Is Withholding Sex Now Sex Abuse?

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Or, Is Lysistrata A Sex Offender?

I attended today, along with Alex, a discussion panel to remember the Montreal Massacre where Marc Lepine murdered fourteen women at the École Polytechnique simply because they were women and he thought that they had prevented him from attending the school.

A lot of people – including many Conservatives who claim to fully support the equality of women (in the eyes of the law) – will argue that since the days of the Montreal Massacre society has advanced by leaps and bounds.

And sure, we’ve gone some distance since we established in law that women were merely the chattel property of their husbands or that forced sex in marriage was not rape because the woman were expected to provide sex to their husbands.

Or have we?

One of the courageous and amazingly strong women presenting at the panel today pointed out that in a time where the Family Law Act was being revised to erase gendered definitions (partially, perhaps, as an attempt to treat everyone equally in the law, and partially, perhaps, to fix legal issues once same sex marriage was legalized) that not everything has changed, and perhaps some areas have been changing back, in a scary way.

The example she used? A fact sheet from the Legal Services Society of BC (“a non-profit organization accountable to the public and funded primarily by the Ministry of Attorney General“) that defines sexual abuse of men by women as including

criticising a man’s sexual performance and/or withholding sex as punishment.

This is in context of replacing gendered terms in the Family Law Act and updating the ‘legal information for battered women’ with more gender neutral language.

So much for that. Here’s what the definitions on this fact sheet look like:

Imagine that – here, we’re going to the odd length of defining “partners” who abuse men as exclusively women, in a time where we’re de-gendering the system, completely ignorant that the vast majority of partner-abuse cases are perpetrated by men against women.

And here’s their terrifying description of what sex abuse is:

This astounds me. In an age where we should be stressing what consent is to men, making sure that we’re holding rapists to account and not blaming their victims, we’re defining withholding sex as sex abuse committed by women against men?

Some intrepid reporter should ask our Families First (TM) Premier if she thinks saying “no” to a violent man and refusing to have sex with him is abuse.

Not to mention that this pamphlet seems to have classified Lysistrata as a sex offender, and even the women of Belgium who threatened to withhold sex to try to end their country’s political stalemate.

In short, however, the message to me is clear: we might think we’ve come a long way in gender equality since the Montreal Massacre, but the truth is that we haven’t.

The police who respond to a domestic abuse call are likely to classify it as a “dispute” and not help women in need. The justice system, with an eye to formal equality, doesn’t always understand that legalistic equality does not always mean substantive equality. A system that has for hundreds and thousands of years merely regarded women as the property of their men is not fundamentally changed by removing gendered nouns in the law. More must be done.

I most definitely do not consider a a woman who says “no” to sex with a man after he hits her or degrades her to be abusing him, and I think it is preposterous for a government funded organisation that is supposed to provide educative materials to the public to suggest that it might be.

Consent is consent. Denying consent is not abusive. Suggesting, however, the denying consent is abusive is the most perverse enabling of abuse that I have ever seen.

We spend too much time as a society blaming women for being raped, allegedly through what they wear or where they walk. We shouldn’t be saying that taking control of their own bodies is somehow abusive.

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Kevin is a cooperator, an always-student, and passionate about the arts. As a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, Kevin works with colleagues in a workers' co-op offering services for advocacy and nonprofit organizations. He's passionate about education policy, having been through twenty some-odd years of schooling and still thinking it changes the world. He also thinks that art changes the world, and he works with Art for Impact to celebrate art's power for social change. A Vancouver born and raised resident who is exiled from Toronto, he constantly loses umbrellas and probably rants too much.

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19 thoughts on “Is Withholding Sex Now Sex Abuse?”

  1. Actually, a close reading of this fact sheet is even more disturbing. Since it defines ‘partner’ as a woman who may even be an ‘ex-partner,’ an ex-partner withholding sex as punishment could be seen to be abuse, at least according to this factsheet.

  2. Well OK, at risk of attracting ugly labels I’ll bite. As I read this it sounded like mental health definitions not legal ones. At that level I find it absolutely plausible. I suspect a lot of abuse in both directions is mental rather than physical and it’s not hard to see how a woman could use sexuality in this way. Heck, as a child I learned “never use sex as a weapon”. Isn’t this fact sheet saying why not?

    So what am I missing here? did anyone call and ask in a really neutral way why that was in there and what data backed it up?

  3. How does one determine that someone is “witholding” sex as “punishment”, anyway? That seems to be a rather blatant trial of intent. What it covers is the government’s claim that men are abused if they are not provided by women with sex on demand (even in the case of an expired relationship). Very scary…
    Whatever happened to acknowledgments of rape in marriage and the “No Means No” principle?

  4. “completely ignorant that the vast majority of partner-abuse cases are perpetrated by men against women.”

    I am going to say this, and believe me, it is because of equality, this statement should have read that the vast majority of REPORTED….by men against women

    I see, on a completely DAILY basis so so SOOO much abuse from women on men, so many times women hit men and think it is OK simply because its a woman hitting a man and as a man he should be able to take it. And if the man says anything he is a wimp. And don’t anyone here tell me that they have never witnessed it or have actually done it themselves or guys, have had it done to them.

    i agree with equality, but lets have REAL equality, not this one sidedness.

    ok, and yeah i am ready for all the hate follow ups i am going to get from this, but then, that will only prove my point won’t it. so go ahead.

  5. Oh my goodness! It is terrible – in a context where men will accuse a woman of ‘nagging’ when he ignores her requests to contribute to the running of the home, ‘manipulating’ when she weeps with frustration…. now new labels to silence and justify the abuse of women: ‘punishing’ if the sum total of his self-centred demands for sex from the exhausted woman aren’t met… to be called an ‘abuser’.

    Sorry.. but a person must live a very charmed life if their version of abuse is to be frustrated from imposing their sexual will on someone else.?!? What an insult to everyone who has ever *actually* been abused in whatever context!

  6. Hold the phone. I think you’re missing the point about what they’re getting at. I don’t think that this is your fault, I think that the men’s rights materials have been way too vague. They’re crappy, no doubt. So:

    Withholding sex is not abusive.

    Withholding sex as punishment can be emotionally abusive. Context is important.

    Acceptable: “I don’t want to have sex with you because I am upset with you.”

    Unacceptable: “I refuse to have sex with someone who is such a small man.” or “I’m not having sex with you because you didn’t agree with me about something else unrelated.”

    It’s not the lack of the actual act of sex with the man that is abusive or even the simple denial of it. The problem they are attempting to explain (and doing a very poor job of) is the way that the act is declined. It is always acceptable for someone to decline sex, for any reason. The problem here isn’t that they are being denied sex, it’s in HOW they are being denied sex.

    Repeated emotional abuse will tear a person down. You can deny sex all you want, but that doesn’t mean you have to do so in a way that demeans the person. Deny sex all you want. Repeatedly. That’s fine. Just don’t use your reasons for denial as a mechanism for control. That’s abuse.

    The danger here is how vaguely worded their materials are. I dislike the assumption that the partner or ex-partner in question should be assumed as female – what about gay men who face abuse? This implies all abuse against men is perpetrated by women, and that is not cool at all. That part actually seems very backwards to me.

  7. I disagree Angelina. Your explanation may seem appropriate to you but I can see men rushing to use it in order label as “punishment” sex denied for a reasion such as your “because I am upset with you” example.
    Even the wording “to deny sex to someone” suggests an entitlement on his part to have it.
    THAT is unacceptable to me and a huge regression from the “no means no” bottom line.

  8. It would be rather pathetically funny if the only non-criminal way for anyone to refuse sex when a man demands it would be – according to the Legal Services Society of BC – to carefully avoid any assertion that might be construed to be a critique of his personality, behaviour, appearance or, Goddess forbid, past performance. Please, let’s bring back Mary Walsh and Cathy Smith to riff on that theme!… A nice prop would be a bedside canned applause generator to dispel any suggestion that a man’s performance was less than stellar…

  9. I am a woman in a relationship of almost 7 years. My husband refuses to have sex with me. If you read the DEFINITION of emotional abuse, it fits.
    You know damn well no one is trying to legalize rape. And to minimize a person’s pain just because you don’t understand it is beyond insensitive.
    Withholding sex is abuse. PERIOD. An occasional too tired or not in the mood, isn’t what this is about. It is about the systematic rejection of your sexuality by the partner you trusted with your forever.
    Withhold sex IS emotional abuse. It just seems that throwing the second stone is always justified. If you have to cut sex out of your partnership, you owe it to them to leave, not stay and perpetuate that abuse upon them!

    1. I think that what you identify as emotional abuse is precisely that – emotional abuse. That doesn’t diminish the pain and suffering that you appear to be going through, in any way.

      That being said, in a document that the provincial agency that exists to provide free or low-cost legal advice to the public provides, in a document that is aimed at men, to define emotional abuse as “sexual abuse” is a real problem.

      Does it give men a free pass to file complaints of “sexual abuse” – in and of itself a criminal offence – because a woman is withholding sex?

      I would submit that in abusive relationships – the vast majority of which, of course, the man is the abuser – that a definition such as this enables further abuse. A woman may withhold sex from an abusive man as a means of escape, because far too often physical escape or exit from the relationship is dangerous, risky, or impossible. To define this, as the legal aid society sponsored by the province, as ‘sexual abuse’ is problematic.

      In any relationship, any and all abuse is reprehensible. But I think it’s problematic to define some things as sexual abuse, as this carries a very specific legal definition.

  10. Kevin:

    Quite frankly, your rant is dishonest and Jesuitical. As your own documentation has evidenced, it is not the withholding of sex but the withholding of sex as punishment (or for that matter attempting to obtain a good and service or change behaviour through a form of extortion) is abusive. You truncate the actual literature to serve your own disingenuous purposes.

    1. 1. Dishonest and Jesuitical. I’m adding that to my resume.

      2. Adding that “as punishment” allows men – who by far are the most abusive gender – to claim that any woman’s refusal to fuck on demand is punishment. Per the literature’s first incarnation, this would then be sex abuse.

      Further, Johnny Hutchinson, your views are as such:

      Explicit legalization of same-sex marriage or even its prohibition threatens social cohesion and peace, which will become more apparent in years to come.

      Legalization of same-sex marriage indirectly threatens the constitutional and inalienable right to belief and conscience, to expression of belief and assembly; amongst other considerations.

      Frankly, you’re not someone I’d ever listen to.

  11. Martin I agree with you completely – ‘deny’ suggests an entitlement . Sex is not. No one has the right to expect to have sex with someone else. Lori if your expectations are not being met why don’t you leave and find a relationship in which they are.
    Labels of abuse should not be given to others just because they will not give us what we would like them to.
    Angelina, its perfectly acceptable not to have sex with someone for any reason , being small, not agreeing, drinking their tea in a particular way..etc, and in an honest relationship it may be ok to share the reasons why. Just because someone feels abused it doesn’t mean they are!
    ‘Denying sex’ (which should be called -not having sex) is not abuse!

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