I recently had an interesting discussion on the nature of sexual consent with my friend and men’s coach Traver Bohm
in which he revealed that he (and the men who come to him) still struggle to understand the intersection of consent and sexual coercion.
Traver understood that many women feel unable to say “no” and therefore sometimes choose to say “yes” to things we really don’t want to do, sexually. But he got stuck on how consent defines what counts as “rape,” and how rape defines who is a “rapist.”
The big question was: how is a man to know the difference between a sexually coerced “yes” and a regular yes?
As tempted as I was to say “dude you can just fucking tell,” I played it out with him, and noticed some interesting stuff.
I hear that men are looking for a clear and objective line in the sand when it comes to consent, some concrete rules to follow so that they know they’re doing the right thing and won’t get in trouble.
Rules like “don’t coerce anyone to have sex with you” actually bring up more questions for a lot of men, such as “what counts as coercion?” and “is it coercion if I say please, just once?” and “what about women who want to be seduced?”
These are fair points, I guess. Let’s discuss.
The important thing to remember when we talk about sexual coercion is that there is an automatic, inherent power imbalance between the gender. Men are stronger and bigger in general. They can hurt or kill us women at any time, and they have more social capital, and they have a reputation for taking rejection badly and lashing out.
Those of us who date and fuck straight men are constantly tiptoeing around the line of their fragile and dangerous egos; sexual coercion is what happens when we feel like we can’t say no without consequences.
Sexual coercion can certainly happen inside of relationships, even loving ones, when our partner wears us down, begs us, or convinces us to have sex with them, either because they think we “owe it” to them as their partner, because they think we were “teasing” them, or in order to keep them from straying or leaving us.
Even more so in my experience though, sexual coercion happens in hookups and casual sex, because there is less trust and safety for the woman, and less care and respect from the man.
So, on to the confusing part.
He orgasms, she doesn’t. Often he doesn’t seem to notice or care that she wasn’t turned on, wet, or into it.
At the end, she may feel fine about the sex, because she did consent and was making a conscious decision. (For example, sometimes in relationships, we have sex for our partner, or to keep our sexual connection alive, even when it has to be quick and unequal.)
If this is the case, the woman might feel a bit sore after, or experience some sadness or loneliness about the disconnection, but she probably won’t feel violated.
For someone else however (even if the situation looked the same from the outside) the woman might leave the encounter feeling deeply violated, and even traumatized, because she didn’t feel like she had the freedom to say no, or assert her desire to not be penetrated.
If she was afraid he would leave her, cheat on her, get mad at her, shut down, punish her emotionally, or hurt her physically if she said no, then her “fine” was not really consent.
It’s kind of like if someone sticks a gun in your back and says “give me your purse.” If you willingly hand him your purse, you still got robbed. Even if afterward he’s like “I didn’t steal it, you gave it to me,” and technically he’s right, we all recognize that you were robbed.
When it comes to a robbery, we never say “it’s impossible to tell who is telling the truth, so I’m going to hold off judgement to see what the robber’s side of the story is, and if we can’t prove that she didn’t want to give him the purse then I guess we’ll just have to say he was innocent, otherwise we could be ruining his life.”
You’re with me, right?
The tricky-to-understand thing about sexual coercion and consent is that the gun is invisible. Everyone wants to believe that “good guys” would never carry this gun, and women should be able to tell the difference between a good guy and a rapist.
This is an absolute lie. All men carry this invisible gun, and the good guys are often the ones who use it the most.
This fact makes it so that most women who have the kinds of sexual experiences I described above blame themselves for what happened. After all, he’s a good guy, so why wouldn’t I just say no??
To get around this issue, I give my clients permission to identify what happened to them as sexual assault or rape without identifying the guy as a sexual assault perpetrator, or rapist.
Legally, if you were raped then there was a rapist. I get that.
But it’s nearly impossible to overcome the cognitive dissonance of thinking that a rapist is an evil monster, while your boyfriend or date or friend is a totally nice and normal guy who just really, really wanted to have sex with you.
In an effort to avoid labeling “good guys” with “evil” labels, many of us never acknowledge the depth and breadth of our own sexual trauma. We blame ourselves for handing the purse to the robber, and suffer endless guilt and shame in private.
We wonder: Maybe I really wanted him to have my purse? After all, I’m a generous person and I love giving to the poor, so maybe he could just tell from something about me that I really did want him to have it. But if that’s the case then why am I still thinking about it? Why do I feel bad and dirty? Why do I feel anxiety, trouble sleeping, or depression?
This paradox is extremely useful to embrace, especially when a woman is first trying to understand what happened to her, because it keeps him from being a “criminal” or “monster,” while still giving herself permission to heal.
Note that this is different than “regret.”
Men seem to think women go around enjoying wonderful sex that they want, and then regret it after (because it makes us feel slutty or whatever) but that almost never happens. We regret it during, when it’s bad and disconnected and lonely and painful and boring. Then we feel sick and violated after because someone has been inside our body that we didn’t want there, but we felt we didn’t have a choice or an ability to stop it.
This isn’t regret, this is rape.
But how can straight men understand this? If a woman felt like she couldn’t say no, and she feels like she has been raped, then he has (accidentally) raped her. If not legally, then energetically and emotionally.
How can he tell if she said “yes” because she felt obligated, versus “yes” because she she really wanted to fuck him?
I believe the solution right now is to hold ourselves to rigorous consent standards that will also lead to more pleasurable and satisfying sex for the female partners, such as:
Men: be sure to always get enthusiastic, on-going, verbal and physical consent during every single sexual encounter. The absence of “no” is NOT consent. Even “sure” isn’t enough. Her words, body language, and sexual arousal levels must all be screaming “oh god, yes!”
Men: turn her ON. If she’s not dripping wet and orgasmic the whole time, hit pause and consider how you can do better. (Yes I recognize that this one is tricky because some women don’t naturally lubricate or orgasm, but take this one in the spirit of turning your partner on so damn well that there is never any question of whether or not she was into it.)
Nobody should never, ever convince someone else to do anything with them sexually. If you convince, beg, plead, guilt, shame, or wear down your partner at all into a “yes,” that’s not a real yes.
Women: learn how to trust your gut, establish and maintain strong boundaries, speak up about your wants and needs, deal with your fear of upsetting or disappointing people, learn what turns you on and give you pleasure sexually and demand it every time, and learn to be a strong self-advocate. (Long term game plan here, ya’ll. I know)
Oh and real quick, let me tackle the question of “but what about seduction??”
Easy: If your seduction gets her to want to have sex with you, then it’s not coercion. If your seduction gets her to say yes to sex she doesn’t want, then it is coercion.
Where does that leave us legally? I really don’t know.
What do you think?
I’m constantly re-evaluating topics like this, and while consent seems extremely crystal-clear to me, it’s still confusing for many people.
PS if you haven’t seen it yet, this little cartoon explains the not-complicatedness of consent better than anything I’ve ever seen.