Jane is out with Tom on their -th date and they go back to his apartment where they start to hook up. He asks if he should get a condom. She says no, she doesn’t want to sleep with him tonight. (She says ‘tonight’ whether she means it or not because she doesn’t want him to dump her immediately, thinking he’ll never get any). He gives her a smile, caresses her cheek, and says “ok, that’s fine.”
This is about the time when Tom starts to stroke his own ego. He thinks to himself, “I am such a good guy. I can’t believe those jerks who would push themselves on her. More women should recognize what a good guy I am. In fact, why can’t more men be more like me? Look at me being all respectful and all. I’m even sticking around, to show her how ok with this I am. God, I’m a good person.”
Jane, in the meantime, is breathing a very quiet sigh of relief. “That wasn’t so bad,” she thinks. “Look, he’s even sticking around – he didn’t get up and leave the second I said no. He didn’t make me feel guilty, he didn’t ask me why not. He asked permission first, and was perfectly gracious when I said no. What a good guy.”
And they’re both feeling pretty good about what a good guy Tom is.
About 10 minutes later, Tom notes that Jane is getting increasingly involved with him and is clearly feeling very, very good about what they are doing. He knows that women are kind of shy sometimes, and as well that sometimes women change their minds about such things. He asks, “Are you suuuuure about that condom?”
This is about the time when I want to punch Tom in the face.
This is because men – and often women – do not understand the difference between forcing a woman to have sex, and pressuring a woman to have sex. So long as the man is not physically and violently forcing himself into her while she screams and cries and fights, we think of it as being completely and 100% consensual.
Being a woman requires always being on defense. Walking down the street during the day means you have to be on ready alert to glare at any man who harasses you. Walking down the street at night means perpetually doing reconnaissance about your surroundings, all the while gripping your keys or mace or other weapon of choice. Being at the office means you need to be cautious about being too friendly with men who may misinterpret your smile as an invitation to sexually harass you, and being on the metro means you need to be wary of standing too close to men who are taller than you because they’ll most likely try to look down your shirt. It’s actually quite exhausting.
So once Jane has decided that Tom is a good guy and she has nothing to fear from their interaction, her defenses come down. She tucks them neatly away and enjoys herself. And it’s such a relief to not have to hold them up so high and so ready. Until Tom drops the bomb: “Are you suuuure about that condom?”
And suddenly Jane needs to dig down deep and throw up those defenses again in the blink of an eye. What’s the big deal, you ask? All she needs to do is say “no”. But in asking her to say it once again, what Tom is really doing is pressuring her, albeit in a cutsey (read: “manipulative”) way. He is forcing her into a position where she has to deflect his advances, where she has throw up her defenses and repel his charms – his engaging smile, his soft touch – everything he’s using to convince her that he isn’t a threat and that she should consent to sleeping with him.
Jane isn’t a thousand percent ready for this onslaught, but she rallies her defenses in time. She gives him a flirtatious laugh and says “yes, I’m sure.” She laughs to show him that she’s not a bitch. She smiles flirtatiously because she’s worried about bruising his extremely fragile ego and making him feel rejected. And so she laughs and smiles to stay on his good side. And Tom, seeing Jane laugh, has no idea that he’s made her uncomfortable. They resume whatever level of intimacy they were at. And 10 minutes later, he says, “Ok, so I’m NOT trying to pressure you. All I’m saying is that you look really, really amazing, and it’s really, really hard for me not to want you. I promise I’ll be gentle . . .”
Maybe Jane doesn’t sleep with him that night, but she goes further than she’d originally intended to because now she knows that he really would have rather slept with her. That he’ll keep asking her, and maybe if she gives him at least a little something, he won’t ask so often. She can buy herself some time, or else at the very least convince him that she’s not a bitch who was just teasing him.
Tom is probably a good guy. He probably sees himself as a feminist, as uniquely respectful of women. He probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, or that he was in any way pressuring her. But men need to consider the position they put us in when they ask over and over again if we want to sleep with them. When they smile and coyly promise to treat us well, to make us breakfast in bed even, if only we’ll come home with them. Men need to realize that they are not hearing the word ‘no’.
And men and women both need to recognize what pressure looks like. It’s not rape as we commonly think of it. It’s not violent, it’s not by a stranger, and it’s not usually malicious. I don’t think men do this because they are misogynistic or because they hate women or because they don’t respect us. They just don’t realize that they are making us defend ourselves, that they are making us resist them, over and over and over again. That is pressure.
Women will have different rules regarding how many times they feel is ok to ask without it turning into pressure. As far as I’m concerned, better safe than sorry – that means that it’s ok for a man to ask once, and after that he should not bring it up again until the next encounter, at which time I may feel differently. Sure, maybe a man is right sometimes. Maybe the woman he’s with is too shy to say she wants it, or doesn’t know how to express it. Heck, maybe she even does change her mind (for those who are unaware, that actually is allowed). But even if all of those things are true – better safe than sorry.
The worst that will happen? You won’t have sex that time. I promise you’ll survive the night.
* After renewed interest in this blog post several weeks ago, and much interesting conversation in the comments section, I wrote the below as a response to the very respectable and reasonable points brought up by many of my readers.
My own thinking on this topic has developed quite a bit since I originally wrote this piece after a series of bad encounters with men who didn’t seem to understand what was wrong with asking me such leading questions over and over. Putting me constantly on defense and constantly having to explain myself – as though if I couldn’t articulate in that exact instance an argument they found compelling, I had no right to be refusing them. And so I wrote this piece and received quite a lot of feedback.
I believe ultimately, what it comes down to is not just communication or even over communication, but a question of HOW we communicate about sex, particularly with people who we don’t know very well. I realized after a lot of reflection (long after I wrote this piece), that the reason I felt so strongly about Jane’s verbal “no” is because I am a very verbal person (I am, after all, a writer). I experience the world around me using words and sentence construct and take verbal indications very seriously. To me, a verbal “no” always overrides a physical “yes.” And because part of human nature is assuming other people are like you (do onto others, etc.), I have been assuming that other people are verbal people as well – or even, that men have NOT had encounters with women who were not exactly like me, and perhaps, for whom, a physical “yes” (pulling him in, starting up again), does hold the same weight as the verbal “no”, (if not more), and ergo it was perfectly acceptable for Tom to have assumed Jane wanted to continue.
But a few notes on that. First of all, while it’s possible that such encounters no longer make me feel incredibly, incredibly angry at Tom, I still believe there are better ways of ascertaining how Jane is feeling than by asking pressuring questions. “Are you sure?” “Don’t you think it’d be good?” “Don’t you trust me?” “Why not?” “How do you know you won’t like it with me until you’ve tried it?” “Have you figured out yet why you keep saying no to me?” etc., are all phrases I’ve heard from men (often in rapid succession over the course of the night), and are all phrases I find unacceptable with someone you respect. They’re pressuring – pure and simple.
But there are other ways. If you need ask for clarification because her physical signals seem contrary to her verbal indication, why not ask your questions in a more open-ended way? Here are some examples: “Did you change your mind?” “Do you want me to touch you here?” “Is this ok?” “where you do you want this to go now?” or even “I’m confused – can you help me out?” These are all questions that I (and I know many of my girlfriends) appreciate hearing from someone they’re involved with – it shows you care, it shows you are engaging us as people and not as sex objects, and it doesn’t pressure us to give one answer or another, but often demands that we take even further responsibility for our actions and don’t leave everything up to you.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of how we communicate. Some people are simply not verbal people, and they’re better at communicating via actions than words. Let’s be honest, that’s half the flirting fun – giving physical signals of desire. And of course, when you engage in such physical activity with someone you don’t know that well, you risk that there may be differences in communication styles, and even expectations.
That said, we need to have some generally accepted parameters, so that what starts out as pressure (wrong – I believe – but often not illegal), does not become rape, which is both illegal and wrong. And because physical signals and cues are too often misconstrued, the law has determined that verbally communicating “no” always overrides other forms of communication.
Personally, given unacceptably high levels of sexual violence in our culture, I’m more a supporter of what feminist activist Jaclyn Friedman calls a “Yes Means Yes” culture, over a “No Means No” culture. Why? Because even our legal system is nowhere close to recognizing the problems inherent with “no means no.” Just a few weeks ago, a judge in Connecticut overturned the conviction of a man who had sexually assaulted a severely mentally disabled girl who could not speak. Why? Because the judge claims this girl could have kicked or bitten or done something else to indicate to him that she did not consent. Actually, the judge says she must PROVE she did those things.
Even though women are often taught that it is more dangerous to fight back. Even though being sexually assaulted can be incredibly frightening and often paralyzing. Even though this severely mentally disabled woman had approximately the mental capacities of a 12 year old. Let’s be real – not for a second do I believe that a man who is forcing himself on a severely disabled woman would have stopped suddenly if she had kicked him. Or presuming she did, been able to prove that she kicked him.
Which is why “yes means yes” is so much safer. I’m not in any way saying we should all have to sign notarized consent forms for each and every physical activity, but the point is that if you respect the person you’re with, you’re better off recognizing what pressure looks like, thinking first and foremost about whether you BOTH want what is happening, and what the best way is of ascertaining that.
A final note: This is, admittedly, a very heteronormative article and equally so response. Not because I do not believe such issues are a part of the homosexual community, but because being straight, I’m not in a position to comment on them from personal experience. But no one should leave this discussion believing that gay couples automatically do not face such issues. And going along with that, while I do believe these issues (as all are involving sexual violence), impact women as the victims and men as the aggressors more often than the flip, no one should leave this discussion believing that these scenarios cannot or do not play out in the reverse as well. Plenty of women are aggressive and pressuring about sex, and plenty of men will find themselves in Jane’s situation as well.