Content warning: This article discusses instances of sexual violence.
Positionality statement: I am a white, straight, cisgender, female survivor of sexual violence. My experiences with sexual violence have been informed by my privileges and the resources that I have had access to.
Sex is pleasurable. Sex is loving. Sex is violent. Sex is confusing. All of those statements have been true for me at one point in my life, and I would imagine, many of those reading this article as well. For four years, I have identified as a survivor of what I refer to by the legal definition of rape: penetration that was not consensual. That was violent sex. I have also had wonderful sex, boring sex, funny sex, sad sex, and sex that left me feeling empty, uncomfortable, and confused. It might have teetered in the space between consensual and non-consensual, but it didn’t choose a direction. I might have wanted it at one point but changed my mind at another. I might have said yes but meant no. I might have said nothing. These are my unwanted sexual experiences.
I came across the term “unwanted sexual experiences” while doing research for my thesis about sexual misconduct in the military. Unwanted sexual experiences don’t necessarily fit any legal definition of rape or violence, but are something that exist in a grey space between consensual and non-consensual. 1in6, an organization dedicated to supporting male-identifying survivors of sexual misconduct, defines these experiences as those which “can cause a variety of problems, long after they happened”. This term felt like the right descriptor for this thing that I had been trying to put my finger on for so long. The problem with these sexual experiences wasn’t that they had been illegal, but rather they stuck with me long after they had ended and left me feeling dirty, confused, empty, and used… The exact opposite of what we want from our sexual encounters.
While doing more research on the issue, I came across the The Shitshow, an Australian podcast, that describes these uncomfortable, confusing sexual experiences as “bad sex”. I appreciate their discussion of the phenomena, but I personally don’t find that label helpful. It’s too subjective, the definition often skewed on the basis of gender. As Lili Loofbourow describes, for men who have sex with women, bad sex tends to refer to sex that is boring. For women who have sex with men, bad sex often refers to sex that is painful, coerced, or causes emotional discomfort. As she goes on to discuss, “women are encultured to feel uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.” That is why when a sexual experience makes the shift from “I want this” to “I feel uncomfortable” or “I don’t want this”, many women ignore their feelings, instead just waiting for it to end. Many women I have spoken to, myself included, have been in circumstances where it felt easier to go through with the sexual act in question than to say no. Often, the partners we had this sex with didn’t break the law, but something bad happened. Something unwanted.
In my lifetime, I feel as if I have witnessed a transition in the ways that we talk about sexual violence. We have developed a language of consent: enthusiastic, affirmative, and ongoing. We know that rape is not just a stranger in an alleyway, but can be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker. We know that sex with someone who is intoxicated is rape. But what about sex that doesn’t fall into categories that are defined purely from a legal perspective? The gap between sex that feels good and sex that is illegal is massive. As Peggy Orenstein describes in her fantastic book, Boys and Sex, “having sex that is technically ‘legal’ is hardly the same as sex that is ethical, mutual, reciprocal, or kind”.
We have a lot to learn from kink communities about how we can work towards sex that is more than “technically legal”. Aftercare is a term that originated in these communities and is intended to refer to activities that are done after sex to make sure that everyone feels safe, comfortable, and taken care of. Aftercare is important following some types of ‘kinky sex’, as it allows partners to transition out of sex that may have been consensually violent and receive a little TLC. Mary Grace Garis writes that aftercare can be just as important outside of kink communities due to the feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine that are often produced during sex. After these chemicals are produced, there is a come-down, not unlike that associated with drug use. Cuddling, conversation, or time with a partner(s) following sexual encounters extends the lifespan of the feel-good chemicals produced during the encounter and can help to avoid an emotional crash. Beyond the chemical reactions, it’s also incredibly valuable to have the vulnerability associated with getting naked with someone(s) acknowledged and honoured through a chat or a cuddle afterwards. Emphasis on aftercare can help prevent sex that felt good and wanted at the time from becoming sex that feels bad and unwanted after it’s over.
In addition to aftercare, the LGBTQ21A+ and kink communities have championed the concept of discussion before sex begins. Sex that is more than penis-in-vagina penetration often requires a conversation that is longer than, “Do you want to have sex?”. As sex columnist Dan Savage describes, sexual encounters between people who have the same genitalia or who need to negotiate what activities their sex will include make use of what he calls the four magic words: “What are you into?”. Peggy Orienstein writes that this open-ended question creates room for “true collaboration and mutuality” as well as a broader definition of sex that goes beyond the penis-in-vagina penetration that many find limiting or frankly, not enjoyable. Beginning sexual encounters with this question also opens up space to talk to your partner about how you wish to be treated afterwards. For survivors of sexual violence, this also provides a window for conversations about things that might be off-limits. For instance, I often communicate to my partners that as a result of my experiences with sexual violence, I am not comfortable with someone’s weight on top of me. This can be awkward, but it wouldn’t feel that way if we had normalized having conversations about our needs, desires, and comfort-levels prior to getting naked.
I am grateful that we are having conversations about sexual violence and showing up for the survivors in our lives. I want to continue to have these conversations, I want the people who aren’t having them to start having them, and I want our legal and social systems to catch up and do a better job of supporting survivors. I want Queen’s University to create an effective sexual violence policy. I also want to have good sex, sex that is legal, yes, but also sex that feels wanted – before, during, and long after. We have a right to live in a world that is free of sexual violence, but in our consensual relationships and encounters, we also have the right to open, ethical, and kind sex. I hope that having a label for the grey stuff – the stuff that is technically legal, but not nice or good – can help us to identify it when it happens, talk openly about it, and work towards something better.
Resources for Survivors:
- At Queen’s: https://www.queensu.ca/sexualviolencesupport/support-and-services
- In Kingston: https://www.sackingston.com/
- In Toronto: https://trccmwar.ca/our-services/24-hour-crisis-line/
- Canada-wide: https://www.awhl.org/
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