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This piece contains discussions of rape and assault and may be triggering for some people.
On Saturday night, a friend of mine called me to talk.
“I went out with Hal tonight,” she said. She sounded mostly normal -- maybe a little slurry, in a two-fast-beers kind of way. “Before Charlotte’s birthday party.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said. I didn’t know Hal very well, but he was charming and decently attractive, and my friend was just seeing him casually.
“I went home with him,” she said. I heard her exhale, long and low.
“And?” I said. I’ve known this friend for a long time; I know what her breath sounds like when she’s shaken.
Long story short: My friend was uninterested in having penetrative sex and told Hal so. He agreed, and he somehow still ended up inside her before she shoved him off and left.
“I don’t know why when you say ‘No,’ guys hear ‘Try harder,’” my friend sighed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me neither.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up. I stared at the wall.
I was angry, I realized -- angry that this fucking scumbag of a man had ignored my friend’s explicit wishes and had pushed her and pushed her until he’d gotten what he wanted. I bet he was sleeping fine. He’d gotten her consent, after all.
Finally, I wrote on Twitter: “At what point do some dudes learn that ‘No’ means ‘Try harder?’ Asking for a friend. (PS: I am going to beat up a dude for that friend.”
The replies, when I got them, were astonishingly eloquent for a Saturday night. The first time they watch a rom com, one of my Twitmates suggested. When they’re encouraged to tease instead of respect boundaries, said another.
The lone dude, when he chimed in, had only this to say: “At the point when that works on some girls. Also, Skyfall shower scene.”
Two days later, I’m still thinking about that last one.
Chances are this guy thought he was being clever. I know this guy -- have kissed him, even -- and he doesn’t give the impression of being a rape apologist. But that Tweet, and his subsequent, chirpy “Sure!” when I asked him if I could quote him on it, have stuck with me, digging into the base of my skull like glass beetles.
“At the point when that works on some girls,” I keep repeating to myself. “At the point when that works on some girls, that’s when guys learn that a ‘No’ means ‘Try harder?’ How many girls has that worked on for you? How many times did it take?”
I don’t like to generalize. I love a lot of straight cis guys, honestly, as much as I grump about them sometimes. I know that there are women who behave just as badly, who ask what the victim was wearing when she was raped or whether she’d had sex before.
But it’s shit like this. Dudes who tell me that they’ve been “socialized to be sexually aggressive” in response to sexual assaults on college campuses, who remind us all that there are two sides to every story, who laugh-scream, “I’m gonna rape you,” at the TV while they’re playing Halo. There’s a pervasive need about them to edge away from taking charge of men's own actions, to blame society or alcohol or their sex partner’s drunkenness. In the play of their own minds, they don’t cast themselves as arbiters of violence. If anything, they’re children, stumbling along, sticking their chubby hands up skirts just because they have the gall to pass them by.
I want to shake them by the collar and tell them to grow the fuck up.
I am furious. I am furious at this need for “legitimacy,” this soft-tongued back-and-forth that lets childish cis men explain away their wrongdoings. I should feel less shocked, maybe, that the guy I vaguely knew as an editor at the rival college paper would listen to a woman hem and haw and finally relent to be penetrated for 40 seconds, and that he'd think nothing of sending her a smarmy text the next day.
I got too used to the boys in my life who think consent is sexy, who are always willing to take “No” for an answer instead of for a dare. I, like a lot of people who should know better by now, envision these other men as far-off monsters and am dismayed when they turn up having lived down the street all along.
Is sex that special and magical and fucking life affirming for people? That it forgoes all the charm and nuance and social cues that propelled you toward the bedroom in the first place? When I was growing up, I always heard that sex required “enthusiastic and informed consent.” Coerced consent is not enthusiastic. I can think of nothing in my life that would be so all encompassing of my senses that it would blind me to a truth as obvious as that one.
Yes, my Twitter acquaintance was right. Lots of women do refuse, and refuse, and finally relent to whatever sexual acts their partner was proposing. Some of them probably end up having a lot of fun. But maybe some of these women, like my friends, like me, are so focused on making a good impression that they let their boundaries slip. Maybe persuasion like that makes our breath grow tight, makes us anxious and scared, makes it easier to say “Yes” or nothing at all. Makes it clear just how easy it is to be liked. I'm not talking about sex acts that make me nervous or that need thinking over. I'm talking about sex acts that my partner is trying to talk me into, in that moment and despite my clear hesitation.
We have to remember, though, that if we were just to refuse outright, to get up and leave, to kick the dude in the balls and flee the premises, these stand-up young men would certainly back off then. It’s only our lackluster refusals that spur them on. It’s our responsibility. Or movies’, or our parents’ or every single episode of "Entourage." It’s never the person whose penis wants a fucking.
If men are capable of figuring out that James Bond movies are not real life, they should be damn well capable of telling the difference between fictional coercive fun-times sex and real-life coercive assault.
Am I wrong to be this angry? Are there nuances here I’m not seeing? Is this something with which a lot of men struggle?
Late, late on Saturday night, I texted one of my guy friends. “I apologize for the cryptic nature of this text,” I said, “But I just wanted to thank you for always being a stand-up guy when it comes to consent and stuff.”
“You shouldn’t have to thank me,” he replied. My thoughts exactly.
Kate is on Twitter at @katchatters.