The last summer that I lived at Synergy, my roommate Kanef discovered a song that he especially liked. I’ve never been able to find it sung again, in the decades since college, and I’ve forgotten the tune, but another blogger has supplied the lyrics. The chorus goes:
You gotta wake me up gently
You gotta wake me up slow
Wake me up like a mellow love song, on the radio
Cuz I never did like sudden starts
You know they hurt your eyes and break your heart
You gotta wake me up gently,
Wake me up slow
There’s nothing explicitly sexual in the song, but there are hints (“Who shares or bed or makes her smile,” “But I’ve been told by some I’m very good, To burn in the night like a nova star gone wild”), that the slow awakening is a slow sexual awakening, between acknowledged lovers. I can remember Kanef using the song that way one day, flirting with another gay man with whom one of our friends was trying to set him up: “wake me up gently, wake me up slow.”
I’ve known that gentle and slowly sensual awakening, hands running delightfully along my body till I knew just what I wanted and how glad I was to be awake. Others, perhaps less morning people, are not so fond of it (“Boys want sex in the morning, sex in the morning, when I’m not my best“). But, as long as we’re talking about hands running gently and slowly along the outside of a body that those hands have already known, it’s not likely that this will be a rude awakening. You brush the hands away, perhaps, with a grumpy, “No, let me sleep,” and the hands leave.
Last week, at the Good Men Project, Alyssa Royce wrote about a man, at the time a dear friend of hers, who took quite a different approach toward how to treat a sleeping woman. Faced with a woman who had been “aggressively flirting” with him, but who, at the time of his actions, was drunk and asleep, he penetrated her while she was still asleep. Alyssa Royce says that he was a “really sweet guy.” I believe her about this, in the sense that I do believe that a guy can be “really sweet” when he’s not raping someone and still be a rapist. It’s not just that sociopaths have the ability to present a face more charming than they’ll really prove to be (though that’s part of it). It’s also that “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” People who do horrible things can have a genuinely good side. People who do good things can have a genuinely horrible side. Both may be (part of) the real guy.
I do think, though, that she lets her friend off lightly when she says that he was “unsure” and that “To a large degree, my friend thought he was doing what was expected.” It’s not that there aren’t gray areas, and a continuum of consent. There are. But penetrating a woman while she’s not even conscious isn’t one of those gray areas. It really, really isn’t.
Part of where I’m coming from is my own experience with Guy Who Came After Me in the Shower (whom I will call GWCAMS). GWCAMS was not a rapist (that I know of), since he did, after all, in the end, finally let me get away without actually penetrating any of my orifices. He was also, on certain occasions and in certain situations, a perfectly nice guy. A few people who knew both of us stayed friends with him, after it came out what had happened between him and me, and I understand how they could do so. He could be likeable. He professed that things hadn’t happened exactly the way I said. He apparently didn’t, by his own account, understand what he’d done wrong.
What he had done wrong was that, after I had been telling him consistently for the past several months that I had no interest in sex with him, and after I’d explicitly said no three times to his request to join me in the shower (I’d told my roommate, when I went to my room to get my things, that I was off to the shower, and he’d been there to hear), he came up there anyway, tried to grope me, and kept on trying after I’d pushed him away. What he’d done wrong is that, after I told my own story, I heard from another woman that her roommate had been repeatedly in tears over the fact that she couldn’t get him to leave her alone, sexually (I don’t know the full gory details of that one, just the tears witnessed by the roommate).
I don’t believe this was an honest mistake. I’m still more convinced it wasn’t an honest mistake when I realize, in hindsight, that he was a non-student who chose to hang around on a college campus and pursue women ten years younger than himself. Don’t get me wrong, here. I have nothing against enthusiastically consensual older man/younger woman relationships, and think it’s just fine and dandy for men of any age to pursue barely legal women, as long as they go away when the woman says no, and as long as they’re not the woman’s psychiatrist or responsible for the woman’s grades, raises, or promotions. But when a man both has a problem with a consent and is pursuing barely legal though he’s much older, I suspect that this particular man is looking for women who haven’t figured out how to stick up for themselves yet, rather than innocently pursuing firm bodies and unwrinkled faces.
The other part has to do with the kinds of things that are legally defined as rape. These are not gray area things. They are (necessarily, since they involve convincing a jury of twelve of your peers beyond reasonable doubt that you’ve committed rape and deserve jail time) things that really ought to be clear cut. Here’s the legal definition of rape in California. Notice how it involves things like “violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the person or another,” intoxication so severe that the accused could reasonably have known that the victim was incapable of resisting, the victim being asleep or unconscious, etc. I have trouble seeing how anyone could honestly be oblivious to the nature of these things. If you penetrate a woman while she isn’t even awake to say yes or no, and you’re ignorant that this is rape, I’m inclined to think you’re culpably ignorant rather than innocently ignorant, that you had to achieve this ignorance by blinding yourself to what the other person’s feelings would be.
Are there gray areas? Sure. Part of the “gray” comes from the fact that things that we say in discussing sex aren’t literally true. Consent isn’t always entirely verbal. (If you say you want to have sex with me and I, right then and there, start pulling off your pants, you can probably safely assume I’m willing.) People can quite happily have sex that doesn’t start out mutually enthusiastic. (It’s a bad idea for sex with someone you’ve never had sex with before to start out with anything less than mutual enthusiasm, but if you’ve been married a couple of decades? You may well know the difference between a “willing to be willing” that accepts that, even though I’m not in the mood now, that mood is likely to change once you start touching me, and a “no, tonight I really don’t want to.”) There’s a certain degree of implied consent (or implied lack of consent), such that my husband could wake me with a kiss, but the guy visiting my dorm who once, when I fell asleep on the couch, woke me with a kiss after I’d told him no I didn’t want to be kissed the night before, and without my ever having invited him really pissed me off.
Movies explore these gray areas all the time, sometimes with characters behaving ethically (as when Jimmy Stewart, like a gentleman, refuses an amorous Katharine Hepburn who isn’t nearly drunk enough that a jury of twelve peers would convict him of rape, but clearly drunk enough that she’ll regret it in the morning, or as when James, in Sliding Doors, pursues Helen with wit and charm while listening just enough to her hesitation to give her time to mend her broken heart), and other times (as Joanna Schroeder describes here) doing things that would play really badly in real life.
Part of the gray, though, is that we use similar words to describe things that, if you actually look explicitly at what’s happening, aren’t the same at all. Depending on our relationship, waking me up gently, waking me up slow with a touch that invites sex once I’m fully awake may be delightful, mildly annoying as it seems to be to the not-in-the-mood speaker in “Boys want sex in the morning,” or infuriating, as it was when I was kissed in my sleep by someone I’d explicitly turned down. But penetration’s a whole different matter. Penetrate any of my orifices without my being ready and eager, and you may cause me pain and injury or make me throw up, and, even if I escape that, will leave me feeling pretty darn invaded and violated. The difference between being woken up gently, woken up slow (assuming you’re someone who reasonably anticipates I’ll be receptive) and being penetrated in my sleep is like the difference between being brought breakfast in bed and having a breakfast sausage shoved down my throat before I’m even awake.
Would we ever call the breakfast sausage down my throat “surprise breakfast in bed”? Would anyone dream it was anything other than assault, because I said a couple of days before that I really love sausages in the morning?