Ethical Sex : Part IV – A Thousand Words For Snow

It never occurred to me to call what happened between us rape until about a year and a half later, when he texted me to ask, “Are you telling people that I raped you?”

I remember revulsed panic being replaced by a deep, trembling rage. What concerned him was not that he might have raped me, but that people might think he did. At the time I was too stunned to engage in a conversation on the nuances of sexual assault, but I don’t believe I should have had to. Though I often thought of that night and how it was one of the last we spent together, I had never thought about it in those terms. I refused to get drawn into a discussion, torn between a desire to yell at him and a need to end the conversation as soon as possible.

In retrospect it may not have even occurred to him to question his actions. It’s been said that we need to get rid of this idea that rape only occurs between strangers or on pain of death or bodily harm – that in order to qualify as victim one has to fight back and be overcome. An encounter between past lovers who fucked before and after does not have those hallmarks. He may not even have known of which night I was thinking, which is freshly lacerating in its own way. Still, his concern was for himself, not me, and that was nothing new.

I’m not sure exactly what we said – I deleted the text thread soon after. It makes analysis difficult, because my memory is no longer reliable after all we went through. I thought and spoke about him so much it’s possible some details changed in the re-telling. Certainly I’ve never been able to ask him for his side of the story. It was too hurtful while I was still trying to get over him, and now that so much distance has been achieved I don’t see the benefit in re-opening channels of communication.

I did not in fact accuse him of rape. A few weeks before he texted me I had tried to explain to mutual friends of ours “what happened”. How come we could no longer share a space. How come the last time I saw him I left in tears. How come I stopped calling, stopped coming over. It was part of a longer, more complicated story, but an important part.

I reminded them of a night spent talking and drinking in their sitting room, and how after dinner and whiskey and easy meandering conversation the attraction to him felt almost visible, as did anguish at our situation.

When I told them that after they left for bed and we were alone he had persisted despite my asking him not to, I had never really thought about what this meant. In the moment of re-telling, it was an instance quoted to prove that he did not pay attention to what I wanted from him and never really had.

Raw pain made me ask what sort of a person continued with sex despite tears. “If someone you were fucking started crying, wouldn’t you stop to ask if they were okay? Make sure they’re good? I mean who does that?” It was a question I’d ask more than once. As for how long I cried, or how hard, I can’t say – whether he even noticed it when he looked at me, whether he was too drunk to be concerned.

So I told them about refusal and then what followed. A year of coming home from the club to cry on the floor of my room, stifling hands over mouth (those tears I remember). Depression. Two weeks unable to leave my house, reading Helen Oyeyemi and starving until I had to go back to work. Suicidal ideation. An obsession with knives, hours spent imagining how I would do it, how I would kill him. There was no real conviction or intent, but how those ideas gave me comfort. That life can be disrupted I already knew, but it was comforting to think that the possibility of me disrupting life was real.

(When you see how easily and simply a life can change, even through inaction, you realise that every aspect of how we live our lives was invented by someone, and the texture of the sky changes. You respect nature more, and learn to remember that nobody really knows anything, that someone had to invent the word for everything.)

In the days that followed that text conversation, as I revisited that night and my narration of it, I realised it did sound like rape.

So then I had to ask myself, fuck, was I raped?

Despite all the time spent on and offline with the thoughts of smarter people it had never occurred to me. Obviously a boundary had been crossed, but none of the sex we’d had before that night had ever been straightforward. Drunk sometimes, or sober, always fun. Sometimes loud and sometimes biting down on shoulders to keep silent. Often as an act of infidelity for him, indiscretions in two different relationships and the rebound time in between. It was a constant that I badly wanted to have sex with him – though not like that, on that night. Not as a misstep or convenience or after-thought. This was what was already between us on a night where I can’t be sure of much. We had shared the same bottle of detail-blurring whisky. Months later we were still able to share moments of non-sexual intimacy, singing along to the same songs and going halfsies on mzingas. I wrote memories of him that moved the people on my Tumblr. We had sex the very next day, even, and in the evening, after agreeing that we just shouldn’t hang out any more, he dropped me at the Modern Coast bus station on Mombasa Road for the 9.30 bus.

I liked him a lot more than he did me, a fact already acknowledged between us. Because of this, because I had already caught feelings, I had asked him to stop asking, to stop touching me, because Lord how I loved to have him touch me. It wasn’t the sex itself I didn’t want, it was the inevitable heartbreak it would bring. That was what I was asking him to keep from me, and that was what he ignored, and should have cared about enough about to stop. I wanted him to stop, for my sake and his.

So was I raped? Certainly I was hurt. I had sex I didn’t want with someone I wanted, who didn’t want me. Our mutual friend – a man whose intelligence and spirit we both respect – must have called it rape, when he called him out, or else why text so. But I didn’t want to have to know I was raped. It did not make me calmer to think that I was, acceptance as the first step to healing. Healing, if such a thing exists, came through other ways. It was easier to talk about it as part of a larger falling out, or to say I stopped being where he was because I liked him too much, which is kind of part of what happened anyway.

It unsettled me that the details I laid out could in fact be put together in the shape of assault. To say he raped me (who I wanted so long, in whom even at this distance I can see the shape of a life we could both have loved) to have this conversation would put us all in a position where we have to decide. How do we choose who and what matters more to us? Fathers of daughters and husbands of wives, friends of old with the bonds of time and experience – how does this incident fit? It still doesn’t sit easy. So they apologise for my pain, and they wait.


It is so hard to make the word rape liveable. We use it easily as a shorthand for violence – strewn liberally in male poetry and Game of Thrones realism and short punchy tweets about countries that are taken advantage of. It is understood as code for shocking violence, human cruelty beyond all accepted norms, or else as a quick way to describe how badly the other team lost. How then to fit it in amongst people who are still friends with the same people and laugh at the same tweets? After using it as a punchline, how does it then apply to those strangers who were in fact threatened with death? And then again the same word for those who know exactly what was done to them. How to use it in a way that makes sense?

Unable to speak in any other terms, in the absence of violence and with only our soreness the next morning or the tiniest of blood spots on the tissue as mementos, sometimes we say it was a bad night, just bad sex. Chalk it up to experience and say it doesn’t really count. It happens to everyone. How much of what we call bad sex consists of violation?

The ubiquity of a thing demands multiple descriptions. It may be that we need broader vocabulary: a thousand words for each of the ways our bodies are taken from us.


The exact number of words the Inuit people have for snow is a matter of debate, mostly because the phrase became a cliche and people are pedantic. There’s two interesting little articles about this from Washington Post and BuzzFeed. They pretty much recap the debate, although neither quotes any actual Inuit people,oddly enough. I claimed a thousand word count because I like how it sounds, and I am invoking the snowclone trope, if you’ll forgive me for it.  

While the extent of vocabulary does not determine one’s cognitive abilities or reflect intelligence (shoutout to cramming the longest words possible into primary school compositions), it is obvious that it eases communication. Other mediums engage other senses, but words are handiest.

One of the snow debates fusses over whether the words used are distinct from each other or merely a piling upon of multiple suffixes onto one base word, and if so, should they really count. Whatever the case , “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled” is better than just “snow” as far as instructiveness is concerned.

Old words die as their people move beyond needing them, and whole worlds die with them. In the new worlds that follow, birthed by our endless capacity for invention, words take shape as they always have: through acclamation. So we work it out through slang and academia, analogies about cups of tea and posts advising against making children hug people they don’t want to: a milieu from which we’ll create a teachable scale of violence that’ll be passed around, memeable and therefore inescapable. Words that will tell exactly what was hurt, and so what must be mended.

So keep talking, and forwarding, and sharing, and comment below. Moderators may intervene.

Ethical Sex : Part III – Difficult Questions

Consent can be a complicated topic. Even to me, that sounds like a controversial statement, but it is complicated, and that should inform how we approach it.

When the conversation of consent went mainstream, it was initially very binary. It did not always aim for nuance. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism, it was a necessary measure at the time. When an idea like “no means no” was widely controversial and incited debate among large swathes of the population, where else would you start but the bare bones basics? The conversation has grown since then, and it’s echoes are being felt in institutions around the world. Even so, I feel like the full potential of this discussion has not been realized. The conversation is still largely one of condemnation, or to put it another way, centred around the clearer boundaries of consent. This is important, but it is not the only subject.

I want to address the difficult questions about consent that we don’t normally ask. You may have thought of them, but felt inclined to say nothing. Part of this hesitation no doubt comes from how a number of the conversations are framed; that there are no questions to be asked, that you should already innately know these things. But I think the larger part is a fear of the answer. The fear that asking that question will lead to a conclusion that you would rather not be true. Or if it is, you might prefer not to know. It might say something about you, or it might shine a new light on someone else. Either way, sometimes it seems easier to just stick to what is already clear. What is already known.

Unfortunately, while the big, clear cut categories might be safer ground, they are only part of the story. For those of us who consider consent important, which should be all of us, we would like to have ethical sex lives. And for us to do that, it requires a deeper inspection of consent. We have to delve into areas that may make us uncomfortable because of our past conduct. We have to take a look at behaviour from people close to us that is simpler to just leave alone. We need to go to where it is complicated and messy and through our combined effort, find answers. Perhaps these conversations are going on somewhere, but we need them out front — where everyone can learn.

For a while now, I have been asking people who speak on this subject a question. When both parties are drunk, what are the dynamics of consent? The most common reaction is a hesitation and usually, there is no answer. That seems like a pretty big gap in the conversation because for many people, that is not a hypothetical scenario. Drunk sex is incredibly common. Odds are, you’ve had it. Is this a question you’ve asked yourself? Do you have an answer? I know I don’t have a clear one. And I think, if we are to have ethical sex, it is a question we should be asking and trying to answer.

Can a drunk person give consent? For most people, this is an easy question when only one party is drunk. But when both are intoxicated, there’s a lot less debate or, really, any kind of conversation. What are the rules and boundaries here? What accountability can there even be? With the memory loss and impaired judgement that some experience, is this an environment that ethical sex can even occur in? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, probably not.

Of course, many of us have had drunk sex in numerous circumstances where all the parties involved enjoyed it, where it was consensual. The problem here, is the doubt. The uncertainty of whether knowing consent was given or not.

Drunk sex offers a good entry point into this kind of conversation because it highlights the kind of situation where there is no clear villain. Where it’s not really that simple, or if it is, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. How many people prefer to drink for a confidence boost, for lowered inhibitions, for that adventurous push that make social interactions easier? How much of the prevailing sexual culture is learned and practised around such interactions?  How many people just enjoy drunk sex in and of itself?

I don’t think I have dug enough into this topic to unequivocally say that drunk sex is always wrong. What I can say is that it certainly is not the easier option it is often portrayed to be. It is dangerous. It opens doors of where consent is blurred. It might not have been given, it might be given and forgotten, it might be given and remembered but compromised because it would never have been done sober. It creates an environment where you may violate a person’s boundaries and more than that, leave them feeling that they were the ones at fault. In the end, it comes down to one simple question. Is the risk that your partner(s) is not actually consenting ever worth taking?

At a minimum, it requires more introspection, more communication between parties and more boundaries set when sober than it gets now. If you are going to engage in drunk sex, it is imperative to know beforehand how to hold yourself accountable and how to ensure you are always within your partner’s boundaries.

But having ethical sex is not entirely based on your own attitudes because sex is not an individual activity. It is important to know what views other people bring and how they affect your sexual relationship.

The other day, I was among a group of men talking about how to avoid having sex with a woman. I’ve listened and been part of these discussions often, I’ve just never given them the level of inspection they deserved. There was a dynamic of sex that I had never truly questioned and so some things that should have never set off alarms in my mind.

The entire premise of the discussion was that when a woman initiates a sexual encounter, she is unlikely to take no for an answer. A question that seemed to resonate with almost everyone was what to do when you turned her down, and she said “what’s wrong, don’t you find me attractive?” Another was how to proceed after you said no, and she refused to accept it (“I know you want to”) and went straight for your pants. The offered solutions were “you just have to physically run away” which was met with the kind of laughs that said, I find that funny but only because of how true it is. The other was, “sometimes you just have to go along with it, what else can you do?”

We saw the matter of women and consent dealt with last week and so I won’t go into again. What is important here is the attitude many men carry about how to handle this. It is a common misconception that men should always be ready for sex, that they can’t and don’t say no. Many women receive a “no” with hurt or anger or as a challenge. As a result, it is often easier to just accept and “go along with it”. When you, as a woman, receive consent, it might be important to be sure that it is actual consent, not resignation. Not damage control.

I have read about and heard from women who have sex when they do not want to. They are not forced, there is no coercion, but prevailing attitudes say that this is what is supposed to happen especially in relationships. Verbal consent is given, sometimes with the performance of enthusiasm, and all the apparent forms are observed. Still, there is something wrong with that. Something unhealthy about someone having sex with you because they believe they would be a bad girlfriend, or a bad partner if they did not.

In these cases, it is not your fault, but that is not the same thing as saying you are completely free of responsibility. And what is your responsibility? There’s no easy answer to that. Sexual relationships are varied and how you interact, and what you are willing to share, is not a constant. People bring a lot of thoughts and beliefs with them, some completely uninspected, and it is not always possible to dig into that. What you can always do, is make sure that your partners understand that it is okay and consequenceless to say no. That they can always change their minds. That what they want is important.

And so, while consent can be a complicated topic, the answers are what they’ve always been — you only have to think about them deeper. Receive consent, yes, but with what society is, that is not always just a simple yes or a seemingly enthusiastic response. Communicate, yes, but the depth and breadth of that communication must encompass a wider range. Consent is not a matter of limiting your liability, it is about engaging ethically and honestly with someone else. The effort must extend beyond your needs and wants and what is easy.

As we roll out the Ethical Sex series, we would like to receive your contributions and thoughts, which we may post, add on or talk about in our final article. We do not claim to be experts by any means, we are simply willing to undertake this journey, learn something and be better. Join us and hopefully we can help each other find the right path.

Email us at: submissions@

Ethical Sex : Part I

Every now and then, something so significant happens that it immediately creates a clear line of demarcation between the old world and the new. The effect is so sudden and pervasive that on the timeline of human progress it resembles nothing so much as an explosion. In my reckoning, social media belongs on this list. While it’s ubiquity makes it easy to take for granted, it is without a doubt the greatest facilitator of discussion and thought the world has ever seen.

Social media does not just give us information, it steps past the systemic bias that shapes narratives and avoids the hands guiding the lens to what is and isn’t important. I’m not going to act like there are no negatives to this, there are several significant ones, but it cannot be denied that there is power in receiving information firsthand. In hearing personal experience and seeing it echoed in different forms around the world. To see the discussion happening and growing before our eyes in language we understand and contribute to. There has never been a better time to learn or to understand.

Few areas show this effect more starkly than the field of feminist thought. Not too long ago in the Kenyan sphere, sexist viewpoints were regularly aired and executed without much regard to their rightness or wrongness. It was not something that regularly invited comment or frankly, widespread attention. It was common, banal even. While this fact did little to blunt the effects of what was happening, many people simply didn’t know any better.

Since then, through the tireless work of many incredible women paired with the explosive effect of social media, we have a different story. Now, everyone who regularly uses twitter has a fairly good understanding of feminist concepts — even the hard line misogynists. After all, they are always the first to comment “the feminists will come for you” under a problematic tweet. They wouldn’t do this so efficiently without a keen understanding of what was and wasn’t problematic and I think we can safely assume that they didn’t decide to dive into feminist literature. It was social media that brought the information their way and in this, proved to be an effective tool for teaching even those who were not looking to learn. (The fact that they clearly know better but refuse to change condemns the content of their character more than anything else.)

I say all this to emphasize that as we acknowledge the power of social media to fuel powerful conversation, we must ensure to use it to its full capacity. It is not enough to simply have these conversations, but they must evolve as well. We must have the conversations that are easy to avoid, because perhaps we are implicated or they are complicated with no easy answers; because they make our lives harder.

Over this month, Will This Be A Problem will run a series on ethical sex. The running theme will be consent. While we have heard a lot about consent, it has been one of the most consistent topics on social media for a long time, there are areas that remain lightly explored. This is not to say that they are not being discussed, only that they could be louder. The information could find people easier.

We intend to ask questions and, if not find answers then perhaps encourage a deeper search for them. This series is for those of us who already accept that consent is essential but want a more examined view of it to ensure they live ethical sex lives. To do this, we have to delve into areas that may make us uncomfortable because of our past conduct. We need to go to where it is complicated and messy and through our combined effort, use this platform to find our way.

We shall look at how women navigate receiving consent and their reaction to its withdrawal. I think it is obvious why much of the conversation has targeted men, they are the main offenders after all. But issues need not be equivalent to be worthy of examination. It is time we had a serious conversation about the toxic assumptions regarding men and sex, and how many women do not truly consider violation of consent a topic that affects them.

We shall also tackle the harder more complicated aspects of consent. Away from the clear boundaries that we should all understand by now, we will explore situations that are common but many of us do not think about deeply. Questions we should be asking ourselves and how to come together to find answers.

The aim of this series is not to attack or condemn, but to grow. You cannot fix a problem if you do not understand it. You must look at it, define it and only then can you have a reasonable chance at finding a solution. We want people to think better about sex. Safe sex is not just about condoms and the physical aspects, but the thought process that leads up to it as well.

In the beginning I said there has never been a better time to learn or understand. This is true. But it also requires effort on our part to work. As we carry on with this series, we hope to hear from you. To receive your contributions and thoughts, which we will add on and talk about in our final article. We do not claim to be experts by any means, we are simply willing to undertake this journey, learn something and be better. Join us and hopefully we can help each other find the right path.

Email us at: submissions@