“No” is not “yes” with extra steps
We need to talk about consent and the meaning of “no” (spoiler: it’s “no”).
One of my most memorable instances of feeling unsafe while alone with a man was with someone who considered himself a champion of women in the workplace.
In public, he advocated for female empowerment and believed unequivocally that women should be treated as equals and have their voices heard. He was, by and large, a nice guy.
But when I said
He didn’t listen. He told me I was so irresistible, so sexy. Why was I wearing those little shorts if I wasn’t trying to seduce him? So when he went for a kiss and I said
He still didn’t listen. Perhaps he thought that women, as some kind of abstract entity, should be heard, when it’s convenient for a grander narrative. But not this individual woman who was saying something he was uninterested in hearing. I tried to push him off me and said
He kept trying to kiss me as I kept pushing. Reader, I’m no pixie. But he was very strong. Martial arts type. Black belt. Stocky. Determined.
He knew I didn’t want it. I’d made it abundantly clear with my words and actions. It just didn’t matter to him. I was wearing shorts and had the audacity to look pretty in the presumed safety of my own home.
There is a very specific kind of horror in the sinking realization that a man you trusted isn’t interested in your consent. The man probably doesn’t realize this. He didn’t wake up that morning thinking about how many women he was going to strip of their bodily autonomy that day. It’s unlikely to be something he actively worries about.
He is almost certainly not thinking in terms of female bodily autonomy at all. He wants to have sex, and he believes that no means yes. Or maybe. Or keep trying. Or some variation on that theme. He may believe he’s simply expressing the strength of his passion and desire.
Meanwhile, the woman...
I use the word consent a lot, but it’s such a mundane little word that it perhaps doesn’t quite convey what’s at stake. A fine word, and an important one, but it strips the situation of a certain layer of reality. Because the woman, in this moment, is not thinking in these terms either.
She’s being reduced to a body that is being desired, but she’s not thinking “this man is demonstrating a deeply problematic disregard for my clear, unambiguous lack of consent and as a feminist, I must object”. In the actual moment, if she’s anything like me, she might be thinking,
oh fuck oh shit oh fuck
what do I do
There is nothing wrong with strong desire and passion. I love being desired strongly and passionately. But consent is not the opposite of any of these things. Consent is a prerequisite for them.
Explicit, enthusiastic consent is—in the simplest possible terms—really hot.
Can I kiss you? Do you want to?
I love hearing those words. Or at least knowing that what I want matters to the man in front of me. That I’m not just there for the taking, as a prize for being, by and large, a nice guy.
We’ve done ourselves a major disservice by normalizing the idea that women just play hard to get. It’s what they do. And men are there to pursue and persist until the woman gives in, inevitably, to his strong masculine charms. Like this is somehow right. Like this is a healthy, normal dynamic.
It’s not a healthy dynamic. It leads to coercion and guilt tripping and sexual encounters that look very different depending on which side of them you’re on. And that’s one of the better-case scenarios.
I got, for lack of a better word, lucky. The brief physical altercation was followed by a long evening of negotiations, cajoling, and guilt. Classic emotional manipulation that drained me to the point where it was easier to sleep with him than not to. The sex was technically consensual.
TL;DR: I had a kiss forced on me and got guilted into sex.
If your first thought here is something along the lines of “That’s not that bad,” this is where I must urge you to rethink the way you’ve framed this in your head. For the sake of myself and every woman who has ever felt that powerless. It doesn’t have to be violent assault to be damaging. The sheer act of not caring whether she wants it is all it takes to make things not okay.
Every woman has the right to decide who has access to her body. It’s as simple as that at the core, and that could and should be enough. But it doesn’t seem to be.
The average man can, if he chooses to, physically overpower the average woman with relative ease. And in moments when a woman’s objections are overruled and blatantly disregarded, she is acutely, paralyzingly aware of this possibility. At least I was.
If you’re reading this and recognizing elements of things you’ve said or done to a woman, I am straight-up begging you not to retreat into defensiveness and angry defiance like the man from my story. All I needed was for him to say
I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.
I needed him to be the ally he was in the public eye and listen to the woman in front of him. He didn’t, and I still don’t know if he understands. I hope he’s never made another woman feel like I felt that evening.
I’m not here to pile on guilt. I’m definitely not here to ask anyone to be perfect (my own numerous human imperfections would disqualify me from making any such request, even if I wanted to). I’m just a girl, standing in front of a theoretical boy theoretically reading this, asking him to acknowledge and learn from his mistakes.
And I don’t presume to speak for all women, obviously. But you don’t need me to speak for all women.
You just need to listen to the woman in front of you. Please.