Just because your partner isn’t saying “no,” Hugo Schwyzer writes, it doesn’t mean it’s a “yes.”
Note: As with many articles about sexual violence, particularly those that include anecdotes, this may prove triggering for some.
“Sometimes I say ‘yes’ when I’d rather say ‘no.’”
It’s been nearly 25 years, but I can still remember the beautiful Berkeley fall afternoon when I heard those shattering words. Katie and I were sitting in a coffee shop just off campus. What had started as a “friends with benefits” situation had blossomed into a sophomore year romance with this dark-eyed dance-and-philosophy double-major. Katie and I had been sleeping together for more than two months—and saying “I love you” for about a week—when she summoned up the courage to bring up this one very painful truth.
At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She spoke so softly I had to lean across the table to hear her. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said, “but sometimes I really don’t want to have sex. Sometimes I do, but not as often as you want it. And sometimes I want to tell you ‘no,’ but I can’t bring myself to do it. So I try and send you signals, hoping you can just tell how I’m feeling. But that doesn’t work, so it’s… it’s just easier to say ‘yes’ or just say nothing at all.”
My face flushed. I felt nauseated. I thought instantly of the previous night, where we’d grabbed what I thought was a hot half-hour when my roommates were both gone. Katie had seemed so passionate when we’d been making out, but then gotten very quiet once all our clothes were off. I’d told myself she wanted to have one ear cocked for the sound of a key in the door. I hadn’t considered—or hadn’t wanted to consider—the more obvious possibility: she was trying to tell me that she didn’t want to have sex.
I looked out the window. I couldn’t meet Katie’s eyes. My gaze fixed in the distance, my voice trembling, I asked what seemed the only possible question: “Are you trying to tell me I raped you?”
I was in my first women’s studies course, and just the previous week we’d been reading about sexual violence and the law. In class, where I was one of only three men, I’d felt rage thinking about all of those cruel assholes who didn’t understand that “no means no.” But now a dark and unseen possibility was opening up: not every “no” could be spoken. Maybe, I realized, sometimes even a quiet “OK” could be a “no” in disguise.
Katie started to cry. “Oh God, Hugo. No. Not rape. It’s just… I wish you could tell the difference between when I really want you and when I’d just rather be held.” She began to cry harder. “Fuck. It’s all my fault,” she wept. “I can’t expect you to be a mindreader. I’m so sorry.”
I begged Katie not to apologize; the responsibility was all mine, I insisted. I came around to her side of the table and held her. But something had changed for both of us, and the relationship was never the same. The one time we tried to have sex after that conversation, we were both so tentative (and I had, not surprisingly, a difficult time getting hard) that we gave up halfway through. We broke up two weeks before Christmas.
Most “good guys” take a woman’s firm “No!” for an answer. (Those who don’t are best left to the ministrations of our criminal justice system.) But lots of men are like the guy I was at 19—assuming that while “no means no” anything short of a firm “no” is either a “yes” or a “keep at it, boy, because you just might get a ‘yes’ soon.” Call it male sexual legalism, the first rule of which is “All that is not expressly prohibited is assumed to be permitted.” That legalism can turn many men into accidental rapists.
While the legal standard of rape is increasingly well-defined (and what happened with Katie fell well short of that legal definition), common sense suggests that at its most basic, rape is nonconsensual sex. Too many of us, men and women alike, define consent as the absence of a clear “no,” rather than the presence of a clear, unmistakable, eager “yes.” The opposite of rape, in other words, is mutual enthusiasm.
The root of consent is the Latin consentire, which means “with feeling.” Consent is not just about words “no” or “yes”—it’s about the unambiguous presence of desire. That’s a very different and challenging standard. No, I didn’t legally rape Katie. But her reticence and my sexual legalism conspired to leave us having sex that at least some of the time fell well short of the standard of consent we should all want in our intimate lives.
I’m not putting all the blame on myself, or on men alone. It’s not fair to expect men to read minds, or even to perfectly intuit subtle body language. As I tell the teens with whom I work, a precondition for being ready for a sexual relationship is having the courage to say a firm “No” to the people you love. Overcoming the training to be an acquiescent people-pleaser is hard-but-necessary work, and because of the way we socialize girls, difficulty with saying “no” tends to be much more common among young women.
But guys have work to do also. Too many play what I call the stoplight game. Traffic signals, of course, have three colors: red for stop, yellow for caution, green for go. Good drivers are taught to stop on “red,” which functions as a “no.” But of course, even at the busiest urban intersections, no light stays red indefinitely. If you wait long enough at a stoplight, every red will become green. And when all we do is teach young men that “no means stop” when it comes to sexual boundaries, we often send them the message that if they just wait long enough (or pester, push, nag, beg, play passive-aggressive games) they’ll get the “green light” they’re so hungry for.
In both traffic and the bedroom, the most misunderstood light is yellow. Though driver’s ed classes teach that yellow means “slow down,” most of us see it as a warning to speed up to get through the intersection before the light turns red. Sexually speaking, the yellow means what it ought to mean on the road: “slow down, son.”
Most of us are good at saying “no” to something or someone we don’t like. Most (sadly, not all) find it easy to flash the red light at a creepy guy who doesn’t interest them at all. But it’s tougher to say “not yet, I’m not quite ready” or “slow down” or “maybe later” to someone to whom you’re genuinely attracted. Reflecting on the sex Katie and I had so often, I realized that she often felt rushed and pressured to go to intercourse every time. She knew how to tell me when she wasn’t in the mood to do anything sexual at all, which was when she could “flash the red light.” But on those not-infrequent occasions when she wanted to make out and “fool around” but nothing more—she had no vocabulary for that. And over and over again, I took her reticence as a sign to “try harder” rather than to slow down. The blame for that rested on both of us.
Determining what another person really wants isn’t as easy as it should be. It’s further complicated by the reality that many women (and more than a few men) want to make their partners feel good—even if they don’t desire sex itself. Distinguishing between the desire to be desired, the desire to please a partner, and the desire for sex itself isn’t easy for any of us. Sometimes we need to do more than talk about what we want—we also need to clarify for ourselves and our lovers why we want it. That’s not easy, but it’s essential. We deserve that clarity.
Katie and I lived on different sides of campus; we each walked home separately from that devastating conversation in the café. I remember the guilt and the sadness I felt on that walk, but I also remember the determination I felt. I liked sex—I loved sex—but I knew I’d rather never have it again than have it with someone who was only doing it to soothe me, to please me, or because she couldn’t find the words to say “no” or “not now.” To the best of my imperfect ability, even at my most promiscuous, I have sought to live up to that promise I made to myself on the long walk home through the Berkeley streets.
I knew I hadn’t committed any crime. But the sense of sadness—tinged with disgust—at what Katie and I had conspired to allow to happen made me feel very much like an accidental rapist. Years of working with other men around issues of consent and sexuality have taught me I’m not the only one to have felt those feelings.
We all deserve better.