I knew I hadn’t committed any crime. But the sense of sadness—tinged with disgust—at what Katie and I had conspired to allow to happen made me feel very much like an accidental rapist.
Hugo Schwyzer, folks. This is an essay in which a man tells his readers about how he willfully and repeatedly disregarded his partner’s negative responses to his sexual advances, and then insists that she played an equal part in the situation because she didn’t explicitly say no.
What he refers to here as “[w]hat Katie and I had conspired to allow to happen” is him having sex with her in spite of her giving clear non-verbal indications that she didn’t want sex. On multiple occasions. Don’t you just love that vague passiveness (“allowed to happen”)? His use of the term “conspired” is particularly disgusting, since it suggests a consensus between the two of them that obviously didn’t exist. The issue is precisely that his girlfriend (and I really, really hope that her real name isn’t “Katie”) did not feel she could tell him what she wanted and didn’t want. That’s the exact opposite of a conspiracy, which requires an agreement between at least two people.
Hugo first invokes and then distances himself from the term “accidental rape”; he doesn’t describe himself as an “accidental rapist,” he merely says that he “fe[lt] very much like” one. And the fact that he will admit to feeling this way, even though he totally doesn’t need to because it was her fault too, is supposed to make us think he’s a super good guy, especially since he’s been super careful ever since this incident to never ever allow a thing like this to happen again (except for all those times he slept with his students, and the time he tried to murder another girlfriend, but whatever).
It’s not fair to expect men to read minds, or even to perfectly intuit subtle body language. As I tell the teens with whom I work, a precondition for being ready for a sexual relationship is having the courage to say a firm “No” to the people you love.
The silence and unresponsiveness of a partner are not “subtle” to anyone who values their partner’s pleasure. And surely paying some goddamn attention to your partner ought to be at least as important a ”precondition for being ready for a sexual relationship” as “having the courage to say a firm ‘No.’” And even though he uses the gender-neutral “teens” in this passage, let’s be clear that this is a gendered issue. The people who most often find themselves in unwanted sexual situations and still remain hesitant to “say a firm ‘No’” are female; the people who most often benefit from this hesitation are male.
The reason it’s important for women to be able “to say a firm ‘no’” is that so many men refuse to acknowledge any refusal short of that from their female partners. They do so because they’ve been taught that this is acceptable behavior by people like Hugo, in articles exactly like this one. The reason it takes “courage” for women to say “no” is that so many men — including Hugo, here and elsewhere — actively reinforce cultural messages about how much it hurts men when women reject them (just read any of the many passages in this article about how bad Hugo felt when Katie told him what had been going on). Women respond by trying to refuse unwanted sex without saying “no,” because they don’t want to be “cruel” to their partners. Men respond to this by ignoring women’s refusals, because they’re not saying the word “no.” Everything about this dynamic contributes to making it easy for men to ignore women’s signals and hard for women to make their signals loud enough to get past men’s determination to ignore them.
It’s a major problem that so many women have so much hesitation about saying the word “no” in sexual situations. But the source of that problem is the overall dynamic, which originates in men’s behavior, and a more appropriate way to address it — especially for a man writing to men on a men’s website — would be to address the fact that not enough men pay attention to the ways women are already saying “no.” As valuable as explicit communication can be, it’s not the only clear way to communicate, which Hugo even admits:
Katie had seemed so passionate when we’d been making out, but then gotten very quiet once all our clothes were off. I’d told myself she wanted to have one ear cocked for the sound of a key in the door. I hadn’t considered—or hadn’t wanted to consider—the more obvious possibility: she was trying to tell me that she didn’t want to have sex.
That was indeed “the more obvious possibility,” and he even admits the possibility that his refusal to see it was willful. And yet:
[O]n those not-infrequent occasions when she wanted to make out and “fool around” but nothing more—she had no vocabulary for that. And over and over again, I took her reticence as a sign to “try harder” rather than to slow down. The blame for that rested on both of us.
Right. She “had no vocabulary” for saying no, which is why she gave him signs of refusal that just a few paragraphs earlier he called “obvious.” And his refusal to read them is her fault, too, because she didn’t explicitly say the word “no.” Never mind that he also didn’t explicitly ask her what she wanted — apparently she’s the only one who had any responsibility to make things clear verbally.
No, this was not “accidental rape.” As for whether it should be called “rape,” Katie is the only one who can determine that; but whatever you call it, it was clearly a violation, and it was just as clearly not accidental. Even if it was unconscious on Hugo’s part (and given his history and the way he tells this story, I have my doubts about that), unconscious is not the same as accidental.
There’s a reason Hugo feels it’s perfectly reasonable to assign at least half the blame for this situation to his girlfriend because she didn’t say the word “no.” It’s because the default view of heterosexual relations is that men always want sex and are always going to try to get it, and they can’t be expected to care how their female partners feel about it unless they’re forced to. Therefore if women don’t want sex, it’s completely their responsibility to make that absolutely 100% explicitly clear in so many words, at the appropriate time, because expecting men to initiate a discussion about sex is patently ridiculous, because why would they do that when they know they can just go ahead and try for it and at least some of the time end up in a situation in which the woman doesn’t feel comfortable explicitly saying “no” because she’s been trained her whole life to think that others’ needs are more important than her own, and that refusing sex is crippling to the male ego, etc. etc., and therefore the man can retain plausible deniability because even though she made it clear she wasn’t into it, she never said the word “no.”