14 March 2009

It's not what it seems

It's an unnerving thought: being forced to do something you don't want to do. When it's sexual in nature, it adds an extra layer of apprehension. And trauma.

A couple of years ago, I had to come to grips with sexual abuse. Even though I knew I was experiencing something bad, I never identified it as any kind of assault. I just thought I was a little fucked up and didn't know enough about my own sexuality. I thought I was oversensitive to the criticism of asshole ex-boyfriends. I had no idea exactly what it meant because I was deluded by popular depictions of sexual assault in the media (news and entertainment), as most people are.

I'm not taking about planted memories, where I felt badly about something and someone made suggestions about what happened so I began to believe something that didn't actually exist. I'm talking about a situation where I didn't realize that what happened could be considered abuse. I described a situation and was given the label afterwards.

It was a huge blow to me. It crushed me for quite a while. It was hard to talk about with friends. I still haven't broached it with family. Even with the person who I thought would continue to love me and help me through it twisted into something it wasn't. I guess I can't fault anyone who couldn't deal with it, or didn't understand it when I opened up about it. I think I can fault people who made it worse, or blamed me. It took a long time to come to grips with the idea that what happened to me was not my fault; that it was not exaggeration or misconception; that I had as much right to my story as anyone has to stories that follow the more traditional interpretations of sexual abuse.

This post comes from reading someone else's story of non-traditional sexual abuse. In her case, outright rape. Because of the context of the relationship, it's kind of hard for outsiders to identify it as rape. But it makes sense. If lack of consent equals rape, then mounting someone while unconscious is rape. I certainly don't see a problem with initiating sex in the middle of the night and obtaining consent. It's the penetration before she's awake that makes it wrong and it scares the crap out of me.

But marital/partner rape is a generally new concept, in the same vein as spousal abuse. It used to be commonplace and acceptable for a husband to smack his wife around if she didn't do what he said. Likewise, it was considered his right to have sex. Let me stop there for a second and acknowledge the difference between sucking it up and letting him have his way and him forcing her to submit. These views are changing now, but it obviously takes time to permeate cultures so that individuals understand their rights in relation to other people. Backing up a bit to my story: according to my counsellor, the trauma associated with not being mentally engaged in sex (i.e., saying yes because you know it will shut him up or avoid a worse confrontation) is emotionally damaging. Moreover, each time it happens, it becomes increasing difficult to stop the pattern.

I'll be the first to admit that it's not as damaging as rape, but it can still have a long-term impact on the woman who feels that submission is both the lesser of two evils, and a way to avoid acknowledging the larger issues/problems in the relationship. And while I'm sure that there are exceptions to this rule, and that even that each instance is unique and includes distinct negotiations and interactions, the pattern of behaviour from either partner can be damaging to the trust in the relationship.

While women are most often the victims of sexual assault, a lot of men have told me that we have all the power when it comes to having sex. We get to say no or it's rape; we get to give permission like we're doing men a favour. Of course, very often, we also have to be the ones who take responsibility for preventative measures (birth control) and are at greater risk of contracting STIs. It's an ongoing power struggle. For all the work to improve women's rights and allow for sexual liberty and autonomy, there are still serious issues.

One of the biggest is that we don't even know when we're being hurt.

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