(Originally published in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape)
I am one of Those Girls.
I have taken my shirt (and occasionally more) off for an audience. Sometimes to make a political point. Sometimes just because somebody asked. But almost always for the sheer pleasure of it, for the thrill of sexual power that comes from holding a room in your thrall. I’ve gone home drunk with someone on the first date—scratch that, the first meeting—and fucked sweaty until 2:00 am
I “lost” my “virginity” at age fifteen and haven’t had the decency to regret it yet.
I’ve gone to a frat party already drunk and wrapped in a toga. I’ve walked through the city after dark by myself, dressed only in a slip, fishnets, and a leather jacket. I’ve gotten down and dirty with strangers on a crowded dance floor. I’ve played quarters with the wrestling team. Once, I had sex with my girlfriend in a barely hidden doorway.
I’m fully aware that from a safety perspective, these aren’t the smartest things I’ve ever done. Nor do I imagine they demonstrate any kind of glittery Girl Powertm. Wild sexual behavior is risky at best and stupid at worst, right?
No. Of course not. Stupid is nowhere near the worst. If you’re a woman, wild sexual behavior is downright fucking dangerous. Not only can you “get yourself” raped, but you’re also damn likely to find yourself blamed for it. After all, you should have known better.
I’m over the whole thing. Start to finish. And I hereby declare my right to be wild and still maintain my bodily autonomy.
Look, life is full of “stupid.” Bungee jumping is stupid. Playing football is stupid. Running for president (even just student body president) is stupid. Riding a motorcycle is stupid. Public speaking is stupid. Falling in love is stupid. Writing this essay is stupid. They’re all likely to end in heartbreak, embarrassment, injury, or all of the above. But nobody except your mother is likely to try to talk you out of doing them, and no one, including your mother, is going to blame you or deny you the assistance you need to recover if, in the course of doing them, another person physically assaults you.
And there’s the rub: There are risks inherent in any behavior. Even if you never leave your house, you risk depression due to lack of sun and social interaction (never mind the risk of fire, gas explosion, electric shock, earthquake, falling down stairs, cutting yourself on a kitchen knife, or getting a splinter). But rape is not a risk inherent in partying or in “wild” sexual behavior.
I’ll repeat that: Rape is not a risk inherent in unregulated partying or sexual behavior. Need proof? Consider this: It’s not a risk for nearly half the population. I’ve never met a straight man who worried about being raped as he contemplated a night of debauchery. Vomiting in public? Yes. Getting rejected by sexual prospects? Sure. Getting in a fight? Maybe. Getting raped? Come on.
It’s a risk for women because, to put it bluntly, simply being female is a risk factor for rape. Partying wouldn’t have anything to do with it if vast swaths of the social order weren’t constructed on the foundation of control over women’s sexuality. If women were just as free as men to go a little crazy on their own terms, things would fall apart. Entire segments of the corporate porn and entertainment industries would crumble because it would no longer be taboo (and therefore thrilling) to see girls “going wild.” Society would have to rethink its indulgence of “boys will be boys” behavior, if “girls could be girls,” too. Homophobia would lose some of its grip, because it would no longer be a scary, vulnerable thing to be “like a girl.”
No wonder it’s easier to just tell women to “be careful” and create safe-ride programs. But there are costs to asking women to police our own safety, beyond the basic and profound unfairness of the thing. The first is pleasure. Because I gotta tell you: Indulging your wild side can be pretty fun. That’s why we do it. For the ecstasy of merging our bodies with the sweaty, throbbing crowd on a dance floor. For the thrill of meeting someone’s eye for the first time and indulging our desire to find out right now what their skin feels like. For the dizziness of drunken camaraderie. For the way the night air on our bare arms and legs raises goose flesh, our heart rate, and eyebrows, and reminds us what it feels like to be alive.
Sure, there are plenty of ways drinking and/or sexing can be bad for you—any pleasure can be manipulated or abused for any number of reasons. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with either, and when you force women to choose safety over pleasure in ways men never have to (and when you shame them for choosing “wrong”), you teach women that their pleasure is not as important as men’s. And that’s a slippery slope we all need to stop sliding down.
Beyond that, scaring women into safety simply isn’t making women safer—and it never will. Very few people of any age or gender go get drunk thinking it’s a responsible thing to do. However true it may be that it’s safer not to get drunk (approximately 70 percent of rapes among college students involve alcohol or drug use) or go home with people you don’t know very well, it’s not like women haven’t already heard about the risks ad infinitum from parents, college administrations, the nightly news, or any of the twenty-five CSI and Law and Order clones on TV.
I know what you’re thinking: Okay, so it’s unfair. But the risk is still real. Are we supposed to stop warning women about rape? Believe me, I get it. Almost every woman I know has been sexually violated in some way. I’m no exception (see “played quarters with the wrestling team,” above). But we need to not just indulge our desire to do something. We need to think first about what will actually work.
The good news? We already know something that doesn’t work: blaming and shaming women. We also know something that does work (although it will take a while): holding rapists responsible.
Let’s look a little more closely at that correlation between rape and alcohol, for example. That’s not a correlation between female drinking and rape. It’s a correlation between all drinking and rape. In fact, studies have shown that it’s more likely that a male rapist has been drinking than that his female victim has. So if we want to raise awareness about the links between drinking and rape, we should start by getting the word out to men (who are, after all, the overwhelming majority of rapists) that alcohol is likely to impair their ability to respond appropriately if a sexual partner says no. (This would, not incidentally, be much easier to do if we taught both women and men to seek enthusiastic consent in their partners, not just the absence of “no.”) When was the last time you read about that anywhere? When we discuss drinking and rape and neglect to shine the light on men’s drinking, we play into the same victim blaming that makes it so easy for men to rape women in the first place.
The silence around men’s drinking is, of course, part of that much larger “boys will be boys” culture, one that played a large part in my assault. The party where it happened was for a men’s sports team; the coaches provided the alcohol.
This is the very culture that supports acquaintance rape to begin with, the very culture feminists have been working to dismantle for decades. And that’s the problem. Holding boys and men accountable is no quick fix, and in the meantime, women are still in danger.
So if we can’t just wait until feminism smashes the patriarchy, and blaming/shaming/frightening women isn’t working, where does that leave us?
How about we just get real? Tell women about the real risks of rape while also promoting more sophisticated, pleasure-affirming messages that go beyond advocating “abstinence” from drinking and sexual experimentation. Yes, get the message out that when it comes to preventing sexual violence, not drinking is safer than drinking, and staying with people you trust is safer than playing with people you just met. But stop there, and you’re setting up a false and impossible choice between purity and rape. These “risky” behaviors can be a lot of fun, both physically and socially, and most of us will choose immediate pleasure over the abstract risk of violence or death, at least some of the time—and why shouldn’t we? Plus, the more society warns against something, the more appealing it can become as an act of rebellion.
What if the cultural message we give to women about rape prevention went something like this:
1. Whatever you wear, whoever you dance with, however much you drink, whatever way you walk home, however many sex partners you choose to have—none of these behaviors make rape your fault. Nothing makes rape your fault. Rape is not your fault.
2. Unfortunately, we still live in a culture where women are (unfairly) at risk for rape. Even though it shouldn’t be your responsibility to worry about this, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk. The safest thing to do is to not drink at all, and to not be alone with anyone you don’t know well and trust.
3. If you decide to drink, it’s safer to do it in moderation and/or in the company of a friend you trust to look out for you (not just someone you know. Nearly 80 percent of rape victims know their attackers).
4. If you decide to have casual sex, take similar precautions: Tell a friend where you’re going and with whom, pay close attention to your instincts, and make sure the person respects your boundaries before you go anywhere private with them.
5. For the times you may choose to get properly sauced, or your friend turns out to be not as reliable as you’d hoped, or things get outta hand in a way you didn’t see coming, learn how to defend yourself against sexual coercion and assault.
Yes, I said it: Take self-defense. No, I am not blaming the victim or putting the responsibility on the woman. I’m living in reality—remember the part about how long it’s going to be before we’re consistently successful at holding rapists responsible? In the meantime, wouldn’t you rather know what to do if and when the shit hits the fan?
I sure wish I had. I never even tried to shove that guy off of me. That’s something that I now know I could have done easily, even drunk, even if he was bigger than me, which, honestly, he wasn’t. But it never occurred to me that there was anything I could do physically to protect myself. Why? Not because I was drunk. Because literally no one my whole life had told me that my body could work in my own defense (and many, many messages had told me the opposite).
And yet it’s true: Women and girls can keep ourselves safe using our very own bodies. No pepper spray. No whistles. Even women who don’t work out, or are “overweight” or physically impaired. If we spent even a fraction of the time we use to teach girls to fear for their bodies teaching them to use their bodies for their own protection instead, there’d be a hell of a lot less for any of us to worry about. Because the most practical way to reduce the risk of rape for all women is to create a culture in which the rapist has to worry that he’ll get hurt.
Will any of this work 100 percent of the time? Nope. Again: Life is risk. But this kind of complex message gives women real choices. Equipping them with the information and tools they need to protect themselves, and then trusting them to make their own decisions, will work a heck of a lot better than knowing less and living in fear. And it will give every woman a fighting chance at a world where she can go out and get a little crazy sometimes if she wants to. Where she can dance and drink and flirt and fool around because it feels good. A world where her pleasure is actually important. That’s the world I’m living in. Care to join me?