In a recent interview on All Things Considered, Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, talked with NPR about Betsy DeVos’s recent decision to roll back the Obama Administration’s Title IX guidelines on how colleges should handle sexual assault. She said that through interviewing more than 100 college students across the country for her book,
What I found on campus were a lot of very murky situations. There’s a boy from two floors down in your dorm who comes into your room one night and gets in bed with you and starts groping you. There’s a football party where a cheerleader may sleep consensually with a football player, but then his two friends come in the room, and she isn’t down with that.
What Grigoriadis described wasn’t my college experience. I didn’t date, wasn’t sexually active, and didn’t go to parties. My “murky situation” came when I was 28, several years after I graduated.
I had been in an off-again/on-again relationship with a man I’ll call Brian for about four years. In one of the “off” times, I started dating and fell in love with someone else. I was still in love with someone else when Brian convinced me to dump him and re-enter an “on” phase. He persuaded me through means I knew were controlling and manipulative, and when I told him I wouldn’t be controlled by him, he tried another manipulative tactic. He cried. It worked.
Brian asked if we could make love one more time before I left him forever. I agreed.
I wanted to do it for the good times. I wanted the good times back, to be in that moment when Brian and I went to an amusement park, got on a kiddy ride, and he screamed just to be silly as incredulous eight-year-olds stared at us. That day I said, “If I didn’t love you, I’d be embarrassed.” It was the first time I had said any variation of, “I love you,” to him.
I think now he was hoping that through passionate lovemaking, we could retrieve that moment, but without feeling what I had felt in that moment, I couldn’t get through passionate lovemaking. I couldn’t even fake it.
Our “one last time” didn’t go as either of us had planned. We were in my bed. He said, “I love you so much.” He kissed me. He was inside me. He kissed my neck and breasts and the usual things he’d done before and then suddenly, he stopped moving. I turned my head to face him and looked directly in his eyes.
“Do you want me to stop?” Brian asked. “Yes,” I said.
I was relieved he had asked. Brian would tell me years later his memory of that night, “I looked at you, and you just had this glazed, vacant look on your face, like you weren’t even there.” I didn’t will myself to be somewhere else in my head, but my thought as I had turned my head so he could kiss my neck was indeed, “I don’t want to be here.” I had wanted him to stop, to never start, but I didn’t feel like I could ask that. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like I had the right to, after we’d already started. It was more like it had never occurred to me that I would want to stop him, and I didn’t know how to process or articulate the shift from, “Yes, one last time,” to, “I don’t want to be here.”
My plan had been to remind myself to smile and act like I was enjoying myself when he brought his eyes back up to mine, but I couldn’t. He had read my mind, my face, and my body. They all said, “No,” even when my vocal cords and mouth couldn’t.
Sex can be casual, and casual sex can be fun, but I want every woman to have a partner who’s invested enough in her feelings—in her humanity—that they know when she’s not feeling them. And when they know that, no matter where in the act they get this revelation, they should stop, just as Brian did. He skipped the exasperated huff, the complaint, “You’re kinda pushing me out,” the command, “Relax!” He knew body language is consent and that my body language wasn’t giving it.
In a conversation also years later and not about that night, he said that “no-indicators mean ‘no.’ If you say, ‘Yes,’ but you’re crying, that means no. If you say, ‘Yes,’ but your demeanor, your body language says no, that’s actually a no. I don’t like ambiguity, and I think it’s wrong to not walk away” from sex when ambiguity is present.
I think it’s wrong, too. Murkiness may not be criminal or deserving of a lifetime label as a sexual predator, but young men (because that’s usually the assailant’s gender) must be held accountable for disregarding it. Ending rape culture and uplifting humanity depends on us holding each other to basic standards of respect—and bonus: accountability would give us all better sex and intimacy, too.
How different that night was from the times Brian and I both, with every part of our bodies, from vocal cords, to muscles, to skin, to genitals, had said, “Yes.”