TRIGGER WARNING: This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
Girl I want to make you sweat
Sweat till you can’t sweat no more
And if you cry
I’m gonna push it, push it, push it some more
Bob Marley, Looking In Your Big Brown Eyes
Today a friend of mine sent me a Facebook link with an audio fragment of radio 538, a popular Dutch radio channel (2018, test je vriend, Radio 538). The reactions below were filled with hysterical exhilaration – emoticons that tear up from laughter, variously extended versions of “haha”, and tagged names with requests to “please, take the time to listen to this”.
The fragment was of the show called “Test your friend”, in which people call their friends live on the radio with a made up story to see how their friends react. One of the two male presenters shortly explains today’s prank. Yvette, a woman of 25, will call her best friend Larissa to ask her if she could make use of her apartment to carry out her hypothetical adulterous plans.
Larissa’s phone rings…
She picks up. She was already asleep and didn’t recognise the number calling her. Yvette apologises and then poses her request. After some back and forth comments and explanations, Larissa caves. But on one condition: Yvette should wash the sheets. Not just afterwards but also before, because there are some bloodstains on it. Before Yvette and the listener know it, Larissa explains how this had happened. Animatedly, she tells how she had taken a man called Rick home, whom she knows from work, after a couple drinks a few days ago. On the background you hear Yvette bursting out in laughter and protesting to the story, as she understands which direction it’s going. But Larissa won’t have it. “I listened to your dirty story, now you listen to mine!”
“No!” Yvette tries before tumbling into uncontrollable laughter. I laugh with her, together with a mixture of shame and nervous anticipation. “Listen,” Larissa says, “he does a fine job tamping. Nothing wrong with that. No, listen – But suddenly, he puts his finger in my ass! I’d never done it before but I quite liked it.” Yvette shrieks with laughter as Larissa tells her story while being publicly broadcasted throughout the Netherlands.
In this moment, I become intently aware of my voyeuristic position. I cover my mouth with my hand and curl my toes as I hear this private story unfold. It’s both hilarious and vicariously shameful.
Yvette tries to save the situation by steering the conversation back to her request, but Larissa doesn’t stop. “He asked whether I had ever done anal before, so I said “yeah, of course!” because I didn’t want to sound like a loser if I said “no”.
“No!” Yvette tries a last time, laughing.
My face, however, twists into a painful grimace, my body tenses up, and I hold both my hands against my head as if to cover my eyes and protect myself from impact.
“So he crams it in, without mercy, without fore– you know. So I think that I am torn out a bit and that’s why the blood is there.”
Meanwhile Yvette has exclaimed that Larissa is live on the radio and the radio presenters have joined in to the commotion. Larissa is obviously shocked by the revelation that her story has been broadcasted publicly. She scolds Yvette for it and worries about what exactly she has said. As a reward for “a beautiful piece of radio,” the presenters offer the two friends tickets to a festival. One of them jokingly suggests that Larissa may want to say something sweet about Rick. Now she is able to laugh as well, repeating that he can ‘tamp’ nicely. “Although next time he should do it a bit softer. Not directly, without mercy…”
Finally, the presenter ends the show by giving his regards to Rick, “the masterdick”.
I hope the point I’ll be making is already painfully clear to you. The painful irony is that you only need to listen in order to hear it: pain. It’s blatantly present, brutally banal and… covertly deliberate? If you listen closely, moreover, you also hear the normalisation of pain – of women’s pain, to be precise. But it is overshadowed by taboo, entertainment, and a culture of toxic masculinity based on sexual violence against women.
The whole account is hilarious because there’s an unexpected twist in which one of the participants tells a story so private, the secret listener is abruptly aware of their secrecy, and through a dramatic build-up, any attempts to prevent its exposure fails equally dramatically. The climax of the story is also the biggest taboo: speaking publicly about a (bad) personal experience of anal sex. (Also, a bad experience does not equal bad sex.) Shock, shame and nervous anticipation mix together and erupt into irrepressible excited emotions. But they obscure the real climax:
He tore her out and made her bleed.
There is no judgement on Rick’s apparent appropriation of Larissa’s body for his own satisfaction, with no regard for her comfort. On the contrary, Rick is applauded for the magnificent thing between his legs with which he has “masterfully” hurt someone in a vulnerable position. He is moreover sympathised with because his sexual life has been made public. The focus is not on the implications of his actions. It’s not Larissa’s pain that is highlighted. We do not speak about his violent way of treating a woman’s body. In other words, Rick’s behaviour is normal.
While I listened to the radio piece, I remembered that I had heard it before. Interestingly enough, I did not remember having the same thoughts and objections. Now, however, I see that this is a clear example of a culture celebrating sexual violence against women – rape culture. (A scary term, perhaps, but not as scary as the reality it signifies for many.) Some will say that it isn’t a case of sexual violence because the woman in question, Larissa, didn’t express her experience in those terms, nor altogether distinctively negative. They will perhaps protest by pointing out that Larissa said she even wants to have sex with Rick again. But in doing so, they cancel out hearing other (alarm) signals:
Larissa needs (won’t be stopped) to tell her story to her best friend. She confides in Yvette as Yvette has just done with her – both appeal to their friendship as a social support system that allows them to privately talk about their ‘immoral’ behaviour and (bad) experiences. Moreover, Larissa is quite vocal in her articulation of Rick’s rough behaviour towards her body, and she feels he should be handling her with more care next time. One might say that the experience has impacted her greatly, psychologically as well as physically.
This video fragment found its way back to me in a moment that there’s much controversy around women’s sexual experiences, especially in relation to the discomfort and pain women (are expected to) endure during sex. And the difficulty they have in recognising it, articulating it to their sex partner, and effectively responding to it. Women express how they are too overwhelmed, feel too unsafe, or are too insecure, to remove themselves from the situation. Without a doubt, these situations confuse women and they, as a result, question themselves.
Because how can you prepare yourself that you will not be considered as a sentient being? How can your pleasure be either ignored or taken for granted? How can your discomfort/pain be equally ignored or taken for granted? How do you negotiate the fact that you yourself ignore your own pleasure and pain? How does this leave room for women to be in the sexual encounter? In other words, how do these questions underscore the relationships women have to their bodies and how they perform themselves in the sexual encounter?
These are questions (young) women such as myself need to actively engage with. But I stay hopeful. The fact that these experiences have entered public debate means new interpersonal gender dynamics are being negotiated, if not demanded. (For who exactly? – is another interesting question.) This is good news in a time when saying you’re a feminist is frequently seen as a bad thing.
Georgette Veerhuis did her bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology at the VU and is now a second-year student of the Erasmus Mundus Master in Women’s and Gender Studies (GEMMA) at CEU in Budapest.