When Consent Isn’t Enough: The Importance of Stepping Back

When Consent Isn’t Enough: The Importance of Stepping Back

After my freshman year of college, I was right back to lying on the carpet of my best friend’s room, catching up on everything we’d missed for the past six months.

My best friend said, “I guess I had sex with two guys over the year. Well, sort of three, but the last one doesn’t count.”

“Doesn’t count?” said my other friend who was draped over the futon and looking up from her phone.

“Well, we started having sex but I decided I really wasn’t feeling it, so I left in the middle,” my best friend replied. I began to laugh as I pictured how the guy must have looked when my friend waltzed out of the room mid-hook-up; after all, who just leaves?

When I got home later that evening, I tried to rationalize my reaction: Why was it so shocking to me that my friend left a situation she no longer wanted to be in? It was probably because I, like so many others, believed in “the point of no return,” especially in college. Even after one year at Amherst, I had started experiencing moments in hook-ups where I felt like expectations had been raised; I didn’t feel comfortable with just leaving the situation. I stopped thinking about this subject up until I read an article last week written by Tina Vernax of the Feminists of Northeastern.

This piece explores the experience between consensual sex and sexual assault. When I first started reading the article, I was apprehensive; I knew about the dangerous territory surrounding the gray area of acknowledging consent. After reading through the work, I realized that the author was describing a very real phenomenon that deserves more attention.

Vernax describes the type of sex women don’t want to have, but have anyway; the type of sex that a person has when they’re already in bed and feel like they’re being a tease if they don’t consent; the type of sex a person has when they can’t really decide what they want and go along with their partner’s desires; the type of sex a person might have with a spouse or a significant other simply because it’s been a while. There is a monumental difference between these experiences and the experience of being taken advantage of when someone is either heavily intoxicated, says no or is overpowered. These latter experiences are rape; the former experiences are a different kind of monster.

Many people have sex that they later regret. This phenomenon isn’t that surprising in a hook-up culture; it can happen to anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Yet, this experience falls into a gender issue for the same reason as rape: It affects a disproportionate number of women. This was confirmed by a study by University of Texas, which revealed that women are significantly more likely to regret a sexual experience than men.

Why do we feel the pressure to have sex? This pressure may emerge from a society that, paradoxically, expects women to be “sexy” but not sexual. Movies, television shows and magazines all enforce this idea that the best thing women can be is attractive, desired and sought after. At the same time, sexually liberated women are chastised for what they wear and how they act. Similarly, the regret and shame that can follow consensual sex is a phenomenon that happens to women everywhere because of some idea that “that’s not what women should do.” Thus, women disproportionately link their sexual activity to self-worth, making any sexual act — even casual ones — an action that can make us feel lesser.

The second reason women may have unwanted sex comes from the idea of bodily autonomy. Women don’t always feel the same ownership over their own bodies that men do. According to the Guttmacher Institute, states proposed 694 new laws in 2013 to regulate women’s bodies. Naked photos are leaked of celebrities and female activists (like Jennifer Lawrence) in an attempt to derail their power and influence. Murderers, like Elliot Rodger of the UC Santa Barbara shooting, claim that their actions are justified because “women wouldn’t have sex with them.” The message is driven home again and again: Women do not own their sexuality.

In relationships, women may feel that frequent sex is something they owe their partner. Similarly, a woman in a casual hook-up may feel she has to have sex in order to avoid being seen as a “tease” or a “flirt.” These thoughts spring from the dangerous conception that a woman expressing interest is synonymous with a woman expressing the desire to have sex, which creates a feeling of obligation for women towards a potential partner. Moreover, this notion creates situations in which a “no” isn’t always enough to stop an unwanted sexual advance.

Women may also feel obligated to have sex because the escalation from flirting to kissing to sex can happen fairly quickly. Movies rarely present dialogue about comfort or consent before two partners have sex, which is why we sometimes find ourselves with our clothes off still deciding how far we want to go. This leads me to the simplest solution I can think of to avoid unwanted sex: take a step back. Before engaging in any sexual activity, take a step back and talk to your partner; think about what you want and ask them what they want. Sex doesn’t have to be a snap decision; knowing what you want and initiating conversation beforehand will make you a lot less likely to regret a decision later. Moreover, if you feel you are judging yourself for wanting to have sex, take a step back again; safe sex is healthy and normal, and it’s not something women should feel bad about due to the perception that only men can engage in casual sex. Remember: your body is yours.