Workshopping RapeS

Elissa Bassist has a piece in The Cut today about her struggle to say she was sexually assaulted by her first "real-deal boyfriend":

I was a senior in college, 22, and one of those late-in-life virgins, waiting for the ideal circumstances to have sex. When we had sex the first time, it hurt. When we had sex every other time, it hurt. But I had no way to describe what was happening in the dark, no way to talk about it, no language to explain.

In 2008, after we'd graduated and broken up, he e-mailed me confessing he'd cheated with four women (not simultaneously, but just as unimaginable). Like the responsible and terrified educated woman I was, I got tested for AIDS and STIs. During the exam, the gynecologist asked me if I'd given birth. Huh? I've never been pregnant. She said my cervix was ruptured, torn in such a way that it looked like I'd given birth to a baby. A human-size baby. I was broken on the inside and nobody knew, not even me.

Either I check the box or I don't. Do the mornings I'd wake up to him thrusting into me count? Does it count that I stopped thinking I was "having sex" and started thinking "I was being had sex with"? A torn cervix, does it count? Check the box or do not check the box.

Six years later, Bassist submitted a book chapter about those events — her first attempt at devising a "language" to explain what happened — to a workshop class in her Masters of Fine Arts graduate program. Some sample passages:

I never said, "No, no, no." When I'd cry - almost every time we had sex - he asked if he should keep going. Keep going, I'd say. Just finish. And he would. He could.

What is the difference between saying "No, no, no," and praying the man you trust will stop when he sees you crying? How about when he hears you screaming?

I would look at him, concentrating every part of me on the mouth that kept saying it loved me … And he didn't know. I could see that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong or unusual. He and I could feel things so differently while we were at the center of one another.

Bassist called the piece "How Not to Lose Your Virginity," and a classmate critiqued it by titling his response, "How to Make a Guy Cringe."

"‘Rape' hints @ a criminal act. Was this criminal?" he wrote. "You need to invent a new word for your situation. Diet Rape or Rape II. Caffeine free rape [sic]. A rape substitute. maybe [sic], ‘I can't believe it's not rape.' Just trying to interject a little humor in here. Not sure what to say. I hope your cervix is better."

Later on, another male graduate school friend said he didn't understand why she wouldn't have broken up with her boyfriend sooner. Bassist's response:

"Would you know when someone you thought you loved for the first time was tearing your cervix? Do you even know what a cervix is? No? Are you stupid? Do you get called stupid because someone made a promise to love you, and you were hurt because you trusted him?"

"He didn't understand it," she writes. "To understand it would be to think about it, which he didn't want to do. To understand it would mean going through his own history, a history where he might recognize how he hurt someone else or failed to accept what someone else had done because it scared him."

All this is true and eloquently put; Bassist's piece is strongest when it touches upon rape culture. "I thought the problem was out there, in the back alleys," she writes. "I believed the classroom was far from the back alley…the problem is not just out there, it's also in here, in my classroom, in my relationship."

But the piece is also — perhaps unintentionally — more about the importance of of educating young people about consent and communication than about rape itself. Bassist's boyfriend doesn't seem like a gem, but I'm not sure he's a rapist. In this case, I think there's a difference between victim-blaming and expecting a 22-year-old woman in a consensual relationship to be able to say something other than "keep going," as Bassist did, when her boyfriend asks if he should stop during sex. It's a very thin line, which is why it pains me to make such a distinction — I spend so much time and energy writing about why women are never "asking for it," no matter how they act or what they wear, and how it's problematic to differentiate between different "types" of rape.

The label, however, is not what's most important here. I think it's almost besides the point to quibble about whether Bassist was raped or assaulted or if her ex is a rapist. The takeaway should be the importance of communication: if you don't feel comfortable communicating with someone, you shouldn't be having sex with them, man or woman, straight or gay, plain and simple. Of course, this is easier said than done, and in Bassist's case, she was inexperienced and there were major clues — her crying, for example — that her ex should have picked up on, even if she verbally consented. The case of waking up to him having sex with her is another matter, but Bassist is so brief in her acknowledgment of it — which is jarring, compared to the focus on more ambiguous incidents — that it's hard to know how she responded. Maybe she simply didn't. But who are we to say? We weren't there.

Instead of lobbying accusations at Bassist (check out the comments), let's get to the crux of the problem: lines of communication were broken. And the way we talk about rape and sexual assault in this country — whether in a graduate school classroom or in the bedroom — is just as dysfunctional.

My ‘Diet Caffeine-Free Rape' [The Cut]

Image via Horiyan/Shutterstock.