Men Don’t Get to Decide What Counts As ‘Sex’

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Photo: k. A./Getty Images

Does America know what sex is? After the past week, I genuinely don’t know. I’d like to try to define sex as I understand it, but I’ll tell you up front that I am not an expert or a professional, just an occasional weekend warrior. My first introduction to sex was a book my mom read to me about where babies come from. I forget the title, but I will never forget one of the illustrations.

There was a naked man and a naked woman standing facing each other. They both had every piece of hair they could have. They were smiling in a sort of blissed-out way, with their palms facing outward, while, coming from their genitals, were two beautiful purple clouds. The purple clouds met in the middle of the page and formed a bigger purple cloud filled with butterflies and tiny daisylike flowers. Of course, I now know that if a large purple cloud ever comes out of my vagina, I should immediately call a doctor. I would also be very worried by a butterfly emerging from a man’s penis, especially if he was standing in front of me with a weird smile on his face.

But I blame this book, because a part of me still defines sex as people coming together to form purple genital clouds of mutual pleasure.
 I say “mutual,” but I’m under no illusion that all people who have sex are generous when it comes to their partner’s pleasure. For all I know, the man with the purple penis cloud couldn’t have cared less if the woman’s vagina was making butterflies that day or not. Maybe he met her at a bar and was thinking about his ex the whole time. Maybe the woman was like, “Those butterflies were not as great as the butterflies I used to have with Frank, and he also didn’t have such a crazy bush.” I say “mutual,” because nature, in a rare moment of kindness, made it so that we can give our partners pleasure in our search to find pleasure ourselves. I’m not talking about an orgasm, necessarily — I’m honestly just talking about pleasure. Even partners engaging in S&M have very clear boundaries — any pain or humiliation caused is done in a space where both people feel safe, and both people enjoy it. My mom never read me the book where the naked man in a ball gag gets it from behind by the woman in a shark costume wearing a strap-on, but that illustration would be filled with purple butterflies too.

Obviously, different experiences are more fun than others, and there are times when what seems like a good idea in the moment turns out to be a terrible idea after it’s all over. But the ideal we’re striving for in what we call “sex” is that everyone involved wants to be there and is, at some level, enjoying it. I don’t know, am I being too French? People experiencing pleasure together is sort of the point, right?

Here is what sex does not include: one person finding pleasure in genuinely terrifying or humiliating another person. That’s not sex. That’s an attack. Fear is not a part of sex. Nerves, adrenaline, uncertainty, and excitement can be part of what makes sex pleasurable. You can be nervous that you’re not doing it right or worried that you’re making weird sounds and moving around too much and wearing underwear that still has your name written inside, but you should never be afraid for your safety. You should never be terrified. You can be embarrassed that you did a crazy hair flip and then farted, but you should never be humiliated.

Sex is not being in a room with a man masturbating in front of you, unless you are very excited to be there. If that’s your thing, please go forth and have fun. “Honey, how about we go out to dinner, watch a movie, and then I put on a winter coat and stand in front of you while you masturbate?” Fantastic. I’m glad you found each other. In that situation, there’s been some kind of conversation beforehand. This is what you both want. There’s trust between you and also probably some kind of reciprocity — if you’re turned on by someone masturbating in front of you, chances are that you will probably end up masturbating too or at least falling asleep together while watching The Crown.

My problem with Louis C.K.’s apology was that it seemed to be built on the foundation that what happened with these women could be defined as sex. In my reading of his statement, he seemed to be apologizing for the problematic dynamics of having encounters with women less powerful than he was. I’m arguing that what happened wasn’t actually sex at all; it was one person finding pleasure in another person’s humiliation and fear. What happened was an attack.

I know that it sounds dramatic to use the word attack. It’s hard to take male masturbation seriously, because it’s such a fundamental part of comedy. Some of the earliest comedians were actors dressed as satyrs in Ancient Greece — men on stage wearing oversized erect penis costumes running around, annoying the gods, and getting into trouble. The joke still holds up. Oversized boner costumes are hilarious. I would probably watch a show called The Satyrs Take Manhattan about a bunch of guys running around the city, knocking into walls with, like, baguette-sized erections. It wouldn’t win any awards, but, sure, I’d watch a couple episodes on a Sunday. I remember screaming with laughter at Jason Biggs putting his dick into an apple pie and the subsequent conversation he’s forced to have with Eugene Levy. Or the “Master of My Domain” episode of Seinfeld, or the hair gel in There’s Something About Mary, or Steve Carrell preparing to masturbate in 40-Year-Old Virgin by lighting candles and listening to Lionel Richie.

But none of these scenes have made me laugh as hard as I laughed watching Louis C.K. perform live at the Improv a couple years ago. It was almost spiritual, a kind of catharsis — I was crying from laughter, but I think, honestly, I was just crying. I felt understood. A great comedian gives you relief, for a moment, from the burden of your subconscious. We feel like we’ve let them inside. So when a satyr, who has brought such a deep joy to so many people by talking about boners and masturbation, is suddenly accused of using those exact things as weapons to cause pain, it confuses and breaks the heart. I understand the need to find a way that it can all be funny again. I don’t want the story of Louis C.K. to be a tragedy. I wish I could just laugh.

But I’m also tired of trying to explain — and seeing so many other women over the past year try to explain — why none of this is sex. Why it hurts the way violence hurts. Why the fear sticks with you and shapes you and changes you. Why it’s possible to wait for 40 years before you’re ready to talk about the memory of terror.

I’m tired of the rage. A 32-year-old assistant district attorney didn’t “date” a 14-year-old he picked up outside her own custody hearing, as Sean Hannity phrased it in an interview with Roy Moore last week. That’s not what dating is. Taking your clothes off in front of that 14-year-old girl and forcing her to touch you is not sex. But why do we continue to have to explain this? Why do men who have never experienced this form of attack get to define what an attack is? Watching the men on television argue back and forth about what Roy Moore did or didn’t do is like watching color-blind people trying to explain what the color red looks like. You don’t know what it looks like. You’ve never seen it, and I have, so what gives you the right to tell me what it is? As my grandmother used to say to my mom, “Get up and go out there, but know that it’s a man’s world.” Sex is a purple cloud. Red is red. As angry as it makes me and as exhausting as it is, we have to keep fighting to make the blind men see.

Men Don’t Get to Decide What Counts As ‘Sex’