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Saying Nothing Doesn’t Mean Yes

The world needs more sexual education and more conversations about sex. As girls and women, we are told to be polite and to always think of the other person’s feelings. While these are not bad things, they can be when it comes to sex. We grew up watching Disney movies showing princesses being saved by princes. At some point, we (or maybe just me) began assessing our worth by whether or not someone was attracted to us or whether we were in a relationship. Combine being polite with attraction and relationship-based worth and what you have is an atomic bomb of potential sexual trauma.

When I think back to my own sexual experiences, there were so many times when I wasn’t comfortable or did not want to do something, but did it anyway because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings or because I was afraid he wouldn’t like me anymore. Some of these encounters were even rough and physically hurt. Now that I am 36 with a little more experience under my belt, I ask myself – Why did I value being polite over my own feelings of sexual safety? For so many years of my life, I let a man determine my feelings of worth and put my own comfort second. Why? Well, for one, I thought other girls must be doing these things and enjoying them so I needed to “keep up with the Jones.” What if he thought I was a prude? Am I a prude? If I do this, is going to tell his friends I am a slut? Am I a slut? Or am I someone with their own levels of comfort and entitled to speak up and defend myself? What will happen if I say no? He is bigger and stronger than I am. He might get mad and rape me. Yet saying nothing still results in things happening to me that I do not want. Maybe if I just do what he wants, I can get out of here more quickly. Sometimes I have to do things I do not like because he enjoys them – sex isn’t just about me. But my level of comfort matters and it should never be sacrificed for someone else’s pleasure. These were all things that went through my mind at various moments. I was processing my own thoughts on what was happening as it was happening. I didn’t have the confidence to say no because so much was going through my mind.

Men just seem to naturally take the lead when it comes to sex. They moved my body into whatever positions they wanted, they pushed my head down when they wanted oral (even if I resisted), and they decided whether it would be rough or gentle, all without ever asking me. It was like I was only there for their pleasure. This was not restricted to certain men – it was common in most of them. I felt like I needed to go along with what they were doing while pretending I liked it. It only just recently occurred to me that I have my own sexual identity. There are things that turn me on and things that most definitely turn me off. I should view them and defend them the same way as my other beliefs. Not everyone will like them or agree with them, but that is okay. It is okay because my feelings of sexual safety matter more than the fear of hurting their feelings by telling them no.

Consent has many layers. Part of consent is educating people and helping them learn to become comfortable and confident in saying no. It’s teaching people that everyone should feel safe while engaging in sex and that checking in on those involved during sex should be commonplace because saying nothing doesn’t necessarily mean yes. Sex shouldn’t be a taboo topic. It shouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable to talk about. The stakes are too high. The consequences are too severe. If we want to change the trajectory, we need to invite people to the table and let them talk honestly about sex. We need to reserve a spot at the table for those with extremely uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and questions that make them feel vulnerable and alone. We need to build a longer table, not a higher fence.

Photo: Flickr – Tiffany Jenkins

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