Woe Is Me! “Is It Consensual Sex If He Keeps Asking Till I Say Yes?”
Woe Is Me! is a series in which The Swaddle team indulges your pity party with advice you’ll probably ignore.
“If I say no to a guy a few times, but he eventually convinces me to say yes, is it sexual assault? Even when I did do it, I was waiting for it to get over and it made me feel gross. I feel like I forced myself to do it rather than him forcing me, and it feels like my fault.“
— How Do I Know?
SK: You might be tempted to believe so — but it isn’t your fault. Say that and believe that. I’m not going to dive into the ambiguity around what is and isn’t assault, but anything that makes you feel violated and “gross” needs immediate intervention. Break down the past events that have led you to say yes: what changed your mind? what factors were at play? Were you in an unfamiliar environment, are you scared of hurting him, did he emotionally coerce you? Trace it back to what flips your ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ and start there. Remove yourself from situations that might end up with the two of you alone or cut him off completely. Him “convincing” you to do this is forcing, even if a mild version of it. No one should have to convince you to be intimate with them! You’re not gross, you’re not guilty. Remember!
DR: It very much isn’t your fault. It’s called ‘giving in,’ and that doesn’t exactly demonstrate free will. And I think the best marker of it not being consensual is: (a) you didn’t want to do it; and (b) you were waiting for it to get over like it was an ordeal or a chore. Did you feel like you had no option, but to give in? If so, it’s coercive. The threat doesn’t have to be violence or confinement, for an act to be coercive; it could simply be a form of emotional backlash that you’re afraid of. You said that you feel you forced yourself to do it, rather than him forcing you — but was it not the fear of how he would react that made you force yourself? If it helps, instead of looking at it as being ‘forced’ into it, you can look at it as being ‘bullied’ or ‘manipulated’ into it.
I do understand, however, that you feel you’re at fault. Unfortunately, a lot of us have not only endured what you’ve just described but also felt the same way afterward. But please trust me: it isn’t your fault. While it may be difficult for you to perceive this as coercion — especially given that pop culture paints a very black-and-white, often violent picture of it, coloring our opinions that same way — a disregard for your consent is also a violation of your consent.
KB: You just described an incredibly ubiquitous experience, and it’s one that causes almost everyone to second-guess themselves. But despite the circumstances, one thing is clear: nothing about this is your fault. That said, just because you did not particularly enjoy a sexual experience, or you couldn’t wait for it to be over, or you regretted it later — those things don’t by themselves mean you were assaulted.
What is concerning here is the way you describe the coercion. However, even this is a really tricky issue for someone to parse without more information — how he “eventually convinces” you is very relevant to whether this rises to the level of criminal assault. Regardless of those circumstances, though, even in a best-case scenario, it sounds like this person does not respect your boundaries, and is not paying attention to your stated desires, which means you should probably not see him anymore.
LG: It certainly sounds like a mental assault, at the very least. Legally, it doesn’t sound like sexual assault. But ethically and emotionally? His behavior is offensive. Unfortunately, I think your question is one a lot of women ask themselves at some point in their lives. It’s an experience that’s not discussed enough, though society is slowly starting to acknowledge that legal definitions of sexual assault don’t cover the full range of not-okay sexual experiences. A very gray area of unacceptable-but-legal behavior and uncomfortable-but-not-coerced feelings exists.
I’ll just leave you with this: Just because you feel like it’s your fault, doesn’t mean it is. He still holds a lot of blame here. Sure, you made the decision — but his pressure created the situation. Harassing someone to have sex with you to the point they feel the only way to escape the harassment is to agree? Manipulative, gross, and unacceptable. I hope this experience holds more learning and self-compassion for you than it does trauma. Stay strong and thoughtful, starshine.
AS: I feel it’s tricky to comment on this situation, based on the limited information I have here. But one thing I can say for certain: it’s not consent if you’ve been pressured or worn down, or when it’s too exhausting to keep saying ‘no,’ and much easier to just say ‘yes.’ Consent is when both parties are actively interested and invested. That’s why it’s very important to keep communicating, setting verbal and non-verbal cues with any sexual partners.
In my opinion, whether or not it was sexual assault is a very heavy question, and it would be remiss of me to comment on that so casually. You say you were the one who ‘forced’ yourself into it, but I would further ask this: what drove you to that point? Why did you feel compelled to say ‘yes’? Asking these questions might make you understand that it maybe wasn’t your ‘fault’ at all. What is your equation with this person now? If you’re still in touch, you could consider talking to them and telling them that how they approached it made you feel uncomfortable. (Though of course, this is giving them the benefit of doubt and assuming they’re a decent human being.) We might not be able to resolve what’s already happened, but we can definitely try to make sure they know to differentiate a simple ‘yes’ from an active, enthusiastic ‘yes!’ in the future.