By Caroline Balick
Art by Kaitlyn Anderson
Trigger warning: Sexual assault, coercion
I couldn’t help but stare at him. He wasn’t hot or handsome; he was beautiful. His cunning smile, thick hair, and broad shoulders were a recipe for disaster. When he spoke, he emulated confidence with a touch of cockiness. He wasn’t loud or disruptive; he let his strong presence speak for him. Something about his shyness intrigued me; I wanted to get to know him, to understand him. Like every other man I had been interested in, I was certain he would ignore me. But he didn’t.
He seemed to have endless positive qualities. I knew he was intelligent — we were both at computer science summer camp. During our first conversation, I asked him what his favorite type of music was, certain his answer would mirror that of the other teenage boys I knew from home. Instead, he named old school artists: The Beatles, Michael Jackson, NAS. Every guy I knew from home only cared about video games and partying. But he was curious about his surroundings. He wanted to understand how the world worked and deeply cared about social issues. I wondered if he could be more perfect.
That first conversation lasted five hours. I felt like I had always known him, like I had just discovered him. For him I didn’t have to perform. He was everything I was looking for. But I wish it was actually possible that he could be flawless.
Of course, everyone has imperfections. I just wish I had known the extent of his faults and how they would end up harming me. My time with him was like a black hole: I didn’t notice I was screwed until I was already in too deep.
At the time, my high school sex education covered the basics: using protection, STDs, and male and female sexual anatomy. We never covered the emotional intricacies of sex or how to navigate relationships. As a result, most of my knowledge on relationships came from the media, which consistently made them seem effortless. One classic example occurs in teen dramas, in which a couple makes out, followed by them suddenly lying naked in bed. How is any naive viewer possibly supposed to fill in what happens during the gap?
We were the same age when we met, but unlike him, I was unfamiliar with sexual relationships. I had never kissed a guy. Since I lacked so much knowledge, I heavily relied on his guidance. I gave him control, blissfully unaware of how he’d abuse this later on. During our initial encounters, he built up my trust. I asked him, “How would you react if a girl didn’t want to do something with you, sexually?” to which he replied, “That’s her choice, of course. And I would respect that.” His words lifted a weight off of my shoulders. I couldn’t believe I found someone who both liked and respected me. I wish he actually meant it.
We took things slow during the first few months. For us, hooking up consisted of the same few activities that always left us feeling content. Eventually, however, he reached a point where this wasn’t enough for him. He asked me to do more. I wasn’t ready, but he was insistent. He kept the whole “I respect your choice” bullshit for a while, until he came to understand his needs were more important than mine. To gain leverage, he stopped touching me completely. “You won’t do what I want, so I won’t do what you want,” he reasoned. Physical intimacy was currency to him. “Won’t,” he said, implying I chose not to. I never had a choice to begin with. I was hopelessly in love with him; I just wanted to make him happy. So I did.
He applied pressure onto my emotional weaknesses. He was fully aware that his happiness was my priority, that I would do anything for him, and that I didn’t have any prior experience to assist my decision-making. He knew I hate disappointing people, especially those I love. For so long, partially because of him, I hated these aspects of myself. After giving every part of myself to others, I always ended up feeling broken. So why do it at all? After our relationship ended, I decided to not make myself vulnerable as a form of protection. Since then, I have reached compromise: I don’t shut myself off completely, but I also don’t expose every part of myself. Because of him, I still struggle to find this balance.
Sexual assault is not black and white; it is a gradient. Growing up, I equated sexual assault with the act of rape perpetuated by a stranger. Media and sex-ed have failed to teach youth about the different forms of sexual assault and their prevalence. Due to this, young people may dismiss forms of sexual assault other than rape because they seem less severe. However, these acts can be equally traumatizing for victims, and they occur often.
According to the 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, approximately 1 in 6 women experience sexual coercion. Sadly, many who experience coercion never come to this realization. There is a fine line between having a mutual, healthy conversation with one’s partner about experimentation in the bedroom and convincing someone to fulfill your desires at the other’s expense. For months, I failed to comprehend this distinction and refused to accept what he did to me. His deceptive perfection as well as my lack of education on the extent of sexual assault shielded me from the possibility that it could happen to me.
Similar to sexual assault, consent is not clear-cut. I wish he and I comprehended this. Consent is not simply a verbal “yes” as opposed to a verbal “no.” Consent is not begging for more as opposed to screaming and kicking. But yet again, this is what we are taught through media representation and sex-ed. He persuaded me to reluctantly agree, yet I thought this was consent because it was some form of “yes.” But consent shouldn’t take persistence or convincing: it should be an unequivocal, clear approval. Simple signals such as body language as well as facial expressions give insight into one’s excitement to take part in something. If someone is pulling away and clearly looks uncomfortable, that’s a sign to stop. Just because someone doesn’t say “no” doesn’t mean they’re implying “yes.”
There is a dangerously false depiction of the stereotypical man who harms women. It is not only men who say they hate women who are capable of assault, but also those who claim to love and respect them. This is not to say that every man who claims to respect women is lying. However, every man, especially those that are cisgender, heterosexual, white, and of higher socioeconomic status, exists in a system of hegemonic masculinity that gives them power. All men know they hold this power: what differentiates them is their choice to exert it on women or not. Some always will, while some never will. But, there are other men who don’t, but only until they reach their breaking point. These men are arguably the most dangerous because they deceive you into thinking they’re safe.
My situation could have been avoided. Perhaps if he and I never met, this wouldn’t have happened. But it might have happened to someone else. How many other girls have already experienced coercion, or other forms of assault? Reducing instances of assault can be accomplished by reforming America’s sex education. It currently fails to teach students about the range of sexual assault, consent, and what a healthy relationship looks like. Even when these concepts are touched on, they are largely presented through a heteronormative lens. There must be a wider conversation about what healthy sex looks like for different types of people. Since the systems that provide men with power cannot be dismantled anytime soon, sex education must make men aware of the power they hold and their ability to use it negatively. Perhaps then, positive change can occur.
Sharon G. Smith et al., “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief - Updated Release” (national survey, Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018), 2.