By Steph Auteri
The first time I had sex, I didn’t say “no.” I didn’t say “stop.” But I didn’t say “yes” either, and the silence pressed down on my chest, leaving me terrified as I lay there in the dark, my then-boyfriend tugging down my shorts, his boxers whispering down his legs. He straddled me. I held my breath, squeezing my thighs together. He pushed his way inside me anyway.
I cried when it was over. And for years afterward, the effects of our protracted sexual relationship were like aftershocks in my psyche, leaving me afraid of sex, even with those I trusted.
Still, I never thought to call it “rape.” I never thought to call it “sexual assault.” I just classified it as a terrible experience, and left it at that.
But as I look at my 8-month-old now, scared of all the ways she might possibly grow up to be hurt, scared of all the ways I can’t protect her, I wonder how I will teach her about consent. Or even what I will teach her about it.
Cases of sexual assault and issues of consent have been especially visible as of late. The University of Virginia was thrust into the spotlight when Rolling Stone ran an article about an alleged gang rape on campus that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite. The victim subsequently found herself in the hot seat when details of the story were later called into question, and thus began a public brouhaha over the perceived proliferation of false rape accusations—not to mention the definition of rape—giving us all a vivid picture of why victims of sexual assault are often hesitant to come forward.
Since then, California State University in Los Angeles has publicized its attempts to educate students about consent, and bills have been passed that redefine both what consent is and how sexual assault cases should be approached. Still, things remain confusing for everyone involved.
For one thing, the definition of sexual assault still differs from state to state and, in some cases, is used interchangeably with that of rape. So it’s no wonder there are so many of us out there who don’t know how to define our own experiences.
Not only that but, in cases where women don’t explicitly say no to the person initiating sex, their bodies may still lead the initiator to think the woman “wants it.” Research on genital nonconcordance has been available for years now, showing that physical signs of arousal do not necessarily equal desire. But the culture at large has, for the most part, ignored this so that even the victims of sexual assault feel guilt and confusion because of the ways in which their bodies reacted.
But what really terrifies me is the knowledge—come by firsthand—that not everyone who doesn’t want sex says so out loud. In Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.’s forthcoming Come As You Are, the author writes about the fight or flight response, explaining that it’s more like fight, flight, or freeze. “Sexual violence often doesn’t look like what we think of as ‘violence,'” she writes. “There is coercion and the removal of the targeted person’s choice about what will happen next. Survivors don’t ‘fight’ because the threat is too immediate and inescapable; their bodies choose ‘freeze’ because it’s the stress response that maximizes the chances of staying alive… or of dying without pain.”
Reading these words, I’m brought back to that dark basement. The whisper of his shorts sliding down his legs. The way I squeezed my thighs together, even while remaining silent.
How can I teach my daughter about consent when I myself was afraid to overtly withhold it? Andrea Bonier, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today of teaching your children to ask permission for hugs and kisses. Teaching them that words like “no” and “stop” are “important words to be honored.” But will this be enough? Will modeling consent in other areas of her life—the clothing she chooses, the snuggles she accepts—be enough? Will teaching her that only she owns her body do the trick? Will using the appropriate terminology for various body parts make a darn bit of difference?
Or can I only hope that, someday, our culture won’t see it as the woman’s sole responsibility to say “no”? That those initiating sex know to wait for more than just the absence of a “no”?
I would like to be able to trust that those she allows into her orbit will wait for her to shout her “yes” out loud, with her voice, with her body, with her whole heart.
But I’m scared. I’m scared because I know that no matter what I teach her, there will be those who may see fit to take her choice away from her.
Steph Auteri’s work has appeared in Playgirl, Time Out New York, New York Press, Mamalode, and other publications. These days, she spends most of her time collaborating with sexuality professionals, blogging about motherhood for mom.me, and teaching yoga. You can learn more at stephauteri.com, read her sporadic personal posts at Mamaste, or follow her on Twitter.
Photo: Nicole Mason