As some of you may know I have been writing a book about my experience in an abusive relationship. Throughout the writing of that book I had to put into words how the sex played a part in the abuse, with one chapter in particular honing in on the nitty gritty of it. After that chapter was written and I took a step back to look at it, I realised that I didn’t know either way what happened to me – and its because I couldn’t define whether it was coercive sex or whether it was rape. So I decided to look into both, not to define my own experience. I have already come to terms with what my own experience was, but there are so many women who probably wouldn’t know to define their own.
By the letter of English law, rape is defined as a person intentionally penetrating another’s vagina, anus or mouth with a penis without the person’s consent. Sexual assault is defined as a person intentionally penetrating vagina, anus or mouth with a part of the body other than the penis or by using an object, without the person’s consent. The key word in this is consent. Consent has been a real grey area within English law for a very long time. At the foundation of it, consent needs to be given by anybody who is over the age of 16. If the person being penetrated is under the age of 16, then the law is designed to protect the rights and interests of that person. If the person being penetrated is under the age of 13, then the act is not legal under any circumstances. By the letter of English law sexual coercion is defined as the act of manipulating a person into having unwanted sexual intercourse or sexual activity through non-physical means.
Sexual coercion looks like somebody being plied with alcohol or drugs to make consent more likely. It looks like tantrum after tantrum when a partner is turned down. It looks like somebody degrading, insulting and putting down their desired person to make said person then feel like they have to engage in sexual activity. Coercion can be threats to do/not do whatever it is that is likely to make a person engage in the demands being put to them. Money can be a huge factor in coercive sex, whether it be an offer to pay or the threat of taking money away/not paying bills etc. Coercion is complicated and at times, can be hard to prove. To make it simple, if your ‘no’ ‘not tonight’ ‘I have a headache’ ‘I don’t feel comfortable with doing that’ ‘I’m finished drinking’ and other ways you say no are met with persuasion, persistence, disregard, insults, threats and behaviour, then it is very likely your no isn’t going to be respected and honoured.
So what happened to me? Well, as a start point I knew I had engaged in sexual intercourse that I didn’t want. Did I say no? Not exactly. I gave excuses. Why didn’t I say no? Because I was scared of the reaction. It says a lot for the type of relationship we had if I felt physically safer having sex than I did saying no to sex. Did he interpret my excuses as a lack of consent? No. He carried on pursuing the idea, completely disregarding what I had said. So, surely if I didn’t express a firm ‘NO’ that means I gave consent, didn’t it? Well, whilst I may not have verbalised a firm no, I didn’t verbalise a firm yes either. In fact, there was no yes in it at all. My body had tensed up. My body language had me closed off and unreceptive of his attempts to get close. My mind wasn’t present in the moment. I had dissociated myself as a way to protect myself from what was happening. So, could my ex have been given the impression that I was ‘up for it’ and wanted to engage in sexual activity with him? I’d say no – but this is where those grey areas of the law come into play.
How I felt about it all afterwards told me everything I needed to know about whether I should be doubting my own experience – which I’ll be honest, I did do for quite some time. I felt confused. I felt used. I felt as though another part of me that should be mine had been exploited by him. I knew that if it was consensual sex, I never would have questioned afterwards what had happened to me. I knew that if I was comfortable being in that situation with him, I’d have been present in the moment as opposed to letting my mind dissociate. I spent a long time trying to figure out why I was so uncomfortable with the sexual activity taking place. When I heard the term sexual coercion, it was like a lot of my experience had been validated. Yes I didn’t exactly say no and he didn’t exactly force himself on me. I wasn’t left with bruised wrists or legs but I was left with an uncomfortable gut feeling that I can now identify as coercive sex.