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Is intercourse a violence or a violation?

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stullis asks:

I've been with my girlfriend for nearly six months now. I've always had a bit of a problem having sex with people (keeping it up) but this problem has never occurred between me and her. However, lately I've begun to feel very guilty about the physical action of having sex. The act of penetration is a great experience physically, but when I think about what I'm doing I feel like I'm stabbing her, or performing some kind of violent act on her. We haven't had sex yet since I started REALLY feeling like this (which was a little more than three weeks ago) but if we are making out and begin to have dry sex I often start to cry from the idea of what I am doing to her. She's very compassionate and understanding, and I have told her all of this, but I want it to stop. I need to know how to make myself stop feeling like I am abusing her when we have sex because considering the times we've had sex before I had this mindset, it's been an incredible experience of expressing our love to each other, and I'd really like to have that back.

Heather Corinna replies:

I think it might help if you made some adjustments to the way you think about intercourse and sex as a whole.

You use the word penetration, and talk about what you're doing as stabbing or a kind of invasion. I also hear you saying that sex is something you are doing to your partner or on your partner rather than with your partner, or as something you are doing together. You frame sex -- as many people do, unfortunately -- as something you have, rather than as something people actively and jointly do or create.

Physically, metaphysically, and often emotionally and intellectually (sometimes even spiritually), sex is about people and their bodies interlocking in any number of ways, and about BOTH sets of genitals (or other parts), both bodies, both people being actively engaged, doing something together, not about one person doing something to, on or at the other.

I know that can be quite the mental headstand when there are so many ideas and presentations of intercourse as men forcing themselves into women, as vaginas or vulvas as somehow passive and only penises as active, and with sex between men and women, as what men do to women, how men dominate women, but those ideas come more from political agendas and sexism -- and reactions to inequality and those agendas -- than they do from what is really happening with intercourse or other sex when any two (or more) people are sharing an experience that is mutually wanted, about mutual pleasure and real connectivity.

Let's take a look at a bit from Let's Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry:

There are debates within different feminist perspectives about how we construct the ideas of entry and intercourse, and whether these actions can ever truly be based in equality. Some feminists argue that patriarchy has institutionalized both intercourse and sex as a whole, making it not about merging or sharing of pleasure, but about dominating someone and expressing power over someone, particularly when you look at intercourse between individuals that could possibly result in pregnancy.

Plenty of men have been reared with these kinds of ideas about sex so intensely and unilaterally that they either don’t know that it’s not about conquering or forcing their way into someone or something, or, if they do realize that this is not an accurate portrayal of sex, it can still take some time for them to relearn sexuality outside of that limited and dangerous construction. Women, too, have received these messages, and some will still hold closely to the idea that they should play a certain role in relationships or sexuality, or that they are obligated to “do one’s duty” as a romantic or sexual partner.

But is mindfully entering into a woman's body, or anyone’s body, who WANTS you there, with respect, a violation? If so, how? There seem to be some profound flaws in some theories which critique these kinds of sex and suggest it is violating, flaws which include heterosexism (as men can be entered, too), dismissal of the fact that a woman's body is not passive (again, our mouths or vulvas and vaginas or anuses don't "just lay there" when we are excited and wanting a given kind of sex), and, at times, assumptions that relationships between genders can never come from true respect and equality.

If a given person thinks about entering someone else's body who wants them there, who takes them in gladly and with a strong desire to do so, as a violence or a violation, in some sense, they may be dismissing that person as a whole person; an equal person with equal agency, equal want, equal desire, equal sexuality. It may be thinking about your body as having a power or force which her body does not, or which her body has less of.

In other words, if your girlfriend very much wants you inside her body, if she welcomes and takes you into her body, and makes clear that, for her, this is not about being violated, but about her desire, about pulling and holding you inside of her (the vagina is a strong, active muscle, after all, and it can pull in as well as resist), having you be part of her? To stay stuck in the idea that it MUST be a violation in some way denies her full personhood, full embodiment, and kind of insists she must be an object in some sense. In other words, it can be kind of sexist.

In case that's too esoteric, let's try a different example of a similar dynamic. I apologize in advance for yet another cooking analogy from me on the site: I cook a lot, and sex and food have a lot in common.

I want to make a dinner for a friend as a surprise, I buy all the groceries myself, do all the cooking. They come over and insist that to share that meal with me would be robbing me of my food or my labor, or being self-centered since they didn't help pay for or make any of it. They'd be denying my own motivation and intention to give them a gift, to take part in something with me, and to share something I wanted to share. They'd also be denying the pleasure I got -- and sought out, of my own free will -- from planning that surprise, buying and choosing my ingredients, cooking and serving the meal and enjoying the pleasure I expected them to have in a lovely, surprise meal. See what I mean?

To change your mind on this, I think it could help to change your language, even if it feels weird at first.

I would suggest -- even just in your head, which should be easy since you probably don't say "I want to penetrate you," when initiating sex -- switching out "penetration" for something like "interlocking" or "intercoursing." You might even flip the script entirely for a while and make it about ONLY what her body does and think of it as something like engulfing or surrounding. I'd suggest exchanging the idea of "doing to" or "doing on," with "doing with." I'd say words like "stabbing" just need to go in the rubbish bin, full-stop.

It might also be of value to you to give some thought to your ideas around masculinity and femininity, both overall, and when it comes to sex: you may find some culprits in your ideas around, or personal definitions of, those concepts at play with this. You seem to express discomfort with the physicality of sex on your part: that, for example, might be something about how you think about men and women, and it might help to remember that women have and enjoy physicality, too.

On violence: I've personally experienced a lot of violence in and around my life, including sexual abuses, and I have found the literal definitions of violence to be helpful to me, so I want to share those with you:

1 a : exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in effecting illegal entry into a house) b : an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2 : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation : OUTRAGE
3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force b : vehement feeling or expression : FERVOR; also : an instance of such action or feeling c : a clashing or jarring quality : DISCORDANCE
4 : undue alteration

None of those definitions sound like any kind of wanted, consensual sex to me. Even for people who negotiate and wantedly, mutually choose to enact sex that is very aggressive, very rough, or which explores the line between pain and pleasure, I still am not seeing a match here. The definition that includes fervor can perhaps be an element of sex sometimes, but if you really look at that definition, you'll see that none of it is about a mutuality. Mutual fervor, intensity or force in the interest of shared pleasure or connection is not in dischord, is not an abuse, is not an injury or violation.

If it helps, I can absolutely assure you that on the receptive end of things, when a person physically, emotionally and intellectually wants some part of their body entered, someone else's body in their own in some way, when they are turned on, when they are attracted to and like or love who they are with (and sometimes even when they're not!), so long as they don't have any kind of condition that makes entry painful, and no one gets injured in any way, it does not feel like being stabbed, cut open, punched or any of those traumatic things. It also does not feel like being abused or sexually assaulted (though if you have a partner who has rape or abuse history, PTSD or body memories can sometimes influence that experience). I promise. Nothing about being stabbed or assaulted feels good: wanted physical entry and wanted sexual interlocking usually feels very good.

I think it might be smart for the two of you to do some more talking about what your girlfriend's experience of sex with entry is like. Listen to what she says and give her feelings and words value and merit. She's the expert on what something feels like for her, after all, not me or you.

By all means, if she says any kind of sex has felt painful or violating, then talk about that to find out what has created those feelings for her, and change up what you are doing, whether that means being more gentle or slow with intercourse, engaging in more activities first or with intercourse that aren't about entry, having your girlfriend be a more active or communicative partner during intercourse, ditching intercourse altogether if it's not something you two like or feel good about and/or addressing some problematic dynamics in your relationship as a whole which might be cause for feeling this way. You may want to make any or all of those changes just for yourself to alter your own experience: for instance, you don't have to go very fast or be forceful if that doesn't feel emotionally or physically good for you, even if it does for her.

It might also be helpful, as well as enjoyable, for you to experience what entry is like on your end (no pun intended), so that you have a better idea of what entry really feels like. You can have your own experience in that way with a partner or by yourself with receptive anal sex or stimulation on your part. Your mouth is also something that can be receptive, so even having oral sex with a female partner -- particularly where you're really having your mouth filled, such as when that partner is positioned sitting on your mouth, rather than lying in front of you -- can fit that bill. What it's like to experience entry doesn't have to be a mystery to you if you don't want it to be.

All of that said, how you feel about this matters and is valid, so I'd consider if intercourse is truly something YOU want to be doing right now, or is right for you in this relationship at this time; with whatever given dynamics you have in the relationship, and in terms of how you feel about yourself and your sexuality now. No one has to do any given sexual activity: none are required. It may be that you need a break for a while, which is absolutely okay, and I'd say sounds a lot better than feeling like this when you try to have intercourse. It might help to scale things back, perhaps even just thinking about how entry is in some way going on with things like deep kissing, oral sex, or even when one person's hand closes over the other's when we hold hands.

I'm curious about this sudden change in how you feel about this, and what may have spurred it on. You're not the first guy who has asked me about feeling this way, and sometimes when it's been posted on our boards, or been in a context where I could have an in-depth discussion about it, I've had a couple common situations that I've noticed can bring up these concerns or feelings.

One is seeing or hearing some sort of representation of sex that did very much present it as a violence or violation -- and sometimes really applauding or fetishizing that violation -- or did really objectify the receptive partner. Hearing a lot about rape, if you don't understand it as being a very different thing than consensual sex, can also have this kind of impact, as can seeing or hearing a demonstration of the idea that male sexuality is some sort of terrible, uncontrollable beast (which it is not).

If you've had good feelings about this so far, but then saw or heard something like that, it can make you question your own truth, your own feelings and experiences, and leave you wondering if perhaps your truth wasn't true and that one was. If something like that happened, I'd encourage you to be critical of what you saw or heard, and also to privilege your own experience and that of your partner. Even if a given activity was, or was presented as, a violation for or to someone else, that doesn't mean it has been for the two of you. In other words, trust what your shared experiences have been and have felt like: it seems like up until recently, it has been very positive and loving for you both.

Another common link I've seen with people feeling this way is previous guilt or shaming around sex (or certain kinds of sex), around their gender or previous sexual abuse. I don't know anything about your sexual history beyond what you have shared with me here, but if you have any shaming, sexual guilt and certainly sexual abuse in your past or present, that may also have to do with how you are feeling right now. If any of that is so, I'd suggest getting connected with a resource -- be it an online support group or a counselor in-person -- who can help you work through that history or those feelings, both for the quality of your sex life and the quality of your life as a whole.

I don't know what caused this change, or if it was even anything concrete like this. But I think it'd be good for you to think about if there was something that might have -- or absolutely did -- spurred this change of heart on, and if you can identify what it is, to just give some big, focused thought around it, and liberally apply plenty of perspective.

Okay? By all means, I think reading the rest of that piece I quoted from about the etiquette of entry will be a boon to you, but I also want to leave you with a few more links that may be of help. I'm going to include some links on rape and abuse to help illuminate the difference for you between sexual violence and wanted, consensual sex.

Before I do that, though, I want to leave you with a reminder that you came here asking about this. You came here concerned about yourself and your partner, and you came expressing a very mindful, loving, caring dynamic and a want for same. In other words, I'd like to encourage you to trust yourself, and see if you can't grow some real faith in the fact that nothing you are expressing here suggests that you are a violent or abusive person, or that you are likely to commit a violence towards your partner. I am personally not concerned that you are, have been, or will become sexually violent. I hope you can again feel the same way about you.

(Knowing more about female anatomy might be a good thing with this)
  • Reciprocity, Reloaded
  • Yield for Pleasure
  • Genderpalooza! A Sex & Gender Primer
  • An Immodest Proposal
  • written 29 Mar 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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