Over the past few months, I've been involved in quite a few conversations about the tangly overlaps between feminism, popular culture, and the evangelical/fundamentalist faith I grew up with. A couple of events in particular triggered some long (and sometimes heated) discussions: the wrenching story of a woman's rapist friending her on Facebook, a community drama explosion centered around a clumsy/creepy proposition, and the ensuing MetaFilter discussions about both.
No matter how conversations about these issues started, they inevitably passed through the same checkpoint: What IS rape?
If you take the legal definition seriously, the answer is simple: if you have sex with someone and they haven't given explicit consent, congratulations! You're a rapist. "Consent" isn't a terribly hard concept to understand, and when we apply it to things like entering someone's house or borrowing someone's car, nobody seems to get confused. When the issue is sex, though, a percentage of the population suddenly gets confused, even baffled.
Hypotheticals came out: What if someone was super drunk? Were they able to give consent if they just had impaired judgement? What if they wanted to have sex, but woke up later, changed their mind and said that they didn't? Or -- and this one is the kicker -- What if they protested, but they actually did want it? If consensual sex required explicit consent, how would shy people or people with conflicted feelings ever get laid?
The tragedy of this final objection (raised more times than I could count) was the transparency of its rationalization. "She may have said stop, but she really wanted it -- I could tell" was so monstrously cliche, so absurdly delusional, that it begged to be dismissed out of hand. No one would accept that excuse if we were discussing any other topic. Even the menwho claim that "women are too subtle" when rejecting their advances are lying -- men can understand "polite refusal" as well as anyone else. Yet... Yet, in the back of my mind, a nagging discomfort remained through these discussions. I'd grown up with good friends -- both male and female -- whose lives were evidence of something more complex. I had male and female friends who, though conflicted about their own sexual volition, wanted to have sex and were happy when it happened, even though they had not consented and in some cases protested. Of course, I knew close friends who'd been sexually assaulted and raped as well -- some by people they'd trusted, often in situations that were externally indistinguishable from my conflicted-but-pleased friends.
Needless to say, this conflict bothered me. A lot.