No Erotic Act Is Inherently Nonviolent

Content note: discussion of sexual coercion and violation

Why do I have to see violence in my porn?

The housemate who asked this in a conversation about kink was upset that a feminist porn series she liked included scenes involving slapping.

On the one hand, I empathize. I’m more into textual porn than visual, but I don’t like being surprised by elements I find upsetting: luxuriant body-worshiping oral sex, characters crying out “I love you” at the point of orgasm, the ickily clinical m-word. It’s not the frustration at encountering unwanted content I object to. It’s the characterization of slapping as violent, and the implication, by contrast, that other kinds of erotic touch are nonviolent.

My teenage sexual abuse was painstakingly gentle. Soft kisses, soft touches, and afterwards, a round of obligatory moon eyes and gushing about how beautiful the thing I hadn’t wanted in the first place had been. Expect gentle touch from me, or touch without a power dynamic, and I’m back in my high school girlfriend’s bed, waiting for a sign that I’m allowed to stop, steeling myself to be held after. When I say gentle touch can be violent, I speak from experience.

What makes an erotic act become nonviolent isn’t the type of act; it’s whether the parties involved consent to it.

In a sense, this is consent 101: consent is what distinguishes sex from assault. But the belief that gentle, power-neutral sex is a sort of erotic default muddies the waters.

A few years ago, I found myself alone with a date. I was interested in playing with her, but I hadn’t yet ascertained whether she was kinky. When she kissed me without asking, before I could start a conversation about what sort of things we were each into, it became clear that we were on different pages. We had come back to my apartment from a bar on what turned out to be a pretext. “I’m sorry,” I’d told her after she’d kissed me some. “I don’t think I’m awake enough to have the conversations I would need to have to keep going.”

Not awake enough, not sober enough, and, given what I’d already seen of her approach to consent, not confident enough that a conversation about kink would end anywhere near where I wanted it to. But somehow—my memory fuzzes as to why—our night didn’t end there. Making out with her, detaching already from my body, I found myself silently bargaining. Maybe if I’m on top, I can still want this. Maybe if we play with pain. “Can I pull your hair?” I asked. She agreed to this, but as soon as I started, it became clear we weren’t on the same page there either.

“No,” my date said, looking up at me every bit as doe-eyed as my high school girlfriend in those endless numb afters. “Gentler.”

For anyone invested in consent, it seems obvious that my date could consent to gentle erotic touch but not to something rougher like hair-pulling.

What is less intuitive, I think, is that I might consent to rougher touch but not to gentle.

Particularly not as a top. I let go of my date’s hair and steeled myself to go mutely through with whatever she expected. Maybe I could have stopped things then—though my earlier attempts had been unsuccessful—but I was held back by the fear of how my no would sound: I only want to have sex where I hurt you*.

There is an oppressive idea I’ve internalized, something that makes my withdrawing consent in itself seem somehow predatory, and I’m trying to put words to it. Maybe it’s that I’d “led my date on” by not clarifying sooner that I wasn’t looking for normative sex, and wanting dominance or sadism instead seemed like a kind of bait and switch. Maybe taking gentle sex off the table seemed like a disingenuous tactic designed to manipulate my date into doing something kinkier than she’d ordinarily choose. Or maybe it’s just the simple idea that it isn’t fair to expect someone to be into the things I’m into.

I agree it wouldn’t be fair to expect my date to be into what I was into. But I’d add that it’s also not fair to expect someone to be into the things my date was into. I’d add further that expecting someone to be into anything is the wrong approach entirely.

What I had wanted to do, what I had gone into our date intending to do, was negotiate. I wanted to state what I was interested in and ask my date what she was interested in. If we wanted compatible things, we could do those. If not, I’d have been disappointed, but far less disappointed than if we’d gone forward with an erotic encounter that one of us didn’t want. I had gone in open to hearing no—maybe even expecting a no, even if I hoped otherwise—and to respecting that no when I heard it.

My date, on the other hand, didn’t even frame gentler as a question. She simply gazed up at me, her voice pitched soft and sultry, and purred a word that maybe, to her, seemed intimate and romantic. I don’t think it occurred to her that gentler might make the difference between an act I could enjoy and an act that would cause me harm.

I didn’t tell her. Maybe because she hadn’t responded to my saying no earlier. Maybe because my high school relationship had taught me that the sooner I resigned myself to going through the motions, the sooner I could get out of bed. But at least partly, I think, because of the idea my housemate had expressed in our conversation about feminist porn: what my date wanted was normal, and what I wanted was violent. Pain play might fly in some late-night dungeon, but here in the real world, where gentle was a sweet nothing in a lover’s ear, where we kissed without asking because there was nothing to ask about, what I wanted was monstrous. Maybe more than anything, I made myself have gentle sex with my date as a kind of penance for ever having hoped she’d consent to me hurting her.

In some ways, what happened with my date is a classic sexual assault story: we were intoxicated; she initiated touch without my consent; she didn’t listen when I said no. Even without a kink framework, what my date did was harmful.

But I find it additionally valuable to read this story through a kink lens. Internalized shame about my desires, and the internalized belief that I should want to touch an erotic partner gently, made me more able to be coerced. On my date’s part, assuming that gentle sex was something everybody wanted, and that if I had desire for her, that my desire must encompass gentle sex, made it harder for her to realize that her actions were, in fact, coercive.

I’ve spent this blog series exploring why it’s important to talk about kink, and the story of my date offers another, somewhat grim, reason. The more we recognize that there are no universals when it comes to desire and erotic expression, that not everyone is erotically compatible, and that all erotic acts have the potential to be unwanted, the less effective this kind of coercion becomes.

No erotic act is inherently nonviolent. But the belief that some acts are violent, while others are normal and universal, leads to violence—particularly, to sexual coercion. A kink-aware consent framework helps push back. We need to approach potential erotic encounters with the understanding that different people experience desire differently, and that one set of desires is no more valid—and no less violent—than another.


*Or at least, that’s how I would have formulated it at the time, though now I’m not sure I would have wanted sex either way.

Specificities, Elisions, and Romantic Love Narratives

I’m no lover (if you will) of romantic love narratives. I hear the word “love” thrown around without much critical analysis about what it means and used to obscure and mystify real-world power dynamics and the specificities of desire and affection.

The word scares me. Not because of the depth of feeling it is supposed to represent, but because of its vagueness. I imagine erotic and romantic relationships like a prism with eroticism, passion, power, affection, caring, desire, intensity, intimacy, and attachment (to name just a few) as facets. One word couldn’t begin to describe the shape, weight, and lustre of the prism, and I for one wouldn’t want it to. I am far more interested in perceiving the specifics of a relationship than in matching it to an archetype.

And that’s what the romantic love narrative is to me: an archetype. A generalization, and often an idealized, sanitized imagining of what relationships look like. I see the idea of love gloss over and obscure the realities of intimacy and power, and its erasures often feel dangerous.

The other night, I read an erotic story. In the 9-5 world, the two parties were employer and employee. When they met in a club by accident, they found their roles somewhat reversed. As I read, I was acutely conscious of the ways power and consent were playing out between the parties. I waited for the author to address the vulnerability of the employee’s position, or the sinister audacity of the employer’s advances. Instead, the author resolved the tension with a reveal that was both deeply familiar and utterly unsatisfying: each party had been in love with the other the whole time; the employee’s initial refusals had come only from the fear that the employer did not feel the same way.

What strikes me about this resolution is first how typical it is to the genre—so often the resolution to a romantic comedy is that unacknowledged love is the source of everybody’s confusing behavior and that acknowledging that love leads simply and easily to a happily ever after. The reveal also undercut the story’s erotic tension. What was compelling about the story came from the specificities of the two parties’ shifting power dynamic; the “love reveal” replaced those specificities with a common and boring trope. Notably, the two parties’ being in love did not actually resolve most of the numerous questions about power and consent that arose from the setup. And yet its being offered as a resolution suggests that their being in love was supposed to have been both justification and roadmap enough.

The romantic love narrative also glosses over the particulars of sex. Partly because romantic sex gets assumed to be gentle and power-neutral, while D/s and s/m are assumed incompatible with or incapable of expressing the kind of deep feeling and caring that gentle, power-neutral sex is supposed to. But also because the converse of the idea that you should only have sex with someone you love is that a kind of deep emotional attachment is all one needs to make sex okay.

My eroticism is rooted in specifics; my trauma is rooted in elisions. [Trigger warning for the next 2 paragraphs, which describe sexual coercion and unwanted sex.]

As a teenager, I believed in the romantic love narrative. I entered a relationship and believed, because the signs were there (kissing, interdependency, a swelling in my chest when I thought of her), that our relationship measured up to the archetype, and so I used the idea of love to guide my decisions. She was in love with me, so of course she asked (and asked and asked) for sex. I was in love with her, so of course it would be beautiful and transcendent. I said yes because she pressured me, but I also said yes because the romantic love narrative told me I was supposed to.

No one told me what would happen to my cunt. No one told me what do to with my hands while I lay there, naked, willing my body not to betray me with sounds and motions I did not wish to share. I’d searched myself for weeks before agreeing to have sex, wanting to be sure it was love I felt. It had never occurred to me to consider my body, to imagine the realities of hair and fingers and sweat and smells. We were in love. We were supposed to transcend all that.

[End trigger warning.]

On a day devoted to celebrating romantic love, and to hawking the most genericized tokens of affection in every drugstore, flower stand, and pink-bannered storefront, I feel profoundly uneasy. I know there are many in my life who have reclaimed the idea of love or found ways of suiting it to their own complex purposes. Myself, I still find the word both dangerous and unnecessary. Rather than use that one fraught word as a shorthand for my feelings, I choose to celebrate those who are important to me in words and gestures that reflect the specificities of who we are to each other and why that matters. And rather than imagine that romantic relationships are always to be celebrated, I choose to recognize intimacy and vulnerability as potential sites of danger. A swell of feeling between us is not enough; tell me how we navigate power, consent, desire, and our bodies, and I’ll tell you—in detail—what you mean to me.