I met a really nice man earlier this year. We had a great first date, he was cute, interesting, mature, respectful, a feminist. We didn’t have sex on our first date because we both had plans that evening. I saw him again a few weeks later. We had a lovely second date. We walked and talked and he was still nice. We went for dinner, which he paid for. Not because of any gender bullshit, but because he knew I was a student, and because he knew he could afford it, and that one day I’d be in a position to help someone out by buying them dinner, and that I would. See, thoughtful. I remember I still liked him while we were eating dinner.
After dinner I went back to his house, and as I sat on the sofa, I started to go cold. Literally and metaphorically. I could feel myself withdraw. The hairs on my arms started to stand up. I didn’t want to be there anymore. We made out on the sofa and it was like an out-of-body experience. We’d made out before, so why was this any different? I was going through the motions. I was letting him kiss me. My mouth was moving but the rest of my body was still. I didn’t turn towards him, I didn’t wrap my arms around him, I wasn’t overcome with the desire to be on him, to be touching him, to be close to him.
We kissed for a while then went to his bedroom. I was shivering. A weird kind of adrenaline, like ‘fight or flight’. And I still didn’t say anything. I just went along with it. I lay back and sort of thought of England. I tried not to cry. I tried to focus really hard so I would come, and he would stop. The situation was not ideal.
As soon as the whole thing was over, I grabbed my phone and WhatsApped my (now) boyfriend. I asked to see him the next day because I knew he was one person who wouldn’t make me feel like shit even though I’d only known him a couple of months. I needed some kind of reassurance, from a cisman I could trust, who wouldn’t judge me. I lay awake with tears in my eyes, wondering why I’d just gone through with the whole stupid thing.
I knew for sure I was somehow massively fucked up when, at the tube station in the morning, before he took the tube to work and I went to the library, he said ‘Do you want to see me again?’ and I said ‘Yeah sure, but I have exams coming up so it’ll have to wait ’til after May’. Why did I say that? Why, even then, was I still unable to say ‘No, I don’t want to’?
This wasn’t ‘sex I later regretted’, this was ‘sex I wished I wasn’t having as I was having it’. I don’t blame him personally. I blame the patriarchy. I blame patriarchy for the fact I blamed myself. For thinking that being bought dinner and being in someone’s home meant I had no right to say no to sex, even when I was with someone who would absolutely have understood.
There’s a line in a Smiths song that goes, ‘But you could have said no if you’d wanted to… you could have walked away, couldn’t you?’. I thought about this as I lay there. I shouldn’t have gone for dinner. I should have walked away. I shouldn’t have gone home with him. I should have walked away. I shouldn’t have kissed him. I should have walked away. I shouldn’t have gone to bed with him. I should have walked away. Yes, I could have walked away, but why was I in that position in the first place?
I’d talked openly about my nonmonogamy, because he was nonmonogamous too, and I even thought ‘well he knows I sleep with lots of people so it’ll look really bad if I don’t sleep with him’. How fucked up is that? Like because I was having lots of consensual sex it was as if that consent was no longer being individually applied, but was somehow derived from my general attitude to fucking.
I felt like a bad feminist. I felt like I’d let the side down. I still feel like that now, a bit. Like I have no right to complain about this, because I did nothing in the moment to reposition the dynamics. I ‘missed an opportunity to teach someone an important lesson about consent’.
What I learned is that patriarchy is so all-encompassing and pervasive that it is simply not a question of ‘just saying no’. It’s not about ‘just walking away’. I’m known as being an angry person, a troublemaking person, a brave person, and I still couldn’t tell a nice man I didn’t want to fuck him. The rhetoric of ‘just say no’ is not enough.This is about power relations, and that’s bigger than me just saying no. When you’ve got a girl over a decade younger than you, in your home, who you’ve just bought dinner, and she’s usually chatty and charming and now she’s silent and sad and immobile, it’s probably not active desire that’s operative; it’s a lot of power, and if that power isn’t matched with enthusiastic consent, then… how much fun can you have?
(he messaged me a couple of times afterwards, which I rudely ignored. I have not seen him since)