What follows will necessarily be a gendered discussion. I am not talking about ALL men or ALL women. I am talking about the generalised traits we idealise as inherently masculine and feminine. The traits we sanction and expect men and women (broadly) to embody and enact – the traits we reward. To indicate I am clearly not referring to ALL men or ALL women, I will refer to ‘The Mens’ and ‘The Wimmens’, respectively.
I trust my readers can stay with this longer-than-usual piece, approaching with curiosity and an open mind, tolerating discomfort without getting defensive, minimising or justifying, insisting, ‘That’s not me!’ long enough to hear. To try to understand the experiences I describe and identify our part in them, as socialised and socialiser, to see where we might collectively make some changes in how we think about consent.
Jess* knew she’d made a mistake when she turned up for the date. Greeted by a short, stocky fellow, it wasn’t who she was expecting. She’d been flirt-messaging for a few weeks now, but in-person, up close, she didn’t find him attractive at all.
Still, he seemed quite harmless, and he was trying so damned hard. He’d paid attention to her stories, her interests, her desires, determined to impress her. It was kind of nice to have someone treat her like she mattered for a change, to have someone make an effort. She pushed aside her disappointment and embarrassment and they soon picked up where the chats had left off.
Besides, she couldn’t bail on dinner – that would just be rude. Then he took her to a strip club for the first time, insisting on a lap-dance. She offered to pay but he refused. Maybe it would just be a bit of fun, she told herself. She realised he had gone all out, booking a hotel room, buying her favourite wine, presenting her with gifts. How do you reject a gift? No one had ever taught her that.
It would have been flattering, thrilling, but for the nagging feeling that she just wasn’t into him. And as the night progressed, and the ‘gifts’ accumulated, she felt the weight of obligation building. She felt she owed him. An unwanted bribe for a grudgingly paid price.
Later, in the hotel room, when he plied her with alcohol, she knew she was drinking just to get through the inevitable. She didn’t know how to exit, how to say no. No thank you. Really, just no.
It felt like pity sex, obligatory because he had tried so hard, because it clearly meant so much to him, and because she felt she had somehow misrepresented herself. As if by agreeing to go on the date, by not pulling out at any point along the way, she had already agreed to each step inching closer and closer to what had to happen next.
Afterwards, when he could see her desire to leave and never come back, his voice cracked. ‘This isn’t going to happen again, is it?’
She felt obliged to apologise, to let him down gently, and yet…and yet, at what point had he chosen to ignore her discomfort? At what point had he disregarded her gritted teeth and steeled body as she strained to keep a polite expression, enduring what she never wanted to do?
And at what point had she felt compelled to suffer what her body so fervently rejected just to save face – his and hers? Because she had to avoid conflict, avoid making someone else feel bad, at any price. She had no model for exiting, for rejecting something she felt she had implicitly already agreed to, sight unseen.
Tara* still recalls the day her hottest fantasy turned stone cold. Visiting her lover on her thirty-fifth birthday, he was there with another friend, another lover. Like her, they had been exploring their sexuality in the preceding months, and as they described their adventures, a distinct heat grew between them.
Before long, the three were entwined. She had never experienced two guys exploring each other’s bodies, and then, exploring hers. They collapsed together in a satiated heap, only for the heat to rise once more. The guys spoke about bathhouses and a seedy underworld inhabited by men seeking sex with men, something completely foreign to her. A curious voyeur into this alien world, she watched them watching her, and then inviting her to join them.
When it was over, she rose to leave, slipping her underwear back on, wrapping her dress around her waist. They looked from her to each other and back again. In silent agreement, they slipped the dress back off, peeled off her underwear, threw her on the bed, and face down, they took her from behind, one after the other. She heard the tell-tale sign of what she assumed was the slipping on of a condom, as they had been using before.
Too late, she realised it wasn’t a condom she heard. It was the stretch and snap of a cock ring being fitted. Neither of them had used protection.
What should be one of her most treasured sexual memories, was now tainted with fear and betrayal. She slipped her clothes back on, and slipped out the door, shaken, not quite wanting to come down from the high, not wanting to acknowledge reality.
She had wanted them to f*ck her, but not like this. She had loved every second…until she realised these two bisexual men, who had just been describing engaging in all kinds of high-risk behaviours, had chosen their pleasure over her health.
She stuffed their lack of care down the memory hole and kept it there until she recognised that she wasn’t sleeping for worry. The what ifs plagued her. Their stories of bathhouses and anonymous encounters – so hot at the time – now filled her with dread. She knew she would have to get tested for STIs eventually, awash with shame.
Their pleasure. Her burden. Her insomnia. Her depression. Her fear.
Then there’s the tale of Caroline*. Having left long-term and tumultuous relationships behind, she was on a mission of exploration and freedom. Riding the highs, she could mostly overlook the lows, approaching them with curiosity. To a point.
She had started developing feelings for a partner and had one foot back in the relationship door. With her new boyfriend’s blessing, she met up with one of her old lovers and another couple. The lover had arranged it, and the four of them met in a bar.
She wasn’t particularly attracted to the couple. They were magazine-good-looking but older, and with too much cosmetic enhancement. She wasn’t feeling it. But how would they feel if she backed out now? What explanation could she give that wouldn’t hurt or offend? She had no template for a situation like this.
Caroline expressed her doubts to her lover once they were alone again. Sensing his disappointment, she told herself she might feel differently once things got started. Besides, this might be her last opportunity for such an adventure. She’d come this far; she might as well get what she came for.
During the bar chat, they had negotiated what they wanted from the encounter, activities that were in and out. The guy had asked if she was open to anal. She said she did it sometimes, but not today. Later, in the heat of the moment, he went there anyway, without warning, without warm-up or preparation, and without consent.
She screamed from pain and shock, jumped up, excused herself, and hid in the bathroom. There was blood and she was shaking. She didn’t want to go back out there. She wanted to go home. But they were waiting for her.
When she returned, she saw they had continued playing, inviting her back in. ‘It was an accident, Sweety,’ the woman said – not him, Caroline noticed.
She could see how badly all three of them wanted her not to say anything, not to make a fuss. So, she didn’t.
She also didn’t want to re-join the group, so she made excuses and tried to shift the focus away from her. The woman persisted, and got out a vibrator, offering to make sure she ‘had a good time, too’. Caroline brushed her off, mumbling that she never came during group situations, anyway, so please, don’t worry about her. She just wanted it over so she could go home and be alone.
What have these stories got to do with consent?
None of these stories looks like a lesson in consent. They don’t resemble analogies of cups of tea or milkshakes, and they certainly look nothing like what you see in most classrooms. And yet they are all real stories of what happens in the world of sexual negotiation.
Consent SHOULD be simple, we are told. It SHOULD be straightforward. But it’s not. Not because ‘no’ doesn’t always mean no, but because the bar shouldn’t be an absence of ‘no’. The bar SHOULD be a whole-hearted enthusiastic YES, freely given, in a situation where there is equal power and privilege. But that is often not the case.
Consent is nuanced. Power and privilege come into play. Socialisation, behavioural norms and expectations govern our thoughts, our feelings and our actions. How is someone free to give consent when they are socialised to defer to the needs of others? How can someone ask for consent when they are rewarded for pushing boundaries, for persisting until they ‘win’ their partner over?
How do we recognise the nuances of power and consent in our interactions when our experiences don’t always resemble the typical scenario involving a ‘rapist’ and a clearly defined ‘victim’ with whom we don’t identify?
Think about the woman who sees herself as sexually liberated, who wants to be adventurous and fun, but also wants to be liked, to be agreeable, to not rock the boat. A woman who has no model for directly but politely drawing a boundary and having that boundary respected, consequence-free.
What does it mean when our behavioural models are indirect; when we learn to make excuses, to gently back away, where ghosting is the safer option? Because there are consequences for rejecting the Mens. Suddenly we’re bitches or sluts or fat or ugly. We’re cockteasers. And when there’s no vitriol, we feel guilty. We’ve put our needs above the desires of another. Something Wimmens just shouldn’t do.
Think about the guy who sees himself as a ‘Good Guy’. ‘I’m not a rapist. I’m not that guy.’ Studies have shown the way we view ourselves shapes the way we categorise our behaviour. If we believe we are ‘good’ or ‘nice’ or simply, ‘not THAT guy’, we are likely to shift the bar to sit BEYOND our own behaviour. ‘That’s rape. Not what I did.’ Not ignoring my partner’s obvious physical discomfort. Not plying them with alcohol so they’re more receptive to my advances. Not engaging in activities I know they don’t like or have indicated they don’t want to do. Not coercing, cajoling, shaming, guilting, or stealthing. ‘What I did was okay because it didn’t cross that line over there.’
We teach The Mens to be competitive and goal-orientated, to score goals, at work, at play, and in relationships. Most importantly we teach The Mens to score sexually. To put their needs first. To take from and do to The Wimmens.
In this model of socialisation pushing past a boundary is a win: a score. Each score validates my masculinity and worth. It proves I am powerful, desirable, that I can take what is not freely given. High fives all-round! Never mind the cost to the Wimmens. The Mens success at scoring – even at The Wimmens expense – often, because of the cost to The Wimmens, is rewarded. Not just in the physical gratification obtained, but the social cachet. The victory is deemed more valuable because I had to overcome resistance. I had to earn it. I scored at the expense of another, overcoming their defences, coercing, cajoling. I convinced them to give what they were not willing to. I pushed past ‘no’, and society rewards me for it. I gain status and kudos among my peers.
On the flip side, we teach Wimmens to be compliant, accommodating, polite, to be mindful to spare others’ feelings, their pride. To avoid censure, Wimmens must subjugate their needs, their boundaries. They must not make a fuss. Should they need to indicate a boundary, they must do so indirectly, meekly, in a way that doesn’t upset.
We also teach Wimmens to resist Mens’ advances, to avoid being devalued, labelled a slut, and shamed. We must downplay our desires. In turn, we teach the Mens that Wimmens’ resistance might be feigned; we expect them to push past any obvious disinclination. It’s part of ‘the game’.
I can point to countless pop culture tropes, the persistent Mens winning the Leading Lady over, boombox in hand, echoes of the old ‘no doesn’t always mean no’. All this cultural messaging that sits on top of our socialisation to score and to subjugate creates a toxic recipe for unwanted sex, for violated boundaries. Where is the consent in this scenario if the only way Mens can ‘score’ is to push ‘nice girl’ boundaries? Where is consent when Wimmens can’t be honest and direct?
The stories above share this dynamic. The Mens take what was not willingly given and are victorious. The Wimmens give and are subjugated but avoid social censure.
I can vouch for the truth of these stories because they all happened to me. I am Jess, Tara and Caroline. I have endured all these violations and more. For years I have stuffed most of them down the memory hole, but they have never truly gone away.
Recently they have been pushing their way to the surface, forcing me to acknowledge them. Some things I have spoken of or written about before. Most I haven’t. Many I felt guilt or shame about. I felt responsible. For not saying ‘no’, or not saying it harder. For being in a position where I couldn’t say no. For saying yes to that, but not this, and having that no ignored.
I am no longer prepared to shove these memories down, to hide from them, to feel responsible. I did not have the tools or understanding or privilege to set a clear boundary. And I could not trust that my boundary would be respected, consequence-free. The people involved chose to ignore, push past, take without explicit, enthusiastic, freely given consent. I chose not to speak up, because it felt like I did not have a choice. Whether by stealth, coercion, intoxication, or socialisation, my implicit (or explicit) ‘no’ was invalidated.
And I am angry. Angry at
my partners the perpetrators. Angry that our socialisation has set us up to engage in this dynamic, again and again. Where is our template free from guilt and obligation? Where is our sense of healthy and balanced entitlement, freeing us from the sense that we ‘owe’ whatever is desired of us, whether we want it or not? Where is our society that rewards healthy mutual pleasure, over pleasure that is fought and ‘won’?
I invite you to pay attention to the messages you give and receive, your attitudes and your approaches to sexual consent and negotiation. What behaviours do you endorse? What do you struggle with? Do you feel pride at ‘scoring’ or a sense of obligation to please and be polite, regardless of your feelings?
What can you do differently? Can you model speaking up, speaking out? What stories can you share that others can learn from? Because this isn’t something any one person can change. We all play a part in shifting this dynamic. And I challenge you to have this open and honest conversation, without blame, defensiveness or shame.