Category Archives: sexual assault

I Owe, I Owe, So Off to the Bedroom I Go? Nope.

content notes for sexual coercion, sexual assault, disregard for autonomy

Melissa and I snuggling.

Melissa and I snuggling.

My friend Melissa McEwan, of Shakesville, has asked me to address…well, here’s her question:

One of the positions Dan Savage has taken which has received widespread criticism is that romantic partners essentially owe each other sex.  Can you address that assertion, and why it’s a total piece of shit?

One of Dan’s oft-cited rules is the “GGG”: a partner must strive to be good in bed, be giving of equal time and attention and be game for anything (within reason). There is some science out there that has been interpreted to back up Dan’s rule, and ostensibly, GGG is about being caring and open about your desires with your partner, and as such, is reasonable advice.

But it doesn’t stop there. Dan Savage is, as Melissa pointed out, in the habit of dishing out this advice to mean that we are obliged to have sex with our partners/dates, and we are obliged to indulge all of their fantasies and fetishes without regard to our own comfort.

To be frank: this is bullshit of the highest order. Melissa brings up the very real harm that Dan Savage’s crappy advice can do. The way Dan presents it, GGG means that no one has a right to say no to their partners, and if we want to be a good partner with a lasting relationship, we will acquiesce to all of our partner’s sexual desires. He is saying this without regard to the ways that abusive partners use language like the GGG rule to manipulate and control their partners, and without regard to a rape culture that privileges the sexual desires of men to the point of entitlement.

We are never under any obligation to have sex with anyone, at any time, for any reason. Nor are we under any obligation to have whatever kind of sex our partner wants to have.

To put it another way, my body belongs to me. I will choose how and when I am sexually intimate with anyone, including my partner. I am not being selfish if I don’t want to have sex. My partner’s body belongs to her, and she will choose how and when to be sexually intimate with anyone, including me. She’s not being selfish if she doesn’t want to have sex.

When I do relationship education with young people, one of the exercises I use is a collective brainstorm of the qualities we want in a partner. The lists are long and varied. Funny, kind, ambitious, smart, hard-working, etc. I help them see that we all have different lists, different qualities that are most important. But there are three that are non-negotiable: Respectful, Trusting/Trustworthy and Safe. If we want a partner to bring these things, we must also give them.

Expecting that our partners owe us sex is not respectful, and it’s not safe. No one is entitled to sex.

Repeat, for effect: SEX IS NOT AN ENTITLEMENT.  Not even when you’re married, living together, have had sex 8,345 times, or you’re just really, really randy.

The other aspect of the GGG that disregards consent and autonomy is the idea that we should be game for anything our partner has in mind (which Dan adds a “within reason” to, but who is he kidding? I am sure a lawyer told him to add that.). Any kink they want to try, we should be open to trying.

I am not one to yuck someone else’s yum, unless it’s coercive, illegal or whatnot, but that doesn’t mean I am obliged to try out all the yums my partner might fancy. We are not obligated to participate in sexual activity that we do not want to, period.

A better piece of advice is to be game to listen to your partner’s desires. Be open to hearing what turns your partner on in his or her fantasy life. Don’t judge, but be honest with your desires. Express them, and respect your partner’s response. That’s safe, and trusting, and respectful.

Cardinal Rule: Sex should be fun, safe and consensual EVERY SINGLE TIME.  Sex is not an entitlement, nor an obligation.


Savage Love Re-Answer: “Double Trouble”

Dan Savage originally answered this question at Savage Love on October 21, 2010, and he did a piss poor job of it. His answer was fraught with victim-blaming, shaming and unnecessary judgment. I have a policy of not linking to his site, but you can do an archive search at Savage Love if you really want to see the original.

Question: My husband and I have had an open marriage for the last two years. Up until five months ago, it was working beautifully. At that point, however, I was sexually assaulted by a former partner. Since that incident, I cannot stand sex with my husband. I completely flip out when he tries to initiate sexual contact. My skin crawls. I become panicked and feel repulsed. I just cannot handle it. Those times when I go along with it anyway leave me feeling enraged and disgusted.

I don’t think this is completely unheard of for someone who was relatively recently assaulted, and I am considering therapy to help me work through it. The immediate “problem” is that I have no difficulty having sex with my boyfriend. In fact, the sex with him is amazing and leaves me feeling loved and whole and wonderful.

This is breaking my husband’s heart. He has become incredibly jealous of my relationship with my boyfriend. He’s depressed. He’s angry. He accuses me of no longer loving him, and he wants me to stop sleeping with my boyfriend until our marriage is back to normal. I feel like a horrible person, but I just can’t do that. I need that outlet. I need that support. And I admit I have a hard time heartbelieving that my husband and I will ever be able to go back to the way things were before.

I feel like I’ve already lost my former partner (fucked-up though that may seem) and my husband. It kills me to think about cutting out the one positive relationship remaining. On the other hand, I do love my husband—very much—and watching him suffer like this is unbearable.

Potentially Traumatized Sexual Deviant

Dear PTSD,

Wow, I am so sorry. This all sounds so difficult, and it’s great that you are asking for help.

First things first, I strongly encourage you to seek out a trained sexual assault counselor to help you start the journey to healing. Most sexual assault service agencies provide counseling that is based on an empowerment model, and best of all:  it’s usually free for survivors. You can find out what agency serves your community through RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE. I’m not 100% in support of all of the things RAINN does, but they can connect you, immediately, to the local sexual assault service agency.  Even if you don’t have time to sit down with a counselor, you can use the crisis and support hotline.

For the affiliated troubles, it sounds like you have some hard decisions to make about your relationships with both your husband and your boyfriend. It also doesn’t sound like your husband is being very supportive (and perhaps your boyfriend is), and maybe he is feeling wounded because his wife was sexually assaulted. I have no patience for that. It didn’t happen to him.

It’s reasonable that he would have feelings like sadness or anger about the sexual assault, but it’s not reasonable for him to hold you responsible for those feelings, as if you did something to him. What does he hope to get  if you stop the sexual relationship with your boyfriend? Does he think it’s a magic fix? If you are feeling repulsed by the idea of having sex with your husband, that doesn’t have anything to do with your boyfriend. It has more to do with your husband, and his reaction to your ex sexually assaulting you.

There are  places he can seek support as the SO of a sexual assault survivor, FYI.

CARDINAL RULE: You don’t owe your husband sex, but you should probably be honest and direct. If you are feeling unsupported, say so. Let him know what might be supportive. If you are committed to staying married to him, being honest about how his demands make you feel might just be a good start to a new chapter in your lives. Maybe there is room for compromise on your sexual relationship with your boyfriend, If he’s not willing to hear it, then it may be time for some marriage-related navel-gazing for both of you.

Good luck, and again, I am so sorry that this happened to you. Keep me posted.