She Said Yes: When Consent is Coerced

Apparently sex is just on my mind this week. Yesterday I shared with you a story about my personal experience of sexual assault, and today I want to talk about some of the ways that people manipulate each other in inappropriate ways into having sex. Any time you coerce someone, guilt them, or manipulate them in any way in order to get them to have sex with you, that is sex without consent. It is inappropriate and unacceptable. However from my experience and the experiences of those around me (yes, this is anecdotal, but no one has done a study on how many people say “if you loved me you’d do it), this kind of manipulation is common. So let’s take a look at some of the more common ways that people manipulate each other and what’s wrong with each of them.

1.”You must be a prude”

Let’s just say it straight out: shaming anyone for their sexual choices, whether to have sex or not have sex, is pretty much just a shitty and not ok thing to do. However if you’re trying to get someone to have sex with you just to prove that they’re cool, forward thinking, liberal, or liberated, then they’re not really consenting to sex with you: they’re consenting to a symbolic act that will keep them from being embarrassed. And what you’re really saying when you say this is that you won’t respect them if they don’t have sex with you. This is emotional manipulation, and if you coerce someone into having sex with you by convincing them that you will not respect them if they don’t, or that they have to do it to prove their liberalism, then you are not respecting their boundaries or their consent.

2.You’re punishing me.

Once again there’s a pretty basic myth underlying this statement: you are not owed sex by anyone. It is no one’s responsibility to give you sex. Therefore not giving you sex is not punishing you. It’s not taking away something that belongs to you. It is not treating you poorly in any way, shape, or form. When you say this, you imply to the other person that you require sex from them, that it’s a basic right of yours. You sound like a child throwing a temper tantrum. When someone says no to sex, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about their right to have autonomy over their own body. Their ability to say no to you doesn’t harm you. Get over it. When you say this to someone you imply to them that they owe you their body. That’s manipulative and creepy. It tells them they HAVE to say yes unless they have a really damn good reason to deny you your toy.

3.What if you never want to have sex with me again?

Oh my sweet Jesus the catastrophizing. Now first of all, someone not having sex with you ever again is still not the end of the world. It’s their right to say they don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Yes, if you’re in a relationship with that person it would suck and you would need to discuss it, but it certainly isn’t something to guilt someone over. In addition, let us repeat again that when someone says they don’t want to have sex IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If your partner is saying no to sex or feels uncomfortable, the needs of your penis or clitoris are not priority #1 here, your partner’s emotional well-being is. Changing the subject from whatever is making them uncomfortable, or trying to put the entire weight of your sex life on them over one incident is upping the stakes so that if they say no now, it means more and could spell the end of the relationship. It’s a veiled threat of sorts: if you don’t have sex with me now, you won’t ever want to have sex with me and I’ll be miserable forever/break up with you. Veiled threats and emotional blackmail are not acceptable ways to get someone to have sex with you.

4.Are you not attracted to me anymore?

I understand why someone would feel like this if their partner turns them down for sex. It’s highly important to remember that the vast majority of the time when someone says no to something IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you suggest to your partner that you’d like to go to a baseball game, and they say they don’t want to go, it probably has more to do with their feelings about baseball or how tired they are or how busy they are than it does about you. Despite the intimacy of sex, this often is the case there too. When you ask a question like this, you imply that if your partner isn’t having sex with you, they’re making a statement about you or how they feel about you. You’re implying that they should feel guilty for telling you you’re unattractive. You’re setting up a kind of false dichotomy: either you have sex with me, or you’re telling me that I’m unattractive. You’re trying to take out the possibility that it’s totally reasonable and not mean at all to say no to sex. And it’s cruel to tell someone that their perfectly reasonable choice is actually mean and disrespectful to someone they care about.

5.You’re being selfish.

This is very much akin to the previous two but takes its own special tactic of nastiness. Saying no to another person, asking them to respect your boundaries, telling someone that they should not continue doing something that upsets you or makes you unhappy, is far from selfish. Particularly when that thing involves your own body. Again, this kind of talk tells you to ignore your emotions and ignore your discomfort because your body is public property, or at least your partner’s property. And this again activates major amounts of guilt, because it tells you that you’re bad, mean, wrong, or immoral for saying no. It paints the other person as the victim, which reverses the roles so that you’re apologizing for asserting your boundaries, when in reality your partner should probably be the one apologizing if they crossed them. Defending yourself is not an aggressive action, but this kind of statement turns it into one. It’s gaslighting to the max.

6.You’re taking away something that makes me happy.

Boo frickin’ hoo. Sorry, I should probably have more sympathy because yes it does suck when you can’t have something that you want, but let’s be PERFECTLY clear here: if you are going to prioritize the happy feelings of your genitals over your partner’s crystal clear right to say no, then you are a douche. They KNOW that it would make you happy to have sex with you. And you know that they know. So by reminding them, all you’re doing is making them feel like shit. In order to try to get them to have sex with you. Look, your partner is not taking away anything by saying no to sex. Sex was not your right in the first place so there’s no way they could have taken it away. Sometimes they consent to give you a part of themselves out of the goodness of their heart and that makes you happy. YAY! But that in no way means they owe it to you in the future to continue giving it to you. Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility, and if you think it is then you’re setting your partner up for a lot of guilt, a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of ignoring their own interests for yours.

7.Well what if we just…

Compromise is generally a good thing. If your partner shuts down one thing but you’re super into it, it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like “Ok, we absolutely don’t have to do that. I’d be really interested in trying something else. What do you feel about ___”. But there’s a difference between that and the “what about” game. This is the game where every time your partner says no you try a different question, a different version. You wear them down. You make it sound reasonable to demand a blowjob because you aren’t getting sex. You paint your request as really not a very big deal after all, in fact something your partner really shouldn’t have any issue with because it’s so minute, even though it might be a sexual act that they don’t want to perform. And you do this until they give in because they’re going crazy trying to say no to everything and feeling like a jerk for shooting everything down. Sex isn’t haggling. Someone’s body isn’t for sale and it’s not up for a bargain.

8.Why won’t you think about my feelings?

Once again, this kind of statement prioritizes your feelings over your partner’s mental health and safety, and it tells them that they should be doing the same because if they don’t they are being unsympathetic and paying no attention to their partner’s feelings. It implies that if your partner cared about you and your feelings, then there is only one decision that they would or could make: giving you what you want. It’s another way of turning yourself into the victim and implying that your partner MUST owe you sex if they care about you. Let’s be honest, your partner already knows all about your feelings because you’ve made it damn obvious that you want sex and that sex is important to you. Our whole CULTURE tells us that having a healthy sex life is SO IMPORTANT so even if they don’t know about your feelings in particular they know about the feelings that you’re expected to have and so they already know they’re being “bad” by not providing sex. So reminding them one more time? It’s petty and you’re not doing it because you think they don’t know.

9.You’ve done this before, you should be able to do it again.

This is not how consent works. If someone consented to something yesterday and then does not consent to it today, their consent from yesterday is negated. Someone is allowed to change their mind about things! CRAZY! I may have wanted chocolate yesterday and not want any today, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to eat chocolate today. When you say this, you’re trapping someone into thinking that they are being inconsistent, irrational, and overly emotional by changing their opinion. You indicate that once they have said yes they can’t rescind their yes without being completely crazy. This really makes it hard to say no, to react to one’s emotions, to take care of oneself. It’s not cool.

10.I don’t know how to understand you love me if we don’t have sex.

This is your own god damn problem. If you can’t understand multiple ways of expressing affection, then you are a significantly stunted human being and that’s something you should probably work on. Telling your partner that they have to bend to your whim once again indicates that your inability to communicate needs to be solved with their body. It’s a special kind of guilt trip because it’s the barely logical cousin of “If you loved me you’d have sex with me”. If you want to express love, then respecting your partner’s boundaries is the best way to go. Guilting them into thinking they have to have sex to prove their love for you? Not so much.

11.I just want you to feel good.

If you wanted your partner to feel good, you would listen to what they say they want. If they say something doesn’t feel good or they don’t want it, don’t do it. What this message is ACTUALLY saying is that your partner must be CRAZY for saying no because you only want what’s best for them. They must not be thinking clearly. And not only that, but they probably should feel good because that’s what happens when people who love each other get sexy, amirite? So wrong. Your partner is allowed to not feel good, and allowed to feel good in whatever way they so choose, not the way YOU choose.

12.What about now?

When your partner says no, let them have their fucking no. This question is essentially the battering ram of emotional manipulation. It’s not very sneaky and it’s really easy to say no to…the first fifty times. But eventually most doors are going to get broken down just because your partner is so fucking tired of saying no. Do you really want your partner to say yes just because they’re sick of going through the dance? Probably not, because that’s not really consent.

  1. “If you believed in true equality, you wouldn’t be afraid of men, so you’d meet up with me & try me out” (submitted from twitter).

Really? I mean reaaaaally. This is clearly from someone who thinks they’re super sly but doesn’t realize that trying to make someone feel like they have to prove their liberalism cred is a shitty way to convince them to get with you. We all know that equality doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or go on a date with everyone, but apparently some people want to convince you that if you don’t, you’re shitty, discriminatory, and mean. Again, not a very good way to obtain consent.

It Doesn’t Fit The Script: Assault and My Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.

 

And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.

 

I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.

 

When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.

 

Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.

 

He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.

 

Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?

 

Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.

 

On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?

 

All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?

 

And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.

 

Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.

 

This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.