Gaslighting, Rape Culture and Consent

Content note for sexual assault.
Question: I think I might have been raped 10 years ago. I had a good first date w/the guy and on the second when we were kissing, he got handsy. Before the third, I told him the limits of how far I wanted to go (and before I practiced what I was going to say so many times) and he agreed. Half an hour later, he starts doing the things I said I wasn’t ready to do. I kinda froze and became compliant. I partly wanted to just get it over with since it was obvious he wanted it so much. Also, I thought that since I’d gained a lot of weight since the last time I had a boyfriend, I wasn’t going to do any better. I wasn’t scared or threatened, I just felt like I couldn’t say no.
That’s what makes me so unsure, because many years ago when I was 10, my cousin tried to rape me and I fought back and got away. Of course, he was obviously violent in his attempt. But with this other guy I wasn’t frightened so I don’t get why I didn’t just tell him to stop. I’ve thought about this before though I used the terms that he pressured me into sex. But the more I’ve read about consent, the more I wonder if there are stronger words to describe it. The thing is, I don’t really know what he would’ve done if I said no. He might have stopped completely. So I blame myself. I don’t know what to think. On one hand, there were times I could’ve said no and asked him to take me home, but on the other, I felt like I just couldn’t say no. I don’t think I have PTSD from it, per se (I did after the rape attempt when I was 10) but my depression did get dramatically worse right after. But then he dumped me soon after and I was begging him to take my back so maybe I’m doing the scorned woman thing. All I know is that I haven’t dated since then and the idea of me having sex really grosses me out. It’s like I’m tainted everywhere he touched me. I guess I’m just asking would this qualify as rape or what? Sorry for rambling.
Was Not or Was?
Hey, pal. That sounds awful, and you bring up one of the Cardinal Rules of Upholding the Rape Culture: convince victims to not believe themselves.
I want to bring your attention to a few of the things you said:
…he starts doing the things I said I wasn’t ready to do. I kinda froze and became compliant. I partly wanted to just get it over with since it was obvious he wanted it so much.
I just felt like I couldn’t say no
I blame myself.
I could’ve said no.
In the first two, it’s very, very clear that your consent was violated. Rapists don’t always use force or violence or threats. Sometimes they just don’t listen to the words of the person they are hurting. Sometimes they nod and smile, but do what they want anyway. Sometimes they are so insidiously coercive, it takes years to sort out what happened.
You were raped. I am sorry. I am sorry that he didn’t listen to you, and I am sorry that the way it happened filled you with self-doubt, evident in the last two quotes from your letter.
A very important tool of rape culture is gaslighting, which is why you are doubting your own experience of the events.
In the 1944 film Gaslight, Charles Boyer played a man who used abusive tactics to manipulate his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, and make her think she was going insane.
It sounds like this man gaslighted you, by letting you believe that he would respect your boundaries (and that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg). But rape culture also gaslights us by teaching us the mythology that rape must always happen in a certain way to be real. There has to be violence. The victim has to say “no” at least once. The victim must be afraid. No one is drunk. No one knows each other. The victim said “no” loud and clear, right at the beginning. The victim fought back, but was held down. The perpetrator used force. There were witnesses. And on and on.
So, when we are raped, and it doesn’t fit the rape culture narrative of what rape is, we don’t believe it. We get confused, we call it something else.
And many of us, like you, still experience aftereffects that can be classically linked to sexual assault. Depression. Feeling dirty or tainted. Anger. Confusion. These are all reasonable feelings. What that guy did to you was wrong, and being upset about it makes sense to me.
Cardinal Rules: Sexual activity without active, voluntary consent is sexual assault. Yes, and only yes, means yes. Consent is a question, and an answer, with all parties involved able to freely give either “Yes” and “no” as both equal and valid. Consent can be revoked or given at any time. “Giving in” is not consent. Consent is an enthusiastic “YES!”
I am sorry that you are feeling so badly about yourself. I am not a doctor, or a therapist, but I would strongly encourage you to find a counselor to talk to. Rape Crisis Centers often provide both group and individual counseling free of charge, and can even offer some services over the phone if transportation is an issue. You can find out which organization is local to you by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE. Good luck, I really do wish you the best. I believe you.

6 responses to “Gaslighting, Rape Culture and Consent

  1. I totally agree with your rape culture/rape narrative analysis and your recognition of gaslighting. I do have an issue with the general theory that sex without consent is by definition sexual assault. I’ve always had trouble with that idea. I don’t think that that maxim can be applied universally. It’s more accurate to say that sex without consent MAY be sexual assault, depending on how the people involved feel and decide to define the experience. For instance, the theory of consent that you describe here cannot account for a lot of my complex feelings and sexual experiences or those of a lot of my friends. So, consent is a really important and effective way to prevent POSSIBLE sexual assaults, but people have the agency to define their own sexual experiences which may not fit the rape or consent narrative that you describe here either. I am not arguing that this woman who wrote to you was not sexually assaulted and I’m not critiquing her feelings. If she says that she was raped, then she was and I believe her. But, other people who have had good and bad nonconsensual sex (like myself) may not feel that it was sexual assault, which is important to acknowledge. A strict rape vs. consent binary undermines people’s individual subjectivity. I think that rape exists on more of a continuum and that there are some situations that are ambiguous and it’s okay not to categorize them.

  2. “It’s like I’m tainted everywhere he touched me.”
    I’d never have thought to use those words about myself, but they fit how I feel so well. I had similar experiences and it took me a long time to identify what my ex did as rape/sexual assault.

    ” “Giving in” is not consent.”

    My thanks to the submitter for asking the question that I would have asked several years ago, and to Cristy Cardinal for the validation that can be so very hard to come by in this world.

  3. I’m curious as to what you mean by nonconsensual sex.

  4. By nonconsensual sex, I mean sex in which I was not asked for consent by my partners and I did not give active, verbal consent to my partners (male or female). My partners did things to me without having any confirmation that I wanted it, but I did want it. For me (and I can only speak for myself) rape/sexual assault is unwanted sexual activity that is also nonconsensual. I think that the unwanted part is important. Sex without consent is not necessarily unwanted, it’s just unconfirmed. I would like to always be asked for consent, but if I’m not that doesn’t mean that I’m being raped. There were a couple of instances that I do consider to be sexual assault, but not the bulk of my nonconsensual experiences. And the times when I was asked for consent were definitely the best! I just don’t like that there’s a supposedly objective equation out there (no consent=rape) to determine if anyone has been sexually assaulted. According to that equation, I have been sexually assaulted by almost every partner I’ve had, but that is not my authentic lived experience or my feelings. If your definition of sexual assault feels right to you and other people who read it, then that’s great and those people should use it for themselves. But, it doesn’t feel right for me, which is why I disagree with how you’ve framed it as a rule and a general definition. The meanings of sex, feelings, and communication are subjective and nuanced.

  5. Person who wrote the email here. Thanks for the validation. I’m still at the point where I really need other people to tell me I’m not crazy. Again, thanks.

  6. My first PIV experience was extremely traumatic though it took me a long time to realize that. (TW: explicit sexual description) I was 17 and at college. My sexual history was limited to one person kissing me and slipping a hand into my bra to fondle a breast while we were in the backseat of a car. I was shy, inhibited, self-conscious, and thought I was unattractive. So when I was a freshman and someone showed interest in me and asked me to be his SO, I said yes. I wasn’t ready for sex because my hormones hadn’t kicked in, and I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. But I was always precocious and thought that part of being in college was having sex, and that I was supposed to want it. That’s what people my age did. And there was something wrong with me for not really being that interested and being so inexperienced. Thank you, rape culture.

    We had a few kissing sessions, and I would always draw back from going further. But I was worried about being a cock-tease, of leading him on. I was more worried about his feelings and needs than my own. (Thank you again, rape culture.) So one night I didn’t stop him when he went further. I passively went along with everything, even turning on the light to help him find the freebie condom in my freshman welcome kit that was stuffed in a desk drawer. But I wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t sexually aroused, and he made no effort to pleasure me. When he penetrated me it hurt a lot, and it bled a lot. And I told him it hurt. And he kept going. When he was done, he got dressed and left. Then dumped me the next morning.

    I tried to pretend everything was fine. It took me a decade to begin to talk about it. And more than a decade to seek emotional intimacy from anyone, though my hormones did kick in before that. I did have sex, but always as a passive, compliant subject. I didn’t really understand consent and that I wasn’t really giving it. I never called that first experience rape, though I recognized that others might consider as such. And only recently, more than 20 years later, has it occurred to me that the boy who did that to me might have considered it rape when I said I was in pain and he didn’t stop.

    I too froze and went along because I thought at a certain point I didn’t have the right to say no. It didn’t occur to me as a real option. After all, I’d agreed to date him, right? And I never said no, or stop, so it couldn’t have been rape, right? I feel your pain and confusion. What happened to you wasn’t okay. And it wasn’t your fault. It took me a long time to figure that out. I made excuses for that boy for a long time. That my confession of pain was too much burden for him to handle. That he didn’t have the maturity to talk about it. Now I can accept that he was just an asshat. That he treated me poorly, and I deserved better. And so do you.

    A caring partner would have checked in with you throughout the process to see whether you were engaged and participating or shutting down. A caring partner would have been at least as concerned with your comfort and pleasure. A caring partner is willing to take time, to go at your pace, to help you figure out your sexualities together. I hope you can find that now. And I hope that you have healed or are healing from that experience.

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