Is it Time to Talk (More) about Sexual Micro-Aggression?

trump-accusersIn the waning days of Donald Trump’s unprecedented, alarming (and imploding) campaign for the presidency, the stories of women keep coming. Beyond the outright groping, it’s been interesting to see the attention given to uninvited, impromptu, forced kisses:

  • One woman reported that after they shook hands, he allegedly refused to let go, kissed her on the cheeks, and also on the mouth.
  • Reflecting on being kissed twice on the lips uninvited, another former pageant contestant expressed “shock” that he thought he had the right to do this. She later told NBC News, “I would never approach or greet somebody like that unless it was somebody that I had been dating.”
  • Another third woman described Trump aggressively kissing her after a brief introduction: “He took my hand, and grabbed me, and went for the lips,” she told The Guardian. Alarmed, she tried to avoid his advance and almost fell over. He responded, “Oh, come on” and then in her words, “he grabbed me and went for my mouth and went for my lips.”

In comparison to the blatant groping of breasts and reaching under skits, these incidents seem more innocuous and “normal” on the surface. “Oh come on, it’s just a kiss”…I can imagine some people thinking. In contrast to the more egregious acts of aggression becoming tragically common, it wouldn’t be surprising to have these “sexual microaggressions”[1] fall mostly under the radar.

It got me thinking about how common this kind of thing was for women I know, so I asked my wife whether she had ever been pressured into simple intimacy (like a kiss) prematurely or at a time she would have otherwise now wanted to…she responded in the affirmative.  If my sweetheart, who had a relatively calm dating life says so, how about other women?

I have wondered again about moments of physical closeness and intimacy (kissing) with people I previously dated – hoping partners didn’t feel even subtle pressure to do anything.

For other women, the subtle pressure to do more goes beyond allowing a kiss. In the online magazine Fusion, author Lux Alptraum wrote about an experience where she felt subtly pressured to give in: “Even though I felt zero desire for him, it ultimately seemed less taxing to get drunk and let him have his way with me later that night….As the door to my apartment closed behind him, I burst into tears, feeling empty and violated and sad. At the time, I was convinced that everything that had transpired was entirely my fault. But years later, I’m not so sure.”

As the author acknowledges, we typically think of sex “divided into two broad categories: capital R Rape (which is monstrous, criminal, and should be severely punished by the legal system) and normal, chill sex, which is obviously consensual and with which no woman should ever have a problem.” But missing from this dichotomy are the scores of “not rape” violations, and acts that might best be described as “sexual microaggressions”— what she defines as “small acts of boundary-pushing and coercion that might be easy enough to brush off in isolation, but in aggregate teach women that their bodily autonomy is revocable, and that violations of their boundaries and sense of safety aren’t just tolerable, but utterly and completely normal.”

Alptraum asserts that “Many of the most traumatic and damaging sexual experiences, particularly ones faced by women who have sex with men, don’t even meet the legal definition of rape.”

She goes on to reflect about “a collage of experiences that collectively taught me my ‘consent’ was a fuzzy, and perhaps malleable, thing” – and led her to a place where giving in to unwanted sex was preferable to offending someone:

  • “There was the boy I dated the summer before college who insinuated that I’d get dumped if I didn’t put out (and then dumped me anyway after pressuring me into a blowjob).”
  • “The on-again-off-again hookup who invited me to share his bed—just to sleep, I was assured—only to proceed to have sex with me even after multiple nos.”

She reflects:  “In retrospect, so much of sex in my twenties was a death by a thousand cuts for my sense of bodily autonomy—a series of assaults and violations that rendered me pliable to the desires of men One of the reasons it took me so long to open up about my negative experiences with men was that, for years, I assumed I was alone. I’d grown up hearing that “no means no,” and that smart women are upfront about their needs and obviously walk away from anyone who refuses to respect their boundaries. I assumed that I was the only one weak enough to let my desire for intimacy and affection fuel a tolerance for sex I didn’t quite want, in ways I didn’t want it. I assumed that being badgered into sex, or “consenting” due to sheer exhaustion, was a personal problem. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

She goes on to share stories of other women – including one with “multiple stories of saying no to sex, being asked again, saying no another time, being asked again, and then eventually saying yes—even though her lack of desire remained unchanged.” This woman added,  “I don’t want to disappoint people…I especially don’t want to disappoint people in a sexual context. If I say no, someone getting upset, acting hurt, being disappointed, and asking again can easily make me say yes”.

Reflecting on this pattern, the author adds: “Women get socialized to put their needs second and make other people happy, and too many men get socialized to ignore rejections and relentlessly pursue whatever it is that they desire. It’s a toxic combination that can lead women to deprioritize enthusiastic consent in the hopes of keeping the peace, or to turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol to make not exactly consensual sex feel a little bit more okay.”

She continued (sorry, this is too good!):

Consciously or not, men often send women the message that their bodies are not their own to control; that the choice is less between consensual sex or no sex at all, but consent by attrition or sex without consent. When men push up against, or even gently past, women’s boundaries; when they treat “no” as a suggestion rather than an absolute; when sex is positioned as an exercise in persuasion

A few months after that ill-fated doughnut shop date, I completely fell apart, my trust in men shattered and replaced by jagged, ugly sense of defensiveness that, years later, remains deeply ingrained in my bones. It is often hard for me to be alone with men; in settings both professional and personal, I am often afraid that my boundaries will not be respected, that I will be expected, once again, to comply with someone else’s desires rather than my own.

No one is going to go to jail …for badgering someone into sex they don’t particularly want [and certainly not for a kiss they don’t want].  But the fact that these aren’t criminal acts doesn’t mean that they’re not violating or traumatic or wrong. And by refusing to recognize the harm caused by these sexual microaggressions, we teach women to accept them as normal and minimize their pain—and we teach men that they can get away with violating women.”

Big or small, aggression is aggression. I add my voice to others hoping that we can have a zero tolerance for even subtle or “micro” aggression sexually – not tolerating or joking about subtle pressure on people to do what they don’t want to do.  For those who think these are small things, spend some time listening to those who have had the experiences.

In the words from another woman most recently to accuse our republican presidential candidate: “Mr. Trump, perhaps you do not remember me or what you did to me so many years ago. But I can assure you that I remember you and what you did to me as though it was yesterday. Your random moment of sexual pleasure came at my expense and affected me greatly.”



[1] The word “microagression” itself can be problematic, as it is sometimes used in ways that shut down public conversation.  There are very different senses of the general term from across the socio-political spectrum.



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