A few years ago, I had a very regrettable night. I went out with a friend, ended up going home with a guy friend of hers, and having sex that I did not want to have.
I don’t think about it often, but every once in a while, it creeps its way back into my consciousness: I am a smart and responsible girl, so how did I get there?
I was reminded of this situation this afternoon while reading Sara Alcid’s post on Everyday Feminism, “Navigating Consent: Debunking the ‘Grey Area’ Myth.”
Specifically, Alcid’s discussion of how one partner may say no and then eventually be pressured into a “yes” really resonated with me, and this early December night, in particular.
I wrote about this night long ago, in an attempt to make it something it definitely was not: a consensual, 1-night stand that did not leave me feeling dirty and victimized. I have a tendency to try to turn bad things that happen to me into things that I participated in, knowingly, even if it isn’t so good: kind of like “Breakfast,” written on The Medium, in which the author tries to turn the story of her rape into another story because “I made him breakfast because if I could make him breakfast — eggs, bacon, golden brown toast, I could pretend that it never happened. Women do not make their rapists breakfast, and I made breakfast.”
So let me tell you this story. This is the story I have recounted over and over again, to myself, to my friends, to The Grad School Boyfriend who insisted on hearing all kinds of unnecessary details about my sex life so he could simultaneously victimize me and make me out to be a slut.
It was December. One of my best friends from high school was newly-21, I had just returned from graduate school for winter break, and we agreed to go out and meet up with some other friends. The Cop actually showed up and had a couple of drinks with us, in which I was floored by the progress he was making toward losing weight and getting back into shape (side note: he was looking good then, but looks even more delightful now!). Some of the group ultimately decided not to come because we went to a bar they didn’t particularly like as their top choice was closed for a private party.
My friend, I’ll call her The Drama Queen (it’s fitting in more than one way), introduced me to her friend J when he came in. The Drama Queen and I took turns buying drinks for ourselves and had planned to walk the few blocks back to her apartment afterward. J joined us for a few drinks, and conversation quickly turned to sex and how admittedly horny I was.
It’s true: I hadn’t been intimate in any way with anyone in six months, and at the time it seemed like a tragedy. While, yes, I wanted to make out, feel a man press up against me, etc., etc., I didn’t want this to happen with just any guy. The truth was, I was fawning over The Grad School Boyfriend while still a little perturbed that The Best Boyfriend I Never Had was in a relationship and therefore not available to fulfill my sexual needs (oops).
J looked around the bar and told me that I could just “pick one” and “get it.” All I had to do was go to the dance floor.
This was not what I was really looking for, so I just laughed it off. I said I had someone else, back in grad school, that I had in mind. Conversation went elsewhere, and I thought that was the end of conversation about my sex life (or lack thereof).
Fast forward a couple of hours: I was too inebriated to drive, but I was mostly in control of my faculties. We had a few more drinks, and The Drama Queen’s Ultimate Crush strolled in. At the time, I worked in the same department as this guy, and he was fucking gorgeous. They sometimes slept together, and he was showing her a lot of attention that night after being kind of a dick for the few days before.
Naturally, she wanted to sleep with him. Fuck, I wanted
her to sleep with him.
By this point, J had been pretty friendly but not directly even attempted to hit on me. I was thankful because he was definitely not my type. While I admired his long, well-nourished hair, I had zero level of attraction for him. Somehow, The Drama Queen, J, and I decided that I would crash at his place so she could sleep with her Ultimate Crush (hey, I didn’t say that this story wasn’t full of poor decisions, regardless).
So J and I walked across town to his frat house. We talked a lot and got along well. We had another drink in his room, then went to bed.
J told me to “feel free” to take my jeans off if they weren’t comfortable, but I told him I was fine. He kept his distance in the bed, and I relaxed a little more than I probably should have.
A few minutes later, I felt his arm around me, then his lips on my neck. I asked him to stop because I did not want to have sex. I believe his response was, “That’s no fun, Zadie” before he started rubbing me through my jeans.
I told him to stop, again, and moved away from him. But he said, “Oh, you’re just too sexy,” and moved closer toward me.
After he flipped me around and started going at my neck with his mouth again, the details get a little blurry for me. I wanted it to stop, and I told him that much. But he basically told me that I was too attractive not to sleep with.
At some point, something clicked in my head: I could either have some sort of control over the situation and protecting my sexual health, or I could continue to say no and he would rape me because that’s exactly where this scenario is headed.
So this happened:
“If you’re going to have sex with me, you’re going to use a condom.”
The next day, I found myself thinking that I might have felt different if the sex had been better. That if I had just made smarter choices, I wouldn’t have put myself in this situation. But what I remember is his calling me baby and muttering that he could “eat me all night” and that I was “so sexy.”
When it was over, I felt horrible. I don’t remember everything that happened, and I’m sure if I did it would help me understand what exactly went down and how and why. But I’ve realized that I do not need to agonize over this night. It does not define me.
At times, I’ve discussed this as that potential “grey area” of consent. I did eventually say yes, I did know what that meant–and what it would mean if I did not consent. I decided I would rather protect myself from STDs and pregnancy (even though I have been on the pill since I was 15) than risk J forcing himself inside of me without a condom. I’ve described this night as “less-than-consensual.”
I’ve variously been told that this definitely was rape, that it definitely was not rape, that I was “clearly interested if we talked about sex,” and that I “shouldn’t be surprised because I went home with a frat guy.” I’ve been told I this was just a “slutty one night stand” that I regretted later. I was derided for not contacting the police and told that it couldn’t be rape since I hadn’t.
If we follow Alcid’s logic, however, this is clearly rape:
Because many people are taught to think about consent in an “all you need is a yes” way, consent can be approached as an end goal—something you can pressure someone to eventually agree to.
The commonality of this sexual experience—being pressured into seemingly “consenting”—is astounding and many people do not realize that this is not consent at all.
Pressure to engage in a sexual act one does not wish to, either aggressive or calm and persistent, crumbles the platform on which true consent can be communicated freely and honestly.
Badgering, guilt-tripping, or pressuring someone until an initial “no” becomes an “okay” or “yes” is not actually a consensual yes.
It is rape.
Many people that I know somehow believe that a woman who has been raped can’t possibly later enjoy sexual contact, that all future sex encounters must be devastating and horrifying and end in tears, in pain, in regret over the fact that I have been soiled.
Our culture needs to seriously change the way we deal with rape, consent, and sexual health. The only way we can do this is through healthy conversation about the realities of rape that can, hopefully, help to change the ways our own friends and acquaintances perceive and interpret acts of sexual aggression. This night has come out of no where and haunted me not because it happened, but because so many other people interpreted it through their unique lens, typically for the express purpose of devaluing and negating my experiences and feelings.
This is easier said than done. I do not expect to be praised for sharing this story; in fact, I anticipate some pretty awful comments if anything just going off of historical precedent. However, I feel better by writing what has happened, what I remember, and I how I feel about it. I haven’t let this night control my life or define who I am in the past, and I’m certainly not going to begin letting it do that now. The sad thing is, I know I’m not alone in this situation and that every day other women (and men, though this is decidedly less discussed!) have sexual experiences that leave them confused and judged, with the details only getting hazier with time.
“No” means “no;” “yes” means “yes,” but “yes” is not consent when it is forced out of an individual. I do not need someone else to validate my sexual history by agreeing that I was raped, but it would sure be nice if people–especially men–did not think they have the right to tell me that I wasn’t.