On male sexual consent

This isn’t my article to write. It might be unwelcome. But here we are.

Over the summer, I had a conversation with somebody that had quite a profound effect on me. I was with an old friend among some people we had just met, and we were gently drinking our way into the evening. Whether it was because we’d had the perfect amount to drink, or because there was something about the particular people who were present, people had begun to open up in one of those ways that rarely occurs among strangers. We got on to the topic of consent, via consent workshops, and the experience of our female friends at our respective universities with regards to sexual assault – how common a thing we felt it was, how important we felt it was to be vocal about it so that the people around us would feel firmly comfortable expressing themselves if it ever happened to them; how often rape and sexual assault occur among friends, as opposed to psychotic strangers in dark alleyways. After some time, one of the men I had just met said gently,

“I was raped.”

I looked at him to see whether he was being serious. I didn’t know whether to call him out on his bizarre and offensive sense of humour, or to look the other way.

“By a guy?” my friend replied.

“No, by a girl.”

There was a house party; there was a lot of alcohol. It was one of those nights where the liquor consumption had a bit of a domino effect; everyone went a bit harder than they usually would because home wasn’t far away, and they were somewhere warm with their friends. A really very fun night, by anyone’s standards. He drank a lot, had a lot of fun, and collapsed somewhere sound asleep. Only to wake up to the sight of himself having sex. Being had sex with. With someone he barely recognised, and certainly hadn’t intended to have sex with earlier on in the evening.

I didn’t understand. How could a man wake up to watch himself have sex – an act which required a certain amount of consent from his body; because to have sex as a man, you have to reach a certain level of arousal? And if he was aroused – surely that meant he gave consent in some way?

But then, thinking about it, I had read about women who had been raped, whose sense of shame spread from the fact that their bodies had physically responded to the unwanted touch of the other person, in a way that convinced them that, on some level, they had desired the abuse. They had the sense that their bodies had betrayed them. Because the feeling of sexual arousal is something we associate with being with someone we actually like.

I knew this well. I could well imagine the confusion, the desperation you would feel if your rapist used against you the fact that you responded, came, even, as evidence that you had consented to the act. What was wrong with you? Why did your body appear to welcome that violation, even as you yourself despised it?

Of course, of course it could be the same for boys. Why hadn’t it occurred to me? Why had none of my male friends shared this type of experience with me? Other people around the table, at this time, started to share stories of a similar nature. Often not their own; friends, friends of friends. This boy I had just met was very much not alone.

As girls, we are told that all men want sex, all the time, and with pretty much everyone. I have also always assumed that if a guy is hard, he wants to have sex. This is a dangerous mistake to make, and it stems from the fact that we do not hear stories about men who are raped by women, and we associate rape with the non-consensual penetration of one person by another, not with a person forcing another to penetrate them. There is a mainstream sense that men are less emotional about sex, that somehow they are not capable of experiencing the trauma women who are raped and sexually assaulted feel as a result of having their body commandeered for the purposes of another person who has no interest in their consent, never mind in their enjoyment.

The man I met hasn’t been able to look at women in the same way since. He often flashes back to the experience, and only feels free enough to express himself on the subject because he has a circle of exceptionally open and loving friends.

As girls, we need to understand that this is an issue, and to be aware that it is important to give as to receive consent. Women do rape men. We are told it is not physiologically possible. It is. Insofar as consent goes, as soon as we understand that physical sexual responses do not indicate psychological consent, the better.