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.
The Difference Between Seduction and Coercion
The idea of coercion in the context of gaining consent for sex is one that can cause confusion for some; when one refers to consent gained under duress, our minds tend to flash immediately to threats, either physical (use of a weapon or a fist) or implied (“Fuck me or you’re going to regret it.”). Going back to the example above, it’s clear that there weren’t any physical threats to the girl, nor did her boyfriend force himself on her. Yet her “yes” was coerced out of her all the same. But absent threats to her immediate safety or health, could we really say she’s been coerced?
So what exactly do we mean by coercion?
Coercion is the practice of forcing another person to perform or behave in an involuntary manner (either through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or other use of force or pressure. And while threats could well be construed to mean “physical” threats, psychological or emotional threats or manipulation can be just as effective in terms of coercing behavior or action out of someone.
Emotional coercion can come in many forms, whether it’s the idea of “tit for tat”, the use of guilt or , or even veiled or implied threats to the relationship or to a person’s reputation.
“Hey, I bought you drinks/dinner/flowers/concert tickets, now you owe me,” would be one example. “If you really loved me, you would do this,” is another. “Don’t you want to? I know you want to do this just as much as I do, so why don’t we just do it now? It bothers me that you’re holding back like this,” is yet another. So too are “Look, everybody’s going to think we did it anyway, so we may as well do it for real” or “Look, if you won’t do it, I’m going to just have to go find someone who will,” or even “I thought you loved me, but I guess you don’t. I just don’t know if I could stay with someone like that.”
The coerced party is made to feel guilty or selfish for not “giving in”; all of the pressure is put on them, reframing them as the one who is causing all of the trouble.
Other forms of coercion involve making the person feel as though the only answer is to have sex, one partner relentlessly pushing their advances upon the other until he or she finally gives in – out of a sense of guilt, an effort to appease or even just to bring an end to the argument. This can be especially pernicious if the one being coerced feels as though they do not have any way to exit the argument or situation. Sometimes this is a case of transportation – the party being coerced may not have their own car or got a ride from the other person. Sometimes it’s just a matter of proximity; they may live close together or in the same dorm. They may work together or have friends or hobbies that bring them into contact regularly. Either way: they can’t just walk away from the argument and have it end; the pressure to give in and say “yes” continues relentlessly.
In the example I gave you, the girl isn’t necessarily kept from leaving in order to avoid or end the argument, but she certainly isn’t quite as free to go as she’d like. She’d have to find another way home, whether it’s walking, calling a friend, a taxi or the bus. This puts a certain level of impetus on her part to stay, which in turn works to her boyfriend’s advantage; she is effectively a captive audience and she’s made to feel that the only way she’s going to be allowed to leave is through giving in.
Regardless of the exact nature of what was said or done, the fundamental matter is that while they may have said “yes”, he or she was having sex that they did not want to have in the first place.
Now, I’ve written an article on this blog about seduction, and I do discuss what to do when the person you’re with doesn’t necessarily want to have sex right then, including how to persuade her into being interested after all.
Herein lies the critical difference between seduction and coercion. The idea behind seduction is to encourage consent – actual, willing and even enthusiastic consent – by building arousal and interest, not by putting pressure on her to give in. The key word here is “encourage”; he or she may be aroused to the point of bursting but still not want to have sex and that is the end of the matter. As I said in the article: it’s incumbent on you to respect that decision. Nobody lost out on sex by being willing to be patient for a little longer, after all. The goal of seduction is the enthusiastic participation on both sides… after all, you presumably would want to see them again, wouldn’t you? A person who feels pressured or coerced into sex isn’t going to want to have a repeat engagement; they will likely feel used or even violated. Coercion can and does ruin relationships; it’s a violation of trust and consideration.
The goal of coercion is simply to get what one party wants regardless of how the other person may feel about it.
Alcohol: The Magical Mind Changer1
Another aspect of coerced consent is removing the ability to consent in the first place.
Now, I would say with some degree of certainty that we can all agree that there is no gray area when it comes to the use of drugs in order to have sex with someone. Whether it’s GHB, Rohypnol or even legal drugs such as Ambien, someone using drugs in order to have sex with someone who would otherwise say no is unquestionably a rapist.
It gets a little more interesting when alcohol is involved.
Not many people think of alcohol when it comes to date rape and coerced consent. And yet, alcohol is the most commonly used date rape drug; it’s perfectly legal, easily accessible and people are quite willing to accept it without question. Men have plied women with booze since time immemorial, turning “no” into “yes” through a haze of drunkenness, impaired judgment and lowered inhibitions. It is precisely because of the impairment of inhibition and ability to make decisions that many communities consider using alcohol to compel consent to be a crime.
Here is where the lines get hazy and we start entering a gray area; what is the difference between someone using alcohol as a magical mind changer, changing someone’s “no” into a “yes”, or “later” to “right now” and a night of sex after the consumption of a few too many shots? Is there a significant ethical difference between a man deliberately getting a woman drunk in order to have sex and having sex with someone who’s drunk already?
It can be hard to say. While intent certainly matters – in the second case, the intoxicated party is responsible for their own state – in both cases, the drunken party is legally unable to consent. Similarly, the effects of alcohol and the someone’s actions under the influence will vary from person to person; there will be plenty of people who, while drunk, would still make the same decisions they would make while sober.
However, just because a person may not have had ill intentions when getting someone drunk, taking advantage of their incapacitation – even with the drunk’s approval or encouragement – crosses a line, especially if the drinker would not have consented otherwise.
It can be a fine line to cross, and the best advice I can give is to try to avoid it in the first place. When in doubt, here is a simple shorthand: if they’re too drunk to drive, they are too drunk, period.
Yes, levels of legal intoxication vary from state to state. So do people’s tolerance and behavior while drunk. It’s better to err on the side of caution and be the gentleman or lady; it’s better to go home alone than to be the asshole who took advantage of someone else.
It’s A Question of Responsibility
Traditionally, the onus of responsibility has been placed on women to guard themselves; women are told they should always be aware of their surroundings, pay attention to their drinking and to their drinks, not to let themselves get put into a position where they might be taken advantage of. Not only is this sexist – implying that women are perpetual victims and that men are incapable of controlling themselves – it ignores that this behavior isn’t restricted to any gender or sexual orientation. According to one study, 12% of men have reported coerced sexual behavior at the hands of women. Similarly, gay men and lesbians both face coercive behavior from others.
While it is important for people – men and women, gay and straight – to be on their guard against threats, it is equally their responsibility not to attempt to force the issue in the first place.
Silence is not consent. Neither is pressuring someone to say “yes” to something that they don’t want to do in the first place
Just because you can get someone to say “yes” after saying “no” doesn’t mean that you have magically made things right.