“When men are unaware of their gender privilege, boundary violations occur,” writes psychologist Sandy Peace.
There’s been a lot in the media about “rape culture” lately (#yesallwomen), and the topic of desire and consent has been on my mind. As a psychologist who has worked in university counseling, I too frequently hear stories of acquaintance rape, sexual assault, and sexual coercion. I have also worked with men who have perpetrated sexual boundary crossings and sexual violence, including men who did not know that what they did is considered sexual assault because the person they had sex with (usually a woman) did not say no.
It is to these men that I address 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 goodness, 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, demands to get what he wants. She looks at him, rolls her eyes, yells back “fine,” and gives it to him.
The lesson: If you persist, and intensify the request, 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, which some might label “bratty behavior,” I call reinforcing boundary violations and getting your desires met regardless of what the other person wants. 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 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. We 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? Like the little boy above, some men are trained to persist – to not take no for an answer – until women find it so emotionally distressing they may say yes just to make the pressure stop.
Add to this that women are not allowed to own or express sexual desire – leaving men to guess at what we want and women to seek out “dominant” men and “bad boys” who will initiate so we 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 banked on this phenomenon.) 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?
Another layer is that women are trained to please men, and that sex is a 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 shitty 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.)
And, have you noticed the trend in size/strength difference between men and women? Women are keenly aware of sexual and physical violence and are taught about it from an early age. In the back of our monkey brains, we know that if a man really wants to he can overpower us physically. And sometimes it’s better to say yes than face that possibility.
Which brings me to a HUGE reason why 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 we perceive a threat, our fight or flight system kicks in, and we kick ass or run like hell to get away. When these two options are not 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 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”.)
How this relates to sexual boundary crossing is that when someone is pressured to do something they don’t want to do, and feels like they can’t say no or escape (for emotional reasons or fears, not just 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. Then the guy is happy fucking a woman who has very likely dissociated – she is experiencing a cognitive/emotional separation from her physical sensations as a means of “numbing out” for protection. What sounds and looks like consent is actually the person saying no physically and psychologically, when they 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!” 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 – and 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, stop.
If you are engaging in sexual intimacy (and it could be as innocent as kissing or caressing her breast) and your sexual partner looks glazed over, out of it, is not actively participating, or does not seem engaged physically, with eye contact, 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 saying no and holding 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 wearing that!” It is holding 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 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” 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 (to educate 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 about 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. My personal policy is “don’t drink and fuck” but that doesn’t work for everyone. 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 sexual romp is much more satisfying when the person is a willing and eager participant.
Photo Credit: Flickr–Nina Matthews