Rough, as the title suggests looks at various forms of violence that have made their way into our sex lives particularly in recent years. Some of these can be described as experiences that sit within a ‘grey area’ that might not fit traditional definitions of rape and sexual assault. The reason for this grey area, Thompson suggests, is that our society and by extension, the law, uses binary terms of rape or non-consensual sex vs. consensual sex.
The problem with this, according to Thompson is that, language feeds into the notion of a hierarchy of sexual acts, with some forms being more valid than others. This can invalidate LGBTQ people’s sexual experiences but also lead to the assumption that only some acts need consent. By removing this hierarchy, we can begin to address these ‘grey areas’ and bring about change in the legal language which fails to account for the full scope of sexual violence.
For example, in the UK, legal definitions of sexual assault and consent differ depending on whether you live in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales.
Many experts interviewed, are critical of the term ‘non-consensual sex’. Thompson explores why, by focusing on the importance of language, how we use it and how this is reflected in legal terminology. By using the term ‘non-consensual sex,’ it downplays violations and feeds into a culture of permissibility that has real consequences for survivors of sexual violence.
Thompson goes onto look at some of the acts that could be seen as making up this ‘grey area’; acts that may fall outside the legal definition of rape or sexual assault, but nonetheless leave the victim feeling violated. These include stealthing (the act of non-consensual condom removal), non-consensual choking and spitting, facial ejaculation amongst others.
She hones in on BDSM and how it has become conflated with sexual violence thereby demonises the community. Thompson makes it clear, by looking at the importance of consent in these interactions, that there is a line between consensual BDSM acts and BDSM being used by perpetrators to get away with non-consensual acts. It leaves the door open for abusers to pass off their behaviours as kink. These acts that are written off by perpetrators as ‘rough sex’ are in fact it is ‘sexual violence’.
I found the discussions in the book, around consent interesting, particularly the notion of ‘strategic consent’ a term coined by Bay-Cheng. “Disadvantaged young women often don’t have the luxury of consent that is only about sex; their consent has to be strategic.” This is because consent must take into account the reality that many marginalised communities face around misogyny, racism, economic injustice.
Consent assumes that all women have sexual agency and this isn’t always the case. Bay-Cheng also talks about ‘transaction scripts’ where someone feels they ‘owe’ another person sex, for example perhaps because they’ve paid for a date. Again, this would fall into that grey area, Thompson points to.
So what does she suggest we can do about it?
Whilst pornography, she acknowledges, does play a role in the rise of some of these acts, banning pornography isn’t the answer. Ethical pornography is going some way towards filling this gap, but what we need is to change our relationship with porn.
Another key suggestion is the improvement in the kind of sex education we receive. This includes incorporating anti-racism in sex education curricula, promoting healthy attitudes towards disabled people in the bedroom,
She also suggests that media portrayals of sex play an importance role in how certain acts are viewed. She points to shows like Bad Education, I May Destroy You and Normal People.
But she’s clear that this education needs also to take place outside of the classroom and that as adults we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
Thompson goes on to look at everything from the fetishization, hypersexualisation and desexualisation of certain communities (women of colour, those with disabilities, bisexual women and the transgender community) upskirting and digital sexual violations such as cyberflashing. The law has notably failed to keep up with these image-based violations.
Legal language is so important, Thompson argues, because the law is used as a moral barometer. But if the law falls short and if we can’t rely solely on legal definitions by the justice system, especially for those that are most marginalised on society, then what is the answer?
She writes, “we cannot place our faith in the law or in educational syllabi – both of which are controlled by lawmakers looking to serve the interests of their own political agenda. Changing our sexual culture has to start at an individual level, through thinking about how you treat other people – even if they’re complete strangers – on a human level. But on a macro level, we also have a collective duty to understand and fight the ways systems of oppression operate in our sexual culture.”
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