The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual violence]

In discussions about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas song in which a man persistently pressures a woman to stay at his house instead of going home to her family for the night, many consent-aware people point out that given the time period in which the song was written, it should be interpreted as playful, fully-consensual banter.

Even the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” is meant as a jokey reference to how strong the alcohol is rather than the way we read it today–an implication that date rape drugs are involved. Viewed in its proper context, the song is actually a celebration of female sexual agency–something that wasn’t exactly condoned at the time–because the woman in the song is clearly looking for excuses to stay with the guy she likes.

Given my own cultural background, I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation because it’s exactly how I was brought up to expect these things to go. I’ve had consensual, fun interactions of this sort with partners. It was how I always interpreted the song growing up.

But as others have pointed out, even this interpretation means that women cannot say “yes” to sex directly and that’s nothing to be celebrated. That’s part of the problem. If men cannot expect women to say “yes” directly–if they’re taught that sometimes, “no” actually means “yes”–that creates way too much room for misinterpretation and sexual violence.

I’ve written about Guess Culture here a lot. The type of interaction presented in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of Guess Culture. The man in the song never comes out and says that he wants to have sex. In fact, he never even directly asks the woman to stay the night. Instead, he encourages her to stay later than she meant, have another drink, it’s so cold outside, you wouldn’t want to go outside in that, imagine how bad I’d feel if anything happened to you…

Likewise, the woman neither says, “I really want to stay over but I can’t this time,” nor “I’m not interested in you that way, I’m leaving.” Instead, she’s supposed to understand that the man is implying that he wants to have sex, and he’s supposed to understand that…this is where things get a little hazy. Critics of the song say that he’s supposed to understand that she’s actually not interested but won’t say so directly because she’s been socialized not to and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. People who think the song is fine say that he’s supposed to understand that she really wants to stay, perhaps even intends to, but feels obligated to first present this list of “excuses” to show that she’s a “good girl” who won’t just jump right into bed with someone.

And like I said, it could totally happen that way. I’ve had it happen that way. Maybe the specific people in this song are an established couple for whom this is an established consensual pattern. (But just because they’re an established couple for whom this is an established pattern does not necessarily make it consensual.)

The problem is that:

There is no way for the man to know if she’s saying yes or no.

And when your “yes” looks and sounds exactly the same as your “no,” you’re not communicating effectively. When your “hey, I’m really worried about you going out in this weather, please crash here for the night” sounds exactly the same as your “I’m having sex with you tonight whether you like it or not,” you’re not communicating effectively. But if you would like to violate people’s boundaries, having the latter sound exactly like the former is very clever.

That’s who this communication style is primarily serving.

When people say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that all rape is considered permissible in all circumstances, or that all sex is rape, or even that all sex without clear and explicit consent is rape. What we do mean is that our culture normalizes sexual practices and ways of interacting that sharply increase the likelihood that people will have sex with someone without their consent–that they will commit sexual violence.

One of the ways this works is plausible deniability. In our culture, someone can say something like, “But I totally thought they were into it! I thought they’d say no if they actually wanted me to stop!” and people treat this as evidence against sexual assault. Someone can intentionally violate someone’s boundaries and say the exact same thing and get away with it.

That’s why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is kind of terrifying regardless of the context it was originally written in, or the feelings of the hypothetical people in the song. In real life, a woman in that situation might feel wanted, cared about, and flirted with. Or she might feel pressured, coerced, and trapped. As the other person in that interaction, how are you supposed to know? You can’t.

I get that many people find these interactions fun and exciting. I get that it’s how many of us were raised. I get that even I might momentarily feel kind of unwanted if I playfully say, “Oh, I don’t think so, I really have to go…” and a partner immediately says, “Oh ok I’ll take you home right now then!” I get that for many of us, women and folks socialized as women especially, it can be hard to believe that someone really wants us if they don’t seem to “fight” for it.

But mind-reading is a hell of a flimsy hook to hang your bodily autonomy on.


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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture
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Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone

[Content note: sexual harassment, assault, and abuse]

If you’ve hung around in poly communities* for a while, you’ve probably seen this dynamic:

A man (or, very occasionally, someone of another gender) gets accused of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse. Along with all the usual disparagement and skepticism towards the accuser, this man’s other partners come out of the woodwork to defend him, describing (sometimes in great detail) their relationship or sex life to “prove” that he’s a consent-aware and safe person. The fact that he did not harass/assault/abuse these individuals is used as evidence that he did not harass/assault/abuse anyone else, either.

To start with the obvious, even the most heinous, ill-intentioned person rarely manages to harm every single person they interact with. While the fact that someone has harassed, assaulted, or abused someone is strong evidence that they will do it again–most sexual predators are repeat offenders–the opposite is not necessarily true.

The idea that a “real” sexual predator will inevitably prey on every single person they are involved with comes from the idea that people who harass, assault, and abuse are unable to control themselves, that they are rapid beasts who lunge at every available target. As knowledgeable folks have already pointed out many, many, many times, that’s not how the overwhelming majority of sexual violence works. At all.

I’m not inside any sexual predator’s mind, so I can’t tell you how any particular individual decides who to try to harass, assault, or abuse and who to pretend to be a good person to. But I’ve watched quite a few of these situations unfold and what they all had in common was that the accuser was young, relatively unknown in the community, queer, non-white, and/or marginalized in other ways, whereas the current and former partners stepping up to defend the accused were well-known, well-respected, often older members of the community it happened in.

What’s going on with that?

What’s going on is that people who want to hurt people pick people that they doubt will feel empowered to speak up, and who will be much less likely to be believed if they do.

I have watched several men that I’ve been involved with or otherwise close with get accused of sexual violence towards others. Aside from that split-second of shock I inevitably experienced when I first heard the accusation, I had no trouble at all believing it–not because of who they are (in front of me, that is), but because of who I am. In the circles these men and I both run in, I doubt anyone would feel empowered to abuse me. I have a widely-read blog and am very highly respected, especially as a voice about these issues. Also, I’m cis, white, and socioeconomically doing okay. The two times I’ve been harassed by members of my community, I spoke up and was immediately believed and supported, and those men lost many of their connections within the community as a result. If someone assaulted or otherwise violated me and I blogged about it, it would probably be disastrous for them.

Of course, that’s not to say that privileged and respected people are never impacted by sexual violence, that they’re always believed and supported, or that they always find justice. Thanks to rape culture, nobody is guaranteed support if they experience sexual violence, and there’s nothing anyone can do (or should have to do) to prevent it. But privilege certainly helps, and so do all the visibly-awesome friends I have. Predators target vulnerable people, and that vulnerability is never their fault.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I–the well-known blogger who writes constantly about boundaries and sets them loudly and publicly all the time–would not be anyone’s first choice as a target for abuse. If I refused to believe that someone who had treated me respectfully and consensually had done the exact opposite with someone else, I’d be ignoring everything I know about how sexual predators work.

Just like abusers aren’t uniformly awful to the people they’re abusing–if they were, it’d be much easier to leave–they aren’t uniformly awful to everyone else. They’re often charming, beloved by their friends, and professionally successful. And yes, in a polyamorous context, that can even include other partners.

I get that it’s really painful to watch someone you love, someone you’re intimate with, be accused of horrible things by others. People will refer to that person as “a rapist” or “an abuser” and those labels don’t feel true to you because it wasn’t your experience. But look–anyone who rapes is a rapist. Anyone who abuses is an abuser. They don’t have to do it to every single person they’re involved with for that to be true. In fact, they only have to do it once.

This is the juncture at which many progressive, feminist Always-Believe-The-Survivor types really stumble. I get that it feels like you have counter-evidence. I get that it feels that if everyone only knew how sweet and loving and totally consensual he is with you, it’d be obvious that the accusation is false. But it only feels that way because believing that someone you love did something terrible is painful, and your brain’s trying to find ways to keep you from having to believe it.

Believe The Survivor isn’t just for when the survivor is someone you like and the accused is someone you don’t, or someone you don’t know. It’s for every time someone accuses someone of sexual violence and there’s no actual evidence that they’re lying, because most accusations of sexual violence are true and because acting otherwise without reason is dangerous.

Victim blaming is dangerous not just because it harms survivors and keeps them from speaking out, but because it sends a powerful message to sexual predators that they can do what they do with impunity. Think, then, about what it says when someone gets accused of sexual violence and a chorus of their other partners shows up to claim that the accusations must be false because “Well I’ve been with him for years and he has never been anything other than respectful of my body and boundaries, and based on everything I know I just can’t see him doing something like this.” Think about what it says when we treat these arguments as in any way valid.

What it says is that if you want to commit sexual violence and never be held accountable, all you have to do is make sure that you’ve got a partner or two that you behave consensually with. That way if you ever get accused of anything, your other partners will be available to express their genuine shock and use your good behavior to shield you from your bad behavior. You won’t even have to defend yourself.

We can short-circuit these tactics by treating any accusation of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse as valid regardless of the accused person’s previous behavior towards other people–or, in fact, towards the accuser. As I mentioned, being inconsistent and alternating between abusive behavior and “normal,” “loving” behavior is one way abusers trap people into relationships with them.

It’s time to start treating patterns like these as the norm rather than the exception. That’s why I’m actually the opposite of surprised when someone who’s accused of sexual violence turns out to have one or more partners who defend them with “But he didn’t abuse me.” He probably didn’t because he didn’t think he could get away with it with you, or because he wanted someone to be able to shield him the consequences of his violent behavior towards others.


*To state the obvious, the issues I’ve discussed here aren’t limited to poly communities and many people have difficulty believing that someone who treated them well abused someone else. But I’m writing about this in the context of polyamory because that’s the context I’ve been observing it in, and because poly people (obviously) tend to have multiple partners at the same time. That means that if someone abuses some but not all of their partners, those other partners are able to openly be like, “But hey, I’m dating/fucking this person and I haven’t had anything like that happen!” In monogamous contexts, that wouldn’t really work unless someone’s exes came forward, but that seems…unlikely. In this way, polyamorous communities are unfortunately able to perpetuate rape culture in an additional way: “Well, she’s the only one who’s had any problems with him. Maybe it’s something to do with her.” Never mind that the accuser is almost never actually the only one. They’re just the only one who happened to come forward.


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Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone

They Have To See It With Their Own Eyes: Men and Violence Against Women

[Content note: gendered violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment]

It’s been about a week and a half since Elliot Rodger shot six people and himself in Isla Vista, and the discussions are starting to die down. As they always do, as I knew they would. Plenty of men have authoritatively told me that misogyny is not the best explanation for this act of violence, that not all men are violent, that we need to reform the mental healthcare system, that autism makes people dangerous, that I have no reason to fear that something like this will happen to me, that I have no reason to fear men at all.

As I knew they would.

Then I read this piece on Jezebel by Madeleine Davies, and something clicked:

They don’t believe us. Hundreds of thousands of women from around the world can weigh in and tell their first hand experiences and there are men out there — seemingly reasonable and intelligent men — who still refuse to admit that maybe, just maybe, we have good reasons to be afraid. A 22-year-old kid spouts the same misogynist rhetoric that my coworkers and I receive in our inboxes on a daily basis and goes on a shooting rampage with the expressed purpose of punishing women for not giving him the sexual attention he felt entitled to and we’re still told that we have no right to be scared because #NotAllMen are like that.

Davies goes on to tell a story about her male college roommate and his persistent inability (or refusal) to internalize what Davies told him about women’s fear of and susceptibility to male violence:

In college, I had a male roommate who badgered me endlessly about my frequent choice to take a cab home from my restaurant job where I would — more often than not — clock out well after midnight. The walk from work to our house wasn’t long (maybe 20 minutes), but it was poorly lit and remote, taking you over railroad tracks and past warehouses. Honestly, it shouldn’t have mattered if the walk was 5 minutes and through the busiest part of town — I was paying for the taxi with my own money and it was my own business, but for some reason, it drove my otherwise decent roommate mad. He would call me lazy. He would imply that I was cowardly and weak. On multiple occasions, we got into shouting matches about it that left me feeling stupid, small and crazy.

While we were living together, a girl at our university was murdered by a stranger who broke into her on-campus apartment. They never caught the man who did it and still, my roommate couldn’t see why I would get mad when I came home to find our house unlocked and empty or why I’d be mildly nervous about being alone and vulnerable.

That was years ago, but recently, we met up for dinner.

“I’ve gotta apologize about something, Mads,” he said, pouring a glass of wine. “I know I used to give you a hard time about not wanting to walk alone at night, but a couple weeks ago around bar time, I saw a girl get attacked. It was crazy.”

To my friend’s credit, he didn’t stand by and simply watch the attack happen. He tried his best to help, but I still left the conversation with a sour taste in my mouth. I tried so many times to tell him about the scary realities of existing while female and he, like all of those dudes on Twitter, refused to believe me. He had to see someone undergo traumatic assault with his own eyes before he would recognize what we women know inherently.

And I remembered something else that I’ve observed and written about myself:

I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

Probably any woman who has discussed sexism publicly has experienced a man showing up and demanding citations to “prove” that her individual experiences really happened. But even when the proof is there–Davies’ college roommate presumably knew about the girl at their university who was murdered, as that tends to make front-page news, and most men realize on some level that women get lots of sexual harassment both offline and on dating websites (or other websites)–these men are unable to convert that knowledge into an understanding of phenomena such as women being afraid to walk alone at night, demanding that the door to the apartment remain locked at all times, or quitting dating sites in frustration at the disgusting messages they receive. They still see these things happening and read them as “women are so irrational and overemotional B” as opposed to, “Wow, this is a sad but totally rational response to the unacceptable reality that these women face.”

That it was not enough for Davies’ college roommate to know that their classmate had been murdered by an intruder to understand Davies’ fears honestly terrifies me. That a woman had to get attacked right in front of him in order for that to sink in is horrifying. And as Davies points out, he was not some anomaly. This is common.

I’m going to go out on a limb a little here and then solidify that limb as much as possible. Men who refuse to take violence against women seriously until it happens right the fuck in front of their faces are as complicit in this injustice as men who commit violence against women. This is not to say that they are as individuals just as bad or just as sexist or whatever. It just means that, without their silence, their ignorance, their shrugging shoulders, this situation could not continue as it is. It cannot continue without the participation of men who commit violence, and it cannot continue without the participation of men who shrug it off or blame the victims or accuse them of “overreacting.” Both of these are gears have to turn in order for it to continue.

If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that even more women must be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order for you to join in the fight against violence against women. If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that women’s personal accounts of violence–which they have little reason to lie about but many reasons to keep silent about–aren’t enough for you. If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that on some level–even if you won’t admit it–you think that there’s some level of “bad enough” that this shit needs to get before you’ll even acknowledge it as a problem, let alone actually do something about it.

Keep in mind, Davies hasn’t indicated that her former roommate has become some sort of anti-sexist crusader as a result of what he saw. He apologized to her, which is nice. He tried to help the woman who was being attacked, which is a good thing to do (although I hesitate to demand that men do it, because for all sorts of intersectional reasons, that may not be safe or possible for them).

But what’s it going to take for more men to actively, assertively challenge male violence against women? To shut down other men who excuse it or attempt to exonerate themselves by chanting “Not all men!” as though it were a magic spell? To refuse to support a type of masculinity that glorifies dominance and violence?

If what it takes is personally watching women being victimized by that type of masculinity, we’ve got a huge problem.

~~~

Moderation note: No, I did not discuss violence against men in this blog post. That was a deliberate choice. It is not the subject of this blog post. Do not turn the conversation in the comments section into a conversation about violence against men. Do not insist on reminding me that men can also be the victims of violence.

You are, however, welcome (as always) to draw analogies to other axes of oppression, because these dynamics play out in all of them.

They Have To See It With Their Own Eyes: Men and Violence Against Women