Equating Sex with Love is Rape Culture

I came to a startling realization the other morning.

It’s long been acknowledged in the asexual community that romantic relationships don’t have to feature sex, that people shouldn’t be censoring the f-word with the word “love” as a replacement, and that loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean having or wanting to have sex with them.  However, it seems like whenever the false equivalence between love and sex is criticized, it’s usually pointed out as simply inaccurate rather than as wrong.

This is not a post about how aces (esp. in the context of romantic relationships) feel pressured into having sex, a subject which has been covered well by others elsewhere.  This is a post about “love” as rape apologism.

Understanding what the term “rape culture” describes in the first place is a prerequisite to understanding this post (and I generally presume that people who read this blog are already familiar with concepts like these, but just in case you’re not): here’s a link to Rape Culture 101.  Escort yourself to the askbox if you’ve got further questions or objections about it.

So here’s the thing.

Out of the blue the other day, it occurred to me that there was a direct relationship between the sex-love equivalency and the sentiments behind the “Rape Is Love” trope, an article on TvTropes which has since been deleted, because TvTropes has terrible policies.  Since you can’t view the original article anymore: it can be summed up as this idea that (and narrative construction in which) a character raping another character can occur prior to the same two characters entering a romantic relationship with each other (once the rapist apologizes and is forgiven, that is), which is something that pops in media more often than you might think — and during my dabbling with other amateur fiction writers like myself, I’ve come across a similar and more severe thread of this mentality more times than I can count, one where, suffice to say, “giving in” and developing Stockholm Syndrome is portrayed as a positive.

If you want a specific example that might’ve showed up on the original TvTropes page, you can just look at the relationship between Spike and Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rape culture in the way it’s portrayed, which are analyzed here (cw: if you have rape-related triggers and are determined to read this post anyway, don’t read that one; the short version is that there are people who ship the two characters romantically even after he tried to rape her; that’s really all you need to know).

So, as a result of dwelling on that, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sex-love equivalency isn’t just a cultural construct that neglects to acknowledge asexual love.  The sex-love equivalency is evil.  It’s evil because when loving someone = wanting to have sex with them, if we assume the additive property of equality, then really loving someone = really wanting to have sex with them, with “really” here standing for “strongly, to a high degree”, and if we presume that the more strongly you want something, the higher you set it as a priority, then do you understand where that gets us?  Do you understand what becomes of the supposition that love and sex are that intertwined?

It becomes a justification for forcing sex on someone in order to “prove” how much you “love” them.

It lends itself to rape apologetics.

Presumably, people may object that equating love and sex isn’t necessarily rape culture, that there should be an implied “as long as they consent to it” disclaimer (and that we should allow for the possibility of such a disclaimer), and that really, really, really, really wanting to have sex with someone isn’t necessarily tantamount to a willingness to rape.  It’s true that strong sexual desire doesn’t have to lead to a consent violation; that’s called basic moral decency.  And, presumably, by this argument, the strength of a feeling/desire doesn’t necessarily translate to putting that desire ahead of other priorities (priorities such as respecting interpersonal boundaries).

Where this claim crumbles for me is the consideration that we do not do this for any of the other actions with which we might equate love.  For example, you may equate loving someone with caring about them, with valuing them, with forgiving their faults, with making time for them, with feeling affection for them, with enjoying their company, with any of number of things — and whatever words you choose, it’s unnecessary to put “as long as they consent to it” because that’s not the kind of thing love describes to begin with.  Even on an individual level, you shouldn’t equate love with sex, because the decision to have sex with someone is never as simple as just loving them.

To be clear: this is not a post condemning the act of having sex with people you love.  That is irrelevant.  This is a post condemning the description of a sexual motivation as “because I love them”.

In most cases, I’ll grant that it’s probably just enthymematic.  You want to because you’re sexually attracted to them (and subsume that feeling under the word love), or because you like the way it feels and want that person specifically as a participant, or because you trust them sufficiently enough and are comfortable enough with it to want to use it as a way to please them, or some combination of these.  Multiple factors are always involved, none of which can be summed up as love alone, else you’re invalidating the love of sex-averse people.

And I get that some people might still argue that the sex-love equivalency isn’t necessarily rape culture, to which I would say that even if it’s not, it makes allowances for it, has the shape to hold it, and easily lends itself to application as a tool of it.  Why would you cling to something like that?  For goodness’ sake, put it down.

Reject the entire idea that sex is something you do when you love someone.

Not just for a few outlier individuals, but for anyone.

I understand that’s something sexhaving people will be hesitant to let go of if it’s been integral to their way of navigating relationships and conceptualizing their own personal choices, but to hell with it, I’m going ahead with saying this anyway.  As long as you believe sex can inherently (inherently) be an expression of love, you’re participating in a culture of thought within which a person can supposedly be so overwhelmed by love as to rape someone.

So I say again: treating the ideas of sex and love as interchangeable isn’t just a mistake, isn’t just factually inaccurate, isn’t just a case of misplaced wording.  The sex-love equivalency is a tool of rape culture.

Burn it with fire and throw it away.

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23 responses to “Equating Sex with Love is Rape Culture

  • saraharnetty

    Very interesting argument.

  • talkabouttalking

    I think I agree. However, in my opinion, “a person can supposedly be so overwhelmed by love as to rape someone” is not loving that person at all. The only act of love is towards self. That person is loving themself and wanting the other for themself. That is not love, that is ultimate selfishness. It says rather “I love me so much that I will take away all your choices so that I can have what I want”.

  • Shokubutsujin

    Burn it with fire, throw it away and lock it up in a deserted dungeon so future generations will never find it and go with it.

  • queenieofaces

    “As long as you believe sex can inherently (inherently) be an expression of love, you’re participating in a culture of thought within which a person can supposedly be so overwhelmed by love as to rape someone.”

    So, I (surprise, surprise) talk to a lot of ace survivors. And of those who have been correctively raped, many of them had partners who said they just loved their partner too much and that’s why they HAD TO. Basically, this is an argument that is, in fact, weaponized against aces and used to excuse their partners violating their boundaries.

  • Captain Heartless

    Very good article, and I definitely agree.

    I’m still thinking about this, but there might also be something related about the assumption that love justifies anything, or that love is good, or something of that kind. Because I think the full chain of inferences goes: sex=love, love=good (or justified), therefore sex=good (all while ignoring the wishes of the other person, because it’s a conception of good that ignores consent/autonomy). I’m pretty sure I disagree with both inferences, unless love is defined in a way that I would find strange.

    But of course the sex=love inference is the more obvious one to attack (and is the one I care more about, for the concerns you mentioned above, and because queenie says and I believe it actually gets weaponized).

    • acetheist

      True, it’s probably part of a wider network of related things. Just in media analysis, I’ve seen the “love justifies anything” idea employed to justify other forms of abuse in situations where it’s claimed the abuser loved the person they were abusing — excusing emotional manipulation, controlling tactics, threats, etc. That’s definitely an idea I’d like to see more criticism of. Sex, though, is the one I see most frequently/strongly treated as inherent to love, rather than simply excused by it, as exemplified by the ideas that love IS wanting/having sex and sex IS an expression of love (although, granted, the same equivalence might be made for attempting to control someone, which is also wretched, but in my own immediate context that belief seems relatively less prevalent overall).

      That said, I’d be interested in seeing more critical discussion of the love=good idea.

  • Ace

    Reblogged this on The Thinking Asexual and commented:
    The Ace Theist makes an important point about the idea of “sex as something you do because you love someone” actually being a dangerous expression of rape culture.

  • Awakening

    Thank you. I am the survivor of the sexual abuse of my mother. Yes I am a male rape survivor. The meme of the equation of love and sex is planted deep in my psyche as the woman that was the iconic love of my life ‘instructed’ me on the equivalence of her love and her sexual desire for me. As you might imagine then, it is not a huge stretch for me to understand that more generally in our society, that equation of sex and love is the conceptual firmament in which rape culture takes seed and produces all the effects that have been identified (“victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, or refusing to acknowledge the harm of certain forms of sexual violence that do not conform to certain stereotypes of stranger or violent rape” — WikiPedia). In fact, in an unbroken chain, and in a “both sides now” fashion (Joni Mitchell reference), I have blamed and trivialized the victims of my objectification, and have always had this nagging feeling, even with my partners that were clearly wanting to engage in sex, that my part of it amounted to a rape, my part of it was illegitimately fusing together that I was very romantically in love with them, but was either coercing them, or being myself coerced to having sex to prove the authenticity of that romantic love (which requires no such authentication). I came across the Ace and *Aro* (A-romantic for you lay folk) communities (on Tumblr of course) and then upon this article, and the reason I am able to talk about this is that everything has suddenly shifted for me. This is absolutely unbelievable. I can safely say, speaking of safety, that I think I will be identifying as a romantic – ace from now, which together with previous assessment of feeling like a lesbian trapped in a man’s body (apologies to the lesbians that supposedly insults) is giving me a framework for understanding myself – as I am.

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  • RLQ

    The Web Archive is a wonderful thing.

    A copy of TV Tropes’ “Rape is Love” article can still be found here: https://web.archive.org/web/20080718104100/http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RapeIsLove

    Thanks as always for your great articles!

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  • Zane

    I would only like to add that most people and by most people i would like to think more than 90% (maybe closer to 99%) of people who actually commit real rape, are mentally ill, insane, psycho, or somewhere close to that side of the spectrum. If you disagree with that statement I think you must be a little deluded with your hate towards men. I’ll tell you one thing, many normal men and many normal women for that matter have thoughts about wanting to be dominated, for many in a rape-type fashion, whether or not they would actually follow through with it. The fact of the matter is many people have thoughts of rape and many are turned on by these thoughts. But it never evolves into anything real because of a thing called the ego. The part of our minds that tells us no matter how horny we got thinking about rape, we can never ever actually do it because it is morally wrong and disgusting if done in real life. Many people who are deemed psycho, insane, crazy, and probably along the lines of all of those who actually commit rape either never had an ego, or lost touch with it after a traumatic series of events, etc. Thus they actually follow through with it because the idea of doing it in real life is not slapped with a negative connotation from their ego. In a sense, a lack of ego can be closely compared to a lack of empathy.

    • Coyote

      Oh boy, here we go.

      “I would only like to add that most people and by most people i would like to think more than 90% (maybe closer to 99%) of people who actually commit real rape, are mentally ill, insane, psycho, or somewhere close to that side of the spectrum.”

      Source?

      “If you disagree with that statement I think you must be a little deluded with your hate towards men.”

      So ‘not automatically believing your guess that >90% of people who rape are mentally ill’ = ‘being a little deluded with hate towards men’…? Can you explain that one? I don’t even remember bringing up gender specifically in this post, but I guess we’re talking about men now. Okay.

      “I’ll tell you one thing, many normal men and many normal women for that matter have thoughts about wanting to be dominated, ”

      Okay. You have told me that one thing. I don’t know why you did though. Presumably you think it has some kind of connection to the argument I was making here?

      “But it never evolves into anything real because of a thing called the ego. The part of our minds that tells us no matter how horny we got thinking about rape, we can never ever actually do it”

      Is that a typo, or did you just invoke outdated pop psychology only to get your jargon wrong?

      “or lost touch with it after a traumatic series of events”

      Wow, the old “being a trauma victim makes people evil” belief.

      “…can be closely compared to a lack of empathy.”

      And even the old “good morals come from having the right emotions” brigade, to boot.

      What was the actual point of this mess?

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