The Rub of Rough Sex

Chelsea G. Summers considers the ways in which outwardly ‘progressive’ men like former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman use kink as a cover for abuse.

Chelsea G. Summers | Longreads | July 2018 | 15 minutes (3,801 words)

 
This is a piece about abuse. This is a piece about kink and a piece about consent. This is a piece about the law. This is a piece about some powerful men whom I’ve never met, and it’s a piece about some nobody men whom I’ve loved. This is a piece about rough sex, about “rough sex,” and about how these two categories overlap and rub each other raw. This is a piece that was hard for me to write and may be hard for you to read. Most of all, this is a piece about why masculinity is fractured, and how women get caught in its cracks.

***

On May 7 of this year, The New Yorker dropped its Eric Schneiderman bombshell. The article, cowritten by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, gives voice to four women who detail their experiences with Schneiderman, the New York attorney general at the time, and accuse him of repeated instances of “nonconsensual physical violence.” Presented as a thread in the unfolding #MeToo fabric of sexual abuse allegations, this New Yorker piece told four women’s stories of how Schneiderman slapped and choked them, “frequently in bed and never with their consent.” Within a day, Schneiderman had resigned his office.

I read the Mayer and Farrow piece with a mounting sense of dread, horror, and recognition. I’ve never met Schneiderman; I’ve never met the victims who allege his abuse. But I knew what these women were describing because I too have felt something like those slaps, those stings, that choking fear. I understood the disconnect between thinking you were dating a “woke” man, a guy who understood in his guts the inequity of being a woman in this patriarchal world, and finding that this man was a rank, abusive hypocrite.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Schneiderman glows with an idealized aura of the East Coast elite. After graduating from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Schniederman worked as a public interest attorney before turning to public office. In 1998, Schneiderman ran for a New York Senate seat in New York’s 31st district, which at the time stretched from the Upper West Side through Washington Heights and into Riverdale in the Bronx. Schneiderman won that election. He won the next election. And he won four times more, eventually parlaying his state congressional successes into his winning 2010 bid for New York attorney general. By all public accounts, Schneiderman used his power and his privilege as a champion for women and for the poor. You couldn’t draw a better poster boy for American liberalism.

I think I voted for Schneiderman. Why would I not? I was a progressive Democrat, and Schneiderman looked like an exciting candidate. Supporting both women’s access to abortion and victims of domestic violence, Schneiderman’s record on women’s issues was strong. Indeed, as state senator, Schneiderman introduced and passed the Strangulation Prevention Act of 2010, a bill that specifically categorized choking as a criminal felony. In his nicely cut, nondescript suits and silver fox hair, Schneiderman embodied consummate “woke” manliness, a guy who can execute a decent jump shot, then effortlessly quash dickish locker-room talk.

***

BDSM — an acronym for bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism; or bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism, or some alternate conflagration of these initials and these ideas — is as elastic as its indecisive definitions would suggest. The baggy category of BDSM embraces a panoramic landscape of sensual acts and desires that run a breathtaking gamut. Pressed to define it, I’d say that BDSM comprises sexual or erotic acts that center on the express relinquishing of control by one person and the explicit assumption of responsibility by another to facilitate the erogenous enjoyment of all involved. I myself prefer the less encumbered “kink.”

Kink, for all its outré accouterments, has gone mainstream, yet it’s still a strange day when you discover that your state’s former attorney general is kinky. However, this revelation sits at the center of Schneiderman’s reaction to Mayer and Farrow’s article. “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity,” Schneiderman wrote in a statement to the two New Yorker writers. “I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

If you read between the lines, Schneiderman is not exactly denying the alleged acts occurred: He’s saying the four women who claim harm agreed to it. These women maintain that Schneiderman slapped them so hard that he left bruises or that their ears bled, that he choked them until they blacked out, and that he threatened to kill them if they told on him. Schneiderman claims it was all in fun. It was games. It was nothing but sexy-time consensual play between adults. How sad that these women don’t understand, or feel regret, or can’t accept the kinky joy, his buttoned-up statement whispers in the background.

When I read Mayer and Farrow’s New Yorker article, I was struck by their use of the phrase “nonconsensual physical violence” to refer to Schneiderman’s alleged acts. Unlike BDSM, which means so many things that it means almost nothing, “nonconsensual physical violence” is chillingly pure — it means that one person hurt another person’s body without permission. But the phrase also interests me because it holds the implication that physical violence can be consensual. Sometimes, the phrase “nonconsensual physical violence” allows, you and your partner can agree that pain, whether received or inflicted, is pleasurable. This discomfiting idea of pain is, as consent is, woven into the fabric of BDSM; it’s often the BDSM aspect (other than its black leather and chrome aesthetic) that alienates people who don’t dabble in rough sex; and it’s the aspect that’s most volatile, slipping from delight into agony with ease.

No matter how you understand it, BDSM should always follow by one tenet, which is this: Consent is king. Other than porn performers, whose work requires the careful, clear negotiation of sexual acts, the people with the deepest commitment to sexual consent should be those who engage in kink. The reason for this obligation to consensuality is simple: BDSM has the potential to cause harm to bodies and to minds, especially to those who are on the receiving end of the pain.

Kink spans the spectrums of gender and sexuality, but the BDSM style that is, unsurprisingly, most culturally accepted is the 50 Shades of Grey flavor of a dominant male and a submissive female. It’s a problem for many feminists whose politics clash with their desires, for it’s a short leap from erotic role-play to oppressive gender roles. This kink conundrum divides feminists into camps of enthusiastic yes and viciously no; feminists who are for it argue that participating in kink allows women to rewrite patriarchal rules for their personal pleasure, while those who oppose it say that there’s no way to escape patriarchal rapiness when you’re replicating it.

What strikes me, however, is this: While feminists, sociologists, and human behaviorists question women’s choice of the submissive role almost ad nauseam, the idea that kinky (cis-het) men are somehow naturally dominant goes without interrogation. Of course, culture murmurs, men want to be dominant — why would they want to give up their power? Men who want to be doms fit into the mystique of the “alpha male,” our culture’s idea that manly men get what they want by taking charge, spanking ass, and calling names — and, certainly, this masculine swagger has appealed to me. Much to my intellect’s shame, I have thrilled to hearing “good girl” growled in my ear.

But masculine dominance is as much a constructed cultural fiction as feminine submission, and not to question it is dumb compliance. So let’s take a minute to unpack it. Just as my playing submissive has given my busy brain a rest, and just as it has let me assume a kind of feminized helplessness, so too, I imagine, playing dominant lets men embody a mode of inaccessible masculinity. Maybe they feel they’re not in power most of the time; maybe this eroticized time lays a powerful mantle on their narrow shoulders; maybe it’s nice to be in control when so much of life feels unmanageable.

I read the Mayer and Farrow piece with a mounting sense of dread, horror, and recognition…I knew what these women were describing because I too have felt something like those slaps, those stings, that choking fear.

But maybe — just maybe — these men’s dominant kink is a cover for their misogyny and their anger. It’s easy for men to mistake their private motives when society already gives hypermasculinity a big blank check. It’s even easier if those men — perhaps including Schneiderman — strive to perform flawless feminist progressive politics in a culture that demeans caring men, in a society that tells women every day that their experiences don’t matter, and in a world where masculinity wafts with a toxic fug.

Though there is a reluctance to talk about it, sexual abuse in the kink community exists, and despite the shroud of silence, women are most often the victims at the hands of men. When you consider that kink is more common than you’d think (and may even be the norm), kink’s potential to cover abuse is staggering.

***

When I was dating, I’d probably have liked Schneiderman’s profile, had it been on OKCupid!. To my shame, I have been drawn to men who wear a progressive overcoat atop their seething misogyny. One — I’ll call him Phillip — grew up in New York City, went to a small liberal arts college, and then to an important university for graduate work; he worked as a labor organizer and was so committed to the labor cause that he refused to wear clothes that weren’t union-made. It was a cool principle, I thought. I’m pro-union. What’s not to like?

Phillip was fast-talking, darkly handsome, and faintly dangerous, and, as I do, he liked rough sex. Phillip checked all the right boxes: He had left-leaning politics, a feminist sensibility, and a passion for kink. But Phillip quickly overstepped my lines. He called me “whore” outside the bedroom. He slapped my face without my permission. He took my consent to have anal sex as authority to do it so forcefully that I bled and had to seek medical care. When I told Phillip that he’d badly hurt me, he responded, “I don’t care.”

There was another, let’s call him Donny, a guy who spent some time as a volunteer in Central America building houses, who donated to a plethora of relief organizations, and who believed in social justice as much as he believed in his liberal Catholic faith. I loved Donny enough to talk marriage with him — we went so far as to pick out rings — but we had a tempestuous, flickering relationship. Once, after reuniting from a breakup, I told Donny that I’d had sex with another man, and he, well, there’s no neat English term for what Donny did to me. It was a weird physical elision between consent and rape, a no-woman’s land where I didn’t quite say yes, and I didn’t quite say no, and where this man fucked me with the intent to cause me harm. “You’re being punished,” he spat in my ear as I winced.


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These two “woke” guys publicly performed a feminist sensibility while privately assuming a bad-boy, sexy, naughty BDSM identity. But the feminism was fake, while their rage — at women, at themselves, at their families, at society, at whatever it is that angers white men with advanced degrees — was real. These men appeared to embody the fascinating dichotomy of enlightened politics and raw male sexual magnetism, and this bifurcated appearance was as important to them as it was to me. For as much as these guys’ façades and naughty underbellies fed their egos (and got them sex), together they also formed a shield. After all, you can’t possibly be a misogynist when you’re a feminist, right?

A magical mixture of progressive politics and kinky sensibilities, these two men I dated seemed to be, as Schneiderman perhaps was, real-life centaurs: half progressive politics and half dominant animal. Of course, the problem with magical beasts is that they don’t exist. Magical beasts inevitably show their costumes’ seams, if only when they burst.

***

If you asked Phillip or Donny whether they’d abused me, they would likely say, as Schneiderman did when confronted by The New Yorker, that it was consensual play. Certainly, my ex-boyfriends and I had had consensual kinky sex in the past (and, in full disclosure, we would again because relationships are complicated and painful). In the minds of these men — as they slapped my face, ripped my asshole, and bruised my vagina — we were just having rough sex. And “rough sex” is problematic because it’s more than an act: It’s a legal defense.

Writing for the New York Times just after Schneiderman stepped down, Niraj Chokshi draws a line between Schneiderman’s statement and the “rough sex defense,” a concept that has existed in the legal lexicon for more than three decades. “The allegations against [Schneiderman] were new,” Chokshi writes, “that defense was not.” Chokshi likens Schneiderman’s statement to that of Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian musician and former CBC radio host, who was accused of multiple sexual assaults. Shortly after being accused, Ghomeshi called his alleged acts consensual and “a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey” in an extended Facebook post that he’s since deleted. Ghomeshi’s case went to trial, and he was acquitted.

The “rough sex defense” became famous in 1988 with the trial of Robert Chambers, the so-called “preppy murderer.” Charged with the August 26, 1988, strangulation of Jennifer Levin, Chambers claimed that Levin had “molested” him during “rough sex.” In a videotaped statement to the police, the 6’4” Chambers said of the 5’7” Levin, “She was having her way with me, without my consent, with my hands behind my back, hurting me.” Chambers claimed that he reacted to Levin’s squeezing and pinching his testicles; thus, when Chambers struck Levin (he maintained he never strangled her), he claimed he was defending himself. After eventually pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter, Chambers spent 15 years in prison; after he was released, he was subsequently convicted of selling drugs and is currently serving another sentence.

The Chambers trial may have made “rough sex” famous, but the defense both predates Chambers’s trial and has persisted long after. In a 1985 appeal, Edward “Tree” Collier’s attorney called his client’s rape and assault of sex worker Leanne Steele a “social activity.” In 1986, Dennis Bulloch claimed he accidentally asphyxiated his wife during kinky sex;, then he burned down his house to hide the evidence. In the April 1988 trial for the choking death of 17-year-old Kathleen Holland, despite a defense of “sexual passion,” Joseph Porto was found guilty of “criminally negligent homicide,” a charge with a four-year maximum sentence. In 1990, Lance Valentine suffocated Evelyn Schmeelk; he claimed “rough sex” and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Oliver Jovanovic, after being found guilty in a 1998 trial for kidnapping, sexual abuse, and assault of a 20-year-old Barnard undergraduate, had his conviction overturned in 2001. Jovanovic claimed a consensual BDSM relationship; his defense argued the accuser’s emails illustrated this consent, and the court agreed.

When you look at the “rough sex” court cases as a group, you see a few commonalities: The victims are almost exclusively women; the defendants are universally men; and the cases center on kinky sexual activities that slipped from consensual to nonconsensual. Many include choking. And frequently, the defense works — if the defendant is found guilty, he often receives a minimal punishment. Look at the 2013 assault case of Hugh Douglas, a former defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Douglas was charged with assault and strangulation of his girlfriend; he claimed it was rough sex. Eventually, Douglas pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of a misdemeanor breach of peace. Douglas was given a suspended six-month jail sentence and a two-year conditional discharge.

As a legal strategy, the “rough sex defense,” legal scholars have noted, acts like a kinkified version of the “she asked for it” rape defense. Whether or not it was rough sex, there’s no question that this is rough justice.

***

Long before “rough sex” meant hardcore, kinky fornication, it meant, quite simply, men. “Furious rage in our rough sex, and gently mildness, adorn’d with beauty’s charms, in the other, forms a picture,” writes an unidentified man in the Philadelphia Gazette in November 1750, drawing a fiercely oppositional relationship — as well as contradictory dispositions — between men and women. A shortened version of the phrase “rougher sex,” which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1782, “rough sex” is the masculine complement to the feminine “fair,” “gentle,” “soft,” or “weak” sex. Men, these words tell us, are violent, while women are calm; men are raging, while women are refined; men are brutish, while women are mild.

It’d be a cool thing if 18th-century masculine ideals had gone the way of breeches, frock coats, and powdered wigs, but they haven’t. Conventional masculinity is still “rough,” and it remains tethered to a heady cocktail of sexual prowess, dominance, and aggression. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor and conservative lightning rod, is perhaps the most prominent spokesman of OG rough masculinity. Speaking with a journalist from Svenska Dagbladet in a 2017 video titled “What Does It Mean to be a Man?,” Peterson deliberates on the idea of “aggressive” male sexuality, saying that as Freud pointed out, aggression “needs to be integrated within the personality so that its under control.”

Peterson continues, “And then it’s the hint of darkness, and it’s the capacity for malevolence, but it’s brought under civilized regulation. You get to have your cake and eat it too. You can be strong and potentially dangerous and mysterious and all of those things that are definitively attractive features of men, not only to women, but also to other men.” Interesting that Peterson equates women with cake, something that you, as a man, get both to have and to eat.

When Peterson suggests that men need to be “strong and potentially dangerous” not only to be attractive to women but to be attractive to other men, Peterson does acknowledge one vital thing: Masculinity — especially as tradition defines it — is deeply tied to ego, and it’s deeply tied to how men perceive other men. Without these traits, which go hand in hand with darkness and a whiff of malevolence, Peterson implies, men aren’t “real” men.

This brings us full circle around to the New Yorker’s story about Schneiderman, “woke” progressive on the streets and alleged broke kinkster in the sheets, as well as to my ex-boyfriends — all men who acted out in violent ways. It’s not a leap to propose the idea that when men feel insecure about their manliness, they may compensate for it, often in ways that hurt both men and women. I remember, for example, taking Phillip to a concert at the Public Theater, where we ran into one of my friends, a curvaceous, smiley woman, and her boyfriend, a tattooed, jacked community organizer.

I made introductions, and then, spotting other friends across the room, left Phillip with my friend and her impressive boyfriend. Phillip sized the guy up, and said, “You know that your girl has fucked everyone in Manhattan, right?” Phillip continued, addressing the boyfriend as my woman friend watched and listened. “She’s the biggest slut in New York City.” (My friend waited months after Phillip and I parted to tell me this story. I wish she hadn’t.)

When you look at the ‘rough sex’ court cases as a group, you see a few commonalities: The victims are almost exclusively women; the defendants are universally men; and the cases center on kinky sexual activities that slipped from consensual to nonconsensual.

I look at this interaction in hindsight, and I see Phillip’s aching insecurity in the face of a man who was bigger, stronger, hotter, and more successful than he. I see Phillip’s attraction to my curvy and smiling friend. I imagine Phillip’s unconscious doing the emotional math and choosing to go for the jugular — by lashing out at the woman and, by extension, lacerating her boyfriend. It’s a spectacular clusterfuck of fractured masculinity.

And let’s not pussyfoot around it: Masculinity is broken. When people understand that there are discrete differences between being a “good man” and being masculine, we have a problem. When men testify to abuse as an outgrowth of masculinity, we have a problem. When men overwhelmingly perpetrate acts of mass violence, we have a problem. And when men carry out those acts of mass violence in the name of their manly rights to women’s bodies, we seriously have a problem.

A masculinity that requires men to suppress their feelings, to act strong, to be aloof, and to cultivate a mysterious remove is oppressive to men. A masculinity that teaches men that their sexuality is limited to being heavy-handed and domineering is equally oppressive — and ultimately dangerous. To make men the “rough sex” leaves little room for softness, for yielding, and for sensitivity. It means that men who feel these ways can be led to question the authenticity of their manliness. Men are in conflict, and many don’t know what to do with their discomfort.

Rough sex — and here I specifically mean thoughtless, primal, vindictive fucking — is historically tied to traditional masculinity, the “rough sex.” Moreover, the convergence of “rough sex,” the act, and “rough sex,” the gender, demonstrably works to hurt women, whether in cases like my own, where kinky men expressed their anger and misogyny on my body, or whether in cases like Jennifer Levin’s, where jurisprudence gave a lenient sentence, being more persuaded by a handsome guy’s words and a boys-will-be-boys mentality than the dead body of a bruised, strangled woman. It’s hard to trust women when manliness means brutality.

In the best of all possible worlds, sex helps us to heal the ineffable harms our bodies and psyches carry. In the worst, sex replicates those harms, echoes them, reinforces them, and perpetrates new traumas on others. When men — perhaps men like Schneiderman, perhaps men like my ex-boyfriends — willfully mistake sexual abuse for sexual license, they violate women multiply. And when it’s a powerful man, possibly like Schneiderman, they do it on a societal level.

The women who called out Schneiderman in that New Yorker article don’t get to blow off their trauma with a wave of their hand and a cry of consent. They must — as I have, as friends of yours have, as so many women throughout history have — come to the chilling realization that someone they loved and trusted sexually abused them in the name of “rough sex.” These women must, as I have, find ways to cope with their hurt, to grow from it, to persuade others to believe their stories. These women must, as I have, process this information, understand this experience, and live on, knowing that their lives are irrevocably changed. It’s a rough, rough world for women like them, and for women like me.

* * *

A former academic and an ex-stripper, Chelsea G. Summers writes about sex, culture, and fashion. Her work has appeared in Glamour, The New Republic, The Guardian, Racked, VICE, Medium, and other fine media outlets.

Editor: Sari Botton