*Trigger warning: this post talks about rape culture
**Trigger trigger warning: this one is for those academics who are triggered by trigger warnings
Last week I was yet again teaching about the horrifically termed—and equally horrific concept—of the “rape romance” in popular media. Lets chat, shall we?
The rape romance is an insidious little worm in our popular media. It’s when a woman says no *at first* but then, as her partner becomes ever more sexually insistent, she begins to say yes, yes, yes. The rape romance is premised on the notion that forcing a sexual encounter on a woman incites her desire for the sexual encounter. If you haven’t heard of the term, you’ve already seen it. Gone With the Wind anybody?
Before we open that can of (insidious) worms, lets take it back. Way back. Big timey scholar J. Halberstam claims that the way we understand a woman’s sexuality nowadays is based on the historical practice of arranged marriages. A woman couldn’t choose to marry the person she definitely sexually desired, so best practice was to make her look super sexy (ie sexually desirable) and then teach her that her sexual desire should be triggered in response to the sexual desires of her new husband.
I’m not 100% on board with this arranged marriage history theory because I’m not a historian and, if I were, I might find cross-historical and cross-global blanket statements about arranged marriages a bit suspect. But the big takeaway is Halberstam’s conclusion: nowadays, women are similarly presented as sexy objects to arouse other people’s sexual desires. And we also have a cultural mythos that 1) its natural for the desirer to get “carried away” with a really sexy woman and 2) when sensing the overwhelming desire for her body, the woman will likely get turned on too.
Don’t believe me? Lets go back to Gone with the Wind. Rhett chases after Scarlett and holds her in a kiss she physically tries to shove away. He then declares “this is one night you’re gonna’ turn me on!” lifts her up, and carried her up the stairs amidst her groans of protest and her hands beating at his body. The next day we see Scarlett looking so very happy and so very satisfied. See, her protests were only because she didn’t realize she would be into it. Until Rhett showed her. Forcibly.
But Saucy you say, that movie is way old, that shit doesn’t get made today! Actually, my good friend Steve Attewell wrote this and this about the rape romance that went down last season on Game of Thrones. I won’t go into the detail he brilliantly does, but the bottom line was that show producers had no idea why anyone would see Cersei being forcibly pushed to the ground and having her dress torn off as she verbalized “no” as a rape.
There are a couple really negative ramifications of this pervasive media trope. First, the rape romance is but one example of how women’s beauty, femininity, and sexiness are understood to be part of their bodies (their sex appeal) but not necessarily embodied (not their actual sexual desires). In our society, women are often valued (and are expected to feel valued) by being sexualized and desired. This is why it’s mandatory that I smile and thank some creep on the street who tells me I’m pretty. The Daily Show has a pretty good segment about this, starting at 5:00.
Second—and this one is scary as shit—the rape romance happens in real life ALL THE GODDAMN TIME. Rape romance incidents on TV and in movies are in fact a reflection of our own cultural beliefs that women who say no will eventually warm to the desires of the person who desires her. That is, sometimes a “no” is actually a “yes.”
A few years back, I was having a conversation with a man who was kind to animals, sensitive, well educated, and had been in long term relationships. Mr. Nice Guy assured me that sometimes “women who say no actually mean yes.” He was resolute that, once in a while, the no was a red herring, a woman’s way of trying to come off as not-a-slut. Try as I might—and I did try—I couldn’t convince him otherwise. But let me tell you what I said.
If a woman says no, then you should stop. If she actually meant yes, then it’s too bad she said no, no sex for her, and I guess she’ll know better next time. But apparently when some girls say no, there’s still an outlying chance it could be a yes in disguise. So by acting as if the no was a yes, there’s still a chance sex happens. Because the worst thing in the world is to miss out on sex. Having sex is more important than abiding by what a woman says on that off chance it’s not what she actually meant.
So when people say “some women who say no sometimes actually mean yes,” what they’re really saying is “women are often sexually responsive to the desires of others. If a man demonstrates his desire hard enough, the no might come around to being a very sexy yes and the next morning she’ll be so happy it did, all Scarlett O’Hara-like.” The Rape Romance. See how I brought it all the way back around?
Don’t ever fucking let anyone get away with saying “sometimes women who say no actually mean yes.” #yesallwomen. Amiright?