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.


Wondering If He’s Watching On Social Media, Waiting For #YouToo To Speak Up?

Hey, girl,

If you were watching #MeToo and wondering what would happen if you weighed in — specifically, if your abusers* were watching you on social media to see what you would say — I see you. (*Let’s default to plural, as the topic is sexual abuse of women in real life.)

You are not less courageous or brave about sexual violence you have experienced if you do not share your story out loud.

You do not have to speak up every time you have experience with something that hurts you, just because it has become the topic of the day.

Your pain does not exist for the consumption of others or to prove a point.

Social media sharing can be epically powerful. It can fundamentally change you and how you see the world, the things that have hurt you, and yourself. It can be a powerful tool for transformation — personally and socially.

I believe in storytelling and sit with tears for the people who are bravely speaking their truths. I have done it many times and I am not sad, nor am I ashamed. I have experienced firsthand the radical storytelling online that is a modern-day form of consciousness-raising for women, and especially how it has changed me (for more on this topic, see my chapter titled “Feminist Over-Sharing in the Wake of the Ray Rice Scandal” in Scandal in a Digital Age).

For all the benefits of storytelling, they are not accessible to every person at every moment of her life.

On social media, many people are directly connected or otherwise accessible to an awful lot of people — some of whom have treated them awfully.

Did you see #MeToo and wonder if someone who had raped, sexually harassed, assaulted, abused or otherwise mistreated you was watching your pages and lying in wait, waiting to see if #YouToo would speak up? Did you wonder if they would reach out to you to dispute what you had to say; or if they would see themselves in your carefully non-detailed storytelling; or if they were interacting with the posts of women they hadn’t abused, maybe with likes and supportive comments and the shit that sticks in the cracks of broken mirrors?

I see you. I hold you. Sometimes our rapists and harassers are our friends online. Sometimes they may have no idea what the fuck they did and how much it destroyed us or devalued us. Other times they know what they did or at least that we freaked out, but you know, power dynamics. Sometimes they contact us.

The horror is real.

You’re so vain

You probably think this song is about you

You’re so vain, you’re so vain

I’ll bet you think this song is about you

Don’t you?

Don’t you?

– Carly Simon

About That Viral Jared Fogle Cover Story Image

Less than two weeks ago, I used a pen to fix a cover story in The Washington Post on Jared Fogle. I crossed out the word “underage sex” and wrote in “statutory rape” in the headline, and then changed a few more words in the story: “having sex with” and “sexual encounters with” became “raping” and “rapes of” underage girls. Then I took a picture and posted the image to Twitter and Facebook.


The image went viral. Using the most conservative estimates that don’t account for people copying and pasting on their own, the image has been shared well over 40,000 times. I want to talk about why that image resonated so strongly and make some suggestions about where to go from here.

People are sick and tired of rape culture. Rape culture is the way media, law, language, sexism, and social norms interact to create a world where sexual assault is commonplace. It manifested in the Post story by wrapping Fogle’s sexual misconduct with minors in the language of consensual sex.

We can, and should, talk about why this happened. It happened, in part, because of the inadequacy of the charges against Fogle: “Distributing and receiving child pornography, and conspiring to do so, as well as repeatedly traveling to engage in commercial sex acts with underage minors.” Here’s the problem: Legal language and technicalities can obstruct telling it like it is and pursuing justice to the point where it becomes an open question whether the law is designed to protect victims of sexual crimes or powerful, popular men like Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby.

In plain language and the lived experiences of victims of sexual assault, if a person is unable to consent to sex – it’s rape, and that includes the circumstance of an adult preying upon minors below the age of consent. The exchange of money does not override other factors that make a person unable to consent to sex. Fogle engaged in criminal sexual conduct with minors – and while journalists can say that, they can’t say he raped them unless or until the law says he did.

The general population is pretty unaware that one of the largest concerns about reporting on rape within newsrooms is making sure you don’t get sued. So, The Washington Post couldn’t have said that Fogle raped those girls or young women, even though tens of thousands of people agree with me and wish they could have. Part of our ire should rightfully be focused on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Indiana that offered Fogle the plea deal that allowed him to avoid rape charges.

That said, The Washington Post must be held accountable to an open accounting of its editorial standards surrounding sexual crimes, and revising them to avoid the appearance of victim-blaming. The article in question is hardly the first time the newspaper has reported criminal sexual conduct in the language of consensual sex, or published outrageous things about rape victims – last year, columnist George Will suggested victimhood is “a coveted status that confers privileges” on campus. Tell that to Willa Murphy, who was told to leave Georgetown after she was raped and her academic performance suffered a setback.

The headline on Fogle could have spotlighted that a plea deal meant he avoided rape charges. The text of the story could have referenced the charges explicitly by name, and then paraphrased them later as “sexual misconduct” rather than “sexual encounters.” Language really matters.

We do not use the language of consensual practices to describe other crimes. We don’t read stories about people sharing their wallets with the criminals who robbed them, or offering their lives to the murderers who killed them. We should not do the same with criminal sexual conduct – no matter the other circumstances of the victim’s life, and no matter the celebrity of the person facing charges.

While less relevant to the Fogle story, there is an important, additional step The Washington Post can and should take in its reporting moving forward. It should not call victims “accusers” and/or present the facts of their personal lives, but instead place the emphasis on charges and the people facing them. “Accuse” carries a hostile connotation that reflects upon the person doing it. It is time to use the language of crime to report all crimes, including sexual crimes.

Editorial standards need to change. It’s also pretty clear the application of law does, too. Judging by the shares of the image I created recently, people of all political persuasions on the Internet are leading the way.

It’s Still Rape

It’s still rape when the rapist is famous, or well-liked. “A family guy.” That kind of bullshit.

It’s still rape when the rapist is a friend, date, hook-up, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. Rapists are people — and usually not strangers.

It’s still rape when it happens in the LGBT community.

It’s still rape when the victim is underage. No matter what she was wearing. No matter what he said in class. They could be “asking for it,” doesn’t matter — when the person is underage, it’s rape.

It’s still rape when the media calls victims, “accusers,” and rapes, “sex.”


It’s still rape when you’re fucked up on alcohol or drugs. When you said yes before you said no. When you’re a person who likes sex, yes, just not rape.

It’s still rape when Whoopi Goldberg is friends with the rapist. When the military protects its chain of command. When the Vatican says it shouldn’t be held responsible.

It’s still rape when politicians are too busy trying to control abortion to listen to victims and give them the dignity and support they deserve.

It’s still rape when the victim has chosen to identify as a survivor (heck yeah!).

We need a new conversation on rape, immediately. We need to insist upon it. We need to make corrections the moment they are due. Otherwise, we are all part of the problem.

Don’t Ban All The Fraternities, Lower The Drinking Age

Sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. Estimates suggest that one in five young women will experience sexual assault while in college (and the statistics are worse for women of the same age who don’t attend college). Most of these crimes will go unreported for a variety of reasons: the victim is not “perfect,” there can be devastating social consequences to reporting that someone raped you, and on and on.

In response, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that universities have a responsibility to address sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of their obligations under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. This development is strongly positive, although colleges and universities still tend to suck at implementing the requirements. (In the words of the youth-led activist group Know Your IX: “But aren’t colleges handling these reports terribly? Yup, they absolutely are. But so are the police.”)

Know Your IX is right; the best way forward is to require better enforcement so schools live up to their legal obligations. Public law enforcement involvement and response also carries wide room for improvement — although this is tricky, as bringing police in can make the situation worse for some victims, especially undocumented victims, victims of color, and those victims for whom their assailants bear continued control over their lives.

But legal strategy will only get us so far. We need cultural change as well. Some cultural change is directly traceable to activism: victims speaking out (brava!), students holding their institutions accountable (hooray!), and conversation-creators like the brave and creative Emma Sulkowicz, who commanded national attention for carrying a mattress throughout the Columbia University campus. Other cultural change will come with policy change.

One proposal increasingly floated to combat sexual assault on campus is to ban all the frats and shut them down. It makes perfect sense to close down fraternities that have been found to engage in overt racism or empower sexual assault. But shutting down every fraternity nationwide because we have proof that some are terrible is untenable. A better solution would be to defang fraternities as monarchies of rape culture. We need to take away the social gatekeeping power older men have over younger women on campus. We need to lower the drinking age.

College students are going to drink. We can get weird and moralistic about that, à la the disastrous reformers (including feminists) who brought us Prohibition, or we can accept that society as a whole benefits when unstoppable private behaviors and desires are permitted under the law.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 used the enticement of federal funding for state highway funds to drag states into raising the age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol to 21. Now many will recite for you the often-argued reasons why that’s offensive: 18 is the age of adulthood; you can vote at 18; you can enlist in the armed forces and fight and die for your country at 18, but you can’t have a drink at the bar at your homecoming party if you in fact survive. These reasons are right.

But less examined is the role that an arbitrary drinking age of 21 plays in creating destructive cultures on college campuses, particularly rape culture, and particularly for young women. Many college gatherings do involve alcohol. By granting less than half of a campus access to purchasing alcohol by virtue of their age, this situation empowers older men — including the small proportion of those older (and for that matter younger) men who are sexual predators — to control younger women’s access to social gatherings that include alcohol.

Fraternities have the power they do, by and large, because the many underage people, including underage women, who do drink must go to frat houses and other private settings to hang out. Now, one common objection raised by apologists for campus sexual assault (even if they see themselves in a very different light) is that young women should learn how to behave and be smarter about drinking. Until we are telling our young men with equal vigor that they must stop doing keg stands in order to be safe, I’m going to call that a sexist comment. Young women deserve to be human just as much as young men, without fear of getting raped. Even those young women who play drinking games before they turn 21.

If the drinking age were lowered to 18, all students would be able to go to the bar on a Friday night. This might take away some of the pressure some underage students feel to get really drunk (“pregame”) in their dorm rooms before going out for the evening. It would definitely take away this choice: Sit home and not go out and party, or go to a private house party controlled by older people you may not know who have bedrooms upstairs.

Rather than banning fraternities, this feminist argues that we should siphon away some of their power by lowering the drinking age.

Teaching Consent

Consent is this empowering, sexy, terrific thing. Your body is yours. It does not belong to your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your dad, your mom, your preacher, your religion, your government. Your permission must not be assumed, implied, or revoked. That body is yours, lady! And it is awesome.

Consent is the linchpin of the life I want for my daughter.

I have been particularly haunted lately with a handful of memories that make me want to go back and give myself a big hug (and spit in a few faces). I had comprehensive sexual education. I knew that no was supposed to mean no, and sadly, that no means yes is a punchline. What I didn’t learn was a good working definition of consent, and how to wield it: Not just how to say no, but how to say yes, and how to insist your own body is treated with the respect it deserves — by others, and also yourself.

There are many negative consequences stemming from the fear of youth sexuality,  as well as the fear of female sexuality. One thing that happens is not teaching our girls about sexuality in a realistic way. Sexuality is more often taught to girls as something to be guarded against as sinful (it’s not) or a source of contagion (an unhelpful frame). As a culture we don’t even teach our girls to accept themselves, much less their bodies, and we certainly don’t teach our girls to accept how their bodies might care to be or not be sexual. Instead we need to give our girls a meaningful understanding of how sexuality is something to be accepted on your own terms.

These days my daughter is young, just over a year old. When I think about trying to do a better job teaching her consent than life taught me, I think about honoring her wishes not to be held or touched by other people when she makes it clear she doesn’t want that, and I think about responding to her nods “yes” and shakes “no” as much as practical.

What have you done to help teach the young girls you know the concept of consent? Respond in the comments.