In all my dealings with men, I’d never had the opportunity to verbally consent. Yes, I’m a feminist. Yes, rape culture and sexual assault are a factor of life for women. I gave sexual health and awareness lectures in college. But I’d spent my sexual career communicating non-verbally with my partners and thinking that it was enough. Perhaps I’d never chosen to be with a man that I really didn’t want to be with. Maybe I’d thought that Black men weren’t as knowledgeable about consent practices, so I didn’t hold them to it. Perhaps I’d been so clear in my signals – leading a man to my bedroom, or asking him to take me to his – that I hadn’t needed any further clarification with my partners. No matter the reason, I’d always been 100% sure that I wanted to have sexual contact with men and they’d never overstepped their bounds. And there weren’t that many men on the list anyway, so I never thought much about consent.
Until I found myself still going on first dates at age 43.
Like you do, I’d met men on dating sites and through apps. Whenever I encountered someone new, I’d follow all the safety precautions: don’t give out any private information; get his full name; let someone know who you’re meeting and where you’re going in case they don’t hear from you. I followed this protocol with Jules, a man I’d met via some electronic means or another. After texting and then talking on the phone, we decided to meet at a well-populated bar close to my house.
The date was fine, as far as dates go. He was from Nigeria and had done a lot of traveling, so I thought that was interesting. He was nice enough, and funny enough, and good-looking enough for one meeting, but I really wasn’t into him like that. Plus, he’d spent a lot of time telling me how beautiful I was. To be honest, I know that I’m pretty. But I don’t need to hear it every five seconds from a near stranger to feel good about myself. I was a little turned off by that behavior, but it didn’t really matter because I wasn’t planning on seeing Jules again.
After we left the bar (at which I had to pay the whole tab because he didn’t have any cash and the bar didn’t take cards without a chip), we chatted on the sidewalk for a bit. Jules leaned in to kiss me and, though I didn’t really want him to, I assented. The whole time I was thinking, “Okay, this will be over soon and then I can get in a cab and go home.” But he wanted to go to his place to have some more drinks and talk and smoke some weed. I was pro-drinking and pro-marijuana, but anti-going to his house. Instead, I suggested that we go to my apartment. I should just have left alone, but I couldn’t see how to extricate myself from the situation. Yes, I could have said, “I think I’d better call it a night,” or something like that. But I’d never had to turn down a man in this manner, and maybe part of me didn’t know how to say “no” in a dating situation. I’d said “no” to plenty of men professionally. However, in my personal life, I was usually so fixed on getting the men I liked to like me back that I never assumed I’d need to decline.
We arrived at my place, and I went first to my roommate’s room to tell him that I’d brought my date home. My roommate was my cousin, and he understood that in saying, “My date is here with me” that I really meant, “Keep an ear out in case you need to come out and bust up something.”
As Jules rolled a blunt and I opened the beers we’d purchased on the way, I figured that we’d chat some more, smoke a little, shoot the shit and then be done with the whole endeavor. I assumed that then I’d be free to watch “How to Get Away with Murder” in peace while enjoying a nice high. So we smoked, and we drank, and we talked. And I learned that Jules had a Green Card situation that he wanted to resolve by marrying a citizen. Through my stoned condition, I laughed at him, and at myself for having gotten my first marriage proposal at 44.
Before I could enjoy my laughter, Jules came in for another kiss. I reasoned internally that I had to pay the piper, as it were, for the invitation to my house and for the weed. I don’t know why I thought about sexual currency in that moment. But I lived in the same world in which we all live, whereby a woman can still trade on her sexuality. And I knew, no matter how wrong minded it was, that a man expected certain things when he got invited into your apartment and gave you drugs. So, I reluctantly let him kiss and grope me for a few minutes.
Here’s the point where I sound like every “she asked for it” sexual assault detractor. “What do you think a man is going to do if you bring him home after a date? You must know that sex is in the offing in a situation like that. You should have pulled yourself away from him after the bar and gone home if that’s what you wanted to do.” I’d never say words like that to a friend who was assaulted, or about a rape victim being dragged through the press for her behavior. But I thought them about myself, and the thoughts troubled me.
Once Jules started mauling me on the couch and I didn’t resist, he felt more emboldened. He touched my breasts and tried to stick his hand down my pants. In my head, I said “no”. In my head, I pushed his hands away. In my head, I asked him to leave. But by that point, I was so drunk and so high that I couldn’t really muster the physical strength. However, my brain was working just fine.
I silently berated myself for drinking so much. I yelled at myself for knowing the risks of getting high and not foreseeing my predicament. After all, I’d smoked enough marijuana enough times to know that it often has a numbing effect on my limbs. Most importantly, I wracked my brain for a solution to the increasingly forward – and deceptively strong – man who’d attached himself to my person.
While he hovered over me pawing at my body, I tried to corral all the strength I had to make a move. I tried balling my fists to no avail. I tried moving my head to get away from Jules’ probing mouth so that I could voice my displeasure. Couldn’t do it. Somehow my brain floated up from my body and began to pass judgement. “You know you’re screwed, right?” it asked. “This is what you get for being stupid, and for knowing better but not doing better. Over some damn weed and a beer.” I couldn’t answer my brain because a man had his tongue down my throat and his hand in my bra, but also because I felt that my brain had accurately assessed the situation. It was my fault for not listening to myself, for letting someone else determine what I wanted. Maybe some part of me was still flattered that a man, even one that I didn’t like, was attracted enough to me to gnaw on my nipples while emitting guttural, sexual groans.
Right then, as Jules was attempting to unbutton my jeans, my faculties returned. Luckily. Fortunately. I got the strength from somewhere to push my arms against him. He ignored my movements at first, until I could move my mouth away from his and say, “No. You have to stop.” At first, he seemed bewildered. Then he moved away from me and took a sip of his beer. “That was nice,” I lied, still confused about what had happened. I didn’t think that I was assaulted because I’d only said “no” at the end. But I knew that something wrong had taken place and I asked Jules to leave. He exited with little fanfare, and I finished up the weed and the beer and went to bed.
About a year later, in the same apartment, on the same couch I’d inhabited with Jules, I found myself entangled with Jay. It was after our second date, and we’d already made it clear that we were sexually attracted to each other, but that we were going to wait to have sex. However, we agreed that sexual contact was appropriate so I’d invited him over.
As had happened with Jules, Jay began to kiss me when we sat on the sofa. Unlike the situation with Jules, I’d clearly articulated to Jay that I was interested in knowing him better and in pursuing our sexual relationship. I had no doubts that having Jay at my house that night was the right thing to do, and he confirmed my beliefs with his actions.
“May I?” he asked, his fingers resting lightly on my breast. I responded “yes”, and he proceeded to touch me in earnest.
I whispered into his mouth, “I like it that you asked.” I did like it. Not just because I’d been through an unwanted sexual encounter, but also because it made me feel empowered to make a decision on my own behalf. Asking consent gives all the power to the consenter, and having that power made me feel sexier than having some random dude’s fingers poking at my lady parts.
“If we keep this up,” Jay murmured into my ear, “I’ll have to ask you if I can take off your blouse.” Which he did when the time came a few weeks later.
Jay still asked for permission almost every time. I never tired of the practice because I knew that I was with a man who appreciated how dangerous life can be as a woman. He also didn’t want to be that guy who doesn’t know or care if he assaulted a woman just to get his rocks off.
I’m not going to say that Jules knew he did anything wrong, because I can’t know what was in his head. And I also can’t say that I did anything to dissuade him from continuing sexual contact with me. But I do know that I’m going to learn to say “no” when I mean it, even though it took me until middle age to learn the lesson.