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.

3:13 AM

It’s 3:13 AM.

I am coming back to this blog after a long period of quiet, in which I posted links to musical performances and poems I liked but rarely my own writing. This is because the relationship I have with it is complex. It is something I have always wanted to exist, but it feels like a stranger created it, out of a seemingly boundless confidence. For weeks I was able to express my innermost thoughts with absolute faith that they were a reflection of how I truly felt at the time, with an absolute conviction in the worth of what I was contributing and the quality of its expression.

This sudden surge of confidence, the sudden spurt of writing about very personal experiences alarmed those closest to me (or the people close to me who could not square this sudden candour with the girl they knew.)  I had a sense that my creativity was suddenly flowering into shape, and the more I allowed it to, the bigger it would become. I lay awake at night for hours on end teeming with ideas; ideas about what I’d read, creative projects that occurred to me, images and resonances. I felt… overwhelmed, different, but also, I have to admit to myself, deeply happy. I rejoiced in feeling articulate, I rejoiced in feeling this surge of creativity, as if the most promising part of myself was suddenly making itself known.

Why? What caused this?

I wrote in detail about my experience with the contraceptive implant. This was the first piece of writing that engendered the blog, and in it I report a state of happiness and enhanced creativity, following a period in which I would cry almost constantly ~ a side effect from the contraceptive implant. I felt returned to my natural happiness, as the artificial hormones affecting my mood were removed from my body, which was gratefully returning to its normal state.

Or so I thought. I could not have known that the feelings of exceptional joy and a persistent creativity that seemed to want to express itself through me would last much longer than I expected, and be accompanied by an intellectual confidence of an extent that I had never before possessed. I remember being feverishly happy, absorbed in my writing and revision for my finals.

But some of the people closest to me were worried. Suddenly I had a huge drive to spend extended periods of time wrapped up in nature, pacing up and down the beach or dancing around in the sun in my local park for hours at a time. I lay awake very late into the night, and I had previously slept all the way through, dependably. I was, they tell me, irritable, rapid of speech, and distracted from my studies (I remember feeling that anything I read was more stimulating than usual; a paragraph of writing could set off a train of thought that would occupy me for hours, in which I would appear to be lost in thought, but certainly not studying, and at this point I had my finals coming up.)

To a certain person in my life who knows a lot about mental health, my behaviour looked an awful lot like a manic episode of someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

I struggle with this, so so much. In my head I was flowering, full of joy, full of love, especially. I felt like I could suddenly see this whole life behind things. Social situations were suddenly weighted with symbolism; I thought I could catch the currents, good and bad, that ran between people; I was hyperempathetic, physically picking up on and feeling the emotions of those around me. In particular, I had ideas about a relationship between sexuality and creativity, as expressed here and here. I began to think of acts of childbirth and sex as creative acts, thinking of the artistically creative and the sexually creative as inextricably linked. I began to think of anxiety/depression and creativity as completely opposed, since in my joy I felt creativity that a few earlier months of stress and worry had temporarily silenced or suppressed. I felt like my own body, newly liberated from progesterone, was flooded with two linked desires: to create and to nurture. It sounds so strange but I felt like my first pieces of writing were as children to me; I couldn’t accept any criticism for them, because they seemed to me simply too honest, too me, too much a part of me to be able to bear correction by another person. I felt a desperate need to look after those around me, which extended for weeks and weeks, bolstered by this hyperempathetic state. It was as if my body, confused, was trying to insist on motherhood, tell me I was ready, and in the absence of things to nurture would nurture pieces of writing into life, nurture everyone around me.

Although I was scared by the depth of emotion I was plunged into, by the lucidity with which I felt I suddenly saw the world, and alarmed in turn by the panic of those around me at my changed behaviour, in a way the most painful thing is how good I know I felt. I loved feeling the emotions of people around me, I felt it made me able to care for them more profoundly. The creative feeling, and the confidence, have since ebbed away, although I sense that they were a magnification of something within me that was already there. How could I be ill, if I felt so happy? If I felt completely in control, how could I have been as utterly, utterly wrong about this as those around me thought at the time?

Was I as ill as those around me thought? Perhaps not. Perhaps some kind of internal rudder was still keeping me safe, looking after me. Yes, I wrote and published a lot of things that I cannot imagine having had the confidence to publish. Yes, sometimes I could not sleep, sometimes the ideas overwhelmed me. The fact that the sweet and exciting feeling that I was finally unravelling and expressing the most promising part of myself could not only be purely down to a wild hormone imbalance within me, but could actually also be interpreted as the symptom of an illness is something I am still puzzling over, and upset and confused by. I suppose it comes down to a fear that once I could not trust that guardian voice inside my head, the voice that looks after me and tells me what to do, tells me how to interpret the world. Without confidence in that voice the world is terrifying.

It has now been months and months since this period, which came after I had the implant taken out in April last year, and lasted until May and perhaps June. Over the months I have developed an ambivalent relationship with this blog. In many ways I have rarely been prouder of anything, especially of the first piece, not only because many people wrote to me and told me they were grateful and it resonated with their experiences, but more because it expressed something I considered important in a way that felt true to me. It was utterly, utterly honest. But the blog symbolises this wild, honest, unabashed creativity that seemed very sudden to those close to me and caused them a lot of worry; this wasn’t so much for the content, but for the fact of its existence, spurred into existence by a physical, hormonal, change. The blog represents an unknown entity within me.

But I am holding onto the fact that I have wanted to write a blog forever, I have in fact written forever. I have diaries that stretch way back; some of the poems and pieces I put up were written before the blog’s inception. I have always written for myself, always loved writing for its ability to control and make sense of the world around me by putting it into words.

It’s 4:13 AM. An hour, an outpouring.

What am I pushing back to? I think fundamentally I want to come back to this, or at least to some form of creativity. I want to know that in a balanced, hormonally normal state I am still creative, I am still healthy, that the satisfaction of writing and sharing my writing with others doesn’t have to be confined to a period of my life that I am to this day mystified, terrified and fascinated by. If by some miracle you’re still here, or you ever have been here, thank you.

***

12/2/18

 

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On the premature sexualisation of young women

I have a vivid memory of something someone said to me once that puzzled me, but didn’t particularly upset me at the time. I was in the queue for lunch at school with a few of my male friends when one of them described me as “sexually charged.”

I didn’t really understand. Sexually charged? What did that even mean? At 13 I was still at the age where I privately suspected sex was an elaborate joke made up by someone to confuse or amuse me. Unlike most of my male friends of that time, I did not watch porn (still don’t, for reasons that may become clear) because to be honest it just didn’t occur to me: my closest brush with observing The Act was probably watching Titanic, and seeing that sweaty hand up against that car window. I was not really sure what Rose and Jack were up to in there, but I knew it was fun, consensual, and an act of love. Whatever sex was, that’s what it would be like, I thought.

It is only now, as I look back at my teenage years growing up in a co-educational school where boys vastly outnumbered girls, that I see that a lot of the stuff that went on was fucking weird. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t really know what he meant. It would have disturbed me.

I think the tension here comes from something that is quite universal – think back to the Miley Cyrus debate. My friend looked at me, little thirteen year old beginning to grow towards the woman I am now, as all the boys saw all the girls in my year, and may have felt some kind of sexual or emotional response. He feels the response. It is new and strong and weird, and something that happens when he looks at me; is it not natural to assume that I am making him feel it?

Fair enough, at 13, the boys I knew were silly at worst and adorable at best really. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was projecting agency onto me for a sexual response I had (honestly) no idea he was feeling. I was being sexualised, and at this stage, I was not choosing to sexualise myself. Actually, I was just queuing for lunch and my mind was mostly occupied with the question of whether there were any muffins left.

I’m not going to pretend that I was particularly traumatised by this event. I have never had my sense of self seriously bruised by male violation, emotional or physical, and I took most of the creepy stuff boys said to me as a compliment. If anything, it was my ego that I needed to worry about; I got in trouble with my group of friends once for referring to the 14th person to ask me to “go out” with them as “Number 14.” I look back laughing but also slightly disturbed by the arrogance of my teenage self, so much crueller to these poor boys than I knew at the time – though it wasn’t so much because I didn’t like them and think they were lovely as the fact that I had no idea how to kiss and the thought of doing it wrong terrified me (I was privately convinced that mouths had to be designed purely for eating what if I’d just had loads of onion?!)

Don’t spare too many tears for unknowingly sexualised, unknowingly arrogant 13 year old Amelia. I was fine, I was exceptionally happy and fulfilled at the time. I mention this because it is part of a much wider problem.

When the Miley Cyrus video for Wrecking Ball came out I was torn. I was torn because I would secretly quite like to be having some fun on that swingy thing in her position; but in private, alone, probably. Surely Miley would really rather express her sexuality with those close to her, rather than share her nudity and her sexuality with the entire world?

In hindsight I see that it was wrong of me to ask that question, even gently. Because Miley had absolutely every right to express her sexuality in a way that felt true to her (even if she happened to be making a nice bunch of money in the same gesture.) I’m not gonna pretend I’m a Miley fan, but all those songs (I recall the lyric ‘it’s our party we can do what we want’) are about rebellion, about breaking away from the expectations placed on her by the trauma of having her childhood in the public eye.

We always overestimate the degree of agency musicians, and artists in the public eye, have. But this is disproportionately true when it comes to female musicians. If they choose to propagate a sexualised public image, it is all too easy to view them as either (a unwillingly sexualised victims of a sexist industry or (b unscrupulous temptresses selling their sexuality for money. This relates to that old virgin/whore binary that is so, so false and unhelpful for our understanding of female sexuality. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, from Miley to Birdy, the reality lies somewhere in between.

We need to stop being so quick either to label girls and women as either whore or virgin. Yes tossing women into one of these categories in our words and thoughts helps that classic insecurity about female sexuality and what women might do if men go to war for too long and the neighbour is sexy and cooks up an impeccable pumpkin soup for the winter. But it is a cipher, and should be recognised as such if we are going to fight the patriarchy and deconstruct the structures that oppress us.