Fair warning: today’s topic is a really sensitive one. We’re going to be talking about sex, coercion, ability to give consent, date rape, buyer’s remorse and acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. These are issues that a lot of people have very strong opinions on, and this can lead to some heated words. So let me be absolutely clear here: keep the comments civil. VERY civil. I have no problem with disagreements, especially with me, but I will be stomping down on anything that looks like it’s going to turn into a flame fest.
So with that in mind, let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, during some wilder times, I was hitting the bars with some friends of mine, looking for a night of good times and bad decisions. It was getting towards the end of the night, with about an hour and a half until last call and we were at one of our favorite bars. Things hadn’t been going all that well; we’d been having fun to be sure, but we were four young men out to get laid and it just didn’t seem to be happening that night. We had more or less decided to cut our losses and call it a night when fate decided to throw a curve at us. We got to the bar just in time to watch a young woman have a knock-down-drag-out screaming match with her… boyfriend? Husband? Never did get the exact relationship, but it didn’t matter. Point was: she was done with him and she had a point to prove. As her ex and friends decided to take off and let her cool down, she decided that she was gonna bang the hell out of someone that night. There was just no way she was going to go home alone.
Guess who she decided on?
It was abundantly clear that she’d decided I was her type. She was mine for the taking. It would be the easiest lay I had ever known; it quite literally crawled into my lap and started wiggling. She told me in no uncertain terms that there was a hotel within easy walking distance that she was determined to get there and do all sorts of unspeakable things to me. So I took her hand and left the bar with her.
And before I could find a cab to pour her into, I managed to run into her friends. I handed her over with no small amount of relief and washed my hands of the whole situation.
You see, she was literally stumbling drunk. Could barely walk or string four or five words together, but damned if she she wasn’t determined to fuck someone. She practically tried to crawl down my throat, kept trying to undo my pants right there at the bar, even made a few suggestions that we slip off to the men’s room when nobody was looking. But for all of her very obvious interest and willingness, she was in no state to be able to give consent, and it was a line I just wasn’t willing to cross.
Fortunately, that was a very large and obvious line. There are plenty of times when the line between right and wrong is a lot thinner and a lot harder to see.
When “Yes” Still Means “No”.
Let’s talk about consent for a moment. It seems like it should be fairly black and white: no means no, yes means yes, end of.
Except it isn’t. When sex gets involved, things get complicated and fast. People aren’t black and white; we’ll say things we don’t mean, say yes to things we don’t want or no to things we do. And a “no” doesn’t necessarily stay a “no. Sometimes a “no” can be turned into a “yes”, and sometimes a “yes” will shift into a “no” so fast your head will spin.
So let’s say that a guy and a girl are hanging out. Lights are low, the mood is right and hands and mouths are moving with a will. Then, the guy makes his move… it may be non-verbal invitation, it may be a question asked out loud, but either way, he makes it clear: he wants to have sex. The girl says no.
So they talk. A lot. It gets a little heated. She heads for the door, he stops her. He tells her that she shouldn’t leave until they has this out. She came in his car, so she agrees. He walks her back to the couch. He gets her a drink. They talk a bit more. They talk about their relationship. It’s becoming increasingly clear that their relationship hinges on what happens tonight… or doesn’t. He gets her another drink. Then another.
A little while later, the guy takes another shot at it. His hands are wandering firmly towards her skirt. The question is implicit: what’s it going to be? Yes or no? And this time… he gets the go-ahead. Maybe she say “yes” out loud. Maybe she doesn’t say anything at all but lets him continue as he wants. Caught up in the moment and the influence of the drinks, she may even help him along.
Cut and dried. He asked, he got consent, everybody’s happy, right?
Well… not so much.
He may be happy; after all, he got what he wanted. She, on the other hand… well, she did not.
The fact that he turned a “no” into a “yes” is irrelevant if you look at how he did it.
In this case, she may have said yes, but she didn’t consent. In this case, her consent was acquired under duress. He didn’t hold a knife to her throat. He didn’t drop anything into her drink. But the fact remains that he pushed her into sex, sex that she didn’t want to have in the first place. She wasn’t ready, she didn’t want it and her consent really wasn’t anything of the sort.
I’m not going to say whether or not such an action could be considered rape; not only is Dr. NerdLove not really a doctor, he’s also not a lawyer and the laws in the U.S. on the matter vary from state to state.
More importantly, getting into what technically does or does not count as rape misses the forest for the trees; regardless of the legal definition, a wrong was committed in this hypothetical instance. This girl was harmed by the events I described. The person in this case, this hypothetical man may not have realized that he was committing a wrong; he may well have thought that all he was doing was persuading his girlfriend to change her mind. He may not have intended to hurt her at all. But while intentions are all very well and good, he did cross a line and harm was done.
You don’t want to be that person. You need to know where the lines are.