A number of conversations happening over at ‘Adventures’ have made me think again about the subject of consent. Consent is not always clear-cut. It should be, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s easy to recognise when sex is not consensual. The trope of the ‘stranger rape’ is the easiest one to recognise. But as feminists we know that stranger rape is not what most women are at risk from. Women more often than not get raped by people they know – friends, family members, colleagues – people that they trust. However, there are other scenarios whereby women end up having sex against their will, yet within some of those scenarios they are not sure whether they were raped or sexually assaulted. For some people (mainly men I suspect) this is hard to understand. Some people think rape is always violent, always involves a stranger, and necessitates the woman fighting back vigorously. Like a scene from a bad movie, this will end with the woman being taken violently against her will. My personal experience and conversations with a number of friends has made me more inclined to think of rape as a spectrum, with being coerced to have sex against your will at one end of the spectrum. But perhaps no such spectrum exists.

No ought to mean no, but are some of us allowing no to mean persuade me? Photo by STR:AFP:Getty Images

No ought to mean no, but are some of us allowing no to mean persuade me? Photo by STR:AFP:Getty Images

“No we shouldn’t Kojo”. “Stop it”
In conversations with one of my close male friends he shared with me an experience he once had. He was dating a young Ghanaian woman and one night while they were watching a movie at his place he started to touch her. She half responded but pulled away every time he tried to get more intimate. He felt she was playing hard to get so he ignored all her protestations and continued to kiss her and touch her thighs, eventually succeeding in popping open her shirt so he could play with her nipples. In the meantime she was making comments like, “No we shouldn’t Kojo”. “Stop it”. “What will the pastor say?” The night ended with her riding him to an explosive orgasm. The conclusion my friend Kojo came to was that this girl really wanted to have sex with him but was conflicted because she wanted to be a ‘good Christian girl’. His conclusion from this and similar experiences is that women want to be convinced to have sex. And sometimes you have to persuade them to get jiggy with you. In Kojo’s view, no doesn’t always mean no. Sometimes it means persuade me. And that for me is where the challenge lies. On one hand I recognise that women brought up in patriarchal societies like the one I originate from have been schooled not to appear overly eager to have sex. Initiating sex or clearly expressing a desire to be sexual can lead to you being perceived as ‘loose’, ‘a slut’, ‘a Shashi wowo’. Generally women do not want to be perceived in these ways that our society tells us is derogatory. And so some women might adopt the mantle of being coy as a way to navigate complex social norms.

But sometimes what men assume is a woman playing hard to get is the complete opposite. It’s a woman trying to negotiate her way out of a situation. Trying to say no whilst still being ‘nice’ (because very often we have been brought up to be nice too). Attempting to extricate ourselves from an awkward sexual encounter without offending or angering the other person. Sometimes we are scared about what will happen if this man feels rejected. Will he flip? Go crazy on us? We’ve also spent years being told about ‘blue balls’. Somehow women never experience blue clits but men experience blue balls. The myth says something along the lines of, ‘if a man has become severely aroused then he needs release. It’s extremely painful if he isn’t able to get this release. Maybe even dangerous.’ And so sometimes we think that all that needs to happen is for the man to bust a nut and then everything will be over.

What we talk about in feminist theory and what’s happening in our heads do not always overlap perfectly

What we talk about in feminist theory and what’s happening in our heads do not always overlap perfectly

“Come on, let me have a little taste”
I once met a Doctor at a pan African conference. This conference was the most boring, uninspiring, useless conference that I have ever had the misfortune of attending. I was bored out of my mind and then the Doctor sat next to me. He was only there because he had been invited to pick up an award for the excellent work he had done on women’s health. When he mentioned his name to me I gasped. I had heard of him. I was a fan of his work. We started having a side conversation until he eventually suggested that we go to the beach bar to have a drink. We shared a bottle of wine overlooking the ocean as the sun turned a bright orange and dipped lower and lower. It felt to me like such a magical moment. A scene from Mills and Boon flashed across my mind and before I could fully compute what I was doing I had leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Just then my colleague called my phone. The conference had ended for the day and it was time for us to go back to our hotel. Coincidentally the Dr was staying at the same hotel but had to attend an official reception so asked me if I could take his laptop back to the hotel for him. He said he would be back in the hotel in 2 hours and would call me so I could bring the laptop to him in the reception. I was slightly hesitant but took the laptop anyway and gave him my room number.

When we got back to the hotel it was 6pm. At 8pm the Dr still hadn’t called me. He didn’t call at 9 or 10 either. At about 11:30 he finally called and said he would come to my room to pick up the laptop. I quickly changed out of my slip of a nightie and threw on a bubu. When he knocked on the door I came to the door holding the laptop. He walked through the door and asked for a drink. I said I had nothing to drink. He went straight to the mini bar and pointed out that I had several drinks at my disposal. He poured himself a drink and opened the door to my balcony and sat down on one of the seats. I could smell the alcohol he had drank earlier at the reception. Somehow he wasn’t the same attractive inspiring Doctor that I had kissed earlier at the beach. I sat down and waited for him to finish his drink. He finished his drink and poured himself another one. I felt too embarrassed to protest about the bill he was running up on my behalf. After all he had paid for the bottle of wine we had earlier at the beach. He started to run his fingers up my thigh and tried to pull my bubu upwards. “I’m not in the mood,” I said. “Come on,” he responded. I started thinking about my colleague who was asleep in the room next door. I was worried she would hear me and wonder what I was doing with a man in my room past midnight. “Come on, let me have a little taste. I just want to go down on you,” he said. Somewhere in my mind a voice said, ‘well that won’t be too bad and then afterwards he can leave’. So I took him back to my room, took off my bubu and lay down on the bed. He went down on me and I came. Then he rolled a condom on and stuck his penis inside me. I lay there hoping he would come quickly but he didn’t and I kept feeling drier and drier. Eventually I said I needed to use the loo and when I came back I was dressed. “You need to leave now” I said and ushered him to the door. He stumbled out and started calling out to me from behind the locked door. I ignored him until he eventually left.

Consensual sex or rape?

Consensual sex or rape?

Then my phone started ringing. That was him calling. I turned off my phone. He started calling my hotel room and I disconnected that phone too. About 2pm I eventually fell asleep. Then I heard a knocking on my door. It was a member of the hotel’s staff. Apparently the Dr had called them saying he was worried about his friend because she wasn’t picking up his calls. I explained through the door to the staff member that I was fine and simply wanted to be left alone. The next day I saw the Dr at the conference. He suggested we have dinner. At dinner I tried to explain to him how I felt. I told him that I felt that he had put me in a very difficult situation the previous night and that I felt like I had slept with him against my will. He insisted I had consented. Those were his very words. “You consented”. In fact he insisted I owed him an orgasm. I didn’t know what to say in response to that. He then proceeded to tell me about his girlfriend, how young she was, how attractive she was, how she loved him and did not cause any problems where his marriage was concerned. He told me about the numerous businesses he owned. The properties he had. He said if I played my cards right he would fly me from Accra to Paris on holidays. He gave me his card and demanded that I send him an email when I got back home.

I emailed him when I got home. I was still confused as to whether our sexual act was consensual or not. I couldn’t reconcile this image I had previously of this doctor who performed many philanthropic acts with the drunk man who had barged into my room and harassed me the whole night long. He responded to the email and reminded me that I owed him an orgasm. He told me to get in touch when I next visited his country. I never got in touch after that but he crosses my mind from time to time. There is a part of me that thinks if I had never kissed him he would never have assumed that I wanted to have sex with him. Or perhaps it was okay to kiss him but I should have refused to take his laptop back to the hotel for him. Or when he called me from reception I should have insisted on meeting him there. Did I consent or not consent to sex with the Doctor?