The Consent Workshop Sexual Assault: Why We Must Expand Our Definition of Sex
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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness on the issue of sexual violence while also focusing on prevention education. Depending on how one is exposed to the media, sexual assault is quite the topical staple: in news headlines, on social media, plot devices in movies, and so on. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements did play a part in normalising conversations around harassment and sexual abuse, helping survivors to speak freely on their pain and trauma, and attempted to hold perpetrators accountable.

Be that as it may, statistics still paint a grim picture. Globally, about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These are not just figures; they are lived realities. Statistics remain the way they are when actionable steps are not taken to counteract a problem like sexual assault, both interpersonally and structurally. We also can’t overstate the importance of education.

Although sexual assault doesn’t have to occur during sex to be seen as legitimate, the intimate sphere of sex would be the focus of this article.

What is Sex?

Ask anyone for the definition of sex and they are mostly always thinking hardline penetration, that is penis-in-vagina intercourse. It’s a definition on auto-pilot, in that sex is defined that way without much thought. But this definition is limiting and narrow, and functions to uphold patriarchy and heterosexuality. Patriarchy, a system of male rule that subjugates women, only recognises heterosexuality as the only valid sexual orientation.

It imposes sex to mean something that happens between a man and woman, with the penis and vagina involved. It has since universally taken roots via social conditioning, propped in our educational curriculum, popular culture and religious teachings. Left and right, we literally can’t escape this school of thought. As a patriarchal ideology, it erases other sexual orientations like homosexuality and reinforces genitalia as a prerequisite for sex. Because patriarchy maintains a strict gender order, this poses not just erasure but harm to nonbinary/trans/queer folks. Also, we must reckon with how the mainstream definition of sex can be ableist. People with disabilities have sex too, even without the possession of physical genitalia. Upending the patriarchal construction of sex makes room for inclusive experiences. 

Sex, redefined

We have already established that sex, as physical activity, can be experienced within a range of sexualities and bodies. But what does it look like? This is the million-dollar question. Sex is not supposed to have a definite look. There’s nothing like ”real” sex. It doesn’t need to involve penetration or orgasm. Foreplay, those small, appetizing build-ups leading to intercourse like oral for example, are sexual activities. Foreplay is only regarded as ”small” or a precursor in order to make penile sex look like some big, grand event, to give it a perceived worth. Sex is whatever an individual makes it to be, and for others, foreplay (we should stop calling it this) is just enough. For others as well, orgasm or ejaculation is a goal, and employing sex toys or non-penetration routes like frotting or rubbing/stroking the genitals is just as valid. 

Last year October, a Nigerian lesbian was accused of raping a woman. The original tweet can’t be found, but the recurring sentiment from Nigerians was this question: how can a woman sexually assault another woman? This is because their definition of sex or sexual activity is warped by heteropatriarchy. In people’s mind, sex without a penis isn’t authentic. Not only does this framing erases other experiences in relation to sexual assault, but it also provides the conditions for secondary victimization.

Read Consent in Queer Relationships

Instead of centering the victim’s abuse and trauma, they are further victimized when their stories are seen as implausible. Shifting sexual assault discourse to a paradigm where genitalia is decentered helps victims to legitimise their abuse. In the context of male homosexuality,  sexual assault is often seen through the lens of penetration. Think of drop-the-soap prison jokes or the distasteful rape humour about men with big butts. In Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking television series I May Destroy You, gay character Kwame in a triggering, suffocating scene is sexually assaulted by a guy he hooks up with.

It was nonconsensual frotting and Kwame didn’t process this as a violation until after accompanying Arabella to report her own sexual assault at the police station. He didn’t realise he was assaulted because what he understood as sex operated on limited definitions. If someone like Kwame were to report that they were sexually assaulted, then asked by the authorities to give details on how it happened especially in a country like Nigeria, chances are such a case won’t be given the same seriousness as one that involves penetration. And that is if the authorities can get past their homophobia.

Surely, consent is important, as also defining sex through a personal lens of desire and pleasure can help us pinpoint where an assault has occurred.

 

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