Comedian Amy Schumer isn’t the first woman to look back at her first time having sex and wonder, “Wait, what just happened?” She described the experience to Marie Claire, saying:
“My first sexual experience was not a good one. I didn’t think about it until I started reading my journal again. When it happened, I wrote about it almost like a throwaway. It was like, And then I looked down and realized he was inside me. He was saying, ‘I’m so sorry’ and ‘I can’t believe I did this.'”
So what was that, exactly? People on social media are calling it disturbing, upsetting and a clear-cut case of rape. But there’s one person not calling it “rape” — Schumer herself. The interviewer notes that Schumer very consciously did not use that word when describing that experience.
As a girl who has been sexually assaulted, I have a serious problem with people defining someone else’s sexual experiences for them. Telling someone how to think about their own body and what happens to it can have serious consequences.
To wit: The very first person I told about my assault, a person whom I’d thought of as one of my best friends, responded, “Oh, I’m sure that’s not what he meant! You probably just misunderstood.”
At the time I was so vulnerable and so upset that I believed his version. I thought I must have just been really (really) confused and couldn’t trust my own feelings or memory. This belief was a major factor in deciding not to report what had happened to me. It wasn’t until several years later when the man was arrested for committing nearly identical sexual assaults on multiple other women that I was able to see my experience for what it was: A crime. By allowing other people to define and explain what had happened to me, I’d only added to my pain and delayed my own healing.
This may sound like the exact opposite of what Schumer is saying — it is far more common, after all, for a woman to be told her experience wasn’t rape than to be told it was and she’s just in denial — but they’re two sides of the same coin. Part of what makes being a victim of a sex crime so painful is having your bodily agency taken away from you and so when we police the way they speak or feel about it, we’re just adding to that feeling of powerlessness.
If I’ve learned one thing from my experiences it’s that all women handle the experience differently and not being a “perfect victim” doesn’t invalidate what happened to them. Survivors have no responsibility to act or speak a certain way or to use a specific terminology. So was Schumer’s nonconsensual sex — rape? By the legal definition it probably was, but for whatever reason, she isn’t comfortable labeling her experience as rape and that’s fine — because it’s her experience.
Not all sex fits into the neat and tidy boxes of “awesome amazing orgasms” or “horrible, brutal rape.” What about “maintenance sex” where you’re not really into it, but your partner is and you love them and want them to be happy? Or makeup sex when you’re still really mad? Or breakup sex when you know the person can’t and won’t give you what you need to feel happy? The issue of consent, and especially enthusiastic consent, is an important one and needs to be talked about more, but not at the expense of telling other women how they should feel.
As a victim’s advocate, I’ve fought long and hard for women to be able to tell their own stories in their own ways, even (especially) if that story makes other people uncomfortable. And that includes their right to call it whatever they want.