A few words about sexual coercion, in the wake of the Aziz Ansari accusations
TW: Sexual assault, sexual coercion, oral sex, penetration
A guy I knew very well once spent the better part of several days begging me for sex. I was visiting from out of town, and staying in a house where he lived with several other friends of mine. Every night that I was there, he begged, bothered, asked, cajoled, coerced me for sex. He whined and touched me and followed me from room to room. He talked about how much he missed me and how much he wanted me. My discomfort was palpable. I said no many times. My body said no in dozens of ways — when I pushed him off, when I cried, when I left the room, when I grimaced and winced at his touch. No one — no one would struggle to interpret how I felt. My signals were not subtle. The very difficulty he was having was sign enough.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t care. He wheedled and begged and tried to convince me to give him something, maybe not penetration, but oral at least, or a hand job. My disinterest was something for him to negotiate down from. He flirted and complained. He moped and stewed. He kept me up at night. He even used the fact that it was his birthday to try and guilt me into doing what he wanted.
I never feared for my safety. I’d known him for years and didn’t see any signs of violence in him. I could have walked out…and then what? Gone out into the freezing night and hailed a cab and paid for a hotel? I was 22 or 23. I’d never done anything like that. But I could have done it. I could have woken up everyone in the house and made a big stink. I could have screamed my “NO”, made throat raw, made it more obvious, but it already was obvious. I could have just continued saying no and leaving the room endlessly until it was time to leave town. In theory I could have done a lot of things.
And yet. I still gave in. I gave him what he wanted. Well, I gave him something, anyway — after lots of begging and changing what he was asking for and trying to negotiate my “no” down to a passive “okay”, he managed to wheedle a miserable, unenthusiastic, brief encounter out of me. It was obvious I didn’t want to engage in it, didn’t enjoy it, and couldn’t wait for it to be over. But still. I guess he would say I consented.
I didn’t consent. I said no and then I said no and then I said…fine. I’ll do this one thing. If you’ll just please leave me alone.
I gave in because he was relentless and exhausting and manipulative and because saying “no”, and holding that “no” in the face of someone deeply resistant, is exhausting. And dispiriting. I was sleep deprived from his relentlessness, away from home and feeling unmoored, invalidated, and deeply frustrated. I gave in because having to keep fighting him was pretty much just as traumatic as doing what it took to make him stop begging.
It’s a horrible, cloudy, clotted feeling, giving yourself up like that. It makes you feel like your body and your “no” is a thing of no consequence. And, when the pressure is coming from someone you previously liked, it’s a despair-inducing experience. The sexual assault itself isn’t even the trauma that looms largest. It’s all the times the “no” was ignored or brushed off or renegotiated that really leaves a mark.
I’ve been through more violent and forceful sexual assault experiences than this one, but this one was as distressing as all the rest. I can still hear his voice saying — “I know you don’t want to, but don’t you *need* to?” as rubbed at my thighs. It wasn’t a threat. He was trying to convince me to see myself as horny. He thought he could make my body want it even after my brain and body had shut him down a dozen times. He patently didn’t care what I didn’t want. When I think about things rapists have said to me, that’s the quote that makes my blood run the coldest.
His disregard for my consent was so all-encompassing. It lasted days. It hung over my shoulder when I ate dinner with his parents. It dogged me during his birthday party. He was willing to stare down my disapproving, tired, crumpling face for dozens and dozens of hours, and keep pushing without relent. In fact, he saw my eye bags and fallen, dejected facial expression as a sign that he was winning the war of attrition. Every time he pushed, and re-asked a question that had already been answered, and begged, and complained, he was committing an assault. He just hadn’t gotten to the gratifying part of the assault yet.
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If you don’t think what Aziz Ansari did was coercive, you haven’t been in that kind of spot. Fucking good for you. But shut the fuck up about it. You don’t know. I’m glad for you, that you don’t know, but you need to shut up and listen to those of us who have knowledge on the subject.
People think that it’s the sex that’s the assault, but it’s not. It’s the ignoring a person’s feelings that is asssaultive. When someone ignores your discomfort, pushes themselves across one of your boundaries, or disregards your “no”, they have revealed they are willing to assault you. They might not be willing to be violent to accomplish it, but they’re sure as fuck willing to use subterfuge, disrespect, and psychological warfare to be able to do it.
You can never be in a safe or consensual sexual encounter once someone has made it plain that they don’t make your consent a priority. And here’s the thing: in any healthy sexual encounter, the number #1 priority is making sure you’re not raping the other person.
That goal is more important than being charming or seeming confident or being good in bed. It’s more important than remembering to brush your teeth or wipe your ass. It’s more important than remembering the name of the person you’re trying to sleep with. It’s the number one requirement. And it is so, so easy to fulfill if you treat it like the priority it is.
If the person you’re spending time with says no, you stop. If they don’t help you to “move things along” (i.e., if they don’t advance the sexual encounter), you slow down, don’t advance, or stop. If a person freezes up or looks faraway and glassy-eyed, you check in or stop. If someone doesn’t return your kiss with any passion, you stop. If someone removes themselves from you physically, you check in and do not begin sexual activity again without enthusiastic consent. If someone moves your hand away, you don’t put your hand back there. It’s all so easy. If you give a shit.
Aziz Ansari’s actions make it plain he did not consider the consent of this 23-year-old woman a priority. He followed her around, asked for sexual consolation prizes, convinced her to stay, ignored her “no”, kept moving his hands to places she didn’t want them, pressured her to undress, offered up “just chilling” as a way to placate her, reneged on that offer, and paid no attention to her clearly described physical distress. Any one of these behaviors would be a massive problem on its own. Taken together, it’s clear he was embarking on a long, effortful process of wearing someone down until he leeched a bit of gratification out of them.
Assault doesn’t have to leave bruises for it to be violent. A victim doesn’t have to fear for their life to be coerced. Sometimes coercion is annoyance and brow-beating and relentless demands. And yes, sometimes a person who does not want to have sex just…gives in, and lets the sex happen, because they know it’s the only way they will get out of the situation with ease.
It’s not that they’ve assented to being raped. They were already raped the moment the other person stopped respecting their desires. The sexual assault took place long before the sex act itself began. The assault started the moment an opportunist heard or saw a “no” and decided they’d try and turn it into a “fine”.