I have just had to put down a book I was reading and it has made me immeasurably sad, and incredibly angry. I was excited to begin this book, I’d read one other by the author and enjoyed it; I liked the themes of the book; I’d heard good things about this one. I was set on enjoying it, but now I know I’m not going to finish it. I’m not going to name it, or the author, as my problem isn’t with either of these in any particular sense.
My problem is with the idea that sexual aggression is sexy. That being unable to control your temper is desirable. That manipulation is normal. That coercion is healthy. That instances of this are indicative of a woman’s attractiveness and perfectly ok, even aspirational.
Let me tell you straight up that in a healthy relationship where there is respect and caring, that violence, manipulation, coercion and aggression of any kind have no place. Not in familial relationships, not in friendships, and not in romantic ones.
And yet this myth keeps being recycled, that the threat of being overpowered is alluring.
It’s 2015 and we’re still there.
After Steubenville, after Delhi 2012, after the celebrity sexual assault scandals across the globe, work is still being published in which men are physically domineering and demanding and the heroines swoon at them. And we have to shut this idea down because it is dangerous and it is never more dangerous than when we’re telling young women that it’s not. That it’s actually ok.
When I was a young adult, I didn’t have all that many friends. I was kind of awkward, and a bit weird, my interests didn’t match those of my peers. So books were where I went to figure things out. Walking in a character’s shoes meant I could rehearse situations that I hadn’t come across – might never come across – but books provided me with a chance to do that. To test the waters, and the boundaries. To channel the heroes and heroines I loved best in my own life. To try on difference personalities like armour, or a fake-fur coat, or an evening gown, or a mermaid tail. To become the self I wanted to be.
They taught me to be brave, to ask questions, to say yes, to say no, to speak up, to stay quiet, to rush into something, to bide my time. Without realising it, and certainly without their permission, I allowed all the authors I read to become my parents, my brothers and sisters, my friends. I took their unintended advice, I learned from them and it’s something I’m painfully, painfully aware of now I write myself. That there might be young people out there who read my work and do as my characters have done. I’m not saying they will, or they should, but I never let myself forget that when I put things out there I am making a statement and people will read it.
So I’m so disappointed that work is being published still that perpetuates the ideology that if a man growls or shouts at you, smashes up a room, pins you against a wall, or tells you that if you carry on being intimate they won’t be able to stop, it’s normal. It’s ok. To me, that sends a reckless, dangerous message to young women and men.
I can promise you, from experience, that someone smashing things in front of you isn’t sexy. Being shouted at by someone who outweighs you won’t make you horny as hell. It will make you whimper, and cower, and possibly cry. And that is absolutely and undeniably the very opposite of sexy.
I can promise you that either party can stop at any point during sex, whether clothes are on or off, or bits are touching, or have been touching for a while. Sex isn’t a tsunami of inevitability, it might be frustrating to stop but you sure as hell can, and you better well had. And there should never be a suggestion that you can’t. Or won’t. Because then it’s no longer sex and becomes very definitely rape.
We have to stop teaching our young people that these behaviours are ok. It is not ok when a little boy pulls a girl’s hair in the playground, don’t tell your daughter it means he likes her. What is means is that he needs a bloody good talking to about keeping his hands to himself unless expressly invited to touch. Don’t let your sisters believe it when their boyfriends tell them it hurts them to not touch them, that by not allowing them a triple A pass to their bodies they’re being cruel. Don’t let your friends shake it off when they tell you their partner threw a vase against a wall and then told them it was because they loved them so much it drove them crazy. No. No. No. This is bullshit. And we have to say that, and keep saying it until it finally sinks in.
It is 2015 and we have to stop telling the girls and women in our lives that this behaviour is normal. It’s not. So can we stop writing it into our stories, showing it on our screens, singing about it wistfully? Can we stop romanticising abuse please?
And fyi, if a man EVER says to you he won’t be able to stop if you keep going, you knee him in the balls and ask if he’s sure.