“Whereas women used the previous two strategies to try to control men’s behavior, some developed a different type of strategy through which they tried to manipulate their own subjective experiences of an oppressive sexual situation. Fearing reprisals, young women often felt they could not control the material circumstances of their unpleasant or victimizing hetero-relational encounters. However, they could attempt to control how they felt about that encounter at the time that it was occurring. While they often did not feel able to end an encounter physically, they felt they could, in a sense, end it psychologically by trying to turn the encounter into something positive. In an effort to avoid feeling victimized, some young women reported trying to feel excited in the midst of forced sex, so that they could at least lessen the emotional pain they were feeling. Women also used this strategy in an attempt to prevent an experience from “qualifying” as a case of rape. In a peculiar synthesis of the popularized feminist assertion that “rape is not about sex, it’s about violence,” and the conservative notion that “women do not get raped unless they ask for it,” these young women attempted to use mind over matter by trying to like it–or trying to make it be “about sex”--so that they could avoid the psychologically threatening acknowledgement that they were being raped.
Robin’s first experience of sexual intercourse was violent and unwanted. Aware that she could not win a physical struggle with the man involved, she tried, instead, to control her subjective experience of the encounter by trying to find the man attractive. Interestingly, her main concern was to avoid being beaten up so that her mother would not know she had been in this situation (yet another example of how these young women carry outside audiences into their encounters).
I got into this situation where I went up to this guy’s apartment, and we were making out and things, and I didn’t want to have sex, but he did, and it was a long struggle and everything. And he did hit me and stuff, and then I was like, “Okay, fine.” I just, you know, because if I really try to fight him and then I get beat up, what am I going to say to my mother? That was like the main thing in my mind, was like, “oh no, what if he punches me or cuts me or something? What am I going to say to my mother?” I kept seeing me really feeling different if it would have been another guy. I really wasn’t attracted to him, and I was trying to get attracted to him or like, get turned on, but I couldn’t. (Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)
When I asked Robin why she tried to make herself attracted to him, she explained,
I was thinking that if I can get turned on, then this will be consensual, like, a good experience. It was like I was trying to manipulate my own mind or something, so that this wouldn’t seem as bad as it really was. I mean, especially for my first experience, I wanted it to be something I wanted, not something that was forced on me. So I tried really hard to make it into something that I wanted, but I couldn’t. I just really couldn’t.
Although she knew the situation was “bad,” Robin still hoped that by manipulating her own desires, she might be able to transform a violent encounter into a consensual one. Like Robin, Jocelyn tried to convince herself that she was excited while being forced to have sex, so that her experience would not really be rape. For both women, trying to like it represented an attempt to feel some sense of choice and control, even as they were being forced and hit.
I kept telling myself, just relax and try to like it. Try to think of something exciting, try to think of someone you would like to be having sex with so you can get aroused and then this won’t really be what it is. If I could just find some way to be turned on, at all, then I would know I was in it and then this wouldn’t be really like rape. (Jocelyn, 19, “hetero,” “mutt”)
It should be noted that none of the women who attempted to use this strategy succeeded in becoming aroused while being hit or forced. It is also important to note that although Robin and Jocelyn tried to like it in the hopes that their own arousal would prevent their experiences from qualifying as acquaintance rape, this strategy did not operate in reverse. That is, their inability to like it did not result in their naming these forced encounters cases of rape. In fact, in Jocelyn’s case, the very effort to use this strategy left her dealing with a haunting double bind.
For years afterward, I felt caught in a catch-22. First of all, how could I have been so messed up as to think I could ever find what he did to me exciting? But second of all, I still thought, how could I have let myself down by failing to pull it off? (Jocelyn, 19, “hetero,” “mutt”)
Feeling either unable or unentitled to change the physical circumstances with which they were faced, these young women tried as best they could to alter their subjective experiences. By attempting to control their minds’ interpretations of their bodies’ experiences, they struggled (albeit unsuccessfully) to harness what little power was available to them to preserve their own integrity during demeaning or victimizing encounters.”
Pp. 142-144 in Phillips, Lynn M. 2000. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination. New York: New York University Press. [Emphasis and pictures not in original.]