“The Game Is Rigged:" Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad

By Tiernan Field House Peer Health Educators

Recently my news feeds have been flooded with articles unveiling the ‘orgasm gap’ and discussing the unbalanced and unequal gendered expectations in typical heterosexual encounters on college campuses and beyond. The article “The Game is Rigged” appeals to a combination of interviews and critical analysis of women’s sexual experiences in college to trace how women navigate pleasure and sexual experiences. While this article both provides insight and falls short in different ways, what interests me most is what we can pull from it to try and re-imagine sexual encounters on campus.

In her article “The Game is Rigged,” Rebecca Traister distinguishes non-consensual sex from bad sex, and critiques mainstream feminism’s unrelenting sex-positive mantra that consensual sex, defined by saying ‘yes’, is in some way inherently empowering. She creates these distinctions by tracing the history of feminist attitudes about sex, and by comparing gendered expectations about sex and sexual behavior. These are important and valid critiques but she provides little insight into how to truly navigate consent within current gendered power structures. It is all too easy to walk away discounting coerced sex as simply bad sex, and not feeling like it’s okay to change your mind part way through a sexual encounter as simply a gendered reality. She cites gendered expectations as one of the root causes for non-pleasurable sex (men not caring about the sexual experiences of the women they’re having sex with) and claims that this problem is less prevalent in non-heterosexual encounters, but doesn’t examine how the very same structure of cisgendered, heterosexual encounters presents problems for queer and non-cisgendered individuals.

It isn’t easy to tease apart the mess behind the radically different sexual expectations for men and women in heterosexual relationships, and it is even harder to untangle how these same gender expectations commonly found on college campuses also harm Trans individuals, non-binary and queer folks. But if we’re going to do any unraveling work here, we have to really dive in. Not recognizing or acknowledging that issues are connected can actually work to uphold prevalent and damaging attitudes about pleasurable sex, hookup culture and gender norms in increasingly insidious ways. How do you communicate your desires or remain in control of your identity in a space that instantly codes gender and sexuality and expects straight cis men to take their pick of sexual partners while everyone else stands immobile, waiting for something to happen to them or someone to find them?

Consent, and sexual experiences that are intended to be pleasurable for all, are foreshadowed and start far before the actual sex is happening. They are coded in how people are approached to dance at parties, and what expectations people have for sexual encounters, so we need to move beyond thinking about sex and pleasurable sex as isolated from our other social practices and encounters. How do we navigate consent and create spaces where sex isn’t solely a performance in male pleasure and default heterosexuality? These discussions have high stakes and should be focused around lived experiences. We can’t be afraid to come together and talk about what consent means in our lives, at our school, at a party because a single experience or narrative is not enough to unpack the many complicated layers and social forces which drive sexual encounters.

While Traister mentions some concerns with sexual options for women, she doesn’t connect her concerns to larger issues of gender, sexuality and society in a way that allows us to move past cisgendered and heterosexual expectations. The ideas she mentions, while powerful, aren’t exactly new news. Critiques of sex- as-liberation in feminism have been ubiquitous for a while. In my short college career I’ve read many of them, especially those that focus on heterosexual relationships. What I hope we can start looking at here at Scripps is how a variety of factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, and class play into the sexual experiences people have available to them, and how these experiences are framed and shaped in part by the contexts and spaces we create. Some of these issues are already being discussed at Scripps through organizations in SCORE, and through the Tiernan Field House’s Health and Wellness Program. Additionally, the RA’s sex week is coming up Nov. 9- 12, so keep an eye out for events related to consent, pleasurable sex, and identity.

"Why Sex That's Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We're Not Talking About It." The Cut. 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015