Over the years I have heard people ask--sometimes maliciously, but just as often completely earnestly--if there is *really* a difference between sex one regrets in the morning and sexual assault.
There is a difference and it's not, in my experience, particularly subtle.
When I was 21 I drank heavily. I drank to relieve social anxiety and to make it easier to talk to people. And to flirt with people. And, not surprisingly, I engaged in more than a few drunken hookups. There were mornings afterwards when I awoke thinking, oh fuck, what was I thinking? I did things I would not have done otherwise; some still make me laugh or blush or cringe. I have regrets, things I would take back in a second if I could. But I don't call those things rape.
Yet there are things that happened to me during this period that are qualitatively different. An ex and I used to hang out together as friends after we decided dating wasn't for us. We drank together -- a lot. We frequently had sex when we were drinking or bored, which in retrospect probably was confusing and a bad idea. One night at a party at my house I was drowning my sorrows over an unrequited crush. My ex and another friend followed me around all evening: "Oh, you're so adorable when you're drunk. Come here and give me a hug. Let me make you feel better." It became so intolerable that at the end of the evening I dragged a chair to the center of my living room, climbed on top and screamed "Everyone stop fucking with me. The fact that I am drunk and sad is not an invitation for you to hit on me! Fuck you all, I'm going to sleep now." (Anyone who's seen me really drunk knows that "adorable" is probably not the first adjective most people would use to describe me in this state.)
When I woke up the next morning, my ex was lying next to me. I was dressed, but some of my clothes were on inside out. I asked him what the fuck he was doing there. He got this goofy grin on his face and said, "um, well, you know..." I told him no, I didn't know since I had gone to bed alone the night before and had explicitly asked him to leave me alone in front of a crowd of our friends. After an intense period of interrogation I managed to get out of him that he had come in "to check on me" after I went to bed and "one thing led to another." Had I told him that I wanted to have sex with him, I asked? Well, no. Not in so many words. Had I given any indication that I was into what was happening? Well, actually I had been "pretty passive." Did I take my clothes off? No, he did that for me. Did I cooperate with that? No, I seemed "kinda sleepy" so it required extra effort. In fact, after he undressed me I "rolled over and was really still." That, he assumed, was an indication that I wanted to "try something different." I shit you not. Those were his exact words and I will never forget them. Did he not have any inclination, even the slightest inkling, that something was not right about this? And why, if he thought everything was cool, did he try to get my clothes back on me after the fact? Seriously, what the fuck? He started to panic and this point and I told him to leave.
When I told my housemates the story, they freaked out. They called my ex, yelled at him, threatened never to see him again. He cried. He apologized. And after two days all of our mutual friends were pressuring me to "just let it go and stop hurting him." He was, after all, so very very sorry.
Yeah, that would make two of us. Only I am still sorry today and I am willing to bet money that he never gave this another thought as soon as I let him back into my life.
Just a few months later I drove to see an old high school friend who went to a university two towns over. It was his birthday and I met him and some of his college friends at a bar, where everyone proceeded to get hammered. This was someone I had fooled around with when we were teenagers. I had very strong feelings for him at the time, but dating would probably be too strong a word to describe our relationship, primarily because he had preferred to keep things clandestine and informal. (Which is to say--though I did not recognize this until much later--he was using me.) With time and distance, I outgrew my feelings for him.
At his birthday celebration we drank and danced and talked about old times and dank some more. The drinking and dancing gave way to drinking and kissing. He walked me to my car and there was more kissing. I have a pretty filthy mouth that tends to kick into overdrive when I am drinking. I said some things that horrify me to this day. My behavior very clearly communicated that (a) I was still pretty attracted to him and (b) I was far too outrageously drunk to actually get in my car and drive it home. So he asked me to take a ride with him while I sobered up.
We drove and drove and eventually it became obvious that we were not heading in a random direction. He was talking to himself and becoming agitated. He was mentally going through a list of places he could take me and realizing that none of them seemed to suit his purposes. At some point he pulled into a cheap motel parking lot. I asked him, "Um, what are we doing here?" He told me to stay in the car so he wouldn't get charged for an extra person. I asked him why he seemed angry. He told me to be quiet and stay in the car. I was scared now. I was alone and far from my car and this was years before I got my first cell phone, so I had no way to call anyone for help.
I went with him to the room. He brought a bottle of cheap champagne with him that someone had given him as a birthday gift. I kept saying "I'm not sure. I'm not sure about this." I should have been more forceful, but he was already angry and I had to rely on him for a ride back to my car. My hesitancy only increased his agitation. He angrily suggested that I have some champagne to "help me relax." I drank a lot and fast, hoping that I would pass out or fall asleep and that would get me out of the situation. It worked -- the passing out part, that is. When I came to my "friend" was on top of me. He had taken off my clothes and was having sex with me. His hand was over my mouth. When I opened my eyes, the first thing he said was "shhhh."
I remember thinking "shhh? I'm not making any noise, asshole. The only thing quieter than unconscious is dead."
He finished, told me to get dressed, and he drove me back to my car. He called me the next day to see if I was "okay," but he seemed to mean "Did you get home safely?" and "Are we still cool?" He never acknowledged that what happened was incredibly fucked up. And I never called him on it. I just never called him again. About 18 months later he randomly appeared at my apartment. He was "just passing through town" and wanted to give me something he had made for me. It was a collage from that night, with a copy of the party invitation and the bar tab and the champagne label and the hotel receipt. How fucked up is that?
Really fucked up. And I can tell the difference.