Can “Unwanted Sex” Be Ambiguous?


(Jessica Hanley/ The Observer)
(Jessica Hanley/ The Observer)

College widens one’s view of the world, offering a myriad of classes, lectures, clubs and people to ultimately shape the perspective one chooses to take of not only him or herself, but also of life outside of college. In addition to the academic and extracurricular, there is also a strong social scene in college. In particular, that of alcohol, drugs and sex. Drug and alcohol education have always been prominent among high schools and colleges: Fordham, for example, requires a drug and alcohol training course for incoming freshmen. Orientation leaders are trained on how to cooperate, communicate and handle these types of issues with their freshmen groups.

However, out of all those three, the most prominent in the news over the past couple of months has been sex; more specifically, the rape culture among colleges and their handling of sexual abuse cases. Rape scandals have tarnished the reputations of elite institutions like Columbia University and the University of Virginia (UVA). Victims at both schools suffered emotional and mental repercussions, without even taking into account their concerns about their respective schools not offering enough assistance in bringing justice to their rapists, and in some cases, ignoring the problem altogether. The schools received enormous media coverage: Rolling Stone published the story of a rape victim at UVA, only to report about a week later that some of the facts that the victim claimed to have happened were questionable, while the story of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who vowed to carry a mattress around campus as long as her rapist was still attended the school, received almost daily attention.

Another concerning, perhaps less well-known issue pertaining to sex are the blurred lines of “unwanted consensual sex”. A 2002 study called “Why Women Consent to Unwanted Sex with a Dating Partner” found that women are more likely than men to engage in sex when they truly don’t want to, and aimed to explain why this happens. The study discovered that women are more likely to agree to unwanted sex for reasons such as not wanting to disappoint their partner, the belief that they alone are responsible for the success of a relationship and that having sex will contribute to that, and the preconceived notion that men have a higher and uncontrollable sex drive than women so refusing to have sex with a man would prove to be fruitless. The study also discovered that women with higher levels of anxiety would most likely agree to unwanted sex to prevent causing tension in the relationship.

All these factors explain why women give consent to unwanted sex, but it is not as ambiguous as it may seem. Yes, these women involved in the study did not actually want to have sex with their partners, but they did. Their verbal agreement indicates their wish for sex, but their partner has no way of knowing that they in reality did not wish to participate in the act. There were no refusal signs through their body language. These cases are not reported as rape because both partners gave consent. The legal definition of rape, as stated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation is, “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” There is no “fine line” between rape and consensual sex, there is a thick, understandable line. Women should employ the term “no” more often if they do not wish to have sex, disregarding what their partner may think of them. The study mentioned women who were afraid to refuse sex with their partner out of fear of suffering through a failed relationship, but if a woman is involved in a relationship where saying “no” is a problem, then perhaps the relationship itself has to be reevaluated. Men are not at fault for consensual unwanted sex, and women cannot abuse the victim card. A woman’s partner has no way of knowing if the sex was unwanted if a woman indicates not only physical, but verbal agreement as well. Despite popular belief, employing the term “no” is not as difficult as it may seem, and the sooner women realize this, the clearer the lines will be for them with regards to unwanted consensual sex.

In an article entitled “Is It Possible That There Is Something In Between Consensual Sex and Rape…And That It Happens To Almost Every Girl Out There,” a female blogger recounts her drunken one nightstand with an equally drunk partner. She writes, “I didn’t feel much of anything. I certainly didn’t feel like I’d been raped. But what had happened the night prior was not consensual sex, and I didn’t like it […] I didn’t want to go all the way.” However, what really prevented this woman from stopping herself from having sex? It seems like she had some sort of nagging feeling that told her to not have sex, but she did not actively stop herself. She may have been inebriated, but she was nonetheless coherent and fully aware. Her sobriety, or lack thereof, is not a reasonable explanation. Unwanted sex is not as ambiguous as it seems—the women who make this choice are in full control. Her claim that “refusing to ignore these rape-ish situations” forces the discussion into murky waters. She clearly states she was not raped, nor did she feel that way, so why is she, contrary to what she wants to do, crying rape? Or, rather, “rape-ish”? There is no such thing as “rape-ish”: either an individual was raped, or was not. If an individual was not raped, then he or she gave consent to sexual intercourse. It is unnecessary to throw around a very serious term such as rape, but lessen its effect by adding “ish,” which can give the illusion that this female felt like she was violated in some way. Women need to be more vocal by saying no, and then any apparent blurred lines of unwanted consensual sex will quickly disappear.