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I was sitting in a lecture hall of 250 people when I first realized that I had been sexually assaulted. My professor showed us a clip from a film where a young women’s boyfriend coerced her into having sex. She asked the class — was this young woman raped? I raised my hand and said no. The whole class turned to look at me. My professor asked, “Why do you think that?” “Well, they are dating and she didn’t directly say no.”
It was probably clear that my prior education about consent or assault was sparse. My professor haltingly explained what consent was to the class, while I diverted my eyes from hers. As she laid out the concept for the room, I felt horrified. I had just spent the last year of my life suffering silently in the same way that this woman had, and now I had recognition of what had been happening to me.
I was 19 and spent over a year in an abusive relationship that ended in violent threats and many nights sleeping on the floor of other peoples’ dorm rooms out of fear that he might find me in my own — even writing this brings up old fears that he will find me again. This unfortunately was just one of the many negative experiences that came flooding back to me during this class. When I was fifteen and at a friend’s sleeping, I awoke to a classmate trying to put his hands down my pants. When I was 17, I had bruises and cuts because I felt pressured not to complain during one of my first sexual experiences. In college, I had gone out on a date with someone and clearly and firmly told him that I did not want to have sex, but he went ahead anyway — I was one of the fortunate ones because he stopped when I was startled and scared. At 3 a.m. I was kicked out of a childhood friends’ house because I didn’t “put out” and he felt I was a tease for not having sex with him. Since then, I have been groped, feared for my life, and harassed in public places by strangers. These are just a few examples of the damaging ways that we treat women in our society. The list goes on and on — and I’m sure your own violations come to mind.
These stories are familiar to most of the women in my life. I personally do not know a single woman that does not have their own version of the above. Yet still, we are not all on the same page. Let me be clear — nobody owes you sex because they end the evening at your place. Just because you’re dating, it does not mean you can do whatever you want to another person. And if somebody says no, they mean it. They are not trying to be a tease. If someone is intoxicated, wait till the next morning — do not violate this person.
I think sometimes we try to make sense of the things that have happened to us along the way. For years, I grappled with several experiences I had that left me with traumas — and not just from one individual. In recent events, with our new administration and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh this brought up many memories I kept buried deep. Frankly, this has been one of the most alarming experiences I have had when it comes to sexual health for our nation. Specifically, how we treat victims of assault as a society and the tone it sets for our youth.
Statistically, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted and most assaults go unreported. I never reported any of mine because they lay in a “grey area.” I put these moments in an in-between place, where maybe I let it happen, where it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to somebody else. But let’s talk about this grey area, because what it really is, is a space somewhere between confusion and terror that leaves most of us in different degrees of broken.
Regardless of personal political opinions, we need to come together as a society to set clear standards on sexual consent. We need to show compassion towards those who have experienced sexual trauma and recognize the real bravery that it currently takes to come forward in a society where many men, and even some women, will challenge how broken you really are.
I now teach consent for a living. As a high school health teacher, it’s imperative that my students know their rights, and know how to respect their sexual partners and themselves; not only for their own sake, but to keep everybody safe by avoiding these grey areas. Fortunately, most students now receive mandated comprehensive sexual education in high schools, but this was missing for many of us when we were in school several years ago. I help this generation to gain valuable health and safety education, so that they don’t suffer like I did.
Rape Trauma Service (RTS) is an organization that serves the Bay Area with comprehensive education and services for victims of assault. I found several of their points on consent to be helpful, and I wanted to share them as most adults my age never received this type of education.
Sex is an important aspect of any intimate adult relationship. It can be a beautiful thing that bonds you to your romantic partner. It can also be the worst thing that has ever happened to you. To prevent this from happening, all you have to do is take one minute to ask for consent. This applies in all relationships, to all genders, and all sexual orientations. Consent does not discriminate. Consent creates a platform for communication, which is the foundation of a healthy relationship.
Here are some simple steps that you can follow:
The first rule of consent is an enthusiastic yes. Imagine if I were to say “you won a free trip to Italy, bring whoever you want on this private jet! Do you want to go?” Unless you hate delicious food and beautiful places, your answer would be “YES.” Not “umm, I don’t know,” not “I’m not sure.”
Speak your truth. If you’re nervous, tell your partner. If you’re not ready, tell your partner. If you start and then change your mind, tell your partner. If you do not like what your partner is doing, tell them. Keep in mind that not everyone expresses themselves in the same way, or even with words, so be sure to check in. Never feel that you have to do anything of a sexual nature to keep a partner — if that is the case, you aren’t in a healthy relationship.
The second rule of consent is that it is a process. Just because somebody gave you an enthusiastic yes last weekend — or even an hour ago — does not necessarily mean that they are still interested or that they owe you anything. You could be fifteen minutes into sex and you still have the right to change your mind. Respect this.
I have found that a lot of people do not like to ask outright, “Do you want to have sex?” I can promise you that this will not ruin the mood. You know what really ruins the mood? Assault or an unwanted advance. You can even text your partner if you are nervous. There is no excuse for not asking. Do not ever assume, “Well, they said no, but it seemed like they were interested.” That is not consent, and it is another grey area that we need to stop perpetuating. Here’s another one to dispel — just because someone consented to a particular type of sexual act, does not mean that they give consent for another. For example, if you and your partner agreed on using a condom with oral or vaginal sex and you take off that condom, then no, you no longer have consent. You also do not have consent for anything other than these two things. So ask and check in if you want to try something different. Be kind and be compassionate.
Thirdly, consent equates to free will. If someone doesn’t feel they have the choice to say no, that is not free will. If you throw a fit because somebody won’t have sex with you and they engage so as to not deal with the fight that it will cause — that is not consent. Threats of outing someone’s sexuality, calling authorities, involving money, the list goes on. Their “yes” should be sincere and should be theirs to give.
I hope this helps to clear up the grey area. If you are unsure, just ASK. We all can agree that as humans we should be compassionate and respectful with one another. It’s scary that one person can have such a negative lasting effect on someone else’s life. But I will say that time helped me to heal and that despite some narratives, there are many, many good men out there. Men that will change your experiences. Men who take the time to build your trust and hold you in compassion. Men who practice respect and kindness when touching women. As a society, we must celebrate those men; allies to women and allies to consent. Having healthy relational experiences where I have been safe and felt respected has helped my own anxieties. With time, the nightmares faded too. Finding someone who was kind and loving led me to learn that I could trust myself again to keep myself safe.
Reach out for help in whatever way is right for you when you are ready. When I did, I found that I was a survivor and a fighter and not a victim. So many of our traumas are silenced within us. They become heavy and unkind. We try to think that they do not define us, but I found they were a part of me. Every day, my experience shapes every relationship that I have. After years of hard work, I walked away a survivor. Now this experience is a part of me as a strength in the way that I carry and care for myself. I no longer make excuses for other people’s poor behavior. I hope you remember this and are able to put the past and the pain away enough to feel peace again.
We can stay hopeful in the work that many of us are doing to spread awareness and practice safer sex. A brighter and safer future is possible. It starts with consent and six words, no matter how awkward you feel — “do you want to have sex?”
If you still need some light shed on the concept of consent, take a look at this epic video about tea.
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