I am honoured to present the first of what I hope will be many guest blogs on RockstarDinosaurPirate Princess, from writer Charlie Tyler.
Due to the subject matter please note a content warning for discussion of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
I am a survivor of rape and intimate partner violence. It’s hard to admit. Hard to talk about. Equally hard is admitting what impact it has had on my ability to make choices in the area of my sex life. That’s what I want to talk about here, but first some history.
He was my first boyfriend and I knew we were deeply in love. The first time he hit me I was angry, horrified and hurt. He cried, begged forgiveness and explained why I had driven him to it. Said it would never happen again. Of course it did. He moved into the flat adjoining my parent’s home. Over the year that followed he hit, cut, choked, bit, punched and raped me. When I thought I was pregnant he beat and kicked me. I think he used physical force to rape me around 10 times. The fear of what he would do if I said no held my tongue after that. I ended the relationship eventually. Then he stalked me. There were letters in blood, suicide threats and intimidation. It’s half my life ago now and yet he still tries to find ways to contact me from half way across the world.
Then there was the man at uni. If you believe the victim blamers I did everything wrong with this one. I had a drink with him; I took him back to my room. I had already had sex with him, and wanted to again. With a condom. He put one on at my insistence, but took it off without me seeing. When I noticed it on the floor I said no and tried to push him away. He held me down and forced himself inside me. I threw him off pretty quickly; he smacked his head on my bedside table and left bleeding with the words “You fucking bitch, I only wanted to see how hard you’d struggle”.
These are my experiences of saying no. My experiences of ‘no’ have made it a hard word for me in a sexual context. ‘No’ is a word I am working on. The other word I am working on is ‘Yes’.
So much of what we are told as women around sex is about what to say no to. We are often told that we are the gatekeepers of chastity and purity. We aren’t supposed to want sex or to enjoy it. Many cultures construct sex as something to be endured by women and enjoyed by men. The messages that we are given by western media press young women to increasingly sexualized gender presentation, whilst simultaneously insisting that they should say no to sex.
I think in the discourse that we have ‘no’ only takes us so far. It reveals a negative view of sex. Being pushed to the limits of our comfort zones. Being the gatekeepers. It suggests that sex is something of a battle, where men will try to get as much as they can, while women should be resisting. This view of sex is not only heterosexist, its downright insulting. Many women like and enjoy sex. Many men are thoughtful and considerate lovers that would only want to have sex with someone with their enthusiastic consent.
The negative view of sex used to indoctrinate young women ingrains in many a sense of shame about their sexuality and bodies. The basic sense of shame and guilt about sex was one of the many factors that rendered me silent in the face of serious abuse. To 16 year old me all sex was bad, wrong and shameful. That view compounded the powerlessness and isolation that I felt. The reality of the situation is that people are sexual beings. There is nothing inherently wrong or shameful about healthy sexuality.
One of the turning points in my sexual healing process has been to turn consent on its head. Moving from a model of sex that has at its core the responsibility to say ‘no’ to what you don’t want, to having the choice to say ‘yes’ to what you do want has been revolutionary for me. It instinctively made so much sense.
So, what does that look like in practice? Well, it looks like an exploration of sexiness. To be able to say ‘yes’ to things you have to know what feels good to you. I honestly didn’t. I had been so focused on what I didn’t want that I had forgot to take note of what I did. Sex had become something I thought I should like and want, but in reality I was normally disembodied and just going through the motions.
The ‘yes’ approach taught me to be more open about sex and sexuality. To have detailed and in-depth discussions with new partners, and existing partners about what feels good for me and for them. In the many areas where I don’t know what feels good, I talk about how I would like to explore sensations. I talk about how it feels when I start to disembody, and what that might look like. I ask for help with staying present, and talk about times when I might not be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In the context of a sexual encounter I learned to check in, to ask whether I was touching my partner in the way they wanted to be touched. To notice their breathing, their responses and their body. Also to notice my own. To indicate when I enjoyed something, and to ask for more of those things. I have found it so much easier to ask a partner to do more of something that I want than to ask them to stop doing something I don’t want.
The starting point is being aware of basic boundaries and being explicit about them. I love to be touched except around my neck area. While I might agree with a new partner that general touching is fine, I want to be asked if they would like to touch my neck. For me penetration (of any kind) is something that requires explicit consent. It’s also a different kind of consent. If something is happening to my body, it needs to be because I want it to be happening. Not under duress, not because I feel guilty, nor because I want to please someone else by giving them sexual access to me. Enthusiastic, I really want to be here and I am loving what is happening, consent.
The fact is this isn’t an easy approach. Actually it’s hard. It’s terrifying. It’s opening yourself up to trusting someone else. Trusting them to want enthusiastic consent. Trusting that they wouldn’t want to be having sex with you, however horny they were, if you would rather be watching ‘Glee’. It’s all about active desire, active involvement and active choices. It’s all about saying ‘yes’. Not just ‘yes’, but ‘Yes, yes, yes, ohhhhhhhhhhhhh yes!’