Recently, The New York Times ran a story covering Bill Cosby and the deposition he gave in 2005. The deposition was part of his defense against a young woman, Andrea Constand, who was suing him on grounds he had drugged and molested her. Cosby’s language in the deposition (or at least the parts The Times chose to publish) makes him sound like a man who has thoroughly “othered” women. Based on his statements, it becomes clear that he views women not as fully developed people but as simplistic children (“Mr. Cosby said he tended to refrain from intercourse because he did not want women to fall in love with him.”) unsure of what they want, and it was his job to guide them in their lives and into his bed. The Times described him as a “cavalier playboy.”
This idea of women as children is not unique to 1980s TV dads. It’s a popular belief that women, lied to by the media, society, and — according to some anti-feminists–feminism itself are confused about who we are and what we want, especially when it comes to sex. After Constand described the assault to her mother, he urged her “to tell her mother ‘about the orgasm’ so that she would realize it was consensual.” Here, Cosby parrots an old, long-standing myth that if a woman has an orgasm (an involuntary physical response) then she enjoyed what happened to her, no matter what she says.
Women are often thought to be less trustworthy than men. On one hand, women are, in fact, encouraged to lie more than men are. We’re told to lie about our weight, our age and the number of sexual partners we’ve had in the past. We’re asked to fake enjoying ourselves on a date or during sex. Thanks to these little lies and obfuscations imposed upon us by a society with certain expectations for women, suddenly every word that comes out of our mouths is suspect. On the other hand, art, culture and religious texts have, for centuries, portrayed women as deceitful, duplicitous, untrustworthy liars. It’s seeped so far into our collective brain that we barely notice it anymore, which makes it easy to believe Bill Cosby is telling the truth while dozens of women are “lying” about being victimized by him. It’s how Cosby can get away with using an orgasm as a defense, because we have been conditioned to believe that if her body appreciated the sensation, then obviously her mind wanted it too. “I think Andrea is a liar and I know she’s a liar because I was there. I was there.”
In her book, Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski, Ph. D.discusses sexual nonconcordance, which, when boiled down, is basically when your brain and your genitals disagree about sexual stimulation. Sexually relevant stimuli create a reaction in our genitals even if our brains are thinking “I’m not interested” (Nagoski refers to a study where women’s genitals reacted to scenes of bonobos having sex, but the women self reported they were not interested in ape sex). Many of us know of teenage boys who get inopportune and seemingly inexplicable erections – this is sexual nonconcordance and it’s exactly the same thing that happens when a woman’s vulva becomes swollen and lubricated (she “gets wet”), even if she doesn’t want to have sex. It’s how she can even achieve physical orgasm against her will (Nagoski also details in her book how an orgasm can exist even without any pleasure taking place). It’s how a man can be raped by a woman, even though his erection is often considered to be a clear indication that he “wanted it.”
However, we are not base creatures ruled by our physical impulses. We’re human beings with the right to say what happens to our bodies, even if those bodies appear to be disagreeing with us. Our bodies don’t give consent, our brains do, and no matter how our vulvas react to any given situation, that doesn’t excuse rape. Saying a woman (or man, or anyone) was not raped because her physiological response indicated she wanted it is just as wrong and misguided as saying she wasn’t raped because her sartorial choices indicated she wanted it.
Too many people use the body’s reactions to determine whether someone wants sex, despite what that person is saying, and that has to change. We have to step by step, fuck by fuck, dismantle all this bullshit incorrect information floating around out there. One of the best places to start is by saying what we want when we want it and firmly saying no when we don’t. This isn’t always easy and, sadly, this doesn’t always work, but that’s even more of a reason to keep doing it. People have to learn to listen to the lips on our faces, not the lips between our legs.
There is something sexy to being coy and playing hard to get and it’s understandable that it is often a turn on. But there are ways to reconcile that with sexual agency and consent. Sex is even hotter when you and your partner(s) both(/all) get what you want. We have to teach everyone that women know what we want, and we have to demonstrate it by actually asking for it. Perhaps most importantly we have to remind ourselves everyday to trust what we feel. It’s not about what your body’s physical reactions are saying, it’s about what your brain wants and what you’re intentionally communicating. Remove the shame from admitting you are a sexual being with wants. Trust your feelings and your desires (or lack thereof). Start admiring yourself for who you are. Then go out and get what you want.