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When does ‘yes’ not mean ‘yes’?

Trigger warning: This post includes content that may be triggering for some readers.

In my early twenties, I was convinced there was something very wrong with my vagina.

I sought the advice of several doctors and tried multiple treatments for years to no avail. One GP had me convinced I was being plagued by a particularly aggressive case of thrush that wouldn’t relent despite several rounds of antibiotic treatment, while another insisted the pain was the result of an over-active imagination.

But try as I might, I couldn’t get rid of the nagging, sharp stabbing sensation I had every time I had sex with my boyfriend. At times it was so bad I’d resort to sitting on the toilet for hours after sex, bent over in pain, clutching my arms around my legs for comfort as I willed the agony to end.

Eventually it would disappear, and I’d be able to move, speak and function again. But it was always a temporary reprieve, as the knife-twisting sensation would rear its ugly head again as soon as we next did the deed.

I was tested for STDs (despite always using barrier protection and having had the same partner for a year) and everything in between. The tests always came back negative.

I finally became convinced I was going insane. Perhaps the last doctor was right. Perhaps I really was imagining the pain. Or perhaps this was just what sex felt like? It’d been years since I’d been intimate with anyone else and that was in the drunken throes of teenage college passion, perhaps it too had been painful and I’d simply nullified it from my memory?

But when the relationship ended some years later and I finally worked up the courage to have sex again, my mystery pain had suddenly vanished.

It took until I hit my thirties to realize why.

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Going through a rough patch with my family and feeling emotionally distant, I’d told my boyfriend I didn’t want to have sex, that I just needed a break, to reconfigure and get back to myself again. What I needed wasn’t sexual contact, it was an offering of supportive words and a reassuring arm around me. And for a while, that was what I got. But when I didn’t return to my effervescent self quickly enough, things began to get awkward in the bedroom.

As we’d unfurl the sheets of an evening he’d ask me, “Can’t we just have a quickee?”, a half smirk painted across his face.

I’d smile back and tell him I wasn’t in a place to be intimate and he’d start to lay on the guilt. Telling me how I’d deprived him, how his sexual frustrations were starting to cause him physical pain and what a bad partner I was for not fulfilling his most basic need.

“It’s been weeks now,” he’d say, starting to slide the spaghetti strap from my satin nightie down my shoulder.

“What if I’m just quick? You’ll enjoy it once we start.” His wry grin had started to look ominous, I knew what it meant.

The more he pressured and guilted me, the more distant I felt from him, and the less I felt like becoming sexually aroused was even a faint possibility. And so, I began to shut down – going to bed late when he was already asleep, getting up early before he could wake and alert me to his ‘morning wood’ which was in need of relieving, and forming a barrier between us at night, pushing the pillow behind my back so his wandering hands couldn’t find their way to me.

It only amplified the frequency and intensity of his requests.

“I can’t be expected to wait forever. Why don’t you just lay there and let me get on top? You won’t even have to do anything. Come on, this is unfair.”

A thought gnawed at the back of my brain. Was I being a bad girlfriend? I’d never really had a serious partner before. Sacrifice is part of all relationships, perhaps this was one sacrifice I needed to make. And perhaps if I gave him what he wanted for now, he’d give me the time I needed to get in a better place to be vulnerable to him again.

“Okay,” I said.

It was the only word to come out of my mouth for the next hour, and the only one he needed. After we’d finished I ran to the bathroom and immediately hunched over the toilet in agony. My insides burned like they’d been sandpapered. After half an hour, there was a faint knock on the other side of the bathroom door.

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“You alright?” he asked.

“You’ve been in there for ages.”

I told him how the sex had hurt, how it was still hurting an hour afterwards, and his voice softened, tinged with remorse.

“I’m sorry. Hope I didn’t hurt you.”

I fixed my hair and pyjamas back into place and returned to the bedroom another 15 minutes later when the pain had finally subsided and crawled into bed beside him where he was asleep, knotted in sweaty sheets. This time it wasn’t like returning to bed after we’d had sex in the early days of our relationship, throwing my half-undressed body across him so he could wrap his arms around me and we could fall asleep together, both with smiles plastered across our faces.

This time something felt wrong. There was an unsettling, rancid feeling in the pit of my stomach that kept me awake. I listened to him sleep from the other side of the bed for the rest of the night, wedging the pillow behind my back.

For the next year, the same scene replayed itself like a bad movie on repeat. I’d crawl into bed and he’d immediately begin his monologue.

“You never want to have sex with me anymore. I can’t be in a relationship where my needs aren’t fulfilled. Why don’t we just do it now? You’ll enjoy it if you just relax.”

Then, like clockwork, I’d relent and give the only word he needed to hear to be okay with what he was about to do, “Okay.”

Half an hour later I’d be in the bathroom, white-knuckling the toilet seat, squeezing my eyes tightly shut as I willed for the dreaded stabbing, burning sensation to relent. He’d often knock on the door and ask me if I was alright, eventually suggesting there may be something wrong with me and encouraging me to see my doctor, which I did obligingly.

But there was nothing wrong with me. Sex never hurt before that time, and it never hurt after it. The reason it was so painful, was, as one wise gyno finally pointed out, that I wasn’t turned on. It was a question no one had ever asked, and as such, I’d grown to assume was completely irrelevant. The uncomfortable answer to the question as to why I wasn’t turned on any longer having sex with my boyfriend was, that I didn’t want it. Almost as if to protect myself, my body was seizing up every time he touched me, causing a rush of sharp pain through my pelvis every time I was penetrated.

Sex had become like a cheap at-home ab roller and my partner the relentless infomercial that eventually coerced me into handing over my credit card details to own it, only to later discover my three instalments of $39.99 added up to something no amount of use would give me the washboard stomach promised on the ad. But like the fitness contraption gathering dust under my bed, I’d assumed the consequences were ultimately mine to bear as a result of signing on the dotted line with my verbal consent.

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When most of us think of rape, we imagine the stuff of nightmares. Dark alleys, grotesque, lurking predators and screams of protest. And in many scenarios, this is a horrific reality.

However the kind of acts we’re less likely to classify as rape are when it occurs with someone familiar, like a partner. This is despite the fact current statistical data shows four out of five sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. We’re even less certain about classifying it as rape if the woman has used the word, ‘yes’ or no words at all and simply allowed the man to go about his way, is drunk, or under the influence of drugs. And here’s where the idea of consent gets murky.

We’re all familiar with the anti-rape catchphrase of the modern era, that ‘No means no’, but far less resolute when it comes to the topic of coercion – the idea that sometimes ‘yes’ can also mean ‘no’, or that no words are needed at all for it to be clear a woman isn’t able to freely commit to sex.

In September 2014, Californian Governor, Jerry Brown signed a bill making California the first state to actually clarify exactly what is – and more poignantly, isn’t – involved in the actual act of giving consent. Put in place in a bid to remove ambiguity from sexual assault investigations, the law requires ‘affirmative consent’, going further to state consent shouldn’t be considered the mere utterance of the word ‘yes’, or the lack of resistance during a sexual encounter.

According to the Californian law, ‘Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.’

However the legal definitions of rape and consent differ greatly around the world. In Sweden, the issue of consent is absent from the legal definition of rape, which is focused on the amount of violence used and exploitation of someone in a ‘helpless’ state such as whilst asleep or intoxicated. In England, sexual consent is defined as someone agreeing ‘by choice’, and possessing ‘the freedom and capacity to make that choice.’

In Australia, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that a person didn’t consent to sex, and that ‘the defendant was aware at the time that the victim was not consenting’. This means that the perpetrator’s mental state and knowledge plays an equally critical role in determining whether or not a victim was consenting, and as such, if they held the belief the other person was willing, even if they weren’t, a sexual assault has not occurred in the eyes of the law.

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Though definitions differ throughout the US, rape is typically considered as, ‘The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.’. The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with the relevant state statute.

However, even when a sexual assault meets the legal definition of rape, nearly two-thirds of victims don’t label it as such. Consequently, sexual assault is one of the most difficult offences to successfully prosecute, with an estimated 85 per cent of cases never coming to the attention of the criminal justice system, and of those offences actually reported, only a small proportion proceed to trial, with an even smaller percentage resulting in a successful conviction.

According to a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women in the US have been a victim of rape. Prevalence estimates for sexual coercion are typically much higher, suggesting many women who’ve been coerced into sex don’t think of themselves as victims of crime.

And public perception of exactly what does and doesn’t constitute rape hasn’t been aided by the slew of misleading and confusing comments made by public figures on the topic in the past decade. In a 2012 interview with KTVI-TV on his stance on abortion in cases of pregnancy as a result of rape, Republican Todd Akin said, “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin’s comment was later backed up by then American Family Association director of Issues Analysis, Bryan Fischer, who chimed in, “[A] real, genuine rape, a case of forcible rape [would] make it impossible for her or difficult in that particular circumstance to conceive a child… There’s a very delicate and complex mix of hormones that take place, that are released, in a woman’s body, and if that gets interfered with, it may make it impossible for her or difficult in that particular circumstance to conceive a child…that’s all Todd Akin is saying…and he’s absolutely right about that.”

British MP George Galloway added further obscurity to the term by publicly stating having sex with someone without asking, or while they’re asleep doesn’t constitute rape.

“Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion. Some people believe that when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes, and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you’re already in the sex game with them… It is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning.”

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And whilst President Obama has weighed in, responding, “I don’t know how these guys come up with these ideas. Let me make a very simple proposition: rape is rape. It is a crime. And so these various distinctions about rape don’t make too much sense to me,” British justice secretary Kenneth Clarke took time to draw a distinction between date rape and “serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman” in a 2011 interview with BBC Radio 5 , where it was put to him that “rape is rape”, to which he responded, “No, it is not.”

It’s no wonder so many women are confused about what constitutes consensual sex. Add to that decades of ingrained cultural ideology that a woman’s role is to serve her partner, and you have a recipe for male sexual entitlement and spousal submission. Unsurprisingly, the notion that sex can be forced through coercion is rarely discussed. And for young women going through their early twenties, desperate to fit in, be accepted and please their partners like I was, the definition of that term is even further flung.

According to Florida Institute Of Technology’s Sexual Coercion Awareness and Prevention document, sexual coercion is, ‘the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will’ and can include ‘persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused.’

This means something as simple as guilting someone (“If you really loved me, you’d sleep with me”) or threatening (“I’m going to leave you if you don’t start having sex with me”) falls under the definition of sexual coercion, that is, sex that is garnered by means of manipulation or pressure, and as such, isn’t given freely.

And here’s why the idea of ‘affirmative consent’ is so crucial. Instead of focusing on the fact that ‘no means no,’ affirmative consent acknowledges the need for ongoing consent at all levels of sexual activity to ensure coercion isn’t taking place, regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history or current activity. (Read: grinding on the dancefloor does not equal an automatic invitation for sex.) It also acknowledges a woman’s power to change her mind at any stage during a sexual encounter and the fact that physical cues (like the fact a woman is responsive and repeatedly vocalizing her enjoyment) are just as critical as hearing the word ‘yes’.

I never told my boyfriend what he was doing at the time was the cause of my pain, or the fact that it made me feel violated, that I resented him for so effortlessly nullifying every ‘no’ I’d said in the lead-up in exchange for a single ‘okay’, a word he saw as a green light to ignoring every other signal I’d given him that I didn’t want to have sex. Perhaps it’s the reason, many years later I found myself repeating the same sequence of events, offering myself up to a new partner when I wasn’t emotionally or physically in the mood, only to be surprised when he pulled away.

“Why’d you stop? Don’t you want to have sex?” I asked him, concerned I wasn’t pleasing him.

“Of course I do. I always do. But not when you’re not into it. That feels wrong. Let’s just have sex when you’re ready, I’d rather wait,” he replied.

It was the first time I realized a partner who truly loved and respected me would let me own my own body, rather than demand access to it at whim.

Sexual assault is one of the least discussed and understood of all crimes, complicated by the fact it’s largely misinterpreted in mass media, invalidated and associated with shame. And that scares me. Because if we aren’t willing to talk about what a truly consensual sexual encounter should look and feel like, how can we expect young women to go forth into their twenties and thirties with the understanding that their bodies are their own, and as such, what they do with them should be their choice, and theirs alone?

 Comment: Do you think the tide is starting to turn on our understanding of rape?