I’m going to use feminine pronouns in this writing, but you should be aware that men, genderqueer folk, and transpersons are also vulnerable to these reasons, sometimes even more so. A lot of these can apply to cis-men too, but I think they apply more often to women, so pardon my pronouns. I’ll try not to trip over myself.
I almost lost my shit last night on someone I am very fond of because he started a sentence with: “I mean, if someone in a public space is yelling NO, then. . .”
I don’t actually know how he was going to end that sentence, but it triggered me anyway and I ended the conversation before I got angry.
This sort of thing frightens men a lot, and they are deeply resistant to the idea that they can rape someone without actually knowing they are doing it. It’s a very scary thought. It seems unfair. But it is a thing that can and does happen. Frequently, rape doesn’t look the way we think it should, with a woman struggling and shouting no and some horrible monster ignoring her refusals and struggles. It’s a lot more subtle than that. Sometimes women never say no at all. Sometimes they have sex with you with grudging consent, which doesn’t quite meet the bar for full consent and in unlucky circumstances can fall beneath the minimal standards necessary for actual consent. Not all of these situations are rape, but some of them are. In most cases, the accounts of such situations are going to vary drastically based on the perspectives of the people involved. It’s entirely possible for a man to say “I’m not a rapist!” and a woman to say “He raped me!” and both of those people to be telling the entire truth as they understand it. This shit is heart-breaking and complicated. You owe it to yourself to understand it better and stop thinking that rape is only rape if it’s forced through a No.
So, without further ado, here are 10 reasons people might not say no to sex they don’t actually want, and how to make sure you’re really getting true consent in each of these situations.
1) They feel obligated to have sex with you
Maybe she’s been teasing you all night and is afraid of being accused of just being a tease, or maybe you’ve been courting her like a BOSS for a few weeks and it just seems like the next step. Just like our society teaches men that if they complete the proper steps they will win the girl at the end, it teaches women that we are prizes to be won and that men deserve us if they properly complete these steps. This is pretty fucked up, but sometimes women feel like they should reward you with sex when you press for it so you will continue treating them well. (Because we have also been taught, often through bad experience, that men who are sexually rejected treat us badly. See #2.) Most women who end up having sex they don’t want for this reason don’t feel raped. They usually just feel sort of tired and relieved. But this is still not good sex, and it’s not really sex the women want. It’s a transactional token, and things can get really bad really fast if you, as a man, learn to expect this kind of transaction for the simple act of treating women well.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Talk about nice things you are going to do for her in the future whether or not sex is had. Explicitly say you are still interested in her and still want her even if sex is not forthcoming in the near future. Maybe this seems less spontaneous and romantic, but if you make a sexual move and her response is “Sure, okay” instead of “OH HELL YES!” you might want to clarify. “Sure, okay” is code for “well, you want this and I feel like I should give it to you for some reason.” What you actually want is Enthusiastic Consent. Aim for that.
2) They are afraid of being treated badly if they reject you
Men in our society do not generally react well to rejection. If you don’t believe me, ask a female friend of yours to show you her okcupid or fetlife or other dating site messages. Even otherwise good men, when their sexual advances are denied, will grump about it or emotionally punish women for rejecting them. Less good men punish women more extremely via emotional manipulation, while others might punish them physically. Sometimes, even in an established sexual relationship, a woman may not want to deal with your grumping, or she might be in a sensitive emotional state for some reason and can’t handle pissing you off even a little bit. So she will have sex with you even if she doesn’t really want to, because she’d rather you be happy with her than upset with her.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: First, learn not to be a grump when you are rejected. I know this is hard because there is some biological stuff that is in play, but just take five minutes after your partner rejects you to re-establish nonsexual intimacy. Snuggle. Kiss her and say that you love her. Pet her hair. Chat with her about something. Do something to show that you are still happy with her even though sex is not being had. Then you can excuse yourself and go take care of your arousal on your own. Or if you have that kind of relationship, you can take care of it in her presence. That’s usually cool. Anything to show her that you don’t consider your sexual gratification her responsibility. It’s all too easy to train your partner to the opposite and never even know you’re doing it. I know. It’s not fair. We live in a fucked up society, man. When it comes to new partners, some of them may have already been trained by other men, so once again, you are looking for Enthusiastic Consent, the difference between “Well, okay, sure” and “HELL YES I WANT ALL THE SEX.”
3) They are afraid to say no
This one is for those of you who think it’s impossible to rape someone in a public space like a kink event or a sex club. If a relationship is already abusive, a woman may know very well that she is going to get hurt or punished if she says no, or even if she just lays there like a wet noodle and lets it happen. If she doesn’t participate, she puts the lie to the man’s need to believe that she wants it, and abusive men get angry when you point out to them, either implicitly or explicitly, that you do not want them. That sex is going to look consensual to an outsider. A friend pointed out to me that economic abuse plays a role here too, which I should know very well. My ex husband used to say to me things like “Why should I care about your needs when you don’t care about mine?” Where my needs were help with the kids and paying off the credit card full of medical bills, and his were sex from me. If I didn’t have sex with him, he would give me the silent treatment and not help with anything for a few days, which was especially terrible because I was ill and needed care. So obviously sometimes it just wasn’t worth it for me to piss him off by refusing all the time, because I paid for it dearly every time I did. (And I also said no a lot, but there were times when I just couldn’t deal so I gave in.)
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT:Well, obviously, don’t punish women for not having sex with you. You probably don’t because you aren’t that kind of asshole. But also, don’t assume that just because sex looks consensual that necessarily means that it is. Don’t assume that if a woman looks like she is enjoying it, or if she orgasms, that that sex is consensual. There may be other things going on, and it becomes especially hard to tell the difference when you mix in a D/s relationship.
4) They are drunk
You already know this one. It’s probably okay to have sex with an established partner when you’ve both been drinking and have already discussed that this sort of thing is okay, but you should never have sex with someone new if they are drunk. Drunk means they cannot truly consent.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Have a nice cuddle and maybe a snog if you feel like living dangerously and are both Enthusastically Consenting, and wait until you are both sober to have sex. DUH. Be careful about that snog though. Being drunk isn’t a good excuse for sexual assault either.
5) They are in another kind of compromised mental space that makes them unable to truly consent
This includes subspace, ropespace, and at times, heavy emotional states such as grief. A woman in subspace or ropespace will often gladly consent to sex she didn’t want before the scene, and will realize when she comes out of the space that she didn’t actually want it then either. Un-negotiated penetration happened to me once in a rope scene and while it was fine at the time, I was very upset about it when I came back to myself. (Don’t worry, my vanilla friends. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, either hit the Google or skip this one.)
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: DON’T RENEGOTIATE IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE. I swear, I get so pissed off every time I hear about a Dominant or a Top doing this. Once the scene has started, your sub/bottom is in no condition to negotiate or consent. Negotiate sex before the scene starts. If sex is not negotiated, don’t try to get consent mid-scene. Also, keep in mind that just because aftercare is over that doesn’t mean your sub/bottom is completely out of subspace. They’re probably still feeling pretty subservient to you. If sex wasn’t negotiated in advance, DON’T HAVE SEX. Also, keep in mind that this is another kind of rape that looks consensual to someone watching it in a club. You don’t actually know if sex in subspace has been negotiated before the scene. It might not have been. It’s a scary thought, but you may have already seen a woman being raped and just assumed it was part of a totally consensual scene. I’d also go so far as to recommend not having unnegotiated sex with a new partner even post-aftercare. Bottoms and submissives are still in a compromised mental state at this time.
6) They freeze or are too shocked to react
We all want to think we’re secretly ninja action heroes ready to spring into action when the shit hits the fan, but sometimes in an overwhelming emotional situation we actually freeze. Sometimes it takes too long for your brain to catch up to the fact that this horrible thing is actually happening to you, and by the time it does you’ve allowed it to happen for so long that your claim for wanting it to stop seems less valid. Many women who are raped report something like this when they are asked why they didn’t scream or fight back. Also, many women report realizing that the fastest and safest way to make it stop is to give the person raping them an orgasm as quickly as possible so they will stop raping them.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Remember that submission does not equal consent. This is another great time to get up on my Enthusastic Consent soapbox again. If your sexual partner is non-verbal, that’s a pretty good clue they aren’t consenting. (Unless they are in subspace and sex was pre-negotiated before hand. Then have at it.) In the latter case, it can still look very much like consensual sex, because how can it be rape if her tongue is down his throat and her finger is in his ass wiggling like mad? But it can be.
7) You are insistent, and it’s the easiest way to get you to leave them alone
I asked my feminist friends about things to put on this list, and one of them said “Because it’s a faster way to get to sleep than leaving him to pester you for another half hour?” with a silly tongue emoticon indicating she was joking. But really, is that funny? If it’s easier to have sex with a person than to tell them no, then that person is applying undue pressure for sex. Grudging consent isn’t really consent, and it’s not funny.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Don’t badger anyone for sex. No means no. Hints that they are doing something else or not really interested mean no. Trying to go to sleep means no. You may think you’re being funny or cheeky, but most women have been in the position where we will have sex with you just to make you stop bothering us about sex. Be really careful about this, dudes.
8) They are in an emotionally abusive relationship and don’t think they can say no
This one in particular I’ve seen happen to a lot of young transpeople, many of whom feel like nobody will ever love them as the person they really are. Obviously this can happen to cis-women too, but I’ve noticed that this kind of predator is a big problem in the Trans community. Another friend pointed out to me that women of size are also very vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Also, disabled people. Anyone that our culture paints as sexually unappealing in the media and at social events. This kind of ingrained cultural shit can do a number on a person’s self esteem. It’s hard for most of us to feel wanted in the best circumstances, can you imagine what it’s like if your entire culture tells you every day that you’re right and nobody wants you? Basically what happens is that a predator finds someone who is insecure and plays on existing insecurities to convince this person that they aren’t worthy of love, but the predator is doing them the great favor of loving them anyway. Nobody else will ever love them because they have all these flaws, which the predator is happy to list. The victim will happily keep having sex with the predator whether they want it or not because it’s very important to them that this emotionally abusive person continue to love them. They never even think about saying no. They think they owe this person for loving them. They are afraid that if they say no this person will withdraw their love (and they may actually punish the victim by doing so periodically). This looks like consent, and for a time it may even feel like consent, but with therapy and healing and distance from the relationship the victim comes to realize that it was nothing resembling true consent.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Obviously, don’t be emotionally abusive, but those of you reading this probably aren’t. Be aware of your partner’s insecurity levels and your own tendencies toward criticism. You probably aren’t an emotional abuser by accident, but much like some previous examples, it’s possible a previous partner has trained your new partner to these unhealthy behaviors. Continue to keep in mind that just because a relationship looks consensual doesn’t mean that it is. Keep a careful eye on people you think might be in this sort of relationship. Are they being lifted up or put down? Do they talk about how lucky they are that so-and-so would love a horrible person like them? Is their partner taking advantage of their insecurities?
9) They did say no, they just didn’t use the actual word, so you pretended to misunderstand
I present this article in it’s entirety to address this issue.
Also, keep in mind that in many cultures direct refusals are considered the height of rudeness. If you are dating someone whose first language is not English, you need to be extra careful to pay attention to subtle refusals: things like “I don’t want to mess up my clothes” or “it’s too cold in here” or even just an attempt to change the conversational topic away from sex.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: Read that article and think about it. Stop thinking that if a woman doesn’t scream no she hasn’t already said it in half a dozen different ways. Stop blaming women for not communicating “no” clearly because more often than not it’s entirely clear and men just pretend not to hear it. If you are dating someone from another culture, have an explicit conversation about how they are comfortable presenting refusals. It may not be as direct and bold as Americans expect.
10) They have a mental or physical illness that makes them unable to provide clear consent
I have a friend whose wife has Dissociative Identity Disorder (what most of us call Multiple Personalities). One of her personalities is a pretty fucked up teenager, who one day decided to pretend to be the main personality and seduce her husband. She revealed herself right as he was climaxing. To say this fucked with his head is an understatement, but then he also had to confess to his wife later, when she had truly returned, that he had had sex with her as another one of her personalities, which was a hard limit for their relationship. Fortunately she understood, but of course she felt victimized. So did he. There is no villain here; one could argue both people were raped. That’s a really scary thought, right? For a less extreme example, a clinically depressed person in the throes of depressive apathy may really believe they don’t care at all if someone sticks it in them. Sure. Whatever. They can’t feel anything, so why not? Anyone with a high level of social awkwardness might just be following a relationship script and doing what they think comes next whether they actually want that sex or not. Someone with environmental sensitivity issues may be too overwhelmed by the sensations of sex and intimacy to process them properly. On the physical side, frontal lobe damage (which can occur from things like undiagnosed meningitis and isn’t always as obvious as overt blunt force trauma or a piece of shrapnel through the forehead) can impair a person’s impulse control much like alcohol. A simple partial seizure isn’t always obvious to an outside observer. Syphilis can actually increase libido, because disease is crafty that way and wants to spread itself. There are a million different ways mental or physical illness can affect a person’s ability to consent. Brains are complicated, yo.
HOW TO ACHIEVE REAL CONSENT: To a certain extent, some of the responsibility for this is on the person with the illness to disclose. If a person with DID has sex with you and does not disclose their illness, and something bad happens, that is definitely not on you because you had no way of knowing. On the other hand, if you’re dating someone with severe depression you probably already know that and should take it into account. Also, realize that no, your magical penis cannot cure them and isn’t going to make them feel better, even if it appears they are slightly more cheery post orgasm because biology is like that. Not everyone needs to disclose a mental or physical illness for a one time sexual encounter, but if you are dating or playing with someone on an ongoing basis it’s a good idea to sit down and have a talk about mental or physical conditions that may impair their ability to play or consent. Ask if they have any. Make sure they know you aren’t going to judge them.
NOW WITH BONUS REASONS!
So that’s what I’ve got. Feel free to share your own reasons in the comments, and this will be another one of those posts that I edit on an ongoing basis to incorporate them.
Also, if you have ideas about how to improve communications about consent or lack thereof in these situations, share those too. I know a lot of people really want to know about them. I want to be the kind of acitivist that doesn’t just complain about problems, but offers possible solutions people can actually use. Help me!