Have you ever given any thought to how you get or give sexual consent? Unless two people walk into a bedroom knowing that they want to have sex, there has to be a point when the question (are we going to have sex?) becomes an answer. How we get from point A to point B is often muddled with the dirt of an imbalanced society that teaches men to pounce and women to cower.
I’ve had all kinds of sex, most of it I enthusiastically initiated or encouraged. A couple of times I wasn’t really into it, but decided to do it anyway. And once I didn’t want to do it all, but I couldn’t find a way out. I was alone in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sleeping over at the house of a man I did not know so that I could attend my first Native American sweat. After talking of spiritual themes far and wide, sweating out toxins in the sweat lodge, and preaching from the heart when it was my turn to speak, I felt safe. On the car ride home, my host offered me his bed. “No sex,” he said. I had done that before, slept in the same bed with a man and had nothing happen; I took him at his word.
My mother says never get into bed with a man you don’t intend to have sex with. Mother wit may prove itself wrong twenty times, but in the end it prevails. When I felt his hands on my body, I literally heard a trap clack shut. I felt completely powerless. Staring at the ceiling, I reviewed my options. I could roll onto the floor and run to the bathroom. I could scream, but who would hear? I could just say ‘no.’ Instead I went into denial. “It’s just cuddling,” I told myself. Then when he was pushing away my clothes, I spoke up. “We’re going too far,” I said. “We don’t have to do anything,” he whispered and continued undressing me. I lifted my arms and legs as if in a trance, while frantically trying to find a “cool” way out. “Maybe we should stop now,” I said diplomatically. “We don’t have to do anything,” he repeated. In my head, I screamed at myself, “What is wrong with you? Be a woman! Do something, stop it. Stop this from happening.”
I did nothing. I thought, if a spiritually intuned man who can read my aura, doesn’t listen when I say “this is going too far,” what are the chances that he’s going to listen if I say ‘no’? When he ripped my underwear, he was still swearing that we didn’t have to do anything. I got the message–he had heard my protests and gave lip service appeasement to my hesitation. I could do what I wanted, but he fully intended to have sex. Then I lay there and let it happen, wondering if he noticed how stiff and uninterested I was.
I’m not a weak woman. I’ve traveled to five countries alone. I’ve fought a man who tried to rape me and a friend at gun point. I’ve also been alone in Havana, Cuba, spending the night in the house of another man I barely knew and woken up to find him in my bed with nothing on but a towel. I sat straight up in bed and said “I’m not interested in this,” over and over again, until he crawled back out of the room. So, why couldn’t I say ‘no’ this time?
There is an invisible matrix of unspoken rules governing the interactions between men and women. A look, a touch, a word, an article of clothing, any number of random facts can shade a woman’s innocence and declare a man guiltless. I knew the facts: I had only known him for a few weeks. It was the middle of the night. I got into his bed of my own free will. I needed no judge or jury’s wagging tongues to tell me the verdict: I set myself up. By society’s laws, since I agreed to the bed, I had no right to refuse the sex. I got caught up in these laws and, even though I disagreed with them, I made myself responsible for my mistake. I shut down my soul and paid the cost.
I remember trying to convince myself that, although I didn’t want it, it could be a good thing. ‘You haven’t had sex in a while,’ I told myself. ‘Enjoy the sensations.’ My pep talk was futile. I would not, could not, did not enjoy it. The next morning I was disappointed in him and furious with myself. I hid myself behind a sweet, silent mask. He woke thinking he seduced me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not persuade myself to set the record straight. He took me to breakfast and bragged to a friend of his that he was going to marry me. I smiled and reserved comment. Could he be that clueless? He dropped me off at the bus station, passionately reminding me to call him. I rolled my eyes as he drove away. When I returned to my sister’s house in Albuquerque, I lied. I told her I had had sex with the man, but I didn’t tell her I didn’t want it. I was ashamed to. Having sex against her will is not something a powerful, evolved woman of the 90s does. I felt guilty and stupid. But some small part of me felt justified. As the twisted logic goes, by having sex with this man when I didn’t want to, I stopped him from raping me.
Rape is the unspoken fear that riots through women’s heads when they have sex against their desire. ‘I’m in a vulnerable position,’ a woman thinks, ‘If I say no, is he going to take it anyway?’ No woman wants to be a rape victim. Nor do many men want to be rapists. Rape is huge, overwhelming, devastating, debilitating; sex when I don’t want it is manageable. Manageable except for the nightmare I had a year later, manageable except for my fear of being playful and open with men, manageable except for the anger and shame.
Belittled by apprehension, I shared my story with a few women. To my surprise, all of them had a comparable experience. All of them had a renegade sexual situation terrorizing their memories: sex they didn’t consent to, sex they put up with rather than battle to stop; a sexual experience that was neither seduction nor rape. One thing all these women repeated in one form or another was: “I didn’t want to get raped, so I just did it.” My question is, if we did it to avoid rape–unlawful sexual intercourse by force or threat (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)–then by virtue of the threat , were we raped?
By current social definitions, we weren’t raped. Certainly by the definitions of most of the men involved, we weren’t raped. In many of our own minds, albeit by technicality, we weren’t raped. But if we weren’t raped, what is responsible for the discomfort that lingers in our bodies? The complexities of this conflict can only be understood by examining sexual consent. What are men’s methods for getting sexual consent? What are women’s methods for giving sexual consent?
The most popular method for gaining sexual consent is seduction. “Seduction is when you make somebody do something they don’t want to do,” says Joseph Richards, a 26-year old waiter. “When they get to your house, they don’t want to have sex. So you put on a little music, kiss her on the neck, do whatever to make her want to have sex with you.” I find Joseph’s definition of seduction frightening. In the realm of sex, “making somebody do something they don’t want to do” is rape. If you start with the concept of changing someone’s mind, how do you know when you’ve changed it? If a woman says three times in as clear language as she can that she doesn’t want to have sex, and each time the man responds with another approach, another method of “seducing” her, where is the space for her choice? Is it possible for her to say no? Who decides how many ‘no’s’ consist of a sufficient refusal of an offer? When does seduction end and rape begin?
Joseph’s model of seduction is a dangerous proposition: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, rape in seduction’s suit. Yet many of the men I interviewed agreed with Joseph. “We’re taught to push and push to get what we want,” says Samuel, a 28-year-old history teacher. Without even being conscious of it, legions of men are entering into sexual situations believing seduction is making someone have sex with you, believing that seduction and rape are synonymous. Though this is an alarming possibility to consider, it is also a liberating one. It suggests that many of these uncomfortable sexual situations are the result of misunderstandings, rather than a man’s intentional desire to hurt a woman. If the intention is seduction, not rape, then there is room for men and women to agree on the language of seduction.
Aisha Brower, a 50-year-old Ph.D. candidate sees seduction as a positive force. “Seduction is erotic,” she says. “The seducer wants to convince someone to have sex, but it can become negative when the person being seduced doesn’t want to have sex. The seducer must then decide ‘I’ll stop now’ or ‘I’ll force myself.’ When there is force, there is rape.” Across the board, the women I interviewed agreed that seduction had something to do with persuasion, but nothing to do with force. Their collective comments define seduction as an invitation and rape as a demand. Marielle Jenkins, a 30-year-old copyeditor, says seduction is about “revealing hidden feelings,” but “not [about] changing someone’s mind.” In other words, when there is no apparent desire or refusal, there is room for seduction, but when someone communicates through word or action that they don’t want sex, seduction is no longer possible. Each attempt to make her change her mind moves the situation closer and closer to rape. Both seduction and rape are about transforming the sexual environment, but seduction creates a ‘yes’ from nothing, while rape forces a ‘yes’ from a ‘no.’
Within Joseph’s model of seduction, he has two categories for women’s possible responses to his sexual overtures. “There is the no-no,” he says, and “the no-yes. The no-no is when she says ‘no’ and she takes her hands off of you. That’s clearly a ‘no,’ and there’s nothing you can do about that. But there is the no-yes where she’s saying ‘no,’ but she’s still touching you and kissing you. That’s a no-yes, and you know she doesn’t mean ‘no’ and you can make that go the way you want it to.”
A friend of mine once told me, in the smallest quietest voice I ever heard her use, that she was raped. She rushed over the confession quickly and didn’t really want to discuss it. Why?–because it wasn’t a “physical” rape. He didn’t have a gun or a knife and he didn’t beat her up. They were, in fact, friends. She was attracted to him, it was late, and she was in his home. She was very nervous when telling me the story because she thought I wouldn’t understand. She was afraid I might write her off as a wimp or a liar. Although she clearly believed she was raped, she couldn’t explain why she considered it rape.
“It wasn’t physical,” she explained. “It was psychological. He made it so I had no choice. I was in his house. I did like him, I had told people at school that I thought he was fine. I couldn’t see a way out, he wasn’t trying to hear my ‘no’s’, so I did it and left. He couldn’t understand why I never spoke to him again. He thought it was all cool. I swear I said “No” about five times, but he wouldn’t listen. He was so big, I didn’t want it to get physical, so I gave in and then I went home.”
Active in many of these questionable sexual situations is the threat of violence. Often the threat was not spoken, but rather inferred by the woman’s fear or implied by the male’s presence. The rules of our society dictate that men get their way–might is right; the biggest-strongest-mightiest-wins paradigm makes confrontation difficult. Whether a man speaks a threat or not, the history of male-female interactions and the possibility of violence can make the woman feel like she has no choice.
Marielle Jenkins went drinking with friends. One of the guys insisted on walking her home. She invited him to crash on her couch. Once in the house, they shared a kiss, then she said goodnight. She got up and walked to the stairs. He stood and followed her. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he said. She froze. After the realization of the situation washed over her body and the details–you’re drunk, you invited him in, you kissed him, it’s the middle of the night–ran through her head, she returned to the sofa with him and allowed him to have sex with her. When he was asleep, she ran to a friend’s house where she felt safe. Was she raped?
Many people might read this and ask, why didn’t she say she didn’t want to, why didn’t she fight, why didn’t she run? She, like I, felt responsible. She reviewed her mistakes and, rather than insist that he be humane and respect her wishes, she submitted to the warped, blame-the-victim mentality that runs our society. It wasn’t simply the cold, hard threat in the man’s words that intimidated Marielle, it was also the memory that a month ago, her friend Diane had been raped. Diane fought the man, and suffered a black eye and broken teeth. She told the authorities and was consequently ostracized and ridiculed by men on campus. Marielle thought it better to have sex against her will than to risk broken limbs or a tarnished reputation. When a woman finds herself in a sexual situation, but does not want to have sex, the possibility of court cases, destruction of character, and the loss of privacy weighs heavily with her. Upholding the threat of the man in the room with her, is society, which, rather than support women in danger, rears its head to judge and question and punish.
When I questioned Justine, a 32-year-old poet and professor, about her sexual experiences, she said, “you don’t want to hear my story.” “I want to hear it, if you want to share it,” I assured her. “Without burdening you with the details, I’ll just say I got to that point you and Marielle got to, rather than shut up and do it, I decided I wasn’t going to. I drew the line, and he crossed it.” “That’s exactly what those of us who don’t draw the line are afraid of,” I said. “I know,” she said.
Men are not the only ones confusing the matters of sexual consent. Adding to the chaos are women’s mixed messages and denial of their sexual selves. The no-yes is employed when a woman wants to protect her reputation, when sex advances before she’s had the opportunity to decide whether she wants it or not, or when she knows she doesn’t want to have sex, but she’s afraid to say no. Marielle admits to playing the no-yes game. “With my first boyfriend,” she says, “every time we started to have sex, I would say ‘no.’ I didn’t mean it, I wanted to have sex with him, but I would whisper, ‘no, no, no, no.’ I don’t even know why.”
While men are taught to be sexual aggressors, women are taught to be sexually modest. Although the sexual revolution has come and gone, the good girl/bad girl paradigm is alive and well. A bad girl likes sex, a good girl doesn’t. A woman who likes sex is a whore and a slut. A woman who doesn’t is pure. What is a good girl to do? Rather than buck the tradition and openly embrace sex, many women play into the good girl/bad girl paradigm by having sex while behaving like she doesn’t want to. The he-seduced-me excuse is employed by women all over the world to explain why she had sex. The subtext is “he forced me, it’s not my fault.” If a woman was forced to have sex, then she was rape. I don’t know any woman who would shrug and say “he raped me,” with a sheepish grin and hands spread in innocence, but rape is exactly what the he-seduced-me excuse employs to protect a woman’s purity.
When women play these games, they protect their own reputation at the expense of all women. A man who has had sexual experiences with a woman who said ‘no’ when she meant ‘yes’, then has an excuse, no matter how hollow, to interpret another woman’s ‘no’ as a ‘yes.’ He has seen the old adage–”when a woman says no, she really means yes”–at work and can use it to dishonor women who say ‘no’ and mean it. The no-yes game also supports the fallacious belief that women need to be talked into sex. Women love sex and don’t need to be pushed into sexual consent. But when women hide their desires behind the cloak of confusion and uncertainty, they support a dangerous tradition that destroys women’s choices as sexual beings.
Another way that women sabotage sexual clarity is by allowing a man to advance a sexual situation before she has decided what she wants. She might be mulling over the pros and cons of sex while continuing to return touches and kisses. As elementary as it sounds, the decision of whether or not to have sex cannot be made while clothes are being removed. The further a sexual situation advances, the more clarity breaks down. It is difficult for a man to honor a woman’s feelings when she herself doesn’t honor them. Women can honor their feelings by not entering situations that make them uncomfortable, by speaking up the moment they feel conflicted, by pulling away and stepping out of the rush and the heat of the moment to say, “I don’t want this,” “this is advancing too quickly,” “no, thank you.”
Women’s hesitations to say no, to cross their arms and flat out refuse to have sex are founded on the very real climate of male intimidation that colors their world. The fear of violence is huge and the dangers of rape are present in every sexual situation. At the same time, requests that are not expressed can not be honored. If a woman does not say ‘no,’ does not firmly stand against it, sex will certainly happen. In a moment charged with fear, confusion, and shame, women are forced to make a choice. Every decision is a gamble. So what is a woman to do?
Women’s survival instincts often convince them the best action is to let sex happen. By granting the demand for sex, they pay with their bodies for the “honor” of not being yelled at, beaten, or raped. This tactic may save women from physical danger, but it also demeans their spirits, tarnishes their self-esteem, and diminishes their trust in men and in themselves. Their soul begs them to take the other path. High-minded and hopeful, the human soul believes if the woman speaks up, the man may listen. Maybe he will, but if he doesn’t, rape will certainly be his response. Is there any real choice?
Sybil, a 30-year-old actress, says she’s been in sexual situations more than once when she was clear she didn’t want to have sex, but she was afraid it would become rape. “I didn’t want it to get ugly,” she says, “So I went ahead and had sex.” “Do you think you were coming off as a no-yes at those times?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. As a result of her silent compliance, she, like me, is left wondering if the sex could have been avoided. The woman I want to be would have said ‘no’ at any cost. But rather than forcefully commit to my ‘no’, I became a no-yes, scrambling to find a non-confrontational way out. I sent mixed signals by complying. Had I said ‘no’, I wonder, would he have raped me or would he have let me go? Sadly, I’ll never know.
As one male respondent so eloquently stated “seduction is less about getting someone to do something they don’t want to do than it is about getting someone to want to do it in the first place.” I like that statement. It clearly defines seduction as a practice of creating desire, not determining action. It seems to me that we have skipped the creation of desire and moved directly to determining actions. A caring and attentive seducer can create a ‘yes’ and inspire the seduced to initiate action. True seductions don’t rely on force or coercion or fear. They are breathtaking in their progression and fill the seduced with excitement and anticipation.
Once, after spending the day on the beach talking about nothing in particular and floating in the sea, I went reggae dancing with a friend’s brother. I wasn’t interested in him, but I wasn’t not interested in him. I was just hanging out. Turns out that our hips worked together at just the right speed and somehow we made magic on the dance floor all night. We held hands as we walked out of the club. I was surprised and amused. While driving me back to my house he reached out for my hand and seduced me by tracing patterns across my palm, squeezing my fingers with his, and simulating sex with the meeting and separation of our hands. Soon he was kissing me and I was mostly in the driver’s seat as we sped down the road at 60 miles per hour. ‘No’ was a foreign language at that moment. Had he not copulated with my hand, I never would have ended up in his bed at 3 in the morning. He seduced me! Sex wasn’t my plan, but he never had to change my mind about anything. He enticed me into a situation I hadn’t considered, and I was thrilled to accept the invitation.
I want to add a new category to Joseph’s list of reactions to seduction: the yes-yes. All sex should be the result of a yes-yes. That the no-no and the no-yes (at the root, both are no’s) are the expected reactions to his seduction demonstrates that he has no space for the joyous, sexually expressed woman. A yes-yes is delivered enthusiastically. If a woman is acting confused, I suggest that she isn’t. I suggest her confusion is simply a mask for her fear. I suggest that she does not want to have sex, but doesn’t know how to say no. A sexually aroused and sexually interested woman is not confused. The burden falls on the seducer–male or female–to get spoken consent from the seducee. Men need to make clear, non-threatening requests for consent that assure the woman that the choice is hers. Women need to give direct, powerful responses that clearly communicate their desire (or lack thereof). As my mother says, no consent, no sex. Many men think it is unhip to ask before delivering a kiss or a touch or a thrust, but I think “Do you want it?” is one of the sexiest questions ever uttered.
Published in Essence magazine © 2000