It’s not rape if a woman does it

Last month, a woman wrote in to Dan Savage’s advice column asking what she should do about an incident between her and her boyfriend:

I accidentally raped my boyfriend. What happened was I awoke to find my boyfriend rubbing up against me. After a little while, he pulled my hand, motioning for me to get on top of him to have sex, as he has done many times before. I obliged, and all was well, until he apparently woke up and pushed me off of him. I did not have any indication that he was asleep, since he was an active participant the entire time and was NOT lying there like a dead fish. In the morning, he expressed his displeasure about being woken up with sex. He said that he felt really violated. I apologized and explained my understanding of the situation. Now he says he feels really weird about what happened and he can’t stomach me touching him. What should I do?

A reasonable person would tell her to apologize and talk with her boyfriend to find out what he recalls. A reasonable person would tell her to understand his feelings and perhaps try some counseling to see if they would work things out. A reasonable person would tell her to respect her boyfriend’s feelings. A reasonable person would also tell her to check next time before jumping on top of a guy, and to get a verbal “yes” from him.

Savage does not do that. Instead, he tells her:

You did not rape your boyfriend.

You didn’t ask me to weigh in on whether or not you raped your boyfriend, RAPIST, but I felt obligated to toss that out there. Your boyfriend may or may not be a sexsomniac—this is just one incident—but he initiated routine (for you guys) sexual activity in his sleep, and you reciprocated. Once he woke up and you both realized what was going on, you immediately stopped. Mistakes were made, RAPIST, but no one was raped.

As for what you should do, well, I think you should dump the guilt-tripping, blame-shifting motherfucker. But if you want to keep seeing this guy, RAPIST, you need a simple way to determine whether he’s fully awake when he seems to be initiating sex in the middle of the night. Two or three hard slaps across the face might do the trick.

Jesse Bering, a psychological scientist, is less concerned about the boyfriend and more concerned about the woman’s future fear of initiating sleep sex:

“In light of this experience, RAPIST may find herself feeling a bit gun-shy about any middle-of-the-night sex initiated by her boyfriend or any future boyfriends,” says Bering. “After all, how can she know if he’s fully awake and innocently in the mood, or just having another episode? Here’s how: She should have an agreement with her boyfriend that, from now on, he will ‘flick’ his penis a few times for her by clenching his PC (pubococcygeus) muscle on initiating nocturnal sex.”

And how will that help?

“Penile flicking is an intentional action,” explains Bering, and one that cannot be performed by a sleepfucking sexsomniac at his partner’s request. “It’s a subtle, conscious signal to assure you that you’re not dealing with a lascivious zombie.”

Of course, the woman could always ask if he is awake, but why use words when having the boyfriend do a couple of kegels is easier.

However, Jill of Feministe manages to trump that:

Dan tells her that she didn’t actually rape her boyfriend. And obviously the word “rape” has a lot of baggage and by definition requires a level of guilty-mindedness (“mens rea” or intention to harm or knowledge that you might be causing harm or whatever you want to call it) that this woman did not have.

Let us stop there. We do not know the woman did not have the intent to harm or knowledge that she might be causing harm. All we have is her claim that she thought he was awake. She could be lying, which plenty of rapists do. Even if we assume she did not intend to rape her boyfriend, under the law, simply because she did not intend to commit rape does not mean it is not rape. The person could be charged with a lesser degree of rape or some type of felony sexual assault.

But there is a simpler reason why Jill’s comment rings hollow:

I don’t buy the oft-repeated story of the accidental rapist who just didn’t know that the woman he was with didn’t want to have sex, and he had sex anyway, and then she said it was rape but it was all just a big misunderstanding. That… doesn’t happen. Or, it surely has happened because we live in a wild world and weird unusual stuff happens, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as rape apologists would like you to believe.

She is right, of course. It is incredibly unlikely that someone accidentally rapes someone else. Sex is such an intimate act that one would expect people to know who they are having sex with and whether that person consented or was able to consent.


This, though, is one of those weird wild world scenarios. I’m not sure it even matters if we call it “rape” or not (and it doesn’t sound like the boyfriend does call it that). He was sexually violated; whether she intended to or not, that’s the fact of what happened. Or it’s possible that Dan is right and the dude is being a manipulative jackass. But I think that probably dude was asleep and woke up to his girlfriend having sex with him and freaked out. And… that’s a fair reaction. It doesn’t make her a bad person or a rapist (she was awake and reasonably believed he was awake and consenting), but it also doesn’t make him not-violated or not-raped just because she didn’t mean it.

Hold on. Jill just wrote, “I don’t buy the oft-repeated story of the accidental rapist who just didn’t know that the woman he was with didn’t want to have sex, and he had sex anyway, and then she said it was rape but it was all just a big misunderstanding. That… doesn’t happen.” She does not buy that a man could accidentally rape a woman, but she does buy that a woman could “sexually violate” a man, which oddly enough does not make the woman a bad person or rapist because, based solely on the word of a woman no reason to lie, she was awake and reasonably believed her boyfriend was awake and consenting?

Even Jill does not seem to buy this because she ends her comment with, “but it also doesn’t make him not-violated or not-raped just because she didn’t mean it.”

Wait, Jill wrote before that the woman is not a rapist and that the man was just sexually violated, which is apparently less bad than rape.

I am going to pull a Lawrence O’Donnell and assume that there is an unspoken reason why Jill is flip-flopping all over the place: it is not rape if a woman does it. No matter what a woman does, as long as she says she did not mean anything by it, there is no harm. At least Jill is being consist in her excuse-making apologism.

If you are wondering whether this kind of silly logic is limited just to one person, it is not. There was this exchange:

chava: I think the guy can feel violated/weird without it having been rape. A lot depends on their relationship, previous relationships, what sort of boundaries they had set up around explicit consent…

Oh, wait. Most people just don’t talk about consent and hope for the best. *facepalm.*

macavitykitsune: I think the guy can feel violated/weird without it having been rape.

Bagelsan: Agreed. I think it could even perhaps be “rape” without her being a “rapist”, if that makes sense.

There was also this gem from Kristen J:

I wish we could fully separate the idea of culpability from harm. If he experienced it as rape, then from his perspective he was raped. Period. But that he experienced it as rape is unrelated to whether she committed rape. She didn’t. She thought they had consensual sex. Those are not inconsistent ideas.

And it gets better and better as you read through the comments. People accuse the boyfriend of sleep-sexing, therein making it his fault that his girlfriend raped him. People accuse the boyfriend of being the rapist for rubbing against his girlfriend while she is asleep, regardless of whether he was also asleep. People accuse other people of victim-blaming while insisting that the woman is not rapist and did not really do anything wrong.

But my personal favorite is this by Amanda Marcotte:

It’s…..possible that he was asleep.

The likelier possibility is he was awake the whole time and lying about it in order to screw with her sense of reality. Additionally, he can make her feel both guilty and humiliated, putting him in a Position of power over her.

Gas lighting is the likelier explanation. Yes, it’s a weird, elaborate mind fuck, but hey, it’s not weirder than the guy whose girlfriend wrote to Captain Awkward becaus he’s controlling and humiliating her by not letting her use their bathroom.

Of course. Men raped by women pretend to be victims so they can make women feel guilty and humiliated while empowering themselves over women. That is one elaborate mind fuck, one that requires a person to keep up the act for months or years, presumably staying awake for hours on end at night waiting for the woman to make her move so that the man can get up in the morning and say, “Gotcha, bitch!”

And if you thought that Marcotte was just being sarcastic in her usual ineffective, unfunny way… no:

Statistically speaking, abuse is exponentially more likely than that level of sleepwalking. I’d give him more benefit of the doubt if he wasn’t making her feel bad for responding enthusiastically to a man who—may I remind you—woke her up in the middle of the night for sex. If a woman was like, “Hell yeah, fuck me!” like this guy basically was, and then said she was violated later, she would also be a jerk pulling a head trip. The demand that he read his mind and somehow know that he wanted the opposite of what he claimed in the moment is pretty classic gas lighting.

Like I said, it’s possible. But the combination of both the oddness of the incident and his blaming her for taking enthusiastic consent as enthusiastic consent suggests that the likelier explanation is he woke her up for sex, she went with it, and he decided to concoct a strange story that conveniently means she feels guilty and will likely be afraid to set boundaries with him in the future, out of guilt. Statistically speaking, about 100 to 1,000 times more likely, I’d say.

There is no demand for this woman to read the man’s mind; all she has to do is look at him to see if he is asleep or not. If she is not sure, she can call his name. Yet, Marcotte wants to pretend that this man is playing out some grand scheme to oppress his girlfriend by pretending to be a rape victim.

It goes on and on from there, with feminists accusing each other of victim-blaming and apologism, even as they ironically play the “what counts as rape” game.

What I think is most ironic is that this is the very kind of thing these feminists rail against men for. This is the kind of thing they think men’s rights activists sit around doing. This is the kind of thing they think men plan out in order to oppress women.

If the situation were reversed, they would have torn Savage a wider asshole. They would have accused the boyfriend of rape and claimed that he lied about her initiating. They would have accused Jesse Bering of making up a sexual sleep disorder to further “rape culture’s” control over women. They would have searched the internet for a single, random comment on a men’s rights blog that argued that what happened was not rape and used it as proof that all men’s rights advocates are rape apologists. And at no point would they have quibbled over whether the man’s intent mattered.

In the end, it comes down to a simple notion: it is not rape if a woman does it.

26 thoughts on “It’s not rape if a woman does it

  1. Your comment about how feminists think men’s rights activists sit around debate what is rape is spot on. That’s the mental gloss they need to convince themselves they are fighting for equality. Although it’s a really piss poor way to do it- assuming that MRA’s debate what is rape (they don’t) – how would that justify feminists doing it

    Really it’s just the cart before the horse, as they want to release a woman from culpability. They have a really difficult time accepting a woman exercising her agency in a negative way – or more precisely a way they wouldn’t. A undercurrent that runs through the comments is: if I wouldn’t do that- then why would she? So the answer must be she didn’t rape- because good people don’t rape. Or the easiest way, which is to blame someone else- here, it is a man. That’s a sweet spot because it alleviates them having to admit that a woman (or themselves) could do wrong.

  2. I was not having that kind of rape erasure… not that I expect cookies for it, just saying: Some people who like to consider themselves allies do care about this stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m a survivor too.

  3. 1. I definitely believe that with the usual feminist analysis, the man was raped, the woman is a rapist, Jessica Valenti is a rape apologist, and Amanda Marcotte a very creepy likely rapist encouragist of rape culture.

    2. I definitely believe that the usual feminist analysis (and how our laws are written) is absolutely wrong. Jebus, in what world should his signs, in the middle of the night, between two people that do have consensual sex be not a sign of consensual sex? Is that really the world we want to be in? And yes, if he feels violated he should be told to fuck off. But similarly, so should the woman that somehow awakes brightly in the middle sex that claims she could not have, no way every, consented, and especially the woman that says, “I drank alcohol! I was raped!.

    3. I suspect an actual scientist would be happy to explain there are different levels of sleep and it’s quite likely for a person to initiate sex and then awaken to a greater degree and not realize his /her actions, or for a person to consent to sex or at a deep level of sleep and then awaken and not realize she had consented while in a deeper sleep.

    4. It’s a fucked up biological world with no post mortem details logs of the crashes. It’s not binary. It’s not single threaded. It’s not predictable or monotonic. Get over it humans. If you don’t want to wake up to sleep sex, sleep in your own bedroom and lock the fucking door. If you do willingly sleep in the same bed as someone, get over the horrible possibility that they may do something or you may do something or you both may do something you don’t fucking remember in the morning.

    By the way, none of the above has the slightest damn thing to do with marital rape.


  4. If a woman initiates sex with her boyfriend in her sleep, his reciprocation is not rape, provided he doesn’t know she’s asleep. He probably wouldn’t realize, especially if she’d never had a bout of sexsomnia before. If they had a history of waking each other up for sex, there would be no reason for him to think anything was amiss. Despite what you see in cartoons, people with parasomnias usually have their eyes open. They can have conversations and perform complex tasks. There are even documented cases of sleep driving.

    I see no reason to doubt the letter writer’s story. She could be lying, anyone could, but her story is perfectly plausible. By the same token, she could be telling the truth and her boyfriend could be gaslighting her or lashing out at her because he’s embarrassed about losing control. We can’t know.

  5. Those comment threads are depressing. I guaranteed some of those feminists wouldn’t say a damn word if it were a male being the aggressor, but ohhh noooo females can’t rape. I’m glad to see other feminists calling them out on their shit.

    That Amanda Marcotte….is she a bigot? Something is very strange with her.

  6. Lindsay, can you differentiate between this case and the “classic” case of gray rape: two adults are at a party, making out enthusiastically, both drunk, stumble into bed, wake up the next morning, the woman says she doesn’t remember what happened, the man says he had consent, enthusiastic consent, and the feminists cry rape.

    Do you think RAINN is wrong to write:

    “I was asleep or unconscious when it happened – does that mean it isn’t rape?

    Rape can happen when the victim was unconscious or asleep. If you were asleep or unconscious, then you didn’t give consent. And if you didn’t give consent, then it is rape.

    I was drunk or they were drunk – does that mean it isn’t rape?

    Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse – or an alibi. The key question is still: did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape.”

    The rapist checklist:

    “1. You are a rapist if you get a girl drunk and have sex with her.

    2. You are a rapist if you find a drunk girl and have sex with her.

    3. You are a rapist if you get yourself drunk and have sex with her. Your drunkeness is no excuse.

    4. If you are BOTH drunk you may still be a rapist.

    5. If she’s alternating between puking her guts out and passing out in the bed then you’re a rapist.

    6. If she’s sleeping and you have sex with her you’re a rapist.”

    Or the 10 Top Tips to end Rape

    7: Don’t forget: it’s not sex with someone who’s asleep or unconscious – it’s RAPE!

  7. It is fascinating how quickly so many women are ready to vilify the sleeping man and question his character while assuming the best intentions for the conscious woman – based solely on gender. Once again, a female rapist is defended, excused and damn near celebrated.

    As a male survivor of a female rapist, I’m quite tired of the tortured leaps of logic that some women will employ to excuse the bad behavior of other women.

  8. I am starting to believe we are witnessing a giant bait-n-switch from feminists when it comes to the definitions of rape. I can’t help but wonder if this bait-n-switch is caused by the realization: “Wait, that would make me/women rapists also”. Hence we get articles shaming men who won’t do certain sex acts (questioning their motives for saying no), comments like Marcotte’s who more than suggests that the victimized man in reality is abusing the woman (who fucked him while he was asleep) and so on.

  9. Oh – Isn’t Marcotte a gem! … also certifiable – but a gem! It’s just not clear how her facets have been cut and just how many faces she has.

    Isn’t in terrible when girls just can’t go round rapin their boy freinds without someone like Marcotee objectin – changing reality for her own Blogging pleasure – telling the woman she does not know her own mind and even lacks agency – and he’s so unmanly as to not just lie back and take it like a man and he’s wrong to be upset – but he has to be a control freakery, gas-lightin, lying son a bitch anyway ….. cos Marcotte would and even could have it no other way!

    I have to wonder why she is allowed out on the net without supervision? I have had serious doubts about Amanda Marcotte’s mental hygiene, but these leaves no doubt! She is certifiably BONKERS (no insults please – TS) and only interested is stirring up her minions for some more fun – her redefining reality for everyone around her own insanity is pure Control Freakery of the highest order!

    It’s clinically significant!

  10. Valerie, there were a couple of people like you on the thread simply not having it. However, I am still saddened by how many people had no problem playing that game.

  11. I am starting to believe we are witnessing a giant bait-n-switch from feminists when it comes to the definitions of rape. I can’t help but wonder if this bait-n-switch is caused by the realization: “Wait, that would make me/women rapists also”.

    Tamen, I have thought that for some time. I see similar responses whenever anyone brings up the idea of “female privilege” or when someone mentions women’s sexism against men. It is ironic because the response those feminists have is exactly the thing they rail against men for. It is very hard for people to think that they could do anything to hurt other people. It is also very hard to think that when you are used to viewing yourself as a victim.

  12. Let me start by saying that I agree with what you’re saying here TS… I just have a few minor points. For one thing it’s entirely possible for people to have completely logical conversations in their sleep, I’ve woken up halfway through a conversation on the phone with the other party being none the wiser- for example. So her asking “are you awake?” and getting a “Yes, I am awake” doesn’t neccessarily mean anything.

  13. Paul, I know that some people can be very active while asleep. However, I do think that the woman asking the boyfriend if he is awake means something, namely that she wanted to make sure he was. If she asked and he replied, then it is reasonable for her to assume he was awake, unless she knew he had a sleep disorder.

    What bothers me most about this situation is the guy’s response and the woman’s original claim. If this is a guy who frequently initiates nighttime, why would be be so bothered by her doing the same thing to him? It does not make any sense, and I wonder what part of the story are we not getting.

  14. TS: To me at least there is a big difference between being woken up for sex and being woken up with sex. In the first you have the control and opportunity to stop it from progressing if you don’t want to have sex now for some reason. Being woken up while someone is having sex with you is a situation where you had no control over whether you want sex or not. In fact it freaked me out so much that I initially just froze and I found myself unable say stop, push her off or otherwise stop her. I only remember fragments of what went through my mind. In the end the only way I could think of to get her to stop was to fake an orgasm. It left me resenting, scared of and untrusting towards women for quite a while until I finally came to grips with what happened and made the mental connection between those feelings and my rape.

    So he wakes up and is freaked out and feels violated. Now, there doesn’t seem to be any prior incidents of sleepwalking or sexsomnia known to him and her (otherwise she would’ve suspected he wasn’t awake and at least ask verbally). When she tells him her understanding of the situation he:
    a) doesn’t believe her (remember, there doesn’t seem to be a history of sleepwalking/sexsomnia)
    b) feels like she is shifting the blame of the incident over to him (Sorry you feels this way, but, well, you were rubbing against me and motioning for me to climb on top of you and you must’ve done that in your sleep then)
    c) Both of the above

    All three can explain why he after her apology and explanation feels really weird about her and can’t stomach her touch.

  15. Just piping up to say…

    the reason verbal consent doesn’t necessarily suffice in cases of sexsomnia is that someone who is in that weird, sleep-walking-esque can often answer questions (not always *logically*, I’ve had some very weird (non-sexual) exchanges with my sleep-talking husband, but they can answer, and sometimes they can sound pretty coherent.) Then we get into “Well, I verbally consented, but I was asleep!”

    I do think Dan was too hard on the guy, but I also don’t think it’s fair to call the girl a rapist. And likewise, if I initiated sex in my sleep and woke up during it, I might be a little weirded out, but I wouldn’t accuse my husband of rape when he literally had no way to know that that incident was any different than any other time I’d initiated deliciously dreamy half-awake sex. (And in fact sometimes when I’ve initiated that, I’m very much half asleep and sometimes can’t even quite form verbal thoughts yet. Nevertheless, some of the best sex of my life.)

    Can girls rape guys? Sure. But sexsomnia opens a whole world of grey where “accidental rape” can absolutely happen, on both sides. I think once someone knows they have that tendency, they need to talk to their partners and figure out how they want to handle it (either “go for it” or “test to make sure I’m awake” or “ignore me” or whatever) but there’s bound to be some unfortunate incidents when people first find out it can happen.

  16. If sexsomnia is a problem, do a mental assessment. Ask them a complicated question to test their alertness?

  17. First of all, I’d like to say I think I agree with your general stance on this issue (based off what I read in this post).

    But, the woman thought her boyfriend was consenting. He made a regular motion that they often do to initiate sex, and they are in a relationship and have built that trust with one another. He did not act like he was sleeping, and she had no reason to think he was (assuming the lights were off) until he actually woke up and stopped her. Yes he was raped, but I don’t think she is a rapist.

    However, in terms of legality, she is indeed a rapist. “If you are unaware that a girl is drunk or high and you have sex with her you could be charged with rape.” I think we can think of sleep as a sort of impaired consciousness, and even if she didn’t know he was drunk/high/sleeping/etc, she would still be considered a rapist in the court of law.

  18. @archy – It’s interesting to look at language. To be thrown off makes it about his actions and perceptions.

    She says “until he apparently woke up and pushed me off of him.”. It’s clear from what she says later that he had woken up as he had recall and felt weird – yet she’s attempting to play it all down by using “Apparently” – I’m hot sure about any level do force he had to apply to stop her and get her off – but her words show a great deal of force in denial and attempting to minimise. excuse etc.

    It’s important to remember that so many have gone off on the roller coaster ride that Rape and Violence are the same thing. As such they have ended up using language that is about being physical. There has also been a whole sale appropriation of language concerning mental state. cognition, perception. Appologism is based around altering that language and twisting it to not mean what people have demanded it is going to be. So the odd inability to remember events in sequenc to e – I was not sure if he was awake – but then he was – he says unhappy – Why should he be – excuse – oh and then have crackpot ideas from unqualified blogger has beens that says it was all fine because the blogger has been found some stats which proves he was sleepwalking – it was a Tuesday – and the Government had been spraying anaesthetic across the whole country so that could re paint the moon and keep up the fiction on Apollos 9 to17.

    Sound Familiar by any chance? normalize, excuse, tolerate, minimise, trivialise even condone? The only new and even remotely original aspect is the Blogger has been moniker.

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  23. Valerie Keefe was one of the only ones on that forum that didn’t make me sick to my stomach. With the fact that I see dozens of misandric comments, jokes, and straight up irrational feminist arguments a day, it was so refreshing to see some compassion among feminists for anything besides themselves.

    The thing is that the feminist discussion – in my opinion – of whether rape is rape if the rapist was lead to believe that consent was freely offered is a valid one. After all, rape is a serious crime that can lead to serious jail time. But in this case, they weren’t arguing over a court case, they weren’t arguing that she shouldn’t go to jail as a rapist – they were arguing that she shouldn’t have to see herself as a rapist at all, and he shouldn’t be allowed to see her that way either because it might hurt her tender little woman feelings, don’t ya know? After all, we wouldn’t want her to feel guilty for violating her boyfriend and putting him through a traumatic experience, would we? Combine that with the audacity to not only expunge her of all guilt – something they’d never do with a man – but to try and shame him and tell him what he is and isn’t allowed to do with his own rape and I was seriously pissed.

    My favorite thing about Amanda Marcotte’s statements was that she claims domestic abuse is way more common than sleep disorders so obviously he’s most likely abusing her in some convoluted way – don’t ya hate those whiny, abusive rape victims? – but doesn’t even breach the idea that rapists lying about raping someone is way more common than sleep disorders as well, so isn’t it more likely that the girlfriend’s lying about thinking he was awake? And Marcotte goes on to say that as the rape victim here, it’s his job to get over it or break up with her. So if he so much as holds a grudge over the fact that she raped him, he’s the jerk, never mind pressing charges.

    The woman is so busy vagina gazing and creating victim complexes for herself I’d be shocked if she considered men human beings.

  24. Aubree, Marcotte often appears to take a pathological stance on these issues. That is the only explanation I can reach to explain why should would write articles like this.

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