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.


Raising A Girl During #MeToo

The #MeToo reckoning has only started to reveal the routine and gratuitous presence of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the lives of women and girls. It’s going to be a long, slow burn of new stories coming to the surface, some of them shocking and others as duh-tastic as possible (you mean that pompous guy who was known for treating his employees like shit and the “pro-life” congressman who obsessed about controlling women’s bodies all day long on the House floor were treating their women employees like their own personal sexual property? NO WAY!). There will be more backlash, and considering who is president of the United States, it is going to be terrible.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of us still need to raise our daughters.

I’ll be honest, I find this a particularly challenging moment to parent a girl who is getting ready to go to kindergarten. Here is where I’ve landed:

I’m no longer turning off the radio or television as these stories come up on the news. As much as I would like to, I can’t protect her from every sexist thing in the world. If she asks what these stories are about, I’m going to tell her the truth in age-appropriate terms (such as, someone didn’t respect her body, and only you get to decide what to do with your body).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the encouragements we give our children to give someone a hug. This isn’t a new line of thought for me, but it seems to take on new urgency in this moment. Why are other people telling my daughter to go give someone a hug? Why am I? As it pertains to teaching her how we act around family and close friends, there is balance to be found here, but I’m also getting increasingly uncomfortable with suggesting physical contact if she clearly doesn’t want it.

Donald Trump is not a person we talk about in neutral terms. If there is one thing I want my daughter to remember about growing up during the disastrous period of Donald Trump’s presidency, it is that we did not look the other way — we spoke up and we took action. Donald Trump’s disrespect for women and girls is but one of many hate-fueled reasons on his part as to why his presidency should never be normalized before our children. I still remember looking at her the morning after the election and crying. My political work is, in part, a fight for her.

If the Access Hollywood bus won’t pick him up to remove him from the Oval Office where he clearly doesn’t belong — it is up to us.

What Kind Of Candidate Truly Respects Women?

Note: Today, Leeann Tweeden said Sen. Al Franken forcibly kissed her and released a picture of him groping her as she slept. Sen. Franken apologized. On June 7, 2008, I published an OpEd in the Star Tribune with Shannon Drury with the same title as this piece standing up for Al Franken just before a difficult Democratic primary, in which the center-stage issue for him was controversy over rape jokes he had written for Saturday Night Live. The piece was influential in his moving forward, and noted that we were the current and immediate past presidents of Minnesota NOW. Tonight, I hurt. This is what I have to say on November 16, 2017, under this same title. What kind of candidate truly respects women?

Why are we asking the wrong questions?

Why is the most sought-out speech for a feminist woman the praise or denunciation of a man in politics?

Why are our voices most compelling when we are supporting the guy, taking down the guy, or sharing our pain? Why are the roles available to us cheerleaders, hecklers, and the injured? When will we get to be the referees and the players?

Why are almost all the political leaders men?

Why is the partisan divide more powerful than public disgust with men sexually assaulting women?

Why did white women vote for Donald Trump? Why do they think white supremacy will give them an advantage when so clearly, white supremacy and sexism are inextricably interconnected? Do we hate ourselves that much?

Why are creeps cultivating support from feminist women and using the little political capital we have when they know they are grabbing ass and even if we don’t know that, we’ll be the ones left to pick up the pieces later?

Why are men so loved for repeating feminist women’s words, including within the women’s movement?

Why are we knowingly tolerating posers? Who don’t we know is a poser?

Why are women being raped, harassed, propositioned, stalked, and belittled in spaces that call themselves progressive?

Why are we not connecting politicians crapping on a woman’s right to abortion to those politicians cupping women’s asses or refusing to meet alone with us? Why are our bodies an open buffet when our minds are shoved off the table?

Why are we not collectively demanding that they all resign, including the president of the United States, Donald Trump?

Why are we being used? Why are we allowing ourselves to be used?

Where are the men who proclaim to be our allies? What is the true end for which we are the means? Why aren’t they working on the men who would never listen to us in one-on-one conversations instead of being the women’s columnists in The New York Times? Why aren’t they using their platforms that are supposedly all about advancing women to demand that women sit on the platform?

Why are we weaponizing lecherous men against women? Why do we ask the wrong questions and point fingers in the wrong directions?

Why? For God’s sake, why does no man seem to respect women? Who can we trust? When will we be free? Why, Al, is the joke coming back to us?

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

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.