By Alex Pauly
You had sex and it wasn’t unwanted, but it also wasn’t…wanted. You feel weird about it, but you’re not sure how to talk about the experience with your friends or partner. You may feel that because the sexual encounter wasn’t violent or physically forceful, you don’t have a right to be upset. Or perhaps you said yes, not because you really wanted to have sex, but because of some external social pressure. The pressure to be agreeable, the pressure to please the other party, the pressure to not cause a problem.
Feeling gross about a sexual encounter is justified, even if the encounter doesn’t match a criminal definition of rape or assault.
Feeling gross about a sexual encounter is justified, even if the encounter doesn’t match a criminal definition of rape or assault. Consent in sex and intimacy is an on-going conversation between two parties. It isn’t a black-and-white matter, but unfortunately our country’s laws regarding sexual assault erase the nuances of the issue.
Consent lies on a spectrum: at one end is the complete lack of consent (let’s give this scenario the number 0 on a scale of 1-10) and at the other, enthusiastic consent with no reservations (a 10). The middle is a gray area more difficult to define, but just as valid as an emphatic yes or no.
Often, coercion plays a huge role in sexual encounters that aren’t a 10 on the spectrum of consent. An example could be an encounter that one participant had to talk the other one into, or an encounter that was agreed to simply because it was easier for one party to proceed than to say no. From the point of view of a straight, cis-gendered woman — which is what I personally identify as — I’ll describe a couple of situations that I’ve experienced, or heard of my friends experiencing. Obviously, the below scenarios can happen to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The person who won’t acknowledge your “no” behavior and language:
Despite saying no and rejecting his advances, a guy repeatedly asks for sex, or attempts to initiate it. In the end, I have sex with him because it was easier to get it over with than repeatedly stave him off. This scenario manifested with a previous boyfriend of mine, who had a much higher sex drive than I. In a few instances, he guilt-tripped me under the guise that I wasn’t being an understanding girlfriend. I did it even though I wasn’t at all in the mood.
The implied sex transaction:
Another example: I go on a date and have a few drinks. I go back to his place. It’s late and I don’t want to have to get home by myself. He initiates sex and I agree because I don’t want him to kick me out of his place in the middle of the night. Alternatively, I’m feeling sick or tired. I need a place to rest, and it’s expected that I have sex in order to stay the night.
The uneven power dynamic:
A third, unfortunately common scenario: there’s a power dynamic that makes it difficult or potentially damaging to my own reputation or career to say no (just take any of the scenarios involving Harvey Weinstein and other high-powered executives). Or perhaps I am a younger woman seeing an older man. He says I’m mature for my age, or some variation of this phrase adored by youth fetishizers around the world. This expectance of maturity puts pressure on me, the younger woman, to do things I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing, in order to live up to the precedent of being exceptionally “grown-up.”
Just because an encounter wouldn’t fit a court’s definition of rape or assault, it doesn’t mean it can’t be traumatizing.
There are myriad scenarios in which coercion can lead to unwanted sex. Just because an encounter wouldn’t fit a court’s definition of rape or assault, it doesn’t mean it can’t be traumatizing. Rape culture has conditioned people, especially women, to accept upsetting and violating experiences as normal. The ensuing guilt and self-doubt—Should I really be upset about this? Maybe I’m overreacting—that often follows the pain of an encounter that was not, NOT rape, simply adds to the mental trauma.
It goes without saying that violent rape is horrible, and that enthusiastic sex between two consenting adults is great. However, it’s essential that we continue having honest conversations about what falls in between these two extremes — in effect, the gray area in between the aforementioned 0 and 10 on the spectrum of consent. Often, this gray area is exploited by predators like Weinstein, whose abuse goes unchecked for decades. Predators like him socially and verbally coerce victims into sexual encounters. This coercion — whether it manifests as exploiting society’s expectations that women be agreeable and always say yes, or threatening someone’s career lest he or she says no — is never okay. Let’s work to make this lesson sink in. We’ve got a lot of unlearning to do.
Alexandra Pauly is a New York City-based culture and fashion journalist. Her work has been published by StyleCaster, Galore, WestwoodWestwood, The Untitled Magazine and of course, Salty. When she’s not writing, you can find her unearthing hidden gems at Goodwill, papering her apartment with magazine tear sheets and debating the most iconic moments of RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can find her on Instagram at @paulybyalexforalexandrapauly.