How do we define sex when one partner is risking her health, her life, and her future for the enjoyment of the other?
BY ASA L. DRAKE
Whenever I'm in public, I'm scared. I'm scared when at a comic book store checkout, the clerk insists he knows my name from his hold list because how many non-white patrons could he have? I'm scared when I ask for miso paste at a grocery chain — one that generally stocks miso paste — and am told, “You Chinese can find all your nasty food here,” in the dry goods ethnic isle. I'm scared when at the book store, someone insists on telling me how he had sex with prostitutes when stationed in the Philippines, and that I look just like his favorite prostitute. I'm scared when someone follows me to my car and then says “just kidding.”
As a woman, and one who doesn't always pass as white, it's hard to know when someone is trying to intimidate me and when someone is going to physically act on my person. And at any point, my harasser can stop and say, "I didn't mean it like that. You're overreacting.”
So what does it mean when my mother-in-law consoles me by saying that bad things can happen to anyone. When I say that I'm worried about assault, she says she fears for her sons all the time, that no one else worries about them being attacked, that no one talks about them being pressured into sex. I ask her if that's happened to them. She says, no, that hasn't happened, but that could happen. Her three white, cis-gendered sons — the youngest of which just entered college — she worries they are overlooked in the popular discussion of the dangers faced by women and particularly women of color. She worries for all of her sons, that they might be called racist or sexist. She fears that they might be raped and that they might be falsely accused of rape.
She fears no one will listen to her sons if they are listening to women like me.
The truth is her sons are in danger. We lived in an America that progressed towards building equality for all people. We benefited from legislation that protects a woman's right to choose an abortion, making the potential outcomes of sex between a woman and her partner more equal. And with women exercising autonomy over their own bodies, women have been able to pursue opportunities, careers and positions of authority from which they were previously barred.
But we will soon have a government intent on overturning Roe vs. Wade. We will have a majority of legislators and a president who fear the moral repercussions of women controlling their own reproductive health. Already, 13 states (AL, AR, AZ, DE, LA, MA, MI, MS, ND, NM, OK, WI, WV) retain unconstitutional, near-total criminal bans on abortion, currently made unenforceable by Roe vs. Wade.
We may face an America in which women once again have no control over their own bodies. In that America, where the government enforces the morality of my body, her son who loves me can only be a rapist, in a sense. How else can we define sex when one partner is risking her health, her life, and her future for the enjoyment of the other? I say this and she is shaking her head.
My younger self felt that after my first rape, in my teens, there was no one to go to, no institution built to understand why I feared coming forward as a minor. No one could understand that she would embarrass her family because she had not left her body in their trust. I remember that girl not caring so much about the rape itself, but about the uncertainty of what her body would do afterward — as well as the uncertainty of what she could do to control her body.
In the early half 2006, there was no over-the-counter Plan B in South Carolina, where I was raised. There were no abortions for minors without a guardian or judge's consent — a law which still stands in South Carolina. So the self I was in 2006 — that fearful girl — would, in many ways, resemble myself in a world where I cannot control my own reproductive health.
If consent is based on a belief in self-determination, then it is lost when a person looses control over their sexual organs.
So I'm telling you again that I am afraid. In this future where I may not be able to back up my birth control with Plan B and where I may not be able to go to a doctor and say I do not want to become a mother, I will be more afraid. I will be frantic. I will be a woman without volition, and if I have lost control over myself, how will I consent to sex with a man who will actively endanger my control over my body — because, do we not, when we discuss sex in a heterosexual relationship, understand that sex that puts women at risk of pregnancy? How could I give an emphatic “yes” to sex if I had no choice in how that “yes” may alter my life?
On top of that — women already face plenty or risk when seeking an abortion. The burdens that can and have been added to the process of this medical procedure are real. The dangers, the mortality rates, the long-term health consequences, the permanent changes to a woman's body. The risks are present, they are growing, and they frighten me. I don't consent to the looming threat of them.
So if women fear for their white, cis-gendered sons, I understand. If women like me are hurting, surely you don't think we'll be hurting alone?
You may also like: The Power of Online Feminist Spaces
Asa Drake's poetry is published or forthcoming in Cosmonaut Avenue, Sonora Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Best American Poetry Blog, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School. She currently lives in Florida.