Sex and Virginity When Consent is Not a Consideration
[Content note: Sexual assault, rape]
I’m trying this new thing where I blog more frequently, and allow myself to post shorter pieces. I’ve tended to stick to long-form essays because with them I can delve into an in-depth exploration, tussle with details, fan out layers of nuance. And I will keep writing them, but I think there is space here too for the shorter musings, the more immediate bursts of thought-emotion that come with day-to-day learning of living with this new post-Islam self. Rougher but maybe more powerfully raw.
Today these thoughts are about sex, and its constructions within, outside of marriage. It’s hard to talk to the few family members I still keep in touch with sometimes because of how utterly disconnected our views are in thinking about sex, about marriage, about rape, about love. We try to discuss, to explain our positions to each other, because I have this loving relationship and they call it living in sin, and it is a part of my life that is significant and enmeshed and that I wish for them to understand. And they try but are confused with my condemnation of sexual harassment, my feminism; they do not understand how I can both be sexual and consistently speak out against harassment. We have these discussions then, over the phone, across the Atlantic Ocean, our voices chiming together. They trumpet in intense bursts, these conversations, and are woven with smaller discussions about recipes and the blistering cold and sore throats and politics and new social trends in Lebanon and the way the Mediterranean looked that morning, if only you saw it. And then these talks eddy into a passionate whirl as we try to speak straight into each others’ hearts describing this world we both see as so different and she struggles, struggles to understand me.
And she seems to not be able or willing to differentiate between all types of extra marital sex, forceful or not, willing or not, desirable or not–these are categories of differentiation that blend in as one for her. Consent, far from being the main or most powerful sexual consideration, barely enters the picture–how to orient these ideas with one another and not seem to speak past one another?
The way she thinks of it is thus: Yes, I admittedly have sex with a chosen partner outside of marriage. I admit this to her and ask her to accept me still, and she tries–but this means to her that I have no basis or justification for not accepting sex with anyone else who wants it with me. Because to her, there is no marital foundation for this sexual relationship, so where is the foundation to be found at all? It may as well exist with anybody as not, if I am to be consistent. That I speak to my own choosing of it seems an alien concept; and truly this manner of thinking is consistent with much of what I have experienced among the Muslim societies of my upbringing. The ideological grounding for the hijab often entails a desire not to tempt and sway men into transgression, into sin; it places men as the movers, actors, deciders, and the choice and will of women as merely a footnote. It’s almost universally known as well that marital rape is not forbidden or a crime in Islam; in fact the very the concept of marital rape does not exist in Islam, as sex is considered a wifely duty that she must submit to–
“But she has already agreed. Agreed to marry. It’s a contract.”
And thus the idea that within the duty of marriage and its act there is an entire female self whose whole will has been contracted away, such a contract granting absolute permanent right to her body thereafter. Because how can you forcefully take what is already your own? Part of this is the idea that a woman’s virginity belongs not to herself but to her future husband, that the sexual interactions she will experience during her life are predominantly male-oriented, male-centered, that it is about the desires and duties of other people and other idea-entities rather than those of the woman self, that it is not only possible but expected that she gives up her bodily autonomy to another, that it is possible and right that a woman give up absolute ownership of her body.
And she worries, she worries about me traveling to another city and staying with an old, trusted friend.
“Why can’t you stay in a hotel?”
She knows all of the reasons, financial, personal–she asks anyway.
“What if he–you know–expects things because you’re staying?”
“Why would he do that? What has one to do with the other?”
Her answer is a mantra; the same answer for all of these questions: You have no husband. This is how men are.
And this is it; because I’m unmarried (unclaimed? unprotected? unowned?) then any platonic relationship I have with a man where he does anything kind or cooperative for me must entail some sort of expectation of sex–a woman’s friendship, companionship, conversation, friendship is not enough, apparently unworthy in its own right–and I have no reasonable grounds to refuse without being a hypocrite.
“Why? Why don’t you have sex with any man who looks at you on the street? Why? I don’t understand the difference?”
And I too do not understand how you cannot understand.
Because if the concept comes down to claim and guardianship–you would not use the words “to own” but this is what it is– then with marriage comes the security of private property but without it, the sexually active woman is as public property: all have claim to her. It is a binary. There is no third choice.
Because too, I am not a virgin and don’t have this treasured virginity status to save for a husband, then a man having sex with me if I’m less than willing does not take anything from me that I don’t already regularly give up–my honor and shame, for these are the only things tied to a sexual act that may be lost, by this reasoning, and they have already been lost. A non-virgin cannot prove that she was pure, cannot effectively be raped–this is not a novel idea or one that is uncommon, and it is utterly terrifying, and has been used as justification to abuse women.
I do not understand, too, how you cannot understand that when it is a woman probing and exploring without consent, administering a virginity test— that this is sexual assault, regardless of the girl’s virginity status, regardless of whether it is hands or tools doing the probing, regardless of whether it is a woman’s hands, regardless of anything and everything other than consent, consent, consent.
“But it was a woman. It was a woman, and she was a doctor. How could it be sexual assault? How?”
“Because it’s not about who is doing it, their gender, and how, or why–it’s about the will of the woman. Her will. Mine.”
And always I try to bring our talking around from the will of the man and the gain of the man and the obsession with honor and shame unfairly tied up into every cell of my body, to turn this discussion back to my own will, my own choices, my own decision. But it’s not even conceivable that as a woman I am gaining something too, joyfully and willingly, that I’m not just accepting and submitting, that women can engage in sex actively and proactively without it being about giving in to the desires of a man, that her own choice regarding the matter is the first word and the last.
And I wonder to myself–never out loud, never a question I can ask–what her own experience of sex might have been to make it so convincingly a matter of submission and duty to her rather than even potentially a willing joy. I wonder whether she recognizes that the way her discourse constantly turns about to the agency of men and their desires is insulting to them too. I wonder many things.
I pull my curtains back to let the day in as the night makes her sleepy on the other end, and we are tired as we set the matter to rest to talk about it another day–I don’t want to argue, I just want to talk, we say over and over again. And if only I could say every piece that is on my mind, because there is a world I must tuck away. Some of the days when I talk to her and tug the sash of my nightgown around my ribs and feel its rustle against my heart, I wish I could out myself, could even begin to talk about the girls I love, the girls who count as much as any boy does, the girls who nonetheless have no place within this entire ideology regarding sex and sexuality.
And even though I grew up around this mindset I get exhausted trying to understand it still.
PS: I’ve had some pretty wonderful external support lately. See my interview about wearing hijab over at the Huffington Post, and a re-blog of my piece on virginity tests hosted by the awesome Free Arabs community weblog.
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