The Need For a Name: A Response to Cristina Nehring

[Content note: Rape apologism, descriptions of rape culture/rape scenarios. This is a heavy week on the blog. I promise something lighter for Monday.]

When I was assaulted, I had a lot of trouble reconciling what happened to me with more common narratives of rape. Had it merely been words that coerced me into actions I didn’t want to perform? Was I that susceptible to coercion? Surely there must be some other line here, some other category that my experiences fit into. And I privately searched for a way to explain my encounters, to understand what had happened without using the big, scary, weighty words of “assault” or “rape.”

To see oneself as a victim, to realize that what had happened does not fit with our nice, neat little narratives of ourselves as confident, sex positive, empowered women, is incredibly hard. It requires viewing old flames in new lights, reorganizing not only our understanding of our own lives but the lives of other women. It is understandable, then, that Cristina Nehring, writer at Elle Magazine, would resist and object to such categorization.

Nehring objects to laws about affirmative consent, but not out of understandable legal argument (of which there are many) but out of a more mystical, egotistical center. Nehring does not believe that sex with communication is sexy, and that the intrusion of the law in the name of protecting victims of rape and assault, is creating situations where “real” rape is diminished and ignored.

“For when everyone is a rape victim,” Nehring writes, “no one is a rape victim.”

She concludes that standards like affirmative consent remove something of the erotic from sexual encounters, not unlike how speaking the name of God is forbidden in Judaism:

And of one matter I'm nearly certain: I would never have pursued anything in love or bed had I been asked to consent to it in advance or explicitly name it afterward. It's no accident, I believe, that two out of three major world religions prohibit us from naming the Godhead, from calling out what is most holy to us. The devil may be in the details—but the divine is in the abstract, the unpredictable, the forever unsayable.

People also aren’t supposed to speak the name of Voldemort, but that’s neither here nor there.

Nehring objects to the imposition of communication within sex because her own experiences do not align with such a legal standard. And to be fair, there are legal and logistical problems with an affirmative consent standard. It is nigh on impossible to legislate a change from rape culture into consent culture. I’m willing to grant Nehring’s objection to the laws based on factors of efficacy or prosecutorial discretion.

But I’m not willing to grant her objections because she doesn’t want to do the introspection required to re-examine her own sexual exploits.

Nehring tells two different stories of sexual encounters in her lifetime, one of which she deems rape and one of which she does not. The rape occurred at the hands of a much older boy who was wielding a knife and engaging in threats. The second, which she outright refuses to call rape, happened when she was on a date in Paris. After drinks, a man she barely knew took her to his home and into his bed, where she describes a sleepless night only to be greeted with his amorous overtures in the morning. Because she then had a six-year long relationship with this man, she utterly rejects the idea that this encounter could have been anything but kosher.

It is well within her right to call her sexual encounters whatever she would like. If, in her estimation, it helps her to understand and reconcile with a past love, she is welcome to say that what happened to her that morning in France was okay.

But, I strongly suspect her disinclination toward calling anything but an act that is performed with the aid of a deadly weapon rape comes from a misguided perception of who and what rapists are. We like to demonize rapists – they are not our husbands, our former lovers, our brothers, or our friends. They are the terrifying, hulking masses in an attic with a knife, speaking threats and warnings if we dare cry out.

But this demonization and dehumanization of the rapist, though colorful as it may seem, fails to account for and understand the multitude of ways in which sexual coercion and assault takes place. With such a narrow view of what rape looks like and what narrative it should follow, Nehring makes the same mistake the judge in California did this week. Presented with a circumstance that does not fit a preconceived narrative of a crime, both the judge and Nehring come to conclusions that end up diminishing the violence that happens in assault.

Nehring trots out the old trope that “regretting sex is not the same as rape,” a common canard that has been used time and again to dismiss the testimonies of women who did not have the fortune of encountering a stranger with a gun in their assaults. Nehring callously recasts a woman’s story of coercion and rape at the hands of a man more powerful than her as a simple “sex for rent” scheme that this women needs to come to grips with.

What many feminist critics are rightly angry about is an element that made me narrow my eyes in curiosity. It’s impossible to argue from a position of logic whether or not open and honest communication “kills the mood” in sexual experiences. Open and honest communication around the sex and the feelings of the partners involved is ideal, but I recognize that there are some people for whom being asked for permission verbally is a turn off. And I hope those people can find lovers for whom these sexual proclivities line up – but until then, I hope that they take care to prioritize the idea that their partner may not share their “silent touching” approach to sex.

Hewing to such narrow narratives about what rape is and what it looks like allows rapists to get away. It allows potential rapists to argue that it’s just sexier if we don’t talk, that communication kills sexual mystery. It’s an outright refusal to confront a reality that, yes, people we know have raped other people we know. There are traumas walking around unnamed because our visions of them are far too narrow for them to find healing.

Unlike the holiness of the name of God, speaking the name of rape has a powerful effect. It brings a clarity to incidents that were previously opaque. It gives us words to understand ourselves, just as Jesus' incarnation gave us words to understand our relationship to God. Without the naming, without the necessary vocabulary, sex is not like G-d, whose name is holy. Sex without name is that which destroys.