The thing my worst sexual encounters all have in common is that they were instigated by men I thought I could trust. The guy who put his hands where he knew I didn’t want them, and dared me to do something about it. The guy who called me frigid when I didn’t let him grope me in a hotel hallway. The guys who avoided defining our relationship because they liked getting whatever they wanted, and being accountable for nothing.
Emotional coercion is still coercion. Pretending to love someone or to want a relationship with someone is still shitty. Bullying someone into sex with words isn’t much better than bullying someone into sex with fists.
Coercion looks like bullying, manipulation, or “smooth talk” that maneuvers past someone’s defenses, sometimes supplemented with alcohol. Coercion is Barney in “How I Met Your Mother,” mocking the women he sleeps with because they believe his outrageous lies. The most outrageous lie he tells is that he’s in love with them. There’s something deeply sick about a culture that thinks lying to somebody about being in love with them is funny.
It seems to me that men (yes, this is a gender thing) have taken to applying the word “consent” to any situation in which a woman eventually says something other than “No.”
To clarify: It isn’t consent just because she “lets” you. It isn’t consent if you “get” her to do it — through calculating words, a guilt trip, sheer physical strength, etc. It isn’t consent if you get to second or third or any base at all while she’s shoving your hands away or asking you to slow down. And you’re not a “sex god” for pushing past the boundaries of someone who’s unsure. You’re a perpetrator.
Of course people of all gender identities are capable of betraying those they care about and perpetrating sexual harm. However, men, for the most part, are encouraged more than others to view women as conquerable territory. Women, for the most part, are taught to blame ourselves when men enter the territory of our bodies without asking first. It’s important to be aware of the ways gender conditioning shapes you. You’re affected by what you’re taught it means to be a “good man” or a “good woman.” You’re affected by whether you were taught to view your body as a weapon, or as a piece of real estate.
While women of course need to learn to be assertive, no amount of self-defense is ever going to substitute for men who believe that women don’t deserve respect. No amount of consent-based sex ed is going to fix a man who can’t distinguish between his interest in a woman, and her interest in him.
The principles of consent aren’t actually hard to understand. If he says she consented and she says she didn’t, then she didn’t consent. If she’s silent and doesn’t expressly say, “Stop,” but she didn’t say yes either, and she’s not kissing or touching you back, she still didn’t consent.
If she doesn’t make it clear that she wants to, and you do it anyway, then she didn’t consent.
This has always been true. The laws have changed and the social norms are changing, but the reality of what constitutes a consensual sexual encounter has not changed. The only difference is that men are suddenly being held accountable.
I encourage all of us to hold each other accountable, in all our relationships. Ask for permission before you touch someone you don’t know. Ask your partner if any new sex act is alright before you “just try it.” If there’s any new territory you’d like to enter with someone, ask before you do.
The goal here, in case it’s not clear, is to treat those around you like human beings, not walking, talking toys. The goal is to hold yourself accountable for how you treat someone when they’re vulnerable. The goal is to hold yourself accountable for what you do with the power you have.
That’s the true measure of a human being’s sexual worth. Not what they can manipulate or force or coerce their partner into doing.