I figured that unless I physically coerced him, it was still his choice. And as a woman, I didn’t feel capable of coercion of any sort.
I have pressured people into sex. I have had partners say they weren’t in the mood and tried to change their minds. I have sulked when they didn’t. And I did this for years without realizing it was wrong.
Why? Because I’m a straight woman.
During my first relationship, I’d complain when my boyfriend was hesitant to have sex with me because his parents might come home, when I was on my period and he didn’t want it to get on him, when he just didn’t feel like it, or for whatever reason. I tried to talk him into it anyway, and I sometimes succeeded. It never occurred to me that this was a problem. I figured that unless I physically coerced him, it was still his choice. And as a woman, I didn’t feel capable of coercion of any sort. He probably didn’t know his discomfort meant something was wrong, so he didn’t say anything either, and I carried the same attitude to my next relationship.
One night, when my subsequent boyfriend was strumming on his guitar, I tried to cozy up to him. He told me he really just wanted to play his guitar and then go to bed — which I took as a challenge. I devised a plan.
I vividly remember the preview of The Breakup playing through my head, when Jennifer Aniston walks past Vince Vaughn in various states of undress to try to break their marital dry spell. I had seen this preview years earlier, as a teenager, and never even saw the movie. I just remembered that scene and what I learned from it: that manipulating a man into sex was funny — cute, even. I tested Jennifer Anniston’s tactic. I slowly removed my clothes and laid down on the floor expectantly. It worked.
I thought I had seduced him, but the next morning, I learned I had actually guilted him. “I didn’t want you to feel bad,” he said. He didn’t want me to be the girl whose naked body could not even arouse her boyfriend.
I told my friend the story the next day. I told her I realized I would not be OK with any guy doing that. Was this any different?
“I think it’s different because men are more threatening,” she said. I think this belief is really dangerous. There are plenty of women who are physically stronger than plenty of men, but that’s beside the point. Sexual misconduct isn’t always accomplished through physical force. It’s often accomplished through emotional manipulation. And I had done that.
The truth of the matter is, if you convince someone to sleep with you, then the sex is not 100% consensual. It’s not necessarily rape, but it is a form of misconduct. Even if someone physically gets on top of you, they are not making the decision freely if something other than their own desires are influencing them.
Earlier this year, I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post arguing that the definition of sexual assault has become too broad — that if we were to apply the “yes means yes” model of consent universally, we would find that women have been perpetrators as much as victims. Describing scenarios like my own, writer Cathy Young points out, “If I were to claim victimhood, I would either have to admit to being a perpetrator as well or fall back on a blatantly sexist double standard.” But rather than concluding, as Young does, that we should reject a standard that finds so many of us guilty, I think we all need to accept guilt. Many men and women alike have failed to obtain affirmative consent because we simply did not know what we were doing.
Women especially often don’t see when we’re violating someone’s boundaries because of the myth that we’re incapable of sexual misconduct. We’re taught that men always want sex and that we’re not powerful enough to make them do anything. The media depicts women’s attempts to manipulate men into sex as cute, comical, and always welcome. That, too, is dangerous.
Now, in any sexual encounter, I make sure not to say or do anything that would make me uncomfortable if the tables were turned. Though women’s and men’s consent are disregarded for different reasons — men’s because people think men always want sex and women’s because people don’t care what women want — consent is gender-blind. As we increase our standards for what constitutes our own consent, we must also grow more scrupulous about obtaining unequivocal consent from others. We’re all capable of violating others’ boundaries, and we can only better respect them once we admit that.