Consent That Isn’t: The Violation of Women & the Demise of Men
“Insignificant” moments of non-consent & the end of civility.
If you had asked me a few years ago if sexual consent was ever an issue for me I would have said “No, I’ve always been able to call the shots.”
Well, not quite.
I knew I had never had “sex” when I didn’t want to, but after a recent trip down memory lane of the boys and men I “dated” in my teens and early adulthood, I was astonished to realize how many times I did something intimate that I didn’t want to do.
A few years ago, like so many other women, I Tweeted my #MeToo moments. Mine were “low-level”— inappropriate touch from a boss, a slimy acupuncturist who inserted needles in suspicious spots and asked about my sex life, and the guy who picked me up hitchhiking and wanted a kiss when he dropped me off— he grabbed my arm but I quickly pulled away and lucky for me he didn’t use more force and I was able to jump out of his truck. I know. Hitchhiking was never the best idea but that was back in the 70s.
I Thought I Had Always Consented
Other than those ‘minor’ events, (that weren’t so minor) I thought of myself as a woman who had not been the victim of any non-consensual encounters. I don’t remember what inspired me to review my history, but as I thought about the dates I’d been on with men, I said to myself out loud “I didn’t consent to that! I allowed it to happen. I didn’t say “No,” but I didn’t want to do that.”
Expectations and Pressure — The Types of Consent
Throughout my life, as a woman, I’ve had to contend with various types of expectations and (subtle to obvious) pressure from teen boys and men. I had to grapple with “consent” in each situation.
I Had the Strongest Boundaries of the Girls I Knew
I have always had fairly solid boundaries, especially with boys and men.
Was I ever sexually assaulted? No.
Did I kiss men when I had no desire to kiss them? Yes, more times than I care to remember.
Why did I kiss men when I didn’t want to?
I mostly didn’t think it was okay to say no to kissing if I went out on a date with a guy. But it was also part of my experimentation with dating. I was late to the party and felt pressured to get some basic experience. I figured that if I didn’t kiss the guys I wouldn’t be doing effective research or engaging in the appropriate level of experimentation. I had to try it even with guys I wasn’t particularly attracted to.
I knew I had a so-called “choice,” and that these guys would not have assaulted me. But if I would have said no they would have asked what was wrong, might have labeled me a prude (or worse). They might have told others and I might have become the butt of jokes (or worse).
In many of those moments, it was easier to let them kiss me while I waited for it to be over. What is that called? Nonconsensual/consensual kissing?
What if the tables were turned? It’s hard to imagine any man kissing a woman because he was afraid of bruising her ego if he didn’t.
Full disclosure — there were men that I very much enjoyed kissing, and if my memory serves me, I made it quite clear to those guys that I was available for that, which resulted in a mutual joining of the lips. But here I’m writing about the ones I kissed out of obligation.
The Guy I Kissed on a Double Date
There was a guy who liked me when I had just begun to tip my toes into dating. Even though I was not interested in him I felt I needed “experience” with guys (not sexual, but dating practice), so I went on a double-date with my friend Debbie and her boyfriend.
When we returned, Debbie’s boyfriend parked his car in front of her house. I was in the back seat with my date. I cringed when I realized that no one was getting out of the car. I wanted to get out but felt awkward and knew it would seem so uncool. So I stayed and I didn’t say no to kissing — I didn’t want to but I let him. I wasn’t a dead fish, I kissed back unenthusiastically but did learn some basic tongue techniques.
The Date Who Promised to Find me a Ride Home, But Didn’t
A few years later, I let Paul kiss me at the end of our date while waiting for the bus. When he asked me out, I agreed to take the bus and meet him at a dance because he promised to find me a ride home.
He didn’t find a ride for me.
He offered to accompany me home on the bus but I knew how that would play out. Once we got to my place I’d be stuck with him. The bus might have stopped running and it would be difficult to tell him to get back on the bus and go home. I wasn’t going to get myself into that situation. Therefore my only choice was to take the bus by myself, late at night. I felt scared but that risk was my preferred option.
While waiting for the bus Paul nudged me up against the wall we were leaning against and then came in for the kiss. I didn’t want to kiss him, but again I allowed it and did an obligatory “kiss back,” hoping the bus would arrive.
I was angry that he failed (or perhaps didn’t even try) to find me a ride home (I didn’t ask — another attempt to keep it simple with only the goal of getting home safely). I was also angry that I felt I had no choice but to kiss him to not rock the boat. If I had turned away it might have become an issue and that’s what I wanted to avoid.
The Pot I didn’t Want to Smoke
Then there was the time I went on a date to hear music at a local pub. We headed back to my date’s house where I would drop him off. My bladder was full so I went inside to use his bathroom. When I came out, he offered me a lit joint. The consent moment!
I had no interest in smoking pot. I was taken by surprise. Looking back I would call it manipulative on his part — not asking, but handing me a joint that was already lit. That’s how you make it difficult for the person to decline.
What did I do? I took a hit. Why?
- Because I didn’t feel comfortable saying no.
- To be polite and not hurt his feelings.
- It seemed easier than having to explain. (at that age I was unaware that I could say no without explaining)
- I had some alcohol in me — not why I did it but may have played a part.
- I thought I could fake it.
I consented to something I didn’t want to do.
I took one or two tokes and immediately felt sick —that awful zombie stoned sick. I hadn't smoked pot in a long time and this apparently was “the good stuff” that I had not experienced. I thought I could take a few hits and wouldn’t feel it. Boy was I wrong.
Girls and Women Have to Contend with Many Forms of Consent
I had never before thought about all the types of consent that I’ve had to deal with throughout my life.
As I said my boundaries with men were pretty solid. My sexual boundaries with men were at Fort Knox levels — it was always my decision.
Somewhere along the line, I developed the ability to recognize and steer clear of the guys who would violate my sexual boundaries. They recognized me as well and knew to look elsewhere. Sadly, I often watched them head toward a friend who had the energetic equivalent of a neon sign that read “I was trained to be nice and never learned how to say no to men.”
Remembering the encounters I had with men before I gave them up, I felt angry about what I had felt obligated to do, as well as a deep sadness for the women who were more deeply programmed to be compliant.
I was a rebel and a nonconformist from an early age. The typical socialization of females didn’t exactly “take” with me, yet I had difficulty being true to myself and not giving in to the sense of entitlement that exuded from even the nice guys.
Just Because She’s Not Fighting Him Off Doesn’t Mean It’s Consent
There are a million movie scenes where men scoop women up and carry them into the bedroom, or display another type of overpowering behavior. The women submit and act as if they loved it. Maybe they did. Maybe that happens quite often. I don’t know.
But I’m certain there are also a million times when women went along when they didn’t want to.
Back in the Day of My Boomer Generation
Here’s the scenario:
A woman on a date might feel a strong romantic attraction but was not ready to go further physically. Then she was taken by surprise by her date and she had no idea what to do. She had never been taught how to handle that type of situation and didn’t expect it from a man she believed to be a gentleman.
She froze and didn’t realize what was happening until it was happening. She had not been taught to recognize non-verbal signals or how to set limits.
So when suddenly her date put the moves on her she was completely unprepared. She didn’t have the ability to firmly say “Hey wait a minute!” to try to stop him in his tracks. She had no experience saying no to men about anything, so how could she possibly have a clue about how to say no in a moment of attraction, fast-moving intensity, that was likely mixed with too much alcohol in both of them?
Almost every woman on the planet has been taught to be nice, to comply, and never hurt a man’s feelings.
As Boomers, we often heard that “nice girls don’t” — don’t do more than kiss, don’t go past first base. But we were never taught how to fend off men.
There was systematic programming (of girls and boys) — a cultural indoctrination that gave boys (who later became men) the upper hand at all times, but neither the girls nor boys were aware of how this was happening.
When you train a girl to obey, to be passive, to defer to men, to give away her power, and to never fucking say no — the result is endless iterations of non-consent. Compliance without consent is so familiar to women that many of us don’t even recognize it as non-consent.
“Febos describes empty consent as ‘the legacy of centuries of abuse and oppression,’ meaning that unlike what we’re taught in sex-ed, saying no does not ensure our safety. On the contrary, saying no invites the possibility of cruelty.”
Surely Girls Today Have Stronger Boundaries & Are More in Control?
I started writing this many months ago. Then on March 17, 2022, I read a deeply disturbing piece by Christine Emba and knew it was time to finish this.
Opinion | Consent is not enough. We need a new sexual ethic.
Rachel (a pseudonym) reeled off a list of unhappy encounters with would-be romantic partners: sex consented to out of a…
Below are the astonishing reports from young women. Brace yourself.
“I don’t know,” she sighed, “I’ve never been in a situation where I felt pushed into something, exactly, but…” Rachel reeled off a list of unhappy encounters with would-be romantic partners: sex consented to out of a misguided sense of politeness, extreme acts requested and occasionally allowed, degrading insults as things unfolded — and regrets later.
“It’s not like I was being forced into anything or that I feel unsafe, but it’s not … good. And I don’t like how I feel afterwards.”
Reading this my heart was breaking and my rage was boiling over. This woman was being abused and didn’t even know it. The author continues:
“Many of my contemporaries are discouraged by the romantic landscape, its lack of trust, emotion and commitment, but they also believe that safer options aren’t possible…that it would be unreasonable to ask for more. Rachel told me: “every woman I know — has had some questionable encounter, whether it was, like, really violent or really forceful or just kind of like, ‘Oh, I hated that. That was not fun.’”
These young women are tolerating sexual brutalization and have resigned themselves to this unsafe, miserable existence.
They believe it’s unreasonable to expect better — to expect physical and emotional safety, respect, intimacy, or even a morsel of tenderness.
How could this be? How could the girls of today, many of whom seem much more confident than I was at their age, not be more secure in their sexual decisions? Why have they not developed stronger boundaries? What systemic forces are holding them in this perverse cultural prison?
We Are Witnessing a Dating Violence Crisis for Young Women
At one end of the “dating” continuum is their profound disappointment about the lack of true intimacy — the intimacy required for an ongoing relationship. At the other end are repulsive “sexual” acts that young women feel obligated to perform or allow to be perpetrated upon them, topped off with humiliating verbal abuse. They believe they must tolerate all of this if they wish to have any dating life at all. Yet they hold the hope of finding a guy who’s different.
I don’t know how pervasive this is. It’s not the world of all young women. I personally know about 15 young women who are in relationships with decent men — but obviously, that number is merely a drop in the ocean.
I suspect that this horrid scenario is the dating reality for a significant percentage of women in their 20s and 30s.
Online Porn Has Damaged & Addicted Young Men
More from Christine Emba’s piece: “Millennials and Gen Z are the first generations to have entered puberty with easy access to pornography via the Internet. The most readily accessible kind of porn — aggressive and hardcore, shot from the male perspective, with women existing to give men pleasure and not much else — has mainstreamed acts [like] (choking, anal sex and outright violence).
…growing numbers of women are interacting with porn-addled men who either disregard their desires or who don’t understand how to interact with a fellow human being as opposed to an avatar on a screen.”
No matter how supposedly great the sex is that these men are having, their “pleasure” is derived from their dominant, demeaning, and violent behavior toward women. They’ve become addicted to the brutal conquest scenarios that the porn industry has programmed in them. They’ve been turned into emotionally deficient robots who need greater and greater aggressive intensity in order to become aroused. But who bears the burden of providing that? Their female sexual partners.
Online Porn Has Destroyed Intimacy
It’s clear from the women’s comments that the men are fully in control and that there is no space created for non-sexual interaction. These men and women don’t spend time together or talk to each other. I wonder if they know how?
I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking and destructive to women and to our entire society, than violent male-oriented pornography.
Living in a Relationship Wasteland
These young men know nothing about relationships. If these guys don’t find role models outside of the porn sites and become motivated to let down their macho guard, learn to be vulnerable, and how to communicate respectfully with women, they might be lost indefinitely.
The participating young women are likely not relationship literate either and they won’t learn how to be if they continue to operate within the dating world described.
These young people live in a relationship wasteland. A world without authentic sharing, or equality — a life without the fulfillment one can find through intimacy.
The Toxic Playbook
We may think this is simply a young people’s dating dilemma but these young men are following the authoritarian, white supremacist playbook — living a lifestyle of toxic masculinity. One of the cornerstones of authoritarianism and white supremacy is the subjugation and abuse of women.
My sense is that few older adults are aware of this cultural crisis or its seriousness. When the fabric of relationships deteriorates to this extreme, it’s only a matter of time before civil society collapses.
Streaming of the Destruction of Humanity
I’ve never watched online porn. I’m not at all opposed to explicit respectful erotica for the pleasure of men, women, or any gender, but my understanding is that the majority or the most accessible pornography consists of men sexually brutalizing women and those women pretending to enjoy it.
I say “pretending” because the women are actors and are being paid to follow the director’s instructions and play a woman who enjoys being dominated, humiliated, and violated by her male partner.
This is the ultimate gaslighting — portraying to viewers that women enjoy being brutalized and that it’s normal sex when in reality it’s the destruction of humanity.
If how I described porn is accurate, I am deeply disturbed by the fact that I have never heard a man express any concern or say anything negative about the porn that’s available online.
Maybe I’m missing something. But if I’m not, I want to know why no one talks about this? Or the better question — why the media is silent about it?
Is anyone educating parents about this?
Will We Ever Decide to End This?
As long as men from all walks of life continue to sexually abuse girls, the porn star pipeline will keep flowing — it will deliver damaged young women perfectly suited to be porn performers. Women who have essentially been groomed — not only by their abusers but also by a society that allows it to happen.
As long as we don’t prevent this highly prevalent sexual abuse and hold perpetrators accountable for their brutal self-gratification that rips the life out of a young girl…
As long as the patriarchy has its way…the porn industry will thrive.
But if we ever decide that girls are not simply fodder for the porn industry…
If we ever decide:
> to protect girls
> to teach girls how to have stronger boundaries
> to teach girls how to say no (and that it’s okay to do so)
> to stop destroying girls who set limits
> to prosecute every perpetrator
> to admit that preventing this is not rocket science
> to stop pretending that it can’t be prevented
If we ever have the will to do this, we just might save our society.
I think of the young women who shared their dating experiences in the article I mentioned earlier. And I wonder — what would the mother or father of one of them think if they knew that porn stars have a safer and more satisfying sex life than their daughter?
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
Developing good boundaries is one of the most neglected areas of personal and professional growth. That’s why I have written about Strengthening Personal Boundaries.
It’s why I will continue to write about the ways we set limits or don’t set limits, and how (women mostly) can learn to develop stronger boundaries.
I didn’t complete this piece after reading Emba’s op-ed. I finished it a month later after watching the Netflix series Anatomy of a Scandal, which deals with the complexity of consent.
Watch Anatomy of a Scandal | Netflix Official Site
Sophie's privileged life as the wife of powerful politician James unravels when scandalous secrets surface - and he…
The series raised a question that I’ve had since #MeToo:
Are there men who have led lives of such male privilege, in which women never say no to them, that they have no capacity to understand the concept of “consent?” Who cannot distinguish consent from non-consent because they’ve never been required to?
Many women in the #MeToo movement would argue that “Of course men know what is harassment and what is not, what’s consensual and what isn’t!”
But I’m not so sure.
It’s my observation that related to harassment and consent, some (and perhaps many) men truly have no clue.
That doesn’t excuse them. It’s simply the reality of a society that panders to men and doesn't hold them accountable. It reveals the heinous complexity of what we’re up against.
Oh, and one more word about consent.