Sunday, December 7, 2014

On Hope, Transcendence and the Meaning of Success.

I'll start by saying that I didn't really know where to put this.  While my size is relevant to it, it's not about that per se, nor about geekery or feminism.  I initially thought about just writing it for myself, keeping it private on an old Livejournal account or something, but ultimately I think there's something here I want to share, so here I go.

I've been in a very dark place lately.  I'm 38 years old, and by society's standards I haven't accomplished much of worth.  I have a degree, but the college I have it from isn't prestigious enough.  I'm an artist, but not one who has managed to sell her work.  I do my best to speak out on important issues, to be an advocate for women (especially survivors of intimate partner violence and rape), people of size, and those dealing with mental illness (groups I belong to), and a good ally to members of other oppressed groups, but my words only reach so far on the Web, and my physical limitations make in person action difficult.  I have a wonderful partner who is loving and kind and good hearted, and I do my best to make sure he knows those things, and how much I appreciate them, and to be a good partner myself in turn.  However, while having a wonderful partner makes the microcosm of my life infinitely better, it is not enough to counteract my sense of failure.

So, that's where I've been.  I've been wondering what I bring to the world, and if there's any point to it.  I've been worried about whether anyone will ever see my art, and frankly grappling with the idea that my work might be meaningless, that it will never be respected or admired or understood.  I've been twisted up in knots about whether my advocacy was meaningless because it wasn't "enough", because I wasn't reaching thousands or changing the world.  I was worried that all my passion, intelligence and creativity were ultimately worthless because what they produced wasn't being seen by "enough" people or making a "big enough" difference.

Yesterday, I found out that a favorite song of mine, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, had been rewritten into a twee, poorly done Christmas carol.  I found that upsetting for a number of reasons (he's Jewish, he's a poet whose words are remarkably beautiful, the song is not at all about that), and posted about it on Facebook.  One result of that post was a friend asking me how I'd interpret the last verse of Cohen's original:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about those lines for a long time.  I've been a fan for a couple of decades, and long since come to my interpretive conclusions and moved on to listening to the marvelous pictures he paints.  However, in this case I needed the reminder.

The first two lines, talk about the struggle to make love or meaning out of desire.  "I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch".  I couldn't experience the whole, so I reached for the parts.  That's a common experience, and not just when it comes to sex.  We often try to build the appearance of joy because we don't know how to find the reality of it.  We think that if we have the right car, and the right job, and the right partner, the ones the world tells us we should want, that those generic pieces will somehow become our very personal happiness.

It's easy to forget that life is more complicated than that.      

That's an important idea, and one to hang on to, but it was the last three lines that really punched me in the gut.  Those lines reminded me that flawed, imperfect lives - lives like mine - are still beautiful. They say that there is joy to be found in looking at the horror and chaos and unyielding complexity of the world, all the things you have no control over, and loving it anyway.  In loving yourself, "even though it all went wrong", in seeing the beauty in your struggle, and ultimately in accepting that there are genuinely things that you can't control, and that it's okay.  It's okay to not always be in control.

 Most of all, those lines talk about transcendence.  That transcendence can be found in religion, or meditation, or in a moment of absolute beauty, in sex, or pain, or honesty.  Some people find it in Beethoven and others in martial arts.  It can certainly be found in a cry to the heavens when there is nothing else that can be done.  It can be religious, but it doesn't have to be.    

Anyway, as I wrote a response to my friend explaining my personal interpretation, and it occurred to me that I hadn't had much of that in my life for a long time.  My focus on doing and achieving, and on my failure to do and achieve, hasn't left room for transcendence.

I moved on to other things, and went about my day, but last night while I was trying (and failing) to sleep, I came back to it.  I thought about the fact that my focus on success was very much an outward focus, a focus on meeting the arbitrary standards society has set on what has meaning and worth.  On a personal level, I've always, to a greater or lesser degree, rejected the idea that I have to be like everyone else to be valuable.  That's partially because I've never had any talent for pretending to be someone I'm not, but also partially because I strongly believe that thinking for yourself, making your own choices, doing things you genuinely enjoy, and developing a unique sense of self is a valuable and important thing.

But as I lay there, I realized I was completely failing to apply that philosophy to society's broader expectations.  I would never judge myself by someone else's arbitrary standards, but I was in agony because I wasn't meeting the equally arbitrary standards of society as a whole.  I was trying to meet a set of standards that had little to do with me or my life, and feeling worthless because I was "failing".

The other thing I thought about was art, and what it fundamentally means to be an artist.  I remembered that not all art is about the finished product sitting on the wall, or on a pedestal, or playing on a screen.  A whole movement of art is defined by the process of making it; the meaning is in the act of creation itself, not the result.

Those two things circled around in my mind, along with the idea of transcendence, and I realized that I'd been looking at things the wrong way.  My life is not a piece of art whose value is in the completed product or the number of eyes that look at it; it's process art.  My life is valuable because I am living it, and doing all I can to live it beautifully with honesty and integrity, creativity and love, and sometimes chocolate.

My art has worth not because of who sees what I create, but because I create incredible things that I am passionate about.  My advocacy has value because of the people it touches; the fact that there are people who touch more is irrelevant to the good I am trying with all my heart to do.  My degree has meaning because of the profound education I received while acquiring it, and because of the intellectual curiosity and value of learning it represents.  My life's value is not determined by society's criteria for success; it is determined by the joy and effort and pain and blood and hope and misery I have put into living it.

And that is transcendence, for me.  Looking at the world and saying "I can't control your standards, but I can look beyond them".  I understand that, in the eyes of the world, it changes nothing.  I understand that there will be many days when I will fail to see it, when I will again judge myself harshly against society's unreachable standards, which tell us to win or go home.  But right now I can see it.  Right now I can see that, as Cohen said:

There's a blaze of light in every word/
It doesn't matter which you heard/
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I am broken, but come what may, I am full of light, and my life, my process art, is beautiful.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No, Miss Hopkins, You Haven't Proved Anything.

While I was going about my business today (that business being wasting time on Facebook), I came across an article on Mic about Kate Hopkins, a British celebrity who apparently decided that she would prove that it's not possible to be fat and happy by gaining fifty pounds and being unhappy.

No, seriously.

Hopkins, who's tweeted such memorable phrases as "Fat shaming isn't a thing. There is just being fat - and someone letting you know.", apparently decided to try this "experiment" after being called out on her behavior during an appearance on the Late Late Show.  She gained (and is now working on losing) 50 pounds, decided she didn't like being fat, and declared the case closed.

I almost don't know where to begin.

First off, she hasn't been a fat person.  She's been a thin person who put on some weight to prove a point. To understand what life is like as a fat person, and to actually come to terms with her body, she would need to live in that skin for a hell of a lot longer.  Further, she'd need to live in a body whose metabolism was fighting losing weight every step of the way.  Being fat and happy isn't a cop-out, it's an epiphany; a realization that you don't have to wait to be thin before you can live your life in a joyous, meaningful fashion.  It takes most of us years to get there.  Her claiming it's impossible after she's briefly been "fat" (by which I mean moderately heavier than she initially was) is like a francophobe visiting Paris for a week and then claiming that no one could possibly be happy living there.

It's also obvious to anyone who's opened a basic science text that an experiment based on the subjective experience of someone who started out with a bias is about as likely to produce valid results as my cat is to start singing Thriller.  Hopkins went into this little "experiment" convinced that it was impossible to be fat and happy.  Of course her experience matched her expectation.  To quote my teenage self, duh.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, her experiment misses the point.  Yes, in a lot of ways being fat is a miserable experience.  Most of that misery, however, is not a direct result of your body being bigger; rather it's a result of the discrimination and prejudice you face on a day to day basis.

I don't get to gain some weight to prove a point and then lose it again, regaining my considerable thin privilege as I go.  I have to live here.  I have to live with people looking at me like I'm disgusting, treating me like I'm stupid, assuming I'm lazy and worthless.  When you live with that on a day to day basis, not for a few days, but for all of your life, finding the courage to love your body, to be happy, is a revolutionary act.  It's an act of revolt that more and more fat women are embracing.  Being happy in my skin, happy in my life, is one of the hardest things I do every day.  I don't always succeed.  Sometimes the voices all around me telling me how worthless and hideous and useless I am win.  On the days that they don't, I am fat and I am happy, and that is the bravest thing I ever am.    

Kate Hopkins gained some weight.  She may have, for a few days, experienced some fraction of the prejudice that is my day to day life.  Instead of letting it teach her about what it's like to struggle with prejudice, she willfully chose to believe that her own bigotry was justified.  Of course she didn't experience the radical self-love it takes to be fat and happy; she can't even manage basic empathy.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Perfect Victim

The latest news out of the NFL is that Ray Rice is appealing his suspension, the one that he got on the grounds that he publicly, egregiously abused his wife Janay Rice.  The news about this is news about him, not her; her part of the news cycle is over, and she is now stricken from the conversation, her name mentioned only as a detail in his story. 

I don't know her story, and won't presume to tell it, but I can say with confidence that she, like most victims of domestic abuse, like most of us, was not a perfect victim.

The perfect victim is a white, cisgender, straight woman.  She's smaller than her abuser, who is a man.  She never says anything cruel or unfair that might "provoke" him.  She's supportive and loving, meek and gentle.  Her abuser is violently physical, and she finally leaves when he hurts her so badly that it opens her eyes.  She has to protect her children.  Or maybe just herself; that might be okay.
She certainly never, ever hits back.

She is as rare as a unicorn, and the rest of us, we imperfect victims, are deemed unworthy of compassion and support by comparison.      
My brother and I saying goodbye before
freshman orientation at Hopkins.  I'm
on the right.

When I met my ex, I was a fat, shy, bisexual nineteen year old, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University.  Although I'd had a short, torrid fling with my roommate at boarding school, I hadn't dated a boy since the brief period when I was thirteen and the size of my newly formed breasts was enough to distract from the size of the rest of me.  I was many of the bad stereotypes about young girls of a certain size; lonely, desperate for affection, a bit boy crazy.  I smoked hand rolled cigarettes, wrote a lot of poetry, and had a long string of crushes, none of which I really expected to pan out.  Already, I wasn't a perfect victim.  

Max was a short, skinny guy who still wore clothing off the boy's rack.  He was maybe an inch taller than I was barefoot, and about a hundred pounds lighter.  He wasn't really my type, but he was fairly nice to me, and his friend Mic* was dating my friend Zoe*.  We hung out together constantly, and I was more than ready to fall in love.
(*names changed out of respect for privacy)
There were warning signs from the first.  He was willing to "mess around" with me, and we spent all our time together, but he wouldn't call it dating.  He slept with someone else when he went away for Christmas break (I rationalized that it was okay because we weren't "really" dating.)  When he came back, Zoe, Mic and I were moving into a new rental house.  He came in to help and got so mad at me for a joke I made about not wanting to move more stuff that he didn't speak to me for a week. Those should have been red flags, but I was horribly lonely, and the attention he paid me the rest of the time made it easy to dismiss those things as aberrations.

At one point, he went away for a week and I didn't call him once.  I hung out with my friend Samir*, who was actually nice to me.  I did other things.  I felt like myself, and like maybe I could be okay without him.  That's when he finally said he loved me.  At the time, I thought it was because he missed me; now I think he felt me slipping away.

I might very well have slipped away eventually, if my father hadn't died that spring.  It was sudden; a heart attack.  He was there one minute, gone the next.

To understand what that meant to me, you have to understand that my father was the parent I lived with.  While I loved my mother, I also fiercely resented her.  She was a strong, successful, capable woman, driven and focused, compulsively neat.  I was a disorganized, creative, fractured girl who had a great deal of trouble with focus and despised the tedious work involved in neatness.  I was loud and passionate, while she was reserved and found displays of emotion uncomfortable.  We got on like oil and water, so when I was fourteen I went to live with my dad, who despite his faults (many of which I share), was a very good parent for me.  Losing him was losing my home, my sense of place in the world, the only safe place I had to go back to.

When my father died, I was already struggling.  I was taking a mandatory semester off from school because I'd spent the semester before everywhere but in class.  I couldn't find a job, and felt that I was failing my friends.  Max, for all his issues, was the only bright spot in my life, and he was graduating. When I found out he was moving to Hawaii to work with his uncle (a pediatrician) and try to get into med school, I decided to go with him.  It was by far the worst mistake I've ever made.

What followed was a slow transition from behavior that was simply occasionally dismissive or erratic into outright abuse.  What had seemed like a fondness for binge drinking (a standard social activity in our crowd) became, when it was just the two of us, more and more obviously a drinking problem.  He was a mean drunk, and sometimes a violent one.  At first, he just threatened to hit, balling up a fist, even pulling back his arm, but not striking.  I told myself he wasn't actually violent.  I told myself that I was bigger than he was, so he couldn't actually hurt me anyway, so it wasn't abusive.  I wasn't a perfect victim.

Later, when we were living in New Jersey, Max did hit me, over and over again.  He bit me, leaving tooth shaped bruises on my breasts.  Those were the only marks he left on me; he was too weak to actually bruise me with his fists.  I told myself again, he can't hurt me, so its not abuse.  When he tried to rape me one night in the middle of a particularly bitter argument, I told myself it didn't matter because he didn't succeed.  Meanwhile, he was telling me I was worthless, that no one else would want me.  He was encouraging me to gain weight because he got off on the control, and on the idea that my size kept me with him.  He sabotaged my diets.  Much later, he threatened to leave me when I considered surgery.  

At one point I almost left him, but I had nowhere safe to go, not for more than a few days.  I went back.  My friends thought what he did was wrong, but also that I was "difficult", that I should be easier to live with.  I wasn't meek or submissive.  I argued with him.  I didn't let him win.  I wasn't a perfect victim.

We had a restaurant in New Jersey that we went to regularly.  We'd have a nice dinner, Max would get drunk on Guinness, and he'd drive home (I wasn't allowed to drive our only car).  On the way home, he often turned violent.  We'd argue, and he'd hit me.  He knew he could hit me in the car; when he hit me elsewhere, I could sometimes catch his arm and (as gently as possible) stop him.  In the car, if I caught his arm, he couldn't drive.  He had free reign, and he made use of it.  One night in particular, he was doing this after threatening to crash the car and end it all for both of us.  I was terrified and panicked and angry.  I was angry.  Perfect victims don't get angry.  I wasn't a perfect victim.  

When we got home, he hit me again and I lost control.  I hit him back, again and again.  I hit him hard against a banister.  I could have really hurt him.  While I hit him, I said over and over "You're never going to hit me again".

There are very few things I've done in my life that I'm more ashamed of than that.  What I'm more ashamed of yet, is that there is some part of me that's still there, still angry, still pounding at him, trying to get him to stop hurting me, and that part of me just wants to keep going until he can't hurt me ever again.  Violence is not a solution to violence.  I know that, but I didn't that night.  That night, the years of torment, of physical harm, and emotional abuse, pushed me to the breaking point, and I made a very, very bad choice.  

I'm not a perfect victim.        

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, I believed Max when he said no one else would ever want me. I believed that this was what love looked like.  After seven years of abuse, I still agreed to marry him. I didn't leave then, nor for another five years after.  When I did leave, it was because I realized I'd be happier without him, not because of some violent incident that finally let me see the light.  It took me several more years to come to terms with what he'd done to me, to admit and understand the full scope of the abuse, in part because I wasn't the perfect victim.

The perfect victim never hits back.  The perfect victim says "no" and struggles.  The perfect victim is flawless and blameless, and has never done anything that can be used against her in the court of public opinion.

I am not a perfect victim, but I am a victim.  The fact that I did something very wrong once in my relationship with Max does not negate the years of violence and abuse that occurred before and after that incident.  The fact that I was larger than him did not prevent him from hurting me, from hitting me, from threatening me with a knife, or using my body without my consent, or likening me to a barnyard animal.  The fact that I called him out on his behavior and demanded change did not justify the names he called me, the gaslighting, the insults to my intelligence, my integrity, by body, and my spirit.

There are women in prison because of this, because they weren't perfect victims, because they killed their abuser rather than let him kill them.  We don't have great statistics, but the numbers we do have, as referenced here by Victoria Law of BitchMedia are staggering; in CA, 93% of women in jail for killing their partner were abused by him first.  In NY, the number is 67%.  Of these women, most sought help in the system repeatedly before defending themselves when the law wouldn't.  I have to wonder how many of these women were arrested, tried, and convicted because they weren't perfect victims?

Requiring victims to be perfect is a way of assuring that we won't be believed, that our abusers won't be prosecuted, that we will be deemed unworthy of the law's protection and the empathy of those around us.  After all, how many of us truly fit the bill? It's easy to claim that we were combative, or that the abuse didn't leave enough marks, so it doesn't count; people can say that we hit back once so we're the same as our abuser, or that we're crazy so we obviously imagined the whole thing.  Discounting abuse is simple, as long as the victim needs to stay high up on a pedestal to be believed.

We are none of us perfect, victims included.  If we demand perfection of victims, what we're really doing is giving leave to abusers to abuse, and refusing care and protection to those who need it most.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bad Medicine

"Do you have an endocrine problem, or do you just have an enormous appetite?"
I'm at the doctor's office.  I hate new doctors for just this reason.
I'm seeing a nurse practitioner; they apparently didn't have a doctor free or something, although I made an appointment to see a doctor.  Not that it matters.
She's already talked with me about my medication. She knows I have a serious thyroid issue.  Knows how high the dosage is.  She knows I'm also treated for depression, anxiety, PTSD.
"Do you just have an enormous appetite".  Fuck you.  You know better; it's on the damn chart.
"No" I say, "and most people don't get my size that way".
I'm almost in tears, and the fury is streaming off of me like steam or sweat.
She backs off a little bit, though not much.  We were talking about gastric bypass.  I'm not opposed to the idea, but I hate the fact that most people support it as a knee-jerk, want me to do it so they can be more comfortable, so they don't have to look at me.  It makes it hard for me to be okay with losing weight for health, as much as I want to. I hate making bigots feel better.  Even more, I hate the part of me that hates my fat body because I've seen the same bigoted crap about fat people they have.  It hurts.
I don't really listen to her next few sentences.  She can feel my rage, and she's not comfortable with it.  She's sitting back slightly, is winding up the conversation, when she says something about all the harm that my weight has done to my body.
I say "You know what?  For all the harm that's done, I've been harmed much more by the way people treat me because I'm fat.  That's why I'm fighting to change it."
She says "Oh no, don't do that.  Just work on yourself".
Work on yourself.
"Do you work on yourself when someone treats you like you're stupid or useless or worthless because of how you look?" She blanches a bit; she's Asian, and she's no doubt gotten something like that.
"Their bigotry is the problem.  Oh, I'll work on myself too, don't get me wrong, but I'm going to work on them.  They need to change."
She doesn't have anything to say to that really, not that I process.  I leave without the simple blood test I came for.
I don't start crying until I'm in the waiting room, quiet tears, the kind that stream down a bit at a time.  My best friend is there, waiting for her appointment.  She goes in, and I have a panic attack while I wait for her.  Someone offers me a tissue.  Not everyone is awful. I hold on to that as best I can.
Just work on yourself.
Because she thinks my body is what's wrong.  Because she thinks people have a right to treat me like crap as long as I'm fat, and that the reasonable solution is to try to make me thin.  Like I'd never tried that in my fucking thirty-seven years.  Like my body is the problem, and not their prejudice.
I manage to keep the tears somewhat tamped down until I get to the car; then the crying is hysterical, helpless.  My friend understands.  She gives me a hug, listens, watches True Blood with me.  When he gets home, my fiance understands.  He holds me for a long time.  We order in; I'm not up to making dinner.
It helps until it's time to sleep, and then my head runs around in circles, hurt, angry, helpless.  Another panic attack.  Not the last.
I have to find a new doctor..

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Guest Post: 10 Reasons Women Might Not Say No

[Note from Abi: This post was written by The Editor at The Daily Libertine, and is being reblogged with permission.  Here is the direct link:   While it applies to women (and people) in general, I think it is a particularly important read for women of size.]

I’m going to use feminine pronouns in this writing, but you should be aware that men, genderqueer folk, and transpersons are also vulnerable to these reasons, sometimes even more so. A lot of these can apply to cis-men too, but I think they apply more often to women, so pardon my pronouns. I’ll try not to trip over myself.
I almost lost my shit last night on someone I am very fond of because he started a sentence with: “I mean, if someone in a public space is yelling NO, then. . .”
I don’t actually know how he was going to end that sentence, but it triggered me anyway and I ended the conversation before I got angry.
This sort of thing frightens men a lot, and they are deeply resistant to the idea that they can rape someone without actually knowing they are doing it. It’s a very scary thought. It seems unfair. But it is a thing that can and does happen. Frequently, rape doesn’t look the way we think it should, with a woman struggling and shouting no and some horrible monster ignoring her refusals and struggles. It’s a lot more subtle than that. Sometimes women never say no at all. Sometimes they have sex with you with grudging consent, which doesn’t quite meet the bar for full consent and in unlucky circumstances can fall beneath the minimal standards necessary for actual consent. Not all of these situations are rape, but some of them are. In most cases, the accounts of such situations are going to vary drastically based on the perspectives of the people involved. It’s entirely possible for a man to say “I’m not a rapist!” and a woman to say “He raped me!” and both of those people to be telling the entire truth as they understand it. This shit is heart-breaking and complicated. You owe it to yourself to understand it better and stop thinking that rape is only rape if it’s forced through a No.
So, without further ado, here are 10 reasons people might not say no to sex they don’t actually want, and how to make sure you’re really getting true consent in each of these situations.
1) They feel obligated to have sex with you
Maybe she’s been teasing you all night and is afraid of being accused of just being a tease, or maybe you’ve been courting her like a BOSS for a few weeks and it just seems like the next step. Just like our society teaches men that if they complete the proper steps they will win the girl at the end, it teaches women that we are prizes to be won and that men deserve us if they properly complete these steps. This is pretty fucked up, but sometimes women feel like they should reward you with sex when you press for it so you will continue treating them well. (Because we have also been taught, often through bad experience, that men who are sexually rejected treat us badly. See #2.) Most women who end up having sex they don’t want for this reason don’t feel raped. They usually just feel sort of tired and relieved. But this is still not good sex, and it’s not really sex the women want. It’s a transactional token, and things can get really bad really fast if you, as a man, learn to expect this kind of transaction for the simple act of treating women well.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Talk about nice things you are going to do for her in the future whether or not sex is had. Explicitly say you are still interested in her and still want her even if sex is not forthcoming in the near future. Maybe this seems less spontaneous and romantic, but if you make a sexual move and her response is “Sure, okay” instead of “OH HELL YES!” you might want to clarify. “Sure, okay” is code for “well, you want this and I feel like I should give it to you for some reason.” What you actually want isEnthusiastic Consent. Aim for that.
2) They are afraid of being treated badly if they reject you
Men in our society do not generally react well to rejection. If you don’t believe me, ask a female friend of yours to show you her okcupid or fetlife or other dating site messages. Even otherwise good men, when their sexual advances are denied, will grump about it or emotionally punish women for rejecting them. Less good men punish women more extremely via emotional manipulation, while others might punish them physically. Sometimes, even in an established sexual relationship, a woman may not want to deal with your grumping, or she might be in a sensitive emotional state for some reason and can’t handle pissing you off even a little bit. So she will have sex with you even if she doesn’t really want to, because she’d rather you be happy with her than upset with her.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: First, learn not to be a grump when you are rejected. I know this is hard because there is some biological stuff that is in play, but just take five minutes after your partner rejects you to re-establish nonsexual intimacy. Snuggle. Kiss her and say that you love her. Pet her hair. Chat with her about something. Do something to show that you are still happy with her even though sex is not being had. Then you can excuse yourself and go take care of your arousal on your own. Or if you have that kind of relationship, you can take care of it in her presence. That’s usually cool. Anything to show her that you don’t consider your sexual gratification her responsibility. It’s all too easy to train your partner to the opposite and never even know you’re doing it. I know. It’s not fair. We live in a fucked up society, man. When it comes to new partners, some of them may have already been trained by other men, so once again, you are looking for Enthusiastic Consent, the difference between “Well, okay, sure” and “HELL YES I WANT ALL THE SEX.”
3) They are afraid to say no
This one is for those of you who think it’s impossible to rape someone in a public space like a kink event or a sex club. If a relationship is already abusive, a woman may know very well that she is going to get hurt or punished if she says no, or even if she just lays there like a wet noodle and lets it happen. If she doesn’t participate, she puts the lie to the man’s need to believe that she wants it, and abusive men get angry when you point out to them, either implicitly or explicitly, that you do not want them. That sex is going to look consensual to an outsider. A friend pointed out to me that economic abuse plays a role here too, which I should know very well. My ex husband used to say to me things like “Why should I care about your needs when you don’t care about mine?” Where my needs were help with the kids and paying off the credit card full of medical bills, and his were sex from me. If I didn’t have sex with him, he would give me the silent treatment and not help with anything for a few days, which was especially terrible because I was ill and needed care. So obviously sometimes it just wasn’t worth it for me to piss him off by refusing all the time, because I paid for it dearly every time I did. (And I also said no a lot, but there were times when I just couldn’t deal so I gave in.)
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT:Well, obviously, don’t punish women for not having sex with you. You probably don’t because you aren’t that kind of asshole. But also, don’t assume that just because sex looks consensual that necessarily means that it is. Don’t assume that if a woman looks like she is enjoying it, or if she orgasms, that that sex is consensual. There may be other things going on, and it becomes especially hard to tell the difference when you mix in a D/s relationship.
4) They are drunk
You already know this one. It’s probably okay to have sex with an established partner when you’ve both been drinking and have already discussed that this sort of thing is okay, but you should never have sex with someone new if they are drunk. Drunk means they cannot truly consent.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Have a nice cuddle and maybe a snog if you feel like living dangerously and are bothEnthusastically Consenting, and wait until you are both sober to have sex. DUH. Be careful about that snog though. Being drunk isn’t a good excuse for sexual assault either.
5) They are in another kind of compromised mental space that makes them unable to truly consent
This includes subspace, ropespace, and at times, heavy emotional states such as grief. A woman in subspace or ropespace will often gladly consent to sex she didn’t want before the scene, and will realize when she comes out of the space that she didn’t actually want it then either. Un-negotiated penetration happened to me once in a rope scene and while it was fine at the time, I was very upset about it when I came back to myself. (Don’t worry, my vanilla friends. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, either hit the Google or skip this one.)
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: DON’T RENEGOTIATE IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE. I swear, I get so pissed off every time I hear about a Dominant or a Top doing this. Once the scene has started, your sub/bottom is in no condition to negotiate or consent. Negotiate sex before the scene starts. If sex is not negotiated, don’t try to get consent mid-scene. Also, keep in mind that just because aftercare is over that doesn’t mean your sub/bottom is completely out of subspace. They’re probably still feeling pretty subservient to you. If sex wasn’t negotiated in advance, DON’T HAVE SEX. Also, keep in mind that this is another kind of rape that looks consensual to someone watching it in a club. You don’t actually know if sex in subspace has been negotiated before the scene. It might not have been. It’s a scary thought, but you may have already seen a woman being raped and just assumed it was part of a totally consensual scene. I’d also go so far as to recommend not having unnegotiated sex with a new partner even post-aftercare. Bottoms and submissives are still in a compromised mental state at this time.
6) They freeze or are too shocked to react
We all want to think we’re secretly ninja action heroes ready to spring into action when the shit hits the fan, but sometimes in an overwhelming emotional situation we actually freeze. Sometimes it takes too long for your brain to catch up to the fact that this horrible thing is actually happening to you, and by the time it does you’ve allowed it to happen for so long that your claim for wanting it to stop seems less valid. Many women who are raped report something like this when they are asked why they didn’t scream or fight back. Also, many women report realizing that the fastest and safest way to make it stop is to give the person raping them an orgasm as quickly as possible so they will stop raping them.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Remember that submission does not equal consent. This is another great time to get up on myEnthusastic Consent soapbox again. If your sexual partner is non-verbal, that’s a pretty good clue they aren’t consenting. (Unless they are in subspace and sex was pre-negotiated before hand. Then have at it.) In the latter case, it can still look very much like consensual sex, because how can it be rape if her tongue is down his throat and her finger is in his ass wiggling like mad? But it can be.
7) You are insistent, and it’s the easiest way to get you to leave them alone
I asked my feminist friends about things to put on this list, and one of them said “Because it’s a faster way to get to sleep than leaving him to pester you for another half hour?” with a silly tongue emoticon indicating she was joking. But really, is that funny? If it’s easier to have sex with a person than to tell them no, then that person is applying undue pressure for sex. Grudging consent isn’t really consent, and it’s not funny.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Don’t badger anyone for sex. No means no. Hints that they are doing something else or not really interested mean no. Trying to go to sleep means no. You may think you’re being funny or cheeky, but most women have been in the position where we will have sex with you just to make you stop bothering us about sex. Be really careful about this, dudes.
8) They are in an emotionally abusive relationship and don’t think they can say no
This one in particular I’ve seen happen to a lot of young transpeople, many of whom feel like nobody will ever love them as the person they really are. Obviously this can happen to cis-women too, but I’ve noticed that this kind of predator is a big problem in the Trans community. Another friend pointed out to me that women of size are also very vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Also, disabled people. Anyone that our culture paints as sexually unappealing in the media and at social events. This kind of ingrained cultural shit can do a number on a person’s self esteem. It’s hard for most of us to feel wanted in the best circumstances, can you imagine what it’s like if your entire culture tells you every day that you’re right and nobody wants you? Basically what happens is that a predator finds someone who is insecure and plays on existing insecurities to convince this person that they aren’t worthy of love, but the predator is doing them the great favor of loving them anyway. Nobody else will ever love them because they have all these flaws, which the predator is happy to list. The victim will happily keep having sex with the predator whether they want it or not because it’s very important to them that this emotionally abusive person continue to love them. They never even think about saying no. They think they owe this person for loving them. They are afraid that if they say no this person will withdraw their love (and they may actually punish the victim by doing so periodically). This looks like consent, and for a time it may even feel like consent, but with therapy and healing and distance from the relationship the victim comes to realize that it was nothing resembling true consent.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Obviously, don’t be emotionally abusive, but those of you reading this probably aren’t. Be aware of your partner’s insecurity levels and your own tendencies toward criticism. You probably aren’t an emotional abuser by accident, but much like some previous examples, it’s possible a previous partner has trained your new partner to these unhealthy behaviors. Continue to keep in mind that just because a relationship looks consensual doesn’t mean that it is. Keep a careful eye on people you think might be in this sort of relationship. Are they being lifted up or put down? Do they talk about how lucky they are that so-and-so would love a horrible person like them? Is their partner taking advantage of their insecurities?
9) They did say no, they just didn’t use the actual word, so you pretended to misunderstand
I present this article in it’s entirety to address this issue.
Also, keep in mind that in many cultures direct refusals are considered the height of rudeness. If you are dating someone whose first language is not English, you need to be extra careful to pay attention to subtle refusals: things like “I don’t want to mess up my clothes” or “it’s too cold in here” or even just an attempt to change the conversational topic away from sex.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Read that article and think about it. Stop thinking that if a woman doesn’t scream no she hasn’t already said it in half a dozen different ways. Stop blaming women for not communicating “no” clearly because more often than not it’s entirely clear and men just pretend not to hear it. If you are dating someone from another culture, have an explicit conversation about how they are comfortable presenting refusals. It may not be as direct and bold as Americans expect.
10) They have a mental or physical illness that makes them unable to provide clear consent
I have a friend whose wife has Dissociative Identity Disorder (what most of us call Multiple Personalities). One of her personalities is a pretty fucked up teenager, who one day decided to pretend to be the main personality and seduce her husband. She revealed herself right as he was climaxing. To say this fucked with his head is an understatement, but then he also had to confess to his wife later, when she had truly returned, that he had had sex with her as another one of her personalities, which was a hard limit for their relationship. Fortunately she understood, but of course she felt victimized. So did he. There is no villain here; one could argue both people were raped. That’s a really scary thought, right? For a less extreme example, a clinically depressed person in the throes of depressive apathy may really believe they don’t care at all if someone sticks it in them. Sure. Whatever. They can’t feel anything, so why not? Anyone with a high level of social awkwardness might just be following a relationship script and doing what they think comes next whether they actually want that sex or not. Someone with environmental sensitivity issues may be too overwhelmed by the sensations of sex and intimacy to process them properly. On the physical side, frontal lobe damage (which can occur from things like undiagnosed meningitis and isn’t always as obvious as overt blunt force trauma or a piece of shrapnel through the forehead) can impair a person’s impulse control much like alcohol. A simple partial seizure isn’t always obvious to an outside observer. Syphilis can actually increase libido, because disease is crafty that way and wants to spread itself. There are a million different ways mental or physical illness can affect a person’s ability to consent. Brains are complicated, yo.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: To a certain extent, some of the responsibility for this is on the person with the illness to disclose. If a person with DID has sex with you and does not disclose their illness, and something bad happens, that is definitely not on you because you had no way of knowing. On the other hand, if you’re dating someone with severe depression you probably already know that and should take it into account. Also, realize that no, your magical penis cannot cure them and isn’t going to make them feel better, even if it appears they are slightly more cheery post orgasm because biology is like that. Not everyone needs to disclose a mental or physical illness for a one time sexual encounter, but if you are dating or playing with someone on an ongoing basis it’s a good idea to sit down and have a talk about mental or physical conditions that may impair their ability to play or consent. Ask if they have any. Make sure they know you aren’t going to judge them.