It is to these men*, that I write this article.
Let me start with a story. Several years ago, I witnessed an interaction between a mother and a son and my response was, “oh my god, this is a rapist in training.” Picture this: It’s a hot summer day. Mom is lounging in her swimsuit reading a book. Boy, around age 5, is running around in his swim trunks. Boy asks mom for something (I don’t even remember what.) She says no, not looking up from her book. Boy persists in asking. She says no, still not looking up. Boy’s requests become more persistent and loud. She becomes annoyed and ignores him. He runs up to her, engages her physically (touching, hitting) to get her attention, and demands to get what he wants. She finally looks at him, rolls her eyes, yells back “fine!” and gives him what he wants.
The lesson this boy learned: If you persist, intensify the request, and physically engage if necessary, a no becomes a yes.
It makes sense: to get what you want, you have to ask for it. “Don’t take no for an answer” is a quality our society values and reinforces in men. But when when does “no” really mean “NO?” In the mother son/ interaction, what some might call “bratty behavior,” I call reinforcing boundary violating behavior and getting your desires met regardless of what the other person wants or says. Too often, when men are unaware of their gender privilege, boundary violations occur.
Case in point: I am friends with a heterosexual couple who have been together for several years. He is extroverted and charismatic. She is more introverted and withholding of her emotions. They are both social people who get along well with others. He is constantly making requests of her and his friends to get his needs met. “Can I borrow that?” “Will you get me a glass of water while you’re up.” Harmless, right? Except when he starts asking for things that are an inconvenience for others and benefit him at their expense. I noticed him asking his partner to do something for him that clearly made her uncomfortable, though she acquiesced. I asked him if he noticed her response - he did - and why he asked if he knew it might make her uncomfortable. His response: “I ask for what I want, and if people don’t want to do it, they can just say no.”
If only it were that easy. This might work for “equals” -- men relating to men -- but even then the hierarchy of males defines who’s on top. When making a request of someone with less social privilege than you, I would recommend taking their needs and ability to say no into account before making the request and ask only when there’s a low risk of them being taken advantage of. Why? When a woman says no to a man, she gets labeled as frigid, uptight, selfish, bitchy, etc., etc. Women are socially conditioned to please others; to take care of others’ needs at the sacrifice of their own. This is a virtue. It is what maintains relationships. Women can’t say no. And this power dynamic contributes to unintentional sexual violations.
Many men view sexual consent this way: “if she doesn’t want it, she will say no.” But how many times has she already said no and you just didn’t hear it? Or you didn’t like the answer, so asked again? Like the little boy above, men are trained to persist -- to not take no for an answer -- until many women find it so emotionally distressing they say yes just to make the pressure stop.
What works in business is often a disaster for relationships.
Add to this the social norm that women are not encouraged to own or express sexual desire -- leaving men to guess at what women want, and women to seek out “dominant” men and “bad boys” who will initiate so she can “surrender” without being a slut. (It is not uncommon for women with intense shame around their sexual desire to fantasize about “being taken” as a way to sidestep that shame and put the responsibility for their sexual activity on men. Romance novel writers have successfully banked on this phenomenon as an entire genre.) As more women become expressive of their sexual desire, many men feel “emasculated,” “pressured,” or just plain freaked out by women’s requests. No wonder men are confused -- “am I supposed to be a man and ‘take her’ or be a nice guy and wait for a green light from her but never get any?” What’s the third option where everyone wins?
Another layer is that women are trained to please men, and sex is the ultimate way to please, and keep, your man. Within a monogamous framework, men can play the “if you don’t have sex with me, someone else will” card -- indirectly if not in words. Even if a woman can financially sustain herself if her partner leaves, it feels pretty awful to have the “put out or get out” dynamic in a relationship. (Sex is power for women, which is why some women dating men who respect their sexual boundaries use withholding sex as a way to gain power in the relationship. But that’s another topic.)
In addition, there is a significant size / strength discrepancy between men and women. Even if a man and a woman are the same height, more often than not he is still stronger. Women are keenly aware of sexual and physical violence perpetrated by men, and are taught about it from an early age. In the back of our monkey brains, women know that if a man really wants to he can overpower her physically. And sometimes it’s better to say yes than face that possibility.
Which brings me to a HUGE reason why many women don’t say no when they don’t want sex: prior trauma has created a “freeze response” in threatening situations. It’s basic biology: when people perceive a threat, our fight or flight system kicks in, and we use all our resources to fight back or get away to safety. When these two options not are feasible, it’s system shutdown and we play dead. Freeze becomes the initial response when people have endured persistent trauma that is inescapable -- like parents constantly arguing, childhood physical or sexual abuse, even being teased by peers. “Trauma” runs the gamut from your life being imminently in danger to your authentic self being ridiculed (i.e a boy who is good at drawing being told he isn’t supposed to draw because “that’s gay” or “that’s for girls”.) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlVBg7_08n0]
How this relates to sexual boundary crossing is that when someone feels pressured to do something they don’t want to do, and they feel like they can’t say no or escape (for emotional reasons or fear as well as physical force), they bypass the fight/flight response that allows them to say “no” out loud, hold the boundary, or leave the situation, and they go immediately into freeze.
If this happens in a sexual encounter, it may be that the guy is happily engaging in intercourse with a woman who may have dissociated. She is experiencing a cognitive/emotional separation from her physical sensations as a means of “numbing out / playing dead” for protection. What sounds and looks like a silent, but consenting partner, is actually the woman saying no physically and psychologically when she can’t say no verbally.
Most men I know would be horrified to discover they had violated someone’s sexual boundaries in this way. Many men get angry and feel blamed when a woman tells them this has occurred. “She should have told me no!” I get it. It’s easier to blame the person who didn’t say no than to own the fact that you didn’t wait for a yes -- or that you made a mistake.
So, the simple answer is express your desire and wait for a yes. If the answer is no, back off a step from the current intimacy level or ask if what you’re doing right now is ok and proceed with caution IF it’s a yes. If the answer is maybe, back off. If the answer is “pause…...pause…..yes?” Back off. If you are met with silence or a no, stop.
If you are already engaging in sexual intimacy (and it could be as innocent as kissing or caressing) and your sexual partner looks glazed over, out of it, is not actively participating, or does not seem engaged physically (i.e. with eye contact, caressing you back), or verbally, she may have dissociated. If that is the case stop what you are doing immediately because you have already gone too far!
This is when you can go into “after care” mode. Ask if she wants to be touched or held, or if she wants some physical distance. Every woman is different, and it might change each time, so ask. Cover her with a blanket. Get her a glass of water. She might cry. That is ok. Take a deep breath and just be there with her. Wait until she is able to clearly articulate what is going on for her. She may not be able to for quite some time, or at all.
And here’s the part where -- as a therapist and feminist -- it gets tricky: someone who has a trauma reaction is responsible for their own healing, not you. At some point, they are responsible for healing their trauma triggers so they can say no and hold the boundary, including learning to recognize and avoid situations that are likely to be re-traumatizing. This is different from blaming the victim, which sounds like “you were asking to get raped by getting drunk and wearing that!” It is holding trauma survivors accountable for their own mental health and empowering survivors to care for themselves.
To clarify: it is my belief that someone should be able to be passed out naked on the floor and get help, not be raped. Sadly, this is not how the world always works. So it is a delicate balance for survivors of sexual trauma to say “I didn’t deserve this and I’m not responsible for it happening. The person who violated my boundaries is at fault.” And saying “I am not going to put myself in dangerous situations where I am likely to be hurt.” It is not realistic for survivors to ask the world -- including you -- to not do anything traumatizing, as what is traumatizing for one person is not for another. It is also essential to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their actions AND to educate men (well, everyone really) about how to respect personal/sexual boundaries.
You can take responsibility for your part. Consider your partner’s needs as well as your own, check your privilege, and if there’s doubt to their consent, stop. Improve your emotional intelligence and learn to pick up on body language that indicates a “NO” when your partner may have difficulty voicing a NO. Go slow, ask about boundaries, express desire and get permission before proceeding (i.e. “May I kiss you?” vs. after kissing her “Is it ok that I kissed you?). Before sex happens, clarify what she needs if she does start to dissociate during sex. A caring partner can be a valuable ally in the healing process.
This level of communication doubly applies with a hook up or new partner. Alcohol makes consent difficult; some would argue impossible. The safest policy is “don’t drink and have sex,” but that doesn’t work for everyone. Many people rely on alcohol as a social lubricant to lower social inhibitions or anxiety about having sex. (Again, that’s another issue!) So, if you’ve had a few drinks and are feeling frisky, you can ask her what she is and isn’t down to do before before you leave the party, and for sure before the clothes come off!! But, even if the clothes are off and she says no mid-thrust, if you don’t stop immediately (“wait a minute, I’m about to cum!), it’s a sexual boundary violation.
Most importantly: cultivate your own sense of worthiness to have love and sex in your life and empowerment to ask for sex and be ok if the answer is no. A good guiding principle for consent: Wait for an enthusiastic “YES!” A sexual romp is much more satisfying when both people are willing and eager participants.
*This article is written for an audience of heterosexual, cisgendered men whose personal identities grant them power and privilege in our society. In this paradigm, men are the actors and women acted upon Whatever your gender or sexual orientation, if you are in a position of power and privilege, please put yourself in the role of man for purposes of reading this article. It is my deepest hope and desire that all of us may be active participants in creating satisfying consensual sexual experiences.