Warning: The following includes descriptions of domestic abuse which some readers may find upsetting.
This is an extract from Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom and what can we do about it by Rachel Thompson.
Philippa* was in an abusive relationship with a man when she was 21 years old. She would have sex with her boyfriend in order to make him stop verbally abusing her and physically attacking her. ‘He never raped me, and he didn’t try to make me have sex when I’d told him I didn’t want to,’ she explains.
‘However, I did have a fair amount of sex that I fucking hated, and I did it because he’d fall asleep after coming. I worked out after a while that just to make him shut the fuck up and fuck off and to escape this horrific situation I was in with an angry violent man screaming in my face and standing over me, hitting me and waving knives at me for the rest of the night, that if I could get him to fuck then he’d go AWAY (at least temporarily) and I’d get a break. So lil 21-year-old me is having to try to “seduce” this guy I hate, while he is calling me a slut and pushing me or whatever the drama is about this time, and lie there and let him do it, then I get to have a break.’
Philippa managed to escape the relationship by causing the man to break up with her. ‘One night he beat me up pretty bad, more than just the odd punch here or there like usual, and I had the thought “wow, I think he is going to kill me one day”, so I was so horrible and cold to him over the next couple of months that eventually he wanted to break up with me. I knew it would be easier that way than if I left him; once it was over it would be properly done instead of five years of being stalked or whatever.’
Her plan worked, and he broke up with her. Two of her girlfriends moved in with her, and her life turned around dramatically. ‘I suddenly went from having a horrific, shit life to a really fun, nurturing, happy one,’ she says.
Reflecting on her experience, Philippa doesn’t think the experience has scarred her too much when it comes to sex. ‘Obviously I had nightmares for years about the whole relationship, and even now I still get freaked out when movie characters are like him, or if drunk men start yelling in my vicinity, but at least he didn’t destroy my sexuality or ruin it for me, which I can totally imagine happening to people in similar situations.’
Our focus on the yes/no consent binary misses the full context of sexual experiences.
If anything, Philippa needed to reclaim her sexuality as her own. ‘I really treasure my sexuality/sensuality/sexiness now as golden. In fact, I did at the time, which made me so additionally angry and hate him so much for taking that and turning it into something gross.’
Philippa has read a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the years following her experience, but has not tried therapy yet. Overall, she feels she has done really well on her own, but thinks she might go to therapy one day. Philippa’s experience is not an isolated one. More than four in ten women live in fear of refusing a partner’s sexual demands, and feel they have no choice but to agree, according to a UN global study of 52 countries.
What Philippa is describing here is unwanted sex — sex that’s consensual, but not wanted or desired. As humans, we have sex for all kinds of different reasons. One study actually identified 237 different expressed reasons people engage in sex. Those reasons ranged from altruistic – like wanting the person to feel good about themselves – to vengeful – ‘I wanted to get back at my partner for having cheated on me’ – to the basic human feeling of wanting to experience physical pleasure. Unwanted sex can occur in the context of a healthy relationship. However, unwanted sex can also happen as part of wider sociocultural factors, including class, socioeconomic status, gender and race, leading to sexual boundaries being violated. One in twenty women have had an unwanted consensual experience, according to one study.
A question that is often asked when women talk about bad sexual experiences and grey areas is: ‘Did she say yes?’ Once we’ve had our answer – which in this case is yes – the conversation will end. We feel satisfied with that yes and ask no further questions.
Laina Bay-Cheng is a professor at the University of Buffalo whose work studies interlocked misogyny, racism, and economic injustice on young women's sexual lives. She says this focus on the yes/no consent binary misses the full context of the experience. ‘If we’re only using “yes” as the metric for whether sex was OK or not, we are missing the fact that many women are saying yes for reasons that have to do with poverty and violence and a lack of adequate resources,’ she explains. ‘I think it’s a problem if we just want to know “Did she say yes or not?” so that we can then walk away and clean our hands and be like, “Great, we have nothing to worry about.” I find that simplistic and really objectionable.’ Bay-Cheng, who is an expert on the impact of social injustice on girls’ and women’s sexual lives, says the question instead needs to be ‘Sure, she consented, but why?’
There is another problem in how we interpret stories like Philippa’s. Some may read her account and think, ‘If only she knew she didn’t have to consent to that.’ But, in our misguided instinct to problematise Philippa’s behaviour, we would be overlooking the context of the situation. ‘When people talk about unwanted sex, they sometimes say “what can we do to help her understand she doesn’t need to consent” or “she doesn’t have to say yes to these older guys”,’ says Bay-Cheng. ‘Well, actually, if that’s the safest place she has to stay for the night, then actually, she’s not wrong.’ Rather than criticising the choices that women make, we need to focus instead on the context in which those decisions were made. ‘It’s a real problem when you tell a woman that she made the wrong choice, when in fact she made absolutely the savviest, most strategic choice she could. Really, what we should be dissatisfied with is that she didn’t have better choices in the first place. That’s where our interventions should be – not in correcting her.’
‘Strategic consent’ is a term coined by Bay-Cheng to broaden our understanding that sexual consent is not just about sex, ‘and that for many girls and women, sex is a necessary – and sometimes the only – way to access resources and pursue other goals’. In strategic consent, a woman may have consented to have a roof over her head for the night, or for safety, stability, and perhaps even the promise of a better life.
‘The reality is that for young women who contend with some combination of misogyny, racism, economic injustice and age-based restrictions, sex is often not about what or whom they find attractive or exciting or pleasurable,’ says Bay-Cheng in her definition of the term emailed to me. ‘Instead, sex and consent are based on what’s necessary, called for, expedient or safest (even if just in the moment). In other words, disadvantaged young women often don’t have the luxury of consent that is only about sex; their consent has to be strategic.’
For many girls and women, sex is a necessary – and sometimes the only – way to access resources and pursue other goals.
In the more than ten years I’ve been reporting on sex and gender, I’ve seen very little coverage – if any – on the topic of unwanted sex. I wanted to include the topic in this book because I believe that women’s experience of unwanted sex within the context of the patriarchy merits discussion. Scholars are divided on the topic – some normalise it, while others problematise it. But unwanted sex is not a synonym for rape or coercion.
So, how should we feel about unwanted sex? ‘Where I come down on unwanted sex is that it is normal insofar as you’re talking about statistical norms,’ explains Laina Bay-Cheng. ‘So there are three ways of defining nor- mal – there’s healthy normal, there’s socially acceptable normal, and then there’s statistical normal. So unwanted sex, it’s statistically normal for men and it’s especially prevalent among women.’
As for whether unwanted sex is healthy normal and socially acceptable normal, Bay-Cheng says that’s up for debate. ‘What I would say is that consenting to something even if it’s normal to consent to it statistically speaking, in the midst of power differences, either within the relationship or surrounding the relationship, that is not a good thing.’
Beyond the context of sexual scenarios, we often consent to things we don’t want to do. At work, we might say yes to a project because we want our boss to think we’re amenable. You might also say yes to eating at a restaurant you don’t like because your friend wants to go there. The problem with unwanted sex lies in a wider context of systemic power imbalances. ‘It’s the larger context of gender, racial and class inequalities that get in the way and that make it dangerous,’ Bay-Cheng concludes.
One might be tempted to ask the somewhat patronising question ‘How do we tell women they don’t have to consent to sex they don’t want or desire?’ But women’s behaviour isn’t the problem here – the real issue actually lies in the misogynistic, racist, unequal culture we all live in.
Despair is a natural response when reading stories like these, but our energy is better channelled into fighting the systems of oppression that leave indelible scars on our sexual culture – and crucially, on human beings. Protecting women and marginalised genders within a patriarchal white supremacist structure isn’t going to work – we have to work towards dismantling the infrastructure that enables such violence.
*Not her real name
Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom and what can we do about it by Rachel Thompson is published in trade paperback by Square Peg, Vintage on 26th August 2021.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse of any kind, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. All calls are free and completely confidential.