In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the NY Times article revealing the misconduct of Louis CK, I’ve realized there’s a real conversation that needs to be had that we’ve somehow ignored. In combing through these articles, in the hours I’ve spent interviewing those who have gone through abuse, and in the hundreds of stories I’ve read of those commenting on abuse blogs trying to understand their experiences, I’ve seen a gap in our conversations about consent.
We must discuss the expectation of sex.
In the stories coming out about Hollywood elite, we see a pattern of thinking: “This is how it’s done in the industry”. This thought is vocalized and acted upon again and again, until sexual misconduct happens. Until fear happens. Until shame happens.
This doesn’t just take place in Hollywood, this takes place in real ways in our own lives. So many times pressure and manipulation happens because of the expectation of sex in normal, everyday relationships.
I commend these women (and men!) for being so brave in speaking out, and if I should have any merit in speaking about this, I feel that I should share my experience as well.
I started dating in college as a naive, innocent 18 year old Christian girl. I was very confident and secure in who I was and in my decision to save sex until marriage. And as I began my first real relationship after my freshman year of college, I had only shared a few stage kisses with various kids from high school.
When I first started dating my boyfriend, he told me through tears that in his last relationship, he had slept with his girlfriend and regretted it, and didn’t want to put me through that. Sounded good to me, since I had already been planning on saving sex for marriage. All clear. Little did I know that our definitions of ‘no sex’ were entirely different.
The first week of our relationship was innocent and playful, with kisses and snuggles and whispered “I love you”s.
After six days of dating, he took me into my bedroom at a camp where we were both counselors. He took me to my bed and started kissing me. The fact that he was in my room at all was already against the rules and I was uncomfortable, but he was kissing me and kisses were nice.
Out of nowhere and with absolutely no conversation, it became more than kissing. Without any warning, he started dry humping me, pushing his groin against my legs, again and again. Remember, I had no experience with anything sexual whatsoever. I could do nothing but lay there, paralyzed with fear, not understanding what was happening, feeling him against me, feeling disgusting, until he was finished.
I tried to bury the memory. I told no one, and, not strong enough to say no, continued to date him for a year and a half, enduring sexual pressure and coercion again and again.
This past summer I went scuba diving in Turkey with my family. One of the scuba instructors was an older man from Germany, and before we started diving, he started talking to me about how he likes pretty girls and likes taking pictures of them. I brushed him off as being eccentric and old.
I was waiting in line for my scuba gear, already in a wet suit and weights, when he motioned for me to get in the water with him. I didn’t have an oxygen tank yet and was confused, but trusted him as a professional. As I got into the water, he grabbed my waist and told me to take the second mouthpiece from his oxygen tank. And without any explanation, he took me under.
I was under water, with a complete stranger who told me he liked taking pictures of pretty girls, weighed down with weights I didn’t know how to undo, dependent on the oxygen tank of a man I didn’t trust. A few minutes into the dive, he brought me to the ocean floor and kept motioning me to turn around and get down.
Panic seared through me and I began to hyperventilate. I felt trapped. I felt terrified. I felt powerless. Half of my brain was looking for an escape, while the other half tried to convince myself that everything was ok. That this was normal.
The entire night after the scuba diving incident I couldn’t sleep, because the panic kept coming back. The whole experience brought me right back to the night at camp – I kept having flashbacks of my boyfriend on top of me, feeling trapped, terrified and powerless.
The panic I felt trapped under the ocean was the same panic I felt trapped under the body of a boyfriend I barely knew.
Did my boyfriend want to harm me? No. Did he feel like what he was doing was wrong? No. But because of his expectation of sex, I was made a victim. I was taken advantage of, with no say in the matter. I was made to feel afraid, shameful and powerless.
It was hard for me for so long to condemn him for taking advantage of me, because that was what he knew relationships were. That was his expectation. Does that excuse his behavior? Of course not. But so many carry that expectation around, that even minimal sexual behavior is acceptable to initiate because it is expected in romantic relationships. We ask that consent be made known, but until the expectation of sex is dismantled, how will they even begin the thought process to ask?
Dismantling the expectation of sex starts with us. It starts with speaking to our children about what healthy sexual encounters look like. It starts with eliminating the idea that what happens in pornography is commonplace or normal. It starts with keeping media accountable for what it portrays as sexually acceptable. It starts with us speaking openly about our experiences and leaving behind shame as we step into communities of support and love.
The most critical piece of ending sexual harassment and abuse is communication and education. Let us speak freely about what is right and good, so that fear, manipulation and expectations have nowhere to hide.
Are you unsure of how to have these conversations about sex with your significant other? With your kids? With your family? Make sure to follow Vanessa’s blog for the next installments of The Expectation of Sex series.
Vanessa is still conducting interviews for her upcoming book Prince or Poison: Identifying the Difference Between Love and Abuse. If you would like to share your story with Vanessa, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to make a contribution to Vanessa’s research and book expenses, please visit here.