Written by Rachel Thompson
In her new book, Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom And What We Can Do About It, journalist Rachel Thompson explores the narratives of sexual violence that aren’t talked about. In this exclusive extract, Thompson speaks with women to examine the idea of ‘sex as paying them back’.
The following is an extract from Rachel Thompson’s new book, Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom.
“Lie back and think of England.”
That’s the phrase Abigail, who shared another of her experiences in chapter two, uses to characterise some of her sexual experiences with men. She didn’t want to have sex with these partners, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to say no.
“I went on one date where the guy took me to a really fancy restaurant and bought me loads of posh wine and I got really drunk,” she recalls. “I felt really guilty that he had paid for everything, so went back to his after to ‘pay him back’. Mid-blowjob, I threw up on his penis. After I had cleaned myself up, he asked to have sex and I was so out of it I just said no and passed out.”
Abigail now realises that she didn’t need to ‘pay him back’ and that she didn’t owe him anything just because he took her out. In a very unscientific poll of my Instagram followers, I asked if they had felt they owed someone sex after that person paid for a date, or if their date had expected sex after paying. 80% of respondents answered yes.
Laina Bay-Cheng refers to this as a ‘transaction script’: “That script of like, ‘Well, he’s been really nice to me’ and, ‘Oh, maybe I led him on’ or, ‘Oh, he probably paid for that and now he thinks…’ But there’s also an idea of not wanting to seem awkward by saying no to sex we don’t want, and not wishing to be talked about by our peers as difficult or ‘frigid’.
“As there’s more attention given to this idea of women as sexually empowered – and especially young women are supposed to seem so sexual, and together, and cool and hip – that being awkward and seeming awkward may feel like a much worse thing than going along with sex that isn’t violent and physically damaging,” says Bay-Cheng. “I think the social penalty for being awkward can feel greater than the penalty of being like, ‘I didn’t really want to do that but whatever.’”
We’re often aware of these scripts or ideas, and the pressure to follow them and our own desires to resist those scripts. “Women are constantly using energy either resisting scripts or following them,” Bay-Cheng explains. “So, even when women are resisting that script, it’s still in your head.’
Layla, the sex educator behind @lalalaletmeexplain, often addresses topics like this with her community of 150k followers. “I think this is all tied into women being socially conditioned to be people pleasers, but also not being taught that sex is for us,” she says.
As Gabrielle Jackson writes in Pain And Prejudice: “From the moment she’s old enough to understand, almost every girl is taught that it’s her role to be a pleasure giver – after all, what does pleasure have to do with herself?” Women are socialised to believe that they exist to provide pleasure, not to experience it themselves; they’re also conditioned to be the gatekeepers to sex, the ones who sex is done to, rather than being seen as sexual participants with needs and desires.
Layla tells me she has had lots of unwanted sex: “I have been in situations where a guy picked me up and it’s taken him two hours to get to me and then, I’ll be at his house and I’ll really not want to, but I’ll feel like, oh, it’d be really rude, he’s taken all this time and I’ve got no way of going home.”
When Layla was much younger, she would dissociate during unwanted sex and would instead focus her mind on road maps and calculating a route during the sex. When people dissociate, they feel disconnected from themselves and the world that surrounds them. People experience dissociation in many different ways, but it is known to be a way that the mind copes with stressful and traumatic situations.
“I don’t even remember the sex, I just remember, I would try and plan journeys from one place to another and I’d imagine every road that you’d have to go down to get to there, until the sex was over,” Layla explains. “And if you asked me what happened during the sex, how did it go, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you. But I could tell you a really good route of how to get to a certain place.”
This idea of feeling you owe someone sex is not an uncommon experience. On the internet, you will find scores of Reddit posts, blogs, and articles about this aspect of our dating culture. In a post on r/relationships, one woman asks fellow Redditors whether she owes her male date sex after he paid for their $350 dinner. The Redditor explains that her date insisted on taking her out and he chose a ‘super fancy restaurant’ where he ordered an extravagantly expensive bottle of wine. He proceeded to take her all over town for pricy drinks and dessert, spending a total of more than $350 in one evening.
“Neither of us is in a position to live extravagantly, so, to me, his doing this signals that he really likes me,” she writes. “I like him a lot, too, but I don’t feel able to reciprocate the way (I think) he thinks I should. We haven’t had sex yet, but we’ve made out, gotten naked and I give him BJs every time we are together.”
This idea doesn’t come out of women’s imaginations. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but this is an ingrained aspect of sexual culture that sometimes rears its ugly head. This expectation to pay someone back after they’ve bought dinner or drinks isn’t just an implicit expectation, it explicitly manifests itself through requests for reimbursement, as if one end of the bargain has not been held up.
In heterosexual dating culture, women report being asked to reimburse male dates for dinner or drinks if they don’t have sex with them after the guy has paid. Chloe Matthews, a student paramedic who lives in Hull, went viral after receiving a text from a guy named Danny she met on a night out. The text read: “Could you transfer me for those drinks I bought you last nite since we didn’t go home togeva wasn’t really worth my time was it lol x.” When she tweeted a screenshot of the text, it gained 67k likes and 10k retweets.
Matthews isn’t the only woman to have received text messages like this though. Biomedicine student Abby Fenton was on a night out in a club in Sheffield when a guy offered to pay for the drink she’d ordered. The pair exchanged numbers and parted ways. Two weeks later she received a text asking her to transfer £6.50 for the vodka and coke he’d bought her. “Hi hope u don’t mind love but can you transfer me back £6.50?” wrote Liam. Abby didn’t recognise the name at first and replied asking “who’s this”. “Liam from the viper rooms a few weeks ago,” the response began. “I bought yer a drink? Can I have money back for it? Will give u sort code and account no.”
After a flurry of other viral text screenshots showing men asking women to refund the drinks they’d bought, journalist Sophie Gallagher interviewed a man who believed paying for a date entitled him to sex. “If she doesn’t want to sleep with me after I’ve paid a lot for a first date, I’ll weigh up the likelihood of that being the case next time,” Ali, 29, told her. “If she’s simply ungrateful or disrespectful, I need to cut my losses and find another prospect.”
This entitlement to women’s bodies isn’t exclusive to dating culture and apps. Male sexual entitlement can also manifest in long-term heterosexual relationships. Victoria used to be married to a man who felt he was entitled to sex with her. “He treated me like sex was his right. He would make me feel guilty if I didn’t want to have sex with him. He’d coerce me with guilt, in fact.”
Sex with her husband was always about him. He would get bored if she asked him to satisfy her. “Once, I asked to have my nipples stimulated and he hurt me – like, pinched them so hard that they were bruised and the skin was abraded for days,” she says. “He even told me directly once that having sex with me was his right. I told him that was rape and he got very angry.”
When I ask Victoria how her ex-husband’s behaviour made her feel, she replies: “Like a person who did not deserve sexual feelings. I didn’t like my body around him and I lost all attraction to him whatsoever. I am still working on the emotional damage from this relationship.”
Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom by Rachel Thompson is published by Vintage Publishing on 26 August.
Images: Marco Kesseler, Vintage Publishing
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