Dark truth about dating today EVERY woman must read: This summer’s most shocking book explores the way too many men now view sex – including those who ask for a refund for a night out if they don’t get their way
- Third of UK women have endured non-consensual spitting, slapping during sex
- Rachel Thompson interviewed people about their sexual experiences for a book
- Author, 33, was inundated with stories of people being chocked without consent
- Claims it is also not uncommon for young women to feel they owe someone sex
One night, some time ago, Megan got on the Tube at Baker Street station at around 10pm. She was the only woman sitting in the carriage when her phone buzzed. A fellow passenger was trying to ‘AirDrop’ — or wirelessly transfer — a photo to her phone.
When she saw it was an image of a penis, she felt targeted, shocked and ‘grossed out’. She declined the AirDrop request, but the sender didn’t give up.
‘It popped up again and again,’ says Megan. ‘I started to go into my settings but the photo kept popping up until I finally switched off AirDrop.
‘I couldn’t work out who did it — the Tube was relatively packed. It was just grim.’
Rachel Thompson was inundated with emails and messages from women who’ve been choked without consent during sex while interviewing people for her new book (file image)
The ordeal left Megan feeling understandably unsettled. You may imagine that such a clear act of sexual aggression and threatening behaviour — the threat stemming from the perpetrator’s anonymity and whether he intended to follow her home — would be regarded in a similar way to traditional ‘trench coat’ flashing and would be punishable by law.
But the reality is legislation has not kept pace with technology, so cyberflashing — sending someone a sexually explicit photo without their consent — is not legally classed as a sexual offence.
Although cyberflashing (and other forms of digital harassment) are alarmingly common these days, there is little recourse for women.
A new study revealed this week that more than half of women have been sexually harassed by strangers online (more than half via Instagram), with the harassment ranging from threats of sexual violence to crude remarks, jokes or demands for sex.
The study by Toronto University revealed that 28 per cent of women received inappropriate pictures and 23 per cent said they had been sent nude photographs by men showing their genitals.
The sad fact is that such acts of sexual aggression against women are often downplayed — by women as well as men.
Like many women, I used to picture rape and sexual assault as the violent act of a faceless stranger in the dead of night, not something that could be perpetrated by someone you liked, let alone loved.
If you’d asked me in my 20s if I’d experienced sexual violence, I would have unequivocally said ‘no’. I might have conceded that I’d had ‘some bad sex’ in my time.
A study by Toronto University revealed this week that more than half of women have been sexually harassed by strangers online (file image)
And yet, when I was 19, a boy I was seeing called Daniel sat on my chest during sex, his legs straddling me. I couldn’t expand my lungs fully because of his weight bearing down on me. All I could manage were tiny, shallow breaths.
I had a genuine fear that I might die. I didn’t cry or scream or dig my nails into his flesh like I wished I had afterwards. I didn’t even say; ‘Hey, can we stop for a sec.’ I just . . . lay there.
I pushed the memory away. It was as if I’d shoved it into a drawer, locked it and thrown away the key. It worked for a while, and I did not reopen that drawer for a decade.
When I was 29, the world changed when the #MeToo movement had us reflecting on the violations eked out on our bodies and minds. We talked about them, sometimes for the first time, with friends. We tried to find the language to describe things that had happened to us that we’d never spoken about before.
In my own case, I had enthusiastically consented to having sex with Daniel, but he had done something that made me feel scared for my life. It’s only now, aged 33, that I have found the strength to call it was it was: sexual violence.
I wrote my new book, Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom And What We Can Do About It, for those who have ever experienced something they didn’t have the words to define. Who felt their experience was a ‘grey area’ or ‘just bad sex’ or ‘not rape, but . . .’ Who were harmed, but didn’t believe they had the right to feel that way.
As a society, we often talk about sexual violence as a dichotomy — it’s either rape or consensual sex. That might benefit you if you’re coming at it from the perspective of someone who’s perpetrated a violation that sits outside it and so will evade consequences. But does it serve people who’ve experienced something that made them feel harmed?
Dr Fiona Vera-Grey, an assistant professor at Durham University, says sexual experiences that are uncomfortable, painful or violating are just that. There’s no grey area (file image)
Downplaying violations through ambiguous, woolly language feeds into a culture of permissibility. When we sanitise sexual violence, we are saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s normal’, instead of, ‘That was an unacceptable violation’.
One term in current parlance is the ‘grey area’ or ‘grey area experiences’. Dr Fiona Vera-Grey, an assistant professor at Durham University specialising in how to combat violence against women and girls, says that the term ‘feeds into the narrative of women being taught to doubt how something feels’.
She explains: ‘Sexual experiences that are uncomfortable, painful or violating are just that. There’s no grey area there — they feel wrong.’
Daisy’s experience as a 21-year-old university student is an example of a violation that she struggled to name.
One night, she went for a drink with a graduate friend of a friend. After three or four drinks, he asked her if she wanted to come back to his place and ‘watch a film’.
When things heated up, Daisy asked him if he had a condom, and he said he had. However, during sex Daisy became aware that the condom had come off. But the man kept going as if nothing had happened.
Daisy says as she wasn’t very experienced, she didn’t feel she could assert herself in the situation.
When he finished, she challenged him, only for him to smile and say: ‘Oh, whoops — sorry.’
University student Daisy, 21, recounts having to take the morning-after pill after a man removed a condom without her consent (file image)
Daisy recalls: ‘He kind of looked to one side where he’d clearly taken it off, and he was like: “Oh, there it is!” ’
That was the first time Daisy ever had to take the morning-after pill.
Initially, she told herself it must have been an honest mistake. It was only when she read about ‘stealthing’ years later that she realised otherwise. The word was given to the practice of non-consensual condom removal by perpetrators writing about it in online sub-cultures.
Non-consensual condom removal puts victims at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. While rape campaigners are in agreement that stealthing constitutes sexual assault, we’re only just beginning to see a very small number of stealthing convictions in a handful of countries.
In 2019, a man in England was convicted of raping a sex worker when he removed a condom, after the woman stated that condom use was a condition of her agreement to have sex with clients.
It is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. Particularly as levels of violence in the bedroom are increasing.
When I first started interviewing people about their sexual experiences for my book, I was inundated with emails and messages from women who’d been choked without consent.
More than a third of UK women under 40 have endured non-consensual choking, slapping, gagging or spitting during sex (file image)
Sexual violence campaigners say there is burgeoning pressure on young women to consent to ‘violent, dangerous and demeaning acts’. Shockingly, more than a third of UK women under 40 have endured non-consensual choking, slapping, gagging or spitting during sex. Relationship counsellors are calling this a ‘silent epidemic’, the effects of which they are dealing with on a daily basis.
Abigail went on a Bumble date with a man she’d been messaging who seemed lovely, charming and good-looking. They’d been chatting over WhatsApp for a few weeks before meeting up at a bar near his flat.
‘I went back to his afterwards with the intention of having sex, and during sex he choked me without my consent, was extremely rough and hit parts of my body,’ says Abigail. ‘When he was choking me, I didn’t have the breath to tell him to stop and he seemed to be enjoying it, so I didn’t want to make a fuss.’
The next day, she showed her friend the bruises on her neck, breasts and bottom, partly because she was unsure how she was supposed to feel about it. Her friend was shocked and took it very seriously. But it took time for Abigail to accept that such violence was wrong.
Beth Ashley, a journalist specialising in sex and relationships, believes non-consensual slapping, spanking and hitting stem from learning about sex from mainstream porn, where such acts are commonplace.
A British Board of Film Classification survey found that children as young as seven years old had watched mainstream porn in the UK (file image)
‘I had a conversation with a friend a while back, who had been reading about sex online. He was shocked to find out that you’re supposed to get consent for every individual act that happens in sex, and not just permission to have sex,’ she says. ‘He told me: “I’ve spanked people without asking them.” And while they didn’t respond to it badly, he was just suddenly hit with the idea that he could have really upset someone.’
She emphasises that the guy who told her this is ‘not a bad person’, but someone who grew up watching porn from the age of 12 and who hadn’t had an open conversation about sex with any friends, family or trusted adults.
A British Board of Film Classification survey found that children as young as seven years old had watched mainstream porn in the UK, unbeknown to their parents.
A 2016 report by the University of Middlesex found that by the age of 16, 65 per cent of boys and girls had seen online porn, and 28 per cent of children aged between 11 and 12 had viewed it. More than half the boys surveyed said they believed the sex they’d seen in porn was realistic.
This is concerning because it’s the lack of realism that is so damaging — particularly when it fails to reinforce the need for consent when introducing any new sex acts into an encounter, and when those acts carry a certain degree of physical risk. Laina Bay-Cheng, professor of social work at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, says: ‘As there’s more attention given to this idea of women as sexually empowered — and especially that young women are supposed to seem sexual, and together, and cool and hip — being awkward and seeming awkward may feel like a much worse thing than going along with sex that is violent and physically damaging.’
It is not uncommon for young women to feel they owe someone sex. Abigail admits she has slept with men because they took her to a ‘fancy restaurant and bought me loads of posh wine’, she says. ‘I felt really guilty that he had paid for everything, so went back to his after to “pay him back”.’
Abigail now realises that she didn’t owe him anything just because he took her out.
Rachel says the entitlement to women’s bodies lies at the root of our damaging sex culture, but there is strength in speaking out (file image)
On the internet, you will find scores of Reddit posts, blogs and articles about this transactional aspect of our dating culture. Women even report being asked to reimburse male dates for dinner or drinks if they don’t have sex with them afterwards.
The experience of Chloe Matthews, a student paramedic who lives in Hull, went viral after she received a text from a guy named Danny she’d met on a night out.
The text read: ‘Could you transfer me for those drinks I bought you last nite [sic] since we didn’t go home togeva [sic] wasn’t really worth my time was it lol x.’
When she tweeted a screenshot of the text, it gained 67,000 ‘likes’ and 10,000 retweets.
It’s uncomfortable to think about, but this is an ingrained aspect of sexual culture that sometimes rears its ugly head. This entitlement to women’s bodies lies at the root of our damaging sex culture.
The ubiquity of these experiences is shameful. Yes, there is strength in speaking out, strength in numbers. But what if our society just accepts those numbers, however shockingly high they are?
We need change. We can’t achieve that change by ourselves.
- Some names have been changed to protect identities.
- ROUGH: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom And What We Can Do About It, by Rachel Thompson (Square Peg, £14.99). © Rachel Thompson 2021. To order a copy for £13.49 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until September 16, 2021.