Let's Talk About Sex, Baby: Rachel Thompson interview
We chat with author and journalist Rachel Thompson about her new book Rough: How Violence Found Its Way Into the Bedroom, ways of addressing sexual violence within society, and the importance of going beyond consent
A lot of what you discuss in Rough is what you term “grey areas”: acts of violation such as non-consensual choking or spitting that lie outside the limits of the law. Why was this focus so important?
Rachel: I wanted to explore the broad spectrum of harms that we don't necessarily have language to describe. By always looking through a legal lens, we erase these less-easy-to-define aspects of our sexual culture, violations such as digital sexual crimes that people think aren’t valid as they don’t fit a legal definition of assault or rape.
Why do you think language is so important within these contexts?
Rachel: Language gives a sense of validity. In I May Destroy You, for instance, a lot of people watching it had experienced stealthing [the non-consensual removal of a condom] but didn’t know what it was called and didn’t know it is actually classed as rape under English law. I May Destroy You was so empowering because [it gave] survivors the terminology for something that had happened to them, that they hadn’t known what to do with.
The last few years have seen conversations around sexual assault focus on consent as this golden ticket to a good sexual relationship. In Rough, you talk about the limits of consent culture: can you expand on this?
Rachel: We have focused so much on consent, and obviously we still need to because it's clear that even with these big conversations, it’s still not getting through. But I do really regard consent as the bare minimum. We should be thinking about sexual boundaries constantly and communicating what are hard limits and soft limits. It sounds so basic but we should be treating each other as human beings. There’s a disposability that exists within dating app culture in particular, but when there’s an added layer of the vulnerability that comes with sex, I do think that you have to model your best ethical behaviour.
It reminds me of Katherine Angel in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, who talks about desire as a gradual, ambivalent concept. She argues that framing consent as a tick-box hurdle forces women to always know and be able to articulate what they want.
Rachel: Absolutely. We’re sold this myth that you will always have instant attraction to someone and it just doesn't work like that. One thing we should also be talking more about is unwanted sex as a grey area. There are all kinds of reasons why we consent to sex and it's not always because of sexual desire: it could be because you're an anxiously attached person and you want someone to like you. Or it could be within the context of a healthy relationship. But we should be talking about desire and unwanted sex, not necessarily to always problematise it, but within the wider context of systems of oppression that shape our agency and our ability to consent.
In the book, you make it very clear how women and people of marginalised genders' sexual safety is bound up with broader power structures such as racism, homophobia and capitalism. Why is this intersectionality so crucial?
Rachel: Essentially, we're currently trying to protect women and people of marginalised genders within the patriarchy and within white supremacy, and it's obviously not working. We should be outraged by the fact that huge swathes of the population are deprived of basic resources, and that this creates conducive conditions that allow these cycles of violence to happen. We should be really angry that, because of systemic inequality, women and people of marginalised genders don’t always have the option to say no.
It’s really striking how Rough brings together so many voices through interviews. Can you talk a little about the power of testimonial in these contexts?
Rachel: It was really important to me to honour the language that people used when they were describing their experiences. I didn't want to impose onto their lived experience. But it was also hard because sometimes people would describe something as a grey area, and what they were describing was assault. At one point, an interviewee reflects on their experience of stealthing and how they felt lucky it wasn’t worse. I found it extremely telling how we're conditioned to feel, even if something traumatises us, that we got off lightly.
It makes me wonder to what extent the myth of the rapist in the alley has been deliberately manufactured to deflect from more pervasive incidents of rape and assault.
Rachel: Exactly. Who benefits from that? Because statistically, most people know their attackers. Yet the stranger rape trope is more of a dominant image than the reality, and I think that really interferes with people's ability to understand the things that do happen to them as violence.
So often when we have these conversations, the onus is placed on women or people of marginalised genders to educate and protect themselves. What should men be doing?
Rachel: Men need to broaden their understanding of how misogyny and white supremacy and power structures manifest, not just in their behaviour but in their thought processes. I would encourage people to be mindful of the power that they hold, whether in relationships or one-off sexual encounters, and to be conscious of power dynamics and microaggressions that could retraumatise someone. We need to start modelling better, ethical, sexual behaviour. Just be a good person.
Rough: How Violence Found Its Way Into the Bedroom is out now via Square Peg