A preliminary note: Maymay has a history of threatening, harassing, encouraging the suicide of, and doxxing people who disagree with them. This makes many people I know afraid to engage with them and their writings. I probably wouldn’t write about Maymay otherwise, but it pisses me off when people silence disagreement with them. So whenever Maymay threatens, harasses, encourages the suicide of, or doxes me or one of my friends, I shall write a post about them.
In addition, Maymay is nonbinary. I am unsure of their preferred pronouns, so I will be using “they”. Using male or female pronouns for them is not acceptable and will get your comment edited.
content warning: explicit descriptions of rape and sexual violence.
The essay “Consent as a Felt Sense” is one of Maymay’s and unquietpirate’s most fundamental writings, by their own statement.
I find a lot to like in that essay. For one thing, it’s similar to my long-held position on who counts as a rape survivor or abuse survivor. For my purposes, if someone identifies as an rape survivor, I will consider them a rape survivor and treat them as a rape survivor, no matter if what they consider to be their rape fits my definition or anyone else’s definitions of rape. (The exception is for actions that affect the perpetrator, the ethics of which are more complicated; that said, in my experience, the vast majority of interactions one has with a survivor qua survivor have nothing to do with their perpetrator whatsoever.) Think about it as a cost/benefit analysis: the worst-case scenario is that I’m nice to someone who’s blowing their experiences out of proportion or who made them up; the best-case scenario is that there is someone who is deeply in need of help, who is questioning their validity, and whom I have the ability to help. So in a sense I’ve already been using consent as a felt sense as my model for years.
Consent as a felt sense has a lot of similarities to Catherine MacKinnon’s statement that “politically, I call it rape whenever a [person] has sex and feels violated,” which I’ve long found interesting and provocative. (She said woman, because radical feminists are not so great about male and nonbinary survivors.) This is not a legal standard, and in fact MacKinnon specifically says she’s not talking about it as a legal standard, but rather a standard for support of survivors, understanding people’s experiences with sexual violence, and working to end sexual violence.
I think that both MacKinnon and Maymay/Unquietpirate are getting at an important point, which is that our culture is really really bad about dealing with sex that you gave permission for but that is still experienced as violating or even traumatizing. Sex where you dissociate to get through it; sex that makes you feel like an object, an orifice being used, rather than a participant; sex where you feel gross and cry afterward and scrub yourself because you don’t want to have had it.
Pro-sex but rape-aware culture has a tendency to pretend that that kind of sex doesn’t exist, including (to my shame) some sex-positive people. I talk about this with people a lot, and sometimes it seems like everyone I know has one of those stories. It’s not rape, and I’m not saying it’s rape… but I thought I had to agree to sex if I wanted to be in a relationship. But I was too drunk to understand what was going on, and my partner didn’t know that and she wouldn’t have done anything if she knew but it still hurt. But I thought he would leave me if I didn’t do it.
Our society is, I believe, laced with compulsory sexuality: the idea that everyone should have frequent sex of socially approved varieties. “Virgin” continues to be used as an insult, particularly against men. Polyamorous, kinky, and sex-positive communities often have an unspoken expectation that everyone wants lots of sex. LGB people are often expected to “prove” their sexual orientation through having sex with people of the same sex or with an equal number of men and women. Even spaces usually considered sex-negative have this problem: Christian culture combines an emphasis on abstinence until marriage with pressure to have great sex with your spouse after marriage, sometimes progressing to the idea that refusing sex is a sin.
Compulsory sexuality means that people may agree to sex that violates them. If I believe that I am less of a man if I refuse sex, I may have sex I do not actually want and that, in fact, makes me feel disgusted and violated. If I believe that, as a loving partner, I must have sex with my partner a few times a week, I may agree to sex that feels like a rape, even if I technically give permission for violation. Indeed, all partners might agree to sex that feels like a rape to them!
However, social pressure is not the only thing that can bring a sense of violation in addition to explicit permission. I have borderline personality disorder. One of the symptoms, for me, is that I sometimes conclude that if I don’t have sex with someone then they will hurt me. I often appear consenting– indeed, affirmatively consenting, enthusiastically consenting– while inside I am actually desperately attempting to avoid my partner physically or emotionally harming me.
(Guy who is going down to the comment section right now to complain about how is he supposed to know whether his partner feels violated if they won’t say so, this is just a setup for false rape accusations, and Ozy is a misandrist: I’ll get there, I promise, keep reading.)
I think pretending these experiences don’t exist is an ethical failure that hurts people. But I think consent as a felt sense– or MacKinnon’s “rape is any sex where you feel violated”, or even the sex-positive feminist “if it isn’t fuck yes, it’s fuck no”– also hurts people. Once again, if someone identifies as a rape survivor, I have absolutely no intentions of questioning their self-identification. However, I think that for many people, including myself, using the model of “rape” to discuss these experiences is not helpful, and having a normative expectation that these are rapes is unhelpful.
First: although I have not been raped, I have been sexually assaulted. In my personal experience, it actually does make a pretty large difference whether my partner intended to violate me. That’s the reason I don’t identify all the sex I had under the delusional belief that my partner would hurt me as being rapes: because, ultimately, it does make a big difference to my lived experience that my partners actually loved me very much, respected my bodily integrity, and would have been horrified and stopped if they knew that I was consenting because I thought they would punish me if I didn’t consent. This is true for many of the survivors of rape and of sexual violation I’ve known.
Second: I am genuinely uncomfortable with declaring my partners– people I’m still friends with, people I think are tremendously ethical and respectful with regards to sex, often people I love– to be rapists.
Maymay and Unquietpirate argue that I should not, actually, be uncomfortable– that we should accept that everyone is going to violate their partner’s consent at some point, and we should come up with a framework in which that is acceptable. Their proposed way of dealing with the perpetrator side is:
Realistically, anybody who is having any kind of sex in the context of rape culture is likely to violate someone’s consent at some point. The most ethical response to this fact, obviously, is to not have sex—and, in fact, if enough people decided to opt out of rape culture by opting completely out of erotic intimacy, that would ultimately bring rape culture crashing down. But a “sexual hunger strike to bring about the end of rape culture” is an unrealistically high ethical bar to set for most real people who are trying to survive in a world where intimacy is a human necessity.
Instead, we need to take it as a given that if you choose to have sex in the context of rape culture, especially if you choose to have sex with people who have less power than you, and especially if you choose to have kinds of sex that explicitly play with that power differential, at some point you are probably going to violate someone’s consent—if you haven’t already. We need a process for dealing with that other than abject denial. We need to develop ways of regularly acknowledging, taking accountability for, and participating in healing work a round the damage our coercive behavior causes.
This viewpoint is, frankly, dangerous.
It is true that everyone is at risk of dating a borderline or having sex with someone who only agreed because of a culture of compulsory sexuality. But not everyone is at risk of having sex with someone who has said “no”, “I don’t want to”, “not now”, “maybe later”, or any other words that people understand perfectly well to be rejections in any other context. Not everyone is at risk of having sex with someone who is pushing their hands away or otherwise indicating through gestures they don’t want sex. Not everyone is at risk of having sex with someone who is silent and unmoving but unresisting. Not everyone is at risk of having sex with someone who is unconscious, or whom they know is too intoxicated to understand where they are or what is going on, without a prior agreement that sex in such circumstances is okay.
In fact, about ninety to ninety-five percent of people manage to avoid doing those things entirely! Even most people who have done those things only do it once and thus manage about 99.99% of their sex lives not doing that. The problem of rape is mostly a problem of a small number of repeat rapists who don’t care that they’re violating others’ consent.
And I think it is dangerous to place having sex with someone who has said no, etc. in the same category as having sex with someone under the influence of compulsory sexuality (i.e. everyone). Normalization is a tremendously powerful social force. The more a behavior is viewed as normal and acceptable, the more likely it is that people will do it. If you believe everyone wears fedoras, you’re more likely to wear a fedora; if all your friends support a certain political belief, you’re more likely to support it; if you believe everyone commits rape, you’re more likely to commit rape.
Furthermore, part of what allows rapists to keep raping is what Millar calls the “social license to operate”– the fact that most rapists will experience no negative consequences to raping and there is nothing stopping them from finding victim after victim. That, in general, people tend to make excuses for rapists, to assume they’re good people who just made a mistake, to socially punish victims for coming forward. “Everyone does it” is a tremendous boon to the social license to operate, whether it comes in the frat-boy form of “a drunk girl is an opportunity” or in the radical form of “everyone who has sex in the context of rape culture violates someone’s consent at some point.”
Because they don’t, actually. Most people don’t want to rape anyone. Even most people who aren’t aware that sex with someone silent and unresisting (say) is rape would probably be freaked out by an actually totally passive partner.
I support the project of figuring out a better way for people who had consensual sex that nevertheless left their partners feeling violated to acknowledge what happened, take accountability, and participate in healing work. I support the project of figuring out a better way for rapists to stop being rapists. I do not support these being the same project.
The former group needs to figure out how to deal with their irrational guilt, to communicate better with their partner and future partners, to support their partner, and develop a healthier sexuality. The second group needs to learn that it is not acceptable to have sex with someone after they’ve said “no”. These are fundamentally different needs! The former group already knows they’re not supposed to have sex with people who have said “no”! The latter group’s guilt is totally rational and their problem is more “entitlement to others’ bodies” rather than “bad communication”! It’s different!
We need to deal better with the existence of consensual sex that is still a violation. But consent as a felt sense will not do it.