Last week, I read the Babe.net article describing an encounter between comedian Aziz Ansari and a woman identified only as “Grace.” I read about how Ansari allegedly pushed past several verbal and nonverbal cues suggesting that Grace was not comfortable with their sexual encounter. I had a sickening moment of truth: I’ve done that.
It was just over four years ago. I was 22, newly single, and in college. I had just broken up with my long-distance girlfriend of five years and had spent the past few years hearing all about my friends’ and roommates’ hookups. I was excited to be single and date around. I kept a mental list of several women around school whom I wanted to sleep with.
I had an acquaintance, “Julie,” who was on that list. I’m not using her real name here, and I’m writing this piece anonymously, to protect both of our privacy. We had been to parties together, laughed together, and on a couple of occasions, I had walked her home. We liked each other enough to flirt, which eventually turned into the occasional texting conversation or phone call. I got the sense she was attracted to me.
After a couple of weeks of texting, Julie invited me on a trip to her home a few hours away from campus. I felt a little weird about going, as we didn’t know each other very well. But I said yes — to me, the invite felt like a pretty big sign that she wanted to hook up, and I was eager to have sex.
We arranged our travel plans. She would drive her car, and I would sleep over at her place the night before we left because we had to wake up early.
That night, Julie and I hooked up — and I ignored several of her verbal and nonverbal cues telling me to stop. Years later, I have come to believe that I came alarmingly close to raping her. I’m still disturbed by how normal it felt at the time.
The verbal and nonverbal cues I ignored
I arrived at Julie’s house at around 11 pm. We walked upstairs to her bedroom, which was small and cozy, lit by a star-shaped lamp.
I looked around. Her mattress was basically the only thing to sit or sleep on. It was clear — we would be sharing the bed. My face flushed, and my heart beat faster. I took this as a sign that a hookup would happen.
I lay in bed with Julie, her head resting comfortably on my chest, and we talked about this and that. We were dozing off a bit when we both turned on our sides to face each other. I could see her eyes were closed, but I sensed she was still awake. I touched my forehead to hers. She brought her mouth to mine, and we kissed.
As we were making out, we couldn’t find our rhythm. It felt like either her mouth was too small for mine or my mouth was too big. It seemed like she didn’t want to open hers all the way. I kept finding her teeth with my tongue, or going in for a mouth-half-open kiss, only to land on her pursed-shut lips. In the moment, I blamed first-hookup awkwardness.
I moved my hands under her shirt, pulled her close, grabbed her ass, and hoisted her above me so she could straddle my waist. It seemed sexy. She was still kissing me. I took off her shirt and bra.
At some point, I went down on her. I don’t remember any verbal cues to stop, but what I do remember is a significant nonverbal cue: She wasn’t making any sound. No moans, no breaths, no words. She seemed stiff. But I kept going because, well, I thought that oral sex was something people typically enjoyed. I worried I wasn’t doing it right, so I tried different spots and techniques, but nothing changed.
After some time, which I now realize was far too long, I stopped and asked if she was okay. She hesitated before speaking, and sat up.
“I don’t think we should have sex. We’re friends, and I think having sex will make things complicated.”
I responded almost immediately. “I don’t think it will make things complicated. I’m totally fine with figuring that out later.” I kind of laughed, I think, because I thought I was being charming. My feelings at the time were: We’re in the middle of having sex. It’s already complicated. Stopping now doesn’t make it less complicated. I was also horny, and Julie was hot, so I disregarded her feelings; I lurched toward her and starting kissing her neck.
“Are you sure you want to stop?” I whispered in her ear as I moved my hand toward her crotch.
“I just don’t think we should, because we’re friends.”
She never physically stopped me from touching her. At the time, I took that as a sign that she actually wanted me to continue. Her verbal objections, I convinced myself, were her poetic way of telling me she liked me enough to want to be in a relationship with me.
She was telling me to stop. And I didn’t. At least not at first. Instead, I continued to touch her clitoris, kiss her neck, and take off my underwear. She continued to say nothing and do nothing, and she was still stiff. I rubbed my penis across the outside of her vagina. She was wet. I convinced myself that this was further evidence that she wanted it.
I positioned myself for penetration but paused right before pushing inside her. At that point, things kind of snapped together for me. She didn’t want this — maybe she hadn’t pushed my hand away, but she had verbalized not feeling comfortable doing it. So I stopped.
It took me years to realize that even though I stopped, I’d still violated her.
I don’t remember what I said then. I don’t remember what she said either. But I remember that we talked in bed for a while. It felt normal. The next morning, we drove to her house. I met her mom and her old friends. We saw her old neighborhood. It was polite and pleasant but much less flirtatious. We didn’t have sex. I kissed her on the cheek when I said goodbye. After that, nothing really happened between Julie and me. I saw her around school, but that was it. I still follow her on Instagram.
I remember talking with my roommate after I got home. She wanted to know how my weekend went — I told her that Julie and I didn’t have sex because she wanted us to stay friends. I remember saying, “I hate when people aren’t clear about what they want. She seemed like she wanted to fuck me, so I kept going, but all she kept saying was that it would be weird. If she didn’t want to fuck me, she should have just said so.”
I realize now that this was my problem, not Julie’s.
Toxic masculinity affects all men
I considered myself a feminist back then. I still do — I fight for gender equality, and I actively try to be a better man every day. But it still took me years to realize that what I did to Julie was wrong. It was coercive. She told me she “didn’t think we should have sex,” and I kept trying anyway.
I thought I was getting signals from Julie that she wanted to have sex before the encounter started — the flirting, inviting me to her home. Maybe she did want to have sex. But at some point, she changed her mind or, at the very least, wasn’t sure how she was feeling. It wasn’t enthusiastic consent throughout, and at two different points, she objected. I ignored that.
In the years following the incident with Julie, I began to realize, often while reading articles online about enthusiastic consent, that what had happened between us wasn’t fully consensual. But it wasn’t until I read the Aziz Ansari story and the media conversation surrounding it that I realized the extent of what I had done.
I’m still not sure what to call what I did — assault? Coercion? A violation? What I do believe is this: If I hadn’t stopped when I stopped, I would have committed rape. But in that moment, it didn’t feel that way — it felt normal. I had convinced myself that she still wanted me despite her objections.
I don’t think I’m the only man who has done something like this. I think rape culture is so pervasive that men sometimes don’t realize when we’re actively committing assault. When Grace confronted Ansari via text message after their night together, he responded: “Clearly, I misread things in the moment.”
With Julie, I was aware of her verbal and nonverbal cues. But I had been socially conditioned to believe that women would want to have sex with me if I could convince them. I remember watching teen movies like Superbad and American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile, where men were portrayed as entitled to sex with women simply because these men were virgins and it was their “rite of passage.” My first orgasm was while watching internet porn, where consent to have sex is implicit. My middle school health class taught me about anatomy and drugs, but never consent.
As I aged, I ignored discussions of consent because I believed all sorts of myths about rape: that it’s only something that happens violently between strangers, when the woman is completely drunk, or between a powerful older man and a much younger woman. I never got the message that rape and assault was happening to women all around me and being perpetrated by men just like me.
Toxic masculinity praises sexually active men. Sex is conquest, competition, and a measure of self-worth. There is rarely a punishment for pressuring a woman to have sex with us — there is only, we are taught, the reward of sexual pleasure if we succeed.
But what we need to do is admit our faults. There are a million ways to say no, and we need to stop ignoring them. We need to make “enthusiastic consent” our mantra and keep it in mind whenever we might have sex.
I’m engaged now and have been with the same partner for four years. In the years following the incident with Julie, I’ve changed my behavior in bed. I try to let go of penetrative sex as a goal. I spent my younger years learning about foreplay and intimacy as a “means to an end.” Now intimacy, in all forms, is the end. The best way to get there is to listen to my partner’s words, actions, and body throughout sexual encounters — even if that means stopping sex in its tracks. That is its own form of intimacy.
I haven’t talked to Julie in years. I’ve thought about reaching out to apologize to her, but I’ve decided against it because it could upset her. Instead, I’m committed to continuing to change how I approach sex, and always making sure there is “fuck yes” affirmative consent.
I also want to talk to other men about this issue — it’s a conversation I’ve had with male friends, though not regularly. I remember one instance when two male friends and I were talking about sex, and we all admitted to engaging in some type of coercive behavior. None of us were proud of it. These are the kinds of discussions that need to keep happening.
Men, especially the most liberal, caring, and self-aware among us: look harder at yourselves. Rape culture ends when we stop raping.