Content Warning: Mentions of sexual harassment and sexual assault
Most women have a moment of realization when they realize their bodies do not belong to them.
For me, it was the first time I was touched in a way I didn’t want to be. I was in high school, intoxicated and exhausted, sitting on the floor of a basement. The only thing I remembered the next day was the fact that a friend ran his hands down my back and fiddled with my bra, and I could do nothing to stop him.
My friend and I were watching the Netflix reality show Too Hot to Handle when this realization struck her. To explain, it is a Love Island-esque dating show with a slight twist: the participants cannot engage in any sexual behavior: no kissing, no sensual touching, and of course, no sex. The participants embark on a journey of so-called “enlightenment” as they discover the value of intimate relationships over hook-ups.
The show is nothing serious; I found it purely entertaining. My friend, however, took their ideas of intimacy to heart: after we finished the show, she vowed to be abstinent to no specified end.
This declaration came from a place of distress. In all of her sexual encounters in college, she felt used and dirty. She struggled to say no. A male friend would advance on her—take her out to dinner and then bring her back to his apartment or dorm. The night would escalate, culminating in sex. She felt that sex was inevitable—necessary, even—because rejection is uncomfortable, and she gave up her body in order to forgo any sense of awkwardness. After each interaction, she felt used, as if her body was irreversibly dirtied. She left each of their later snapchats or DMs unopened to avoid seeing their messages, all undoubtedly tinged with the expectation of another night of sex.
As my friend listened to the revelations of the female participants of Too Hot to Handle and heard how they learned to respect their yoni, the Sanskrit term for vagina that the producers of the show used during an activity that allowed the female participants to look and feel their own body better without the stigma of the term “vagina.” Upon watching this and other scenes, she realized how little she had been respecting her own body. By not listening to her desires and recognizing the slivers of doubt in the back of her mind, she allowed others to use and abuse her body for their own pleasure, without receiving much back. These feelings, and her admiration for the temporary abstinence of these reality stars, encouraged her to forgo sex altogether.
I did not internalize the lessons of Too Hot to Handle to the same degree, but I fully related to her experiences and reluctance to say no. I, too, have felt forced to agree in order to avoid glances of disappointment, betrayal, anger, or hurt from my partner. I have laid under a man, 50 pounds heavier than me, and been asked, “Are you okay with this?”—a question that presupposes the answer yes. I had some trickle of doubt in the back of my brain, but to say no in that moment felt worse than giving up my body for a few minutes.
Our experiences should not be the norm, but unfortunately, so many women encounter similar experiences. Women feel like there are social consequences in saying no; rejection could mean spoiling the interaction as a whole. We are socialized to be agreeable and raised to say yes, so it becomes ever more difficult to deny the encroaching hand of a stranger, a hand we never wanted near us. We are not raised to consider our own pleasure, but to put the pleasure of those around us first.
This is especially true for women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. At an institutional level, women of color are at the intersection of being in the non-hegemonic position for both their race and gender. This exacerbates the already existing power dynamic and creates the potential for more social consequences of saying no.
Men are also socialized to be assertive and demanding when they are rejected. This raises the potential for danger for women when in sexual interactions, because rejection can lead to a violent anger and further coercion. This gender socialization forces men to adhere to unachievable ideals of masculinity that lead to dangerous situations to all around them.
The way we consider consent needs to change in order for women to feel comfortable and in control of their bodies. Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office defines consent as: “The voluntary, informed, uncoerced agreement through words and actions freely given, which a reasonable person would interpret as a willingness to participate in mutually agreed-upon sex acts.” If women are socialized to say yes, perceiving no other alternative, how can we be sure that any consent is uncoerced? The definition of consent then needs to give space for feelings of discomfort and establish a norm for the uncertainty.
My friend and I both gave formal consent, but we had a lingering sense of discomfort. Women need to feel able to voice that discomfort without fearing the social consequences of speaking up. We need to feel able to say no in order to have a fully equal and pleasurable sexual experience, that begins and ends on our terms, too.
Changing ideas of consent is a difficult task—we cannot hold people accountable for missing social cues, for this individual is a symptom of society at large. I propose that we teach emotional maturity more seriously to boys, so they’re less hurt by rejection and girls can be relieved of the fear of the consequences of saying no. On many levels, our sexual education needs to be improved, but most of all, it needs clarification on the language of consent and understanding of the other’s desires and wants. We need to teach the next generation how to read signs of discomfort and normalize responding to such signs. At a broader level, men cannot be allowed to only prioritize themselves; there must be greater social consequences if they don’t recognize the woman’s discomfort.
Our media representation of sex needs to change first. As an object to be enjoyed or a game to win, women are represented as a means for male pleasure. Women are hardly ever shown to initiate sexual interactions, and when they do, there is immediate stigma around such behavior. The viewer understands this behavior as wrong and troublesome and sees the woman as promiscuous and slutty.
We are also taught from films and television shows that a man’s advances mark us as special. To be noticed by a man means to be beautiful and attractive—which means being valued by society. A common trope of romantic comedies—think To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—is a stereotypically attractive jock falling for the nerdy, slightly quirky protagonist. It creates a dynamic that the woman—the relatable protagonist—should give herself to the man for even noticing her. This automatically establishes a power dynamic in which rejection becomes difficult, as the woman is indebted in some way to the man.
Women need to be able to feel like they’re in a position to reject. Because we do not have this power, we are forced to transform ourselves for the male gaze and accept advances as compliments. We rob girls of ownership and independence with the constant barrage on their bodies.
Most of all, women should not need to offer ambiguous notions of consent. Our needs should be understood, and we should feel able to voice our feelings. These unequal interactions come from an institutional enforcement and prioritization of men’s pleasure and sexual pursuits over those of women.
I know too many girls who detach themselves from their bodies during sex, accepting that their bodies will be used and touched without any consideration of their own desires. We cannot accept this as the norm. By battling gender norms and destigmatizing women’s sexuality, we can begin to value women’s desires and protect the sovereignty of women’s bodies.