5 Stories of Affirmative Consent

Because everyone deserves to know what it looks like.

Photo by Michal Grosicki, courtesy of Unsplash. Text from Ulysses added by author.

I.

He was in town visiting for a conference. We met through a friend in our shared field. At a bar, we traded barbs and talked about our theses. I was a year ahead of him in school but he was my age. We had a similar sensibility, the same love of gross-out humor. Our mutual friend laughed over her drink and asked if I’d come to Ohio to visit her…and him.

He went with me to a club in a loud, bro-ish area of town. I didn’t know anywhere cooler to take him. I was 22, new in town, and trying to live a fulfilled life, which meant being adventurous and trying to drink a lot, though I was bad at it. The club was cast in red lights. It was dark, full of the usual tasteless pulsing music. Metal ivy covered some of the windows.

We danced and drank and sang at one another the few times a listenable song came on. Then he took my hips in his hands and we kissed in a corner, behind the dance floor. I was drunk, and so was he, and the lights were bright, then dark, then bright again. It seemed as though we made out for hours. It was probably all of twenty sloppy, sensual minutes.

He had a hotel room. I had an apartment. We walked toward the train and took multiple stops along the way to kiss and press one another’s bodies against a brick wall. He looked at me dreamily. Drunkenly. We got to the train.

He had a hotel room. I had an apartment. And I think I was more sober than him. I told him no, maybe tomorrow night. I wasn’t sure if I meant I needed a night to wrestle up the courage, or if I meant never. Really didn’t have a clue. He looked at me sadly. But he was calm. He asked if I was sure. I didn’t feel pressured. So I told him the truth: I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I was sure I didn’t want it that night.

He watched me walk into the train station, smiling at me, then caught a cab to his hotel. He sent me a Facebook message the next day, inviting me to another post-conference party. I didn’t answer. He didn’t hold it against me.

— — — —

II.

I knew him a little. We talked over text about the things we were going to do to one another. He was interested and I was interested. He was not an academic or a writer, he was a model, and his texts were not especially complicated. We traded a few pictures. I liked how he looked and he liked how I looked. We agreed to meet in public; we agreed where we’d be going afterwards, what we’d be doing.

We met up over drinks and discussed what we’d be doing. He was enthusiastic. I was still interested. I liked how he looked. We didn’t have much in common, nothing to talk about, but he liked that I seemed cheery and bright. After a drink, I asked when he wanted to head out.

We walked to the agreed upon location. He got a big gym bag out of his car, filled with objects he told me that he’d be bringing. As we approached the building, my nerves caught in my throat. I felt a sense of impending doom. He was walking alongside me, smiling up at the architecture. There was nothing foreboding in his actions. But suddenly the big bag full of objects was terrifying.

We went into the room. He put the bag down. Immediately, he was kissing me. My face was in his hands. His voice murmured about the the things we’d both agreed we would do. The things I said I wanted to do. His hands fluttered over my chest, lifted up my shirt, freed my breasts from my bra.

My arms hung at my side. The world was reverberating. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was having a reaction that victims of sexual trauma often have. I was dissociating. I was being triggered. I had been raped earlier that year, and my body and mind were still reeling.

When he saw the look on my face, and the limpness in my body, he stopped. My discomfort wasn’t theatrical, but it was obvious. I tried to kiss him with enthusiasm, tried to make it all seem genuine, tried to make myself okay, but my body couldn’t lie the way my lips momentarily could. He asked me if I was alright.

I pretended to look at my phone and concocted a lie about work and an emergency. It was transparent. He must have known. I couldn’t explain why I suddenly did not want to do any of the things I’d enthusiastically described for days via text message. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I couldn’t bring myself to say no. I didn’t understand where the no was coming from.

But he didn’t need me to explain it. He buttoned up his shirt and put his coat on. He grabbed the bag full of objects, which still shimmered with malice in my mind’s eye. He asked if I was okay, and I said yes. He left. He was not angry, or overly sullen. He didn’t emotionally withdraw. His posture didn’t change. His mannerisms didn’t shift. It didn’t seem like a blow to his ego at all. I was not scared of him. Still, when he was gone I felt relieved.

Later that night, he texted me, and apologized if he had made me feel uncomfortable. He said he would never want to do that to me. I told him he hadn’t done a thing wrong. It was the truth.

— — — —

III.

I’m naked in my high school boyfriend’s attic. We’ve been making out and dry-humping for a while on a dusty couch. He’s gotten up to check and make sure no one has come home. When he gets back I’m on my feet, in nothing but the blue-and-orange underwear that I think fit me so snugly they’ll convince him to lose his virginity with me tonight.

He likes what he sees. As far as I can tell. We make out for a while. But he is religious, and conflicted; he doesn’t even believe in masturbation. He doesn’t touch my chest. He’s held my breasts in his hands before, but always from under a shirt. Now that my body is bare and the reality is so close, he doesn’t advance the plot.

His kisses are still enthusiastic. But his hands don’t go any farther. Eventually he slows to a stop. I lie on his chest and stare out into the musty, cold room. I’m not angry or frustrated. I’m not disappointed. I don’t say anything to try and wheedle sex out of him. I thought tonight was the night, but I was wrong. I wonder if there is something unacceptable about me, or my body, but I don’t ask him that. I don’t try to have sex with him. I don’t try to advance things past what he’s comfortable with again.

A few months later, he dates someone new, and they have sex and get married very young. I wonder dimly what was different, but I don’t feel mad. I don’t feel cheated. Different things are different. I am all of 16, and my head is full of gravel and ignorance, but even I get that.

— — — —

IV.

My college boyfriend and I thought we were gonna have out first-ever threesome. Our friend was laid out on the couch in the guest room. She’d led us in there, our hands in hers. The music was thumping in the living room. We kissed her and she kissed both of us. She always seemed so confident, so full of agency; right then though, she was a bit passive, seeming to luxuriate in being the center of the scene.

She took her top off. We touched her chest, sucked on her nipples. We both kissed her. She smiled up at us, seeming blissful. She kissed back. She arched her back a bit. I’d never gotten so far, physically, with a girl before. The event seemed highlighted with importance, as so many firsts do when they are happening.

His hands went for the fly of her pants. He asked if he could take them off.

She said no. He seemed a little crestfallen, like he didn’t know what was gonna happen next, if not that. I backed off a bit, caressed her softly on the arm, not the chest. We laid next to each other for a while. He hovered over her, confused. Then he came to join us. He asked what we wanted to do. She didn’t say anything about what she wanted or didn’t want. So we didn’t do anything else. Later we got up, dressed, and danced together. I complimented her on her lipstick and she complimented me on my hair.

Later, she’d date him, and they’d have a good time together. When she was ready. When she actually wanted to.

— — — —

V.

I roll over and kiss my boyfriend on the lips. He kisses me back, small pecks, slowly with an open mouth but no tongue. We do this for a while. His kisses shorten into briefer, shallower pecks. We stop. He says he is tired. I kiss him on the cheek and hold him. We fall asleep. And nobody gets hurt.

We have been together for six years, going on seven, and we’ve given each other a lot of yesses and a lot of no’s and many of them have been nonverbal or implied, and yet nobody has been traumatized or mistreated.

I have learned a lot about consent from being with him. He was the first person to ask if he could kiss me. I had no idea people did that outside of old movies. When we had sex for the first time, I was the person who initiated it. And the second time, too. He never asked prying questions about what kind of sex I’d done or hadn’t done, how many people I’d been with, all the other details other men always felt entitled to. When he initiated sex, he always asked me what I wanted to do. When we were first dating, he would come over to see me once or twice a week, and sometimes he wouldn’t even initiate sex at all. I realized he was around for much more than that. I realized sometimes he didn’t want it. And that felt great to know, actually.

And after years of being treated like this, I have started to get that maybe it is the way a person ought to be treated. I have started to think it is the standard to which all people ought to be held.

And I have noticed how easy it is to pay attention to another person’s feelings, to attend to them, to make sure you aren’t hurting them, to make sure you’re only doing things that the both of you want. I’ve been doing some version of that my entire sexual life. And so has he. And it happens all the time, these nice, considerate behaviors, all around the world, in quiet moments that are filled with joy and comfort rather than fear, and it shouldn’t be remarkable, but in this world it is.

Photo edited by author.

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