A few years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I met up with a boy from Philly at a fancy doughnut shop in Chelsea. Prior to the date, I’d been excited. We had an internet “meet cute” story—a witty remark he’d made had gone viral, and, smitten with his smarts, I’d managed to track down his OkCupid profile—and the fact that our first date took place in the early days of New York’s recovery from Sandy’s destruction felt auspicious. My city was getting back on its feet, and so was my dating life.
And yet the moment I stepped into the doughnut shop, something felt off. The immediate, winning chemistry I’d been hoping for was utterly absent, but since he’d taken the bus all the way up to New York just to see me, I figured I owed him a date. As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that he felt I owed him something else as well. He told me a story about a former girlfriend who’d denied him a blowjob after he’d driven a long way to see her; my main takeaway was that only bitches didn’t put out for men who’d put in effort to visit them. Even though I felt zero desire for him, it ultimately seemed less taxing to get drunk and let him have his way with me later that night.
In the morning, I was mostly grateful that he left immediately, that I didn’t have to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t get breakfast with him. As the door to my apartment closed behind him, I burst into tears, feeling empty and violated and sad. At the time, I was convinced that everything that had transpired was entirely my fault. But years later, I’m not so sure.
In recent weeks, Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger has come under fire for publicly attacking women who refuse to report their sexual assaults to the police, a stance he recently softened on. Much of the response to Metzger has centered on the many ways the criminal justice system fails sexual assault victims—police who ignore and humiliate them, rape kits that get abandoned, trials that retraumatize survivors, and judges who refuse to see rapists as anything other than “nice boys” who just made a mistake.
Less discussed, but equally important as the debate over whether rape victims should report their assaults to police, is this: Many of the most traumatic and damaging sexual experiences, particularly ones faced by women who have sex with men, don’t even meet the legal definition of rape.
Inherent in Metzger’s original argument is the idea that sex can be divided into two broad categories: capital R Rape (which is monstrous, criminal, and should be severely punished by the legal system) and normal, chill sex, which is obviously consensual and with which no woman should ever have a problem. But missing from this dichotomy are the scores of “not rape” violations, and acts that might best be described as “sexual microaggressions”—small acts of boundary-pushing and coercion that might be easy enough to brush off in isolation, but in aggregate teach women that their bodily autonomy is revocable, and that violations of their boundaries and sense of safety aren’t just tolerable, but utterly and completely normal.
How did I wind up an accomplished 30-year-old woman who found it easier to get drunk and give in to unwanted sex than to walk out of a bad date? It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment that served as a turning point for me. What I have, instead, is a collage of experiences that collectively taught me my “consent” was a fuzzy, and perhaps malleable, thing.
There was the boy I dated the summer before college who insinuated that I’d get dumped if I didn’t put out (and then dumped me anyway after pressuring me into a blowjob). The college boyfriend who continued to rub ice on my vulva even after I told him I didn’t like it and didn’t think it felt good. The multiple men who treated my desire for safer sex as a negotiable request, rather than a mandate, repeatedly badgering me to soften my stance and let them get their way, my sense of safety be damned. The on-again-off-again hookup who invited me to share his bed—just to sleep, I was assured—only to proceed to have sex with me even after multiple nos.
In retrospect, so much of sex in my twenties was a death by a thousand cuts for my sense of bodily autonomy—a series of assaults and violations that rendered me pliable to the desires of men right up until that date in the doughnut shop.
One of the reasons it took me so long to open up about my negative experiences with men was that, for years, I assumed I was alone. I’d grown up hearing that “no means no,” and that smart women are upfront about their needs and obviously walk away from anyone who refuses to respect their boundaries. I assumed that I was the only one weak enough to let my desire for intimacy and affection fuel a tolerance for sex I didn’t quite want, in ways I didn’t want it. I assumed that being badgered into sex, or “consenting” due to sheer exhaustion, was a personal problem.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While writing this story, I heard from a number of different women who’d had sexual experiences that weren’t quite rape, but didn’t feel completely consensual either. One woman told me about having the flu and still being pressured into sex by her boyfriend, an encounter that left her with “a low level distaste for sex for a few years after”—right up until she started to learn about the concept of “dubious consent” and came to terms with what she’d been through.
Another woman, whom I’ll call Anna, told me about the first time she had sex. Although things started consensually—“I had recently been feeling some anxiety over not having had a lot of sexual experiences yet, and so was feeling excited and a little bit daring about finally getting to"—her enthusiasm began to fade as her partner failed to live up to her expectations. At first he tried to penetrate her without a condom, and though he stopped and put one on at her request, the subsequent sex was painful, unpleasant, and bloody. “My body language was telegraphing pain/discomfort/disinterest, since I stopped showing enthusiasm or reciprocation,” Anna says. But her partner didn’t seem to notice or particularly care, even assuming she’d be up for another session after a short period of post-coital cuddling.
Anna doesn’t feel raped, but she can’t deny that the experience impacted her deeply. To this day, her sexual experiences are marred by a fear that she won’t be able to advocate for herself or properly assert her own boundaries. “I've wondered for years why I didn't say anything when I stopped enjoying it, and why I let him continue.”
The answer to Anna’s question may lie in the experiences of other women. Marie, who, like Anna, requested anonymity, shared multiple stories of saying no to sex, being asked again, saying no another time, being asked again, and then eventually saying yes—even though her lack of desire remained unchanged. “I don’t want to disappoint people,” she says. “I especially don’t want to disappoint people in a sexual context. If I say no, someone getting upset, acting hurt, being disappointed, and asking again can easily make me say yes”—a personality quirk that both male and female partners have used against her, manipulating her into consenting and guilting her for setting boundaries.
Women get socialized to put their needs second and make other people happy, and too many men get socialized to ignore rejections and relentlessly pursue whatever it is that they desire. It’s a toxic combination that can lead women to deprioritize enthusiastic consent in the hopes of keeping the peace, or to turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol to make not exactly consensual sex feel a little bit more okay.
There’s a scene from a sixth season episode of the FX sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Dennis Reynolds—a pretty-boy sociopath with a cavalier attitude toward women—launches into a description of a seduction technique he refers to as “the implication.” Get a girl on a boat, get her drunk, and when you end up below deck, she’ll be sure to comply with your desires, because of “the implication” that she doesn’t really have a choice.
If I ever found this scene funny, I don’t anymore, because “the implication” feels all too real. Consciously or not, men often send women the message that their bodies are not their own to control; that the choice is less between consensual sex or no sex at all, but consent by attrition or sex without consent. When men push up against, or even gently past, women’s boundaries; when they treat “no” as a suggestion rather than an absolute; when sex is positioned as an exercise in persuasion; “the implication” is that women should comply or risk facing the consequences.
A few months after that ill-fated doughnut shop date, I completely fell apart, my trust in men shattered and replaced by jagged, ugly sense of defensiveness that, years later, remains deeply ingrained in my bones. It is often hard for me to be alone with men; in settings both professional and personal, I am often afraid that my boundaries will not be respected, that I will be expected, once again, to comply with someone else’s desires rather than my own.
No one is going to go to jail for putting ice against their girlfriend’s vulva or for badgering someone into sex they don’t particularly want, or for not using a condom with someone who’s otherwise consented to sex. But the fact that these aren’t criminal acts doesn’t mean that they’re not violating or traumatic or wrong. And by refusing to recognize the harm caused by these sexual microaggressions, we teach women to accept them as normal and minimize their pain—and we teach men that they can get away with violating women.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.