We’re biased, but you need to read this.
While reporting about sex and relationships for Mashable, most recently amid an ongoing pandemic, our senior culture reporter Rachel Thompson went and wrote a whole book on the topic.
Rough, out now through Square Peg and Vintage, is Thompson’s first book and examines an important, intersectional issue: how sexual violence has found its way into the bedroom, and what we can do about it. And she’s kindly given us an extract for Mashable, which you’ll find below.
With over 50 powerful testimonies from women and non-binary people, Rough goes beyond the stats that offer one part of the bigger picture, to the unacknowledged rapes, sexual assaults, and experiences that aren’t clearly defined by law but still constitute harm.
If you didn’t know who this book is for, it’s everyone — like, everyone should read it (men, you need to be part of the conversation). But as Thompson puts it in the first chapter of Rough, it’s for people who haven’t known how to put their own experiences into words:
“I wrote it for every woman, every femme, every non-binary person who’s ever experienced something they didn’t have the words to define. For those who’ve experienced something they’d rather forget. Who felt that what happened to them didn’t match up to what they consented to. Who felt their experience was a ‘grey area’ or ‘just bad sex’ or ‘not rape but…’ Who were harmed but didn’t believe they had the right to feel that way.”
Credit: SQUARE PEG / VINTAGE / MASHABLE COMPOSITE
Rough unpacks some difficult, under-reported topics including how consent works (yes, it’s ongoing and can be withdrawn at any time), the role porn and certain porn sites play, acts of assault including stealthing (non-consensual condom removal), non-consensual choking (while keeping kink-positive and disputing misconceptions with BDSM), the complicated nature of strategic consent and unwanted sex, attachment theory, and those suffering through sex with excruciating pain conditions.
Right from the start, Thompson examines why language is incredibly important in this area for reasons of inclusivity and intersectionality, and also promotes language for the sensitive protection of survivors instead of social padding for perpetrators.
Consistently questioning whose story gets centred in narratives of surviving sexual violence, Thompson traces acts of assault, microaggressions, and fetishism to their historical, white supremacist, misogynist roots. Rough unpacks racism experienced by Black people and people of colour in the bedroom, and discusses sexual violence experienced by LGBTQ+ people (with trans and non-binary people being particularly erased from conversations about sexual violence). Thompson investigates fatphobia and objectification, and calls for attitudes around disability, sex, and conversations about sexual violence to change drastically.
Rough also delves into digital sexual violations, examining technology and image-based sexual abuse such as cyberflashing, upskirting, hatewank pornography, and the role that tech companies play in allowing this abuse to prevail. And it looks at the changing representations of sex and sexual violence onscreen, from I May Destroy You, Sex Education, and Normal People.
Thompson looks at the #MeToo and #PrataOmDet movements and activists pushing for change, and examines the increasing use of the ‘rough sex’ defence by killers and perpetrators. Notably, she points out the problems with focusing on “carceral solutions to gendered violence,” and encourages readers to look beyond the legal system in defining these experiences. And she consistently brings the argument back to the importance of more balanced, intersectional sex education in eradicating sexual violence.
But enough from us. The following extract is from Thompson’s chapter on stealthing (non-consensual condom removal). Rough investigates this as one of these “grey area” experiences, or “experiences that are non-criminal, but that leave us feeling harmed and violated.”
ROUGH by Rachel Thompson
From Chapter Two
What do we mean by ‘grey area experience’?
As previously discussed, the ‘grey area’ is a term that refers to a nebulous middle ground in consensual sex that is seldom talked about. Into this middle ground fall experiences that are non-criminal, but that leave us feeling harmed and violated. Experiences that are ‘at the murky interface of consent and coercion’, as Swedish academic Lena Gunnarsson defines it in an article.
This is where things get a little bit complicated. Within this grey area, I believe there are two things going on. The first are sexual experiences which fall outside of a legal definition of rape or sexual assault, which nonetheless feel violating, degrading, painful or traumatic. The second is something psychologists call unacknowledged rape – an experience that meets the hallmarks of rape or assault but is not labelled as such by the victim. Instead, terms like ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘hookup gone wrong’ and ‘grey area’ are used.
You may have read Daisy’s account and felt it wasn’t a grey area at all, however. For many, her story will read unequivocally as rape. She did not consent to sex without a condom and therefore it breached her consent, simple as. But broader cultural attitudes towards acts like stealthing are not as black and white as they should be. In 2018, 40 per cent of people surveyed by the End Violence Against Women coalition said it’s never or usually not rape to remove a condom without a partner’s consent. Broken down, it amounts to 19 per cent of people thinking stealthing is ‘never rape’ and 21 per cent thinking it wouldn’t normally be rape.
A 2017 study by Alexandra Brodsky found stealthing was alarmingly prevalent, and explored the harm this practice inflicts on women’s lives. During her research, Brodsky spoke to Rebecca, a doctoral student living in a university town in the US who worked for a local rape crisis hotline. Rebecca would receive calls from students at the state college. ‘Of these callers, a significant number describe upsetting sexual contact that they struggle to name,’ Brodsky writes. ‘Their partners have, during sex, removed a condom without their knowledge. Their stories often start the same way: “I’m not sure this is rape, but . . .”’ This harm that students didn’t know the name of was something Rebecca had also experienced at the hands of a boyfriend when she was in her first year of undergraduate study.
Brodsky began researching the phenomenon of stealthing when she started law school in 2013 because she realised many of her women friends were ‘struggling with forms of mistreatment by sexual partners that weren’t considered part of the recognised repertoire of gender based violence – but that seemed rooted in the same misogyny and lack of respect’.6 Brodsky found that US law is ‘largely silent’ in the face of this widespread act of violence.
Non-consensual condom removal puts victims at risk of pregnancy and STIs. Brodsky’s research also showed that the practice harms its victims in other ways. Survivors she interviewed described non-consensual condom removal as ‘a threat to their bodily agency’ and as ‘a dignitary harm’. One survivor said that, for her: ‘The harm mostly had to do with trust. He saw the risk as zero for himself and took no interest in what it might be for me, and that hurt.’ In addition to causing trust issues, the act of stealthing can have far-reaching consequences for women, including the feeling that they have no agency over their own body.
The lack of acknowledgement of the risks for the other person came up during an interview I conducted while researching this violation. Anna had gone to visit a man she’d previously had a holiday romance with. During sex, he removed the condom without her consent. ‘I only realised afterwards, when he was done,’ she says. It likely happened when they were changing positions.
She was about 21 years old. ‘I was young and was just out having a good time, so I just didn’t make a big thing of it. But the thing was I don’t even think I was taking the pill, at the time I was also a bit like, oh I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then I was like, “Stop trying to be the cool girl. Like, it’s not fine.”’
The next day they went to the beach with friends and she turned to him and said, ‘Look, I’ve been thinking about it and actually, to be safe, I should go to the pharmacy.’
‘Yeah, you’re right, absolutely. I’ll take you,’ he replied.
‘He was always super nice about everything. He never made me feel shit,’ she told me. She got the morning-after pill. But that pharmacy trip wasn’t the end of it. What she later realised was that she had contracted chlamydia. Antibiotics did their work in the short term, but Anna’s trust wasn’t as quickly remedied.
Stealthing perpetrators have been known to brag about this practice online. ‘I developed my own little tricks and techniques at achieving my main objective ANY time I had sex, making sure I shot my load deep inside the girls unsuspecting ****,’ one perpetrator’s account reads. ‘I did this over and over with so many girls i can’t even begin to count them.’
Brodsky suggests one possible motivation behind stealthing: ‘One can note that proponents of “stealthing” root their support in an ideology of male supremacy in which violence is a man’s natural right.’
While rape campaigners are in agreement that stealthing constitutes sexual assault, we’re only just beginning to see a very small number of stealthing convictions in a handful of countries.
Extracted from ‘Rough’ by Rachel Thompson, out now through Square Peg.