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.