It’s sex, Jim, but not as we know it

Hoyden About Town has another post up in their depressingly-long-running series entitled “It’s not sex, it’s rape” – reporting the nigh-countless occurrences of sexual assaults being described as “having sex”.  Lauredhel includes a link to the fairly comprehensive and highly-recommended Pulling the Plug on Rape Culture One Word at a Time post at The Curvature:

What incorrectly using the word “sex” in cases of rape does is cast a shadow of doubt over the accusation.  The phrase “the defendant had sex with the woman” does indeed assume innocence for the defendant, but does not afford the alleged victim the same courtesy.  Her version of the events is entirely erased – and it also presents the “sex” as an objective fact, though the victim certainly might not view it as such. As far too many people don’t get, rape is not merely sex, but an act of violence – and this wording erases that as well.

Cara talks about how referring to things as “sex” and not “rape” implies consensuality, it implies that what occurred was just sex, not an act of violence – but on reflection, I realised there was a whole other, fairly grotesque, narrative in play.

To wit, that “had sex with a woman” may as well read as “had sex with a mobile vacuum tube“.

I’m going to digress a little, first, for a lesson in German grammar.

In English, you have the active voice: “I ate the doughnut” and the passive:  “The doughnut was eaten by me.” Ditto German, though the passive is less used.

Here’s the thing, though: in English, you’d just use “by”.  The doughnut was eaten by me.  The confidential files were destroyed by the shredder.  In German, it varies depending on whether you’re talking about a person or an object – the doughnut was eaten von [~of] me, but the files were destroyed durch [~through] the shredder. We don’t get that distinction in English.

It’s not a direct line to draw, because “had sex with” isn’t in the passive, but here’s the (roundabout) point:  that “with” can be followed by a person (“had sex with a woman“), an object (“had sex with a fleshlight“), a part of the sentence subject’s own anatomy (“had sex with my own hand“).  The only distinction is given by context.

Consider “we had sex” versus “he had sex with her”.  Who’s active?  Who’s passive?  Who’s doing, and who’s being done to, and which of those sentences would you rather feature in?

This isn’t a new point.  There’s screeds and screeds of feminist analysis of the passive role women are meant to play in intercourse, the active language applied to the male participants, the derogation of homosexual men who are perceived as “feminized” because they take the “female role” in sex. I’ve seen posts recently discussing how we can explain sex and where-do-babies-come-from to kids without laying on all the implications of penetrative sex – because just to say “the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina” downplays the woman’s role, along with being incredibly heteronormative and biological-reproduction-through-missionary-position-normative to boot.

But I’d never quite clicked as to how this all lines up with the criticisms made of our semantic choices when we’re talking about rape.

“Had sex” and “raped” are grammatically identical – neither strictly implies that the object (the thing being had sex with or raped) is anything more than a receiver of the action.  The  difference we immediately draw is to say that “raped” means a lack of consent, a legally-established criminal act, an act of violence.  And the objection we immediately raise as feminists is that when “journalists” report something as a “toddler sex case” or “had sex with the ten-year-old” they’re implying consent, legality, non-violence.

This is a very good point that needs to be made loudly and clearly, and is.

But there’s another aspect to how using “had sex with” minimizes what happens to victims of sexual assault.  Because our entire culture is telling us, with phrases like “pentrative sex” and using “fucked” as a transitive verb and “got his end away” that sex actually isn’t that big a deal for women anyway, because it’s not something we do, it’s something that happens to us, so why should it matter if we were happy about it.  We are cast (because of course this is always about PIV heterosexual cisgendered intercourse) in a role much like that of the toaster in the phrase “The electrician fixed the toaster” or the window in “The thief opened the window”.

You’re not meant to care about how the toaster feels about being fixed, and you’re not meant to wonder if the window enjoyed being opened.  Toasters are there to be fixed, and windows are there to be opened, and  spider plants are there to be watered (Warning: may cause cackling), and windows that suddenly turn around and say “You know what, baby, let’s do that opening thing, and this time I’ll take the latch off!” would be weird … but maybe a little exciting.

We see this in every single television show and movie and pop song that categorizes a woman who enjoys sex, wants sex, or God forbid gets on top as a “freak” in the sack.*  It’s phrased as “exciting” and “erotic” but with an ever-present coding of not normal, not entirely acceptable, not “right”, because women don’t have sex, women have sex done to them.

It’s the whole Bettina Arndt bullshit over again, because underneath discourse urging women to just give it up to their husbands even if they’ve got a headache is the message because he has sexual urges and it’s not like you do so what’s ten minutes of laying on your back between spouses?

What’s the answer, after all this rambling?  Fuck knows.  The Yes Means Yes problems still confuses/annoys the hell out of me, and I agree with but can’t find the person who said, [paraphrased] “A million privileged white women having great orgasms is not going to make a damn difference to whether poor women of colour get assaulted”.  “Had sex with” returns 25 million hits on Google, “had sex with each other” 1.9 million.  It’s such a minor-looking issue, it requires such post-101 analysis and thought (and a touch of highschool German) and it’s an immediate candidate for “bigger things to worry about” criticism.

But if nothing else, though, this serves as a reminder for me that even things which are self-evidently misogynist and rape-myth-affirming and comprehensively critiqued can still have even more layers of misogyny and rape culture propaganda lying beneath.  There’s no such thing as neutral language, and there’s no such thing as too much critical thought.

Further reading:  The epic Rape Culture 101 at Shakesville.

*Of course, the patriarchy is on to us now, with a judge opining that being on top makes you unrapeable.  If anyone needs me I’ll be pouring a stiff g&t.



  1. Iain Hall

    Really in many accusations rape the bone of contention is all about consent so it is entirely reasonable to refer to “a sex act” or to say that there was intercourse up until a jury finds otherwise. Then and only then is it reasonable to refer to the act as rape. To do otherwise is to prejudice the court process and to deny justice to anyone who is accused of this vile crime.

    • QoT

      You’ve managed to impressively miss the point, Iain. To refer to “sex” or “intercourse” carries an implication of consent. I can only assume you didn’t read the linked articles which make this clear. Rape is a vile crime, and the people who commit it don’t get to dictate how their victims describe it.

  2. Della

    Yeah Iain – that would be why the press and everybody else refers to murders as ‘an accident’ or ‘natural death’ so as not to prejudice the murder-accused.

    Oh wait they don’t. It’s just rape huh?

  3. Draco T Bastard

    You’ve managed to impressively miss the point, Iain. To refer to “sex” or “intercourse” carries an implication of consent.

    And you missed his point which is the basis of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty. Because of that rape can’t be referred to as rape until such has been proven in court. Until then the sex is assumed to be consensual.

    that would be why the press and everybody else refers to murders as ‘an accident’ or ‘natural death’ so as not to prejudice the murder-accused.

    You’ll note that the accused in a murder case is referred to as the accused and not the murderer until after the case is proven. So, yes, the same standard does apply.

    • QoT

      And you’re missing the point, Draco. That a rape happened, and that a person is accused of committing it, are separate things. The entire point of the “murder vs. natural death” argument is that we might call the accused murderer “the accused”, but we DON’T refrain from calling the murder a murder.

      Do you see nothing wrong with “assuming” the sex is consensual? Or with the cases of women forced to say “he had sex with me” when testifying about their rapes, because hey, that couldn’t possibly prejudice the jury’s interpretation of events.