where we don’t internalize shame about being coerced — to the point where it is no longer easier to talk about experiences with rape or sexual assault than it is to talk about experiences with coercion. I want men who do not identify themselves as rapists to learn how common coercion is and learn to better process and respect signals from women, and to make asking for consent part of their pursuit. I want women to know what coercion means; I want boys and girls to be taught about coercion, and not just rape, in school. I want heterosexuality to stop being so awful for women, especially young women. I want #MeToo to include a spectrum of behaviors — all of the behaviors that hurt us — without insistence that they must be the same to count.

But mostly, I want the young women who felt safe to resist to finally get their acknowledgement for sticking up for themselves even when it was futile, and going through a rape they knew to be worse than all the other unspeakable, entirely relatable, “bad date” times.

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