Did I Consent?

A reader asks ‘did I consent’? It’s a complex story with a complex answer. There aren’t any graphic descriptions of any particular sexual activities here.

A reader asks, ‘did I consent’?

Hi I’m 19 and last year was my freshman year of college. During that time I left a religion that taught me anything sexual (not just sex) before marriage was a sin. Even though I didn’t believe anymore, the guilt was still there when I started dating this guy. He was different than any guy I’d dated because he was very open about wanting to have sex. I had always thought I’d wait until marriage and had no sex Ed so I was really uncomfortable with the idea of doing it so early on in our relationship.

He knew I didn’t want to and told me my consent was really important to him and he’d “let me drive” however I still felt a really intense pressure from him. He’d tell me he was horny or talk about how easy it would be for him to just take his shirt off and later for me to take off mine.

….

Very slowly I allowed him to take his clothes off, and mine, but we left the underwear on. Pretty much every time we hung out we would make out and grind on each other. I was uncomfortable with this almost every time. I was scared because it seemed like we were getting there and he had come a few times (the first time this scared me because I didn’t know what that was) and I was worried we would have sex eventually. 

He said we were taking it really slow (even though we’d only been dating less than a month) but when we finally had it the buildup would have been amazing. I never let it happen though and eventually he dumped me after a month of dating when nothing happened. We never actually had sex but I still somehow feel sexually used and this was months ago but it still bothers me.

I thought that because I didn’t stop him I had consented even though I didn’t like it, but now I’m not sure because I did feel all this pressure from him. He was also very aware of my religious situation and I told him that every morning I would wake up and feel guilty like there was a voice in my head calling me a sl*t. I hate using that word but that is the one I heard. Because he knew this, should he have been more tactful? Or was it ok since I didn’t stop him? Did I consent at all? I guess I’m just really confused and bothered by this.

My answer

Hiya

Thanks for trusting me to give you a good answer to this really important set of questions. I hope I do a good job! 

Before I answer your questions, it sounds like you’ve been having a pretty difficult time relating to your sexuality generally. How have you been coping? What have you been doing to help you get through it? Writing to me about this tells me that you’re brave, curious, determined, thoughtful, and reflective. What do you think?

I can’t tell you exactly what happened, that’s just something for you to think about. What I can do is to try to help you to understand what happened for you. Perhaps you might be able to make use of my advice. For now and also in any future relationships you may have. 

I think that it’s more useful to think about consent as a continuum. Which means instead of consent being absent or present, we could instead think ‘could there have been more of it?’ This means thinking about consent as a process of lots of different things. Things we do which might increase our capacity for joy (or pleasure, or enjoyment). 

There are loads of resources on here for you to help you think about this. Like this one about how to plan for a really great first time sexual experience. How much of this was happening? Could he have paid more attention to whether this was good for you? What could he have done to make it a little bit easier for you to say that you weren’t enjoying it? Was there enough trust between you? How could this pressure on you have been reduced, even just a little bit?

These things don’t have to always be verbal conversations either. There are lots of different ways which we communicate with each other, paying attention to how our bodies react, listening to noises, seeing facial expressions, how enjoyment emerges between us. 

Have a read of this about how to feel joy.

Having to give permission

I think perhaps he could have done more to make your encounters more consensual. If he knew that you didn’t really want to have sex at all, then he could have said ‘okay, well I really do like having sex so perhaps we aren’t well suited.’ I don’t know how the conversations around sex went, but if he was just trying to get your permission the whole time, to get your consent, then that’s not a lot of consent. 

If your choices are ‘do you want to do this, or not’ then that is a lot of pressure. It’s hard to say no. Especially if he says ‘oh and by the way I really really want to do this’ (either verbally, or with his body). Sadly, when we do get Sex Ed this is often what we are taught about consent. That ‘yes means yes, no means no’. Or ‘get permission from someone first’.

This ‘get permission from them’ consent is not great because it puts pressure on the ‘giver’ of permission. It also reduces consent to a one off (or a series) of Y/N decisions. Instead we could see consent as a mix of verbal and non-verbal communications that we do before, during, and after an activity which increases our capacity for joy. 

There’s more here about sex talk and communication and this guide on how to ask.

The ‘should stories’

This version of consent also reproduces ‘the should story*’ for sex where one person is active and the other passive. You might be familiar with this because we see it everywhere in society, particularly when we are told stories about gender. The really best sex (or I think any activity) is when we can get over this and both actively do things together. Where there is a melting of the ‘you’ and the ‘other’ and a flow of co-created good times. Proper consent, increases the capacity for this to happen. 

*I like to talk about ‘should stories’ here at BISH. These are the stories that tell us what we should be doing, which have nothing to do with what is right or wrong, but just what we are told is ‘normal.’ 

Bad sex ed plus gendered ‘should stories’ can really cause a lot of harm and contribute to situations like yours. This is not to excuse his behaviour, his lack of care or tact, but it’s a really important factor. 

Hey I have a book about this too. It’s called Can We Talk About Consent?

The ‘next step’ should story

There’s another should story in society too that also comes up in your story. The ‘next step’ story, which is ‘when you’ve completed this level, you should go to the next one up’. See also the ‘first base, second base, third base, fourth base’ should story. It should always be okay to stay at the level we are at, or drop back down, or just to do something else entirely. 

This ‘next step’ should story is another example of where society closes down our capacity to act. It reduces our capacity for joy because it isn’t inviting us to try new things if we want to, but telling us we should. If he was able to resist this story and to do more consent he might have said: ‘I’m really happy just doing grinding, but really, how are you feeling about it?’ 

So you were under a lot of pressure to give permission to things, from him, the idea of ‘what you are supposed to do in a relationship’, should stories, and bad sex education. I’m being careful not to retell this should story  about you either. I don’t want to say that you were only ‘done to’ and had limited capacity for joy. So here are a few things for you to think about so that you can see what resources you do have.  

You didn’t have sex

In your eyes (which is the most important here) you didn’t have sex. Even though you were being put under a great deal of pressure to do it. Thinking back, what were you pleased to notice about yourself in doing that? You set boundaries and even though he was pushing them you ‘never let it happen.’ What did you do to make that not happen? How did you articulate your wants at the beginning of the relationship? 

Dealing with guilt about sex is hard, particularly if it’s drummed into your head from an early age. What are you pleased to notice about you handling it? You found this website and asked me a question, what does that say about your relationship to yourself?

You might find this resource about how to feel shame (and guilt) helpful, because sometimes we really have nothing to feel shame about.

[Side note: the voice you heard every morning is not you. It’s just one of the negative words we hear about women who have sex (outside of marriage, or for reasons other than procreation). Because these words are repeated to us over and over again in society (TV, film, newspapers, websites, religion, people around us, school, university, politicians) they can seep into our heads. It doesn’t accurately describe you. It’s just a sexist made up story, try not to pay it any attention.]

Almost every time

You say that you felt uncomfortable with the sex you were having (grinding with underwear on) almost every time. It can be useful to pay attention to the exceptions sometimes. (Feel free to skip this if it’s too much.) Those little moments when things were not so bad. You might want to think about the time/s when you weren’t uncomfortable. What was happening between you? Were you able to do something which made this a little bit more comfortable for you? Did he do things to make it more comfortable? 

What were you doing in the lead up to it? Can you remember anything that was different? Did you change how you did something? Where were you? Can you describe the environment? Were there words or phrases that just made you feel a bit more comfortable? How were you touching each other? Was there just a little bit more care being taken? At the moment where you felt most relaxed, what was happening?

Learning your sexual self

Sadly, most people have had bad sex ed. Bad sex ed makes people feel ashamed, or guilty about sex. It prevents people from talking about what they want or need. Bad sex ed also just gives people the script for sex, which makes consensual and joyful sex really difficult to have. It doesn’t sound like he had good sex ed. 

But the good news is that people have really great romantic and/or sexual relationships despite the really bad sex ed. By really great, I mean, really great for them. People learn from each other and from the relationships that they have and just keep persevering. Aeroplanes never fly on one direct flight path, the pilots are constantly adjusting and readjusting their course. Try to think about this for you. Learn what you can about yourself from this relationship and try to be kind to yourself as you do. 

Learn from other parts of your life too

Also, we can also learn about our selves from other parts of our lives. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and you really are in the driving seat of your life. What would you notice, as you go about your day, that you are driving? From waking up in the morning to going to bed, just pay attention to the little tiny things that tell you you are driving. 

As you learn what it feels like to drive, as you emerge a bit more, you might meet other people. These people might be able to listen to you more, to not just “let you drive” but to make it easier for you to drive. Then you can do the same for them too and slowly allow for co-created good times to emerge between you too. This might be sex, or not sex, (whatever that means for you) and still allows you to feel comfortable and true to your values. 

There’s a really great PhD about this called Her Sexual Self and I interviewed the author of it for my podcast for adults here https://soundcloud.com/culturesexrelationships/her-sexual-self-joy-townsend 

We’ve chatted about this so I know you’ve found this helpful, but dear reader I hope you find it helpful too! Please share it if you did and consider supporting BISH too.

Comment below if you like. I moderate all comments before they appear, just so you know!

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Justin Hancock

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