When I was in high school, I let my guy friends shoot crumpled paper balls into my cleavage at lunch. I thought this made me cooler than the other girls, and that my ability to assimilate and remain sexualized was special. Besides, it was just a silly thing they did. It would be years before that memory soured, and I realized how dangerous it was that this had become my basis for what acceptance looked like.
I think it’s important for all men to be a little critical about their sexual pasts, or at least a fraction as much as women are about their own. There are soft forms of pressure, ones that don’t require using force; as the allegations against Harvey Weinstein illustrate, power is a major pressure. Men may not even recognize that they are exerting those kinds of pressure, because society conditions and expects them to push certain boundaries. What many men—good men, who are often trying their best—don’t seem to realize is that the difference between sex and assault isn’t about an action, but about context. This is why you can rape a women with whom you’ve previously had mutually enjoyable sex, say if she’s too drunk to consent, or just changed her mind. This is tricky, because context is a product of perception. The same situation can look very different depending on which side you’re on.
For men, that perspective is based on a culture that treats sex as something for them to win, accumulate, accomplish. Pushing past the point of predictable resistance is, in that understanding, a measure of merit. This gamification of sex teaches men to be opportunistic and to err on the side of getting what they want; it rewards them for it. The number on the scoreboard ticks up. This sounds overtly sinister, but it plays out in ostensibly innocent ways as well. Persistence is portrayed as romantic, or at least not pathetic. The object of all that attention stays out of focus, or out of the frame entirely.
For women, the pressure to go along with demeaning behavior is omnipresent. There’s the sheer practicality of not having enough hours in the day to parse exactly which actions merit reactions. But beyond all that, even progress often takes the form of praising acceptance by men above all other things. Whether it’s a crass comedy or a plucky coming-of-age tale, we are told over and over about the appeal of girls who are “just one of the guys.” That is, women who can exist within traditionally male spaces without challenging the status quo, while still maintaining their sex appeal. Those traditionally male spaces are the default; the sexuality is understood, implicitly, as the baseline for female worth.
And when the daily ignominies of existing while female do tip into the realm of harassment or assault, what then? Report it and there is potential for real blowback, not just from the police or the press but from friends and strangers and maybe even the guy himself, whom a woman might be unwilling to label as a predator because that would necessarily make her a victim. Or worse: a feminist killjoy. Or worse still: the overly sensitive woman who cried wolf. Coercion counts, and it is everywhere. Benefiting from a culture that pushes women to be accommodating of men at all costs counts, too.
As a transfer student my sophomore year of college, I was thrilled to reconnect with one of those guys from high school. We had never been especially close, but I had crashed in his twin-size bed as a visiting freshmen, the two of us sleeping head-to-foot, and I had high hopes he’d be my shortcut to a familiar-feeling crew of friends.
It never really went like that. Even lost as I was, I recognized that his frat buddies held little appeal for me. I was learning some boundaries, too. I laughed, pretending to be flattered, but flatly refused when he requested a topless photo as part of a Greek-scene scavenger hunt. Still, we’d get dinner periodically, and I’d angle for his approval. When my boyfriend from high school left for six months abroad, I decided the high school friend and I were overdue for a night out. I was sad and sappy and worried none of my new college pals would sympathize. We each brought a friend. Maybe we considered ourselves matchmakers.
After dinner we went to a hookah bar, and wasted a few hours smoking and talking about nothing in particular. On the way out, he felt lightheaded before passing out in the street. Anxious and inexperienced with any sort of inebriation, I became instantly doting and single-mindedly concerned. We took him home, to an off-campus frat house, where his friend frustrated me with his uncaring attitude and a determination to go back out. Fine, I probably said, but I’m staying.
Does it sound obvious yet? It didn’t to me, and it wouldn’t have even if someone explained it. I thought it arrogant to assume that I held any sort of appeal, even as an easy target.
So I helped my friend into bed and agreed to stay over when he asked. He told me that my boyfriend was going to break up with me. He told me that everyone knew it and that I was a fool if I didn’t act first. I said that wasn’t true but still wound up worrying it was my fault when he kissed me. I think I laughed it off when he apologized, but still I scooted to the edge of the bed and insisted he needed to get some sleep. When he kissed me again I finally left. In the morning I confessed to my boyfriend that I’d cheated on him. I believed that I had.
Eventually my high school boyfriend did break up with me. Desperate to feel like I maintained some control—or at least like I deserved what happened, because then it would at least make sense—I invited that same friend over. We made out. In bed, I had second thoughts. We were both fully clothed when I told him to stop. It felt easy at first. Let’s just sleep, I said.
Every time I started to doze off, he would start touching me. Every time he did, I shifted further away, stupidly focused on how there would still be a friendship to salvage if we could only get through the night. When he climbed on top of me, his sheer weight shocked me into the realization that this wasn’t the boy I’d known since middle school. I had to struggle to get him off me. I stood up in the dark room and repeated over and over that I wanted him to leave. There wasn’t an altercation, but there was enough of an argument that the moment he left I ran into my roommate’s room and told her a guy I knew tried to force me to have sex with him.
“What did you expect when you invited him over?” she asked coolly.
I thought she must have been right. But still, when he started calling me—dozens of times in a row, in the middle of the night—I never picked up. I stopped being able to sleep.
I rarely, barely drank in college. But one night, deeply and acutely depressed, I took a heavy swig from a bottle of vodka. The guys in my group of fellow transfers thought it was cool, and sexy. So I kept drinking. It’s the only time I’ve ever blacked out. I remember laughing with the guys in a crowded frat house when one of them reported he’d just fingered a girl on the dance floor; looking up from the sidewalk to see them laughing again after I’d fallen on my face when a couple of female friends tried to escort me back to my room; and waking up in bed, with one of my guy friends there. I don’t know if I forgot what he did or what I was wearing that same night or in the months that followed. It was somewhere between nothing and rape. I was unconscious when it happened.
Within days, he came by my room again to apologize. He said we were friends, that he would never do anything to hurt me, and that we might as well keep hooking up. You know me, he insisted, it’s not like me to do something like that. He never told me what it was he remembered, and I was too embarrassed to ask. I wrote “You are what you pretend to be” on my computer in sharpie, began cutting myself, and kept hooking up with him for months. Every time it left me disgusted, and every time my other guy friends thought my dispassion was cool and sexy.
As finals wound down that spring, he and I were among the last of our group left on campus. I had long since stopped making out with him, but on the night before I went home for the summer he followed me back to my dorm and asked me in no uncertain terms to have sex with him. I told him, more harshly for all the times that I hadn’t before, that I had no interest in that. I found him unequivocally unattractive and untrustworthy. That didn’t matter, he insisted. He was still a virgin and wanted not to be, and after all the making out we’d done in the weeks, when I was a pathetic wreck, he believed I owed him as much. He laid this out to me in clear terms and badgered me about it until the sun came up, but I didn’t sleep with him. It was a few more years before I stopped hanging out with him altogether.
After a false start, I moved to New York for good at 23 years old, working the night shift, covering baseball. Given the hours and my industry, everyone I knew in the city was a co-worker, and all my co-workers were men. Maybe I should have learned my lesson by then, but our sports fandom and awful schedules bred a quick closeness. I was fresh off a heartbreak, sleeping until noon, and living with strangers, but there was a certain rueful, clichéd charm to eating crap food and trading crass humor with a bunch of guys until 2 a.m. I could almost see myself as the token female in an ensemble sitcom.
We rarely had weekend nights off, and never all at once, so it wasn’t out of line or even notable when I agreed to grab drinks with a particularly affable, boisterous guy from the office. It was never supposed to be a date. I wasn’t looking to date him.
We had fun. He didn’t express any sexual or romantic interest. It was the middle of the night in Manhattan when we left the bar. He said I could crash on his couch, walking distance away, rather than take the subway back to Brooklyn. I said sure easily and thoughtlessly. That was a mistake, wasn’t it? To not assume predatory intent? To trust that he would disclose any intentions as relevant information, to trust that my own feelings mattered to him, to trust him at all? Even after the fact, thinking I should’ve known better makes me uncomfortable as a conclusion.
He offered me his bed when we got to the apartment. His room was meticulously clean, which made it seem safe. The funny guy who did those great impressions apparently made his bed every morning. I felt real relief at picking a good guy for friendship.
I let him kiss me, ostensibly goodnight, out of a deep, accommodating desire to not call him out on his drunkenness. Already embarrassed, I offered to just sleep on the couch, as planned, when he got into bed. He insisted I stay, said it was no trouble at all for him to take the couch; but of course he didn’t. We did this song-and-dance a few more times as he groped at me and I pushed him off, forcing a joking tone to match his performative politeness. I think I should just sleep on the couch, I’d say, thinking that was a perfectly clear rejection. And he would respond adamantly that of course I should have the bed, and then he’d remove his pants or pull me toward him.
Frustrated more by the absurdity than anything else, I fled to the living room. He followed, apologizing awkwardly, just in time to encounter his roommate, our mutual co-worker, returning from the office. I said I was just leaving, searingly aware of how it all looked. My unintended date countered that he had advised me that it was too late for me to reasonably take the subway alone. I said that was silly, that there was no reason for me to stay, and desperately tried to catch his roommate’s eyes as if to telegraph the situation. It didn’t work. The guys agreed that there was no reason for me to leave their apartment at 3 a.m.. They stood there, insisting in unison that I stay, oblivious to how trapped I was by the their physical size and the weight of feeling obligated to deescalate the situation without upsetting anyone. I was embarrassed for ending up in that situation, and for compromising a good thing with the guys from work. I didn’t want to be seen as a fuckbuddy, or a tease, or a drama queen. I doubted, as I still do, whether it was worth making a fuss over. I worried that doing so would call into question my own motives.
So I smiled and agreed to stay. I sat on the couch, trembling with hyper-awareness until all the bedroom lights went dark. And then I gathered my stuff and left, and later continued to laugh with my coworkers on those late nights and hang out in that very same apartment. Just one of the guys.
Encounters like these stopped when I got serious with my now-husband. I could say that men who never cared about my autonomy were respectful of another man’s woman, but to me that would be willfully disingenuous. I’m sure it’s true that they stopped mostly because I had stopped setting myself up for attacks in a visceral search for validation. This is not me victim-blaming myself—it’s a cold, hard look at the culture. I didn’t want to fuck these men, but I thought being powerful, popular, and even self-possessed would follow if I could set myself up as a figment of their fantasies. In between these assaults I didn’t sleep around, or even date all that much. It wasn’t that I traded sex for self-esteem; it was that that I’d spent my whole life convinced—and being convinced to believe—that girls with an adoring gaggle of guy friends were empirically more valuable than other girls. Long before anyone was capitalizing Cool and Girl, I understood that the template involved exuding an effortless, accidental sex appeal. I think it was easy for men to take advantage of how much I wanted them to see me that way.
The pitfalls of opposite-sex friendships are hackneyed, and no one comes out of writing or talking about them looking especially sympathetic. To say I’ve befriended many men who later wanted to fuck me makes me sound like a braggart or an irredeemable flirt. The truth is that I accept that a certain amount of attraction is inevitable; that I have several friendships that survived mutually disastrous attempts to make them more than that; and that my husband and I were friends for many months before he kissed me. The difference is that he made his affections known without just assuming proximity to my person meant access to my body.
But even now I worry that saying this negates what else I’ve said. Men aren’t mind readers, you may be thinking. (As if to catch me in the act of, what? Retroactively recasting these events as trauma? Trust me, I’m fine. I don’t need to write about any of this to exonerate myself.) And so I rifle through my memories with a critical eye, searching for ones where I said No, please stop and didn’t just lie there limply. I worry that a guy has to be aggressive or unkind and not just intentionally obtuse for it to count; I worry that full penetrative sex has to be at stake for it to really be an issue; I worry that it is self-important or melodramatic to talk about my own experiences because other women—many other women—have had it worse—much worse. I worry that because guys I met online—like the son of a sportswriter who harassed me for months after I wouldn’t go out with him, sending me sexually explicit messages, calling me a cunt, and belittling my baseball opinions—are so insistent and so numerous that they must also be correct, or at least on to something.
I also worry that saying all this makes me a hypocrite, for choosing to out the behaviors of people who can no longer hurt me while obscuring details about the media men I still encounter regularly. I worry about this because even as increased awareness of and discussion of assaults challenge this kind of thinking, the act of working in a male-dominated industry encourages it. (There’s positive reinforcement for making men think you’re interested in them when there are career opportunities at stake.) I worry that I’m a tease for ever changing my mind, and that putting myself in certain situations irreparably compromises my integrity.
But mostly I worry that the question of whether I actively wanted a given encounter to occur or not isn’t an important enough delineation. I worry about this in part because it’s not, at least legally. I don’t think any of these men think of themselves as predators. They’ve probably forgotten these encounters. They are, for the most part, decent, educated, politically enlightened men who view themselves as part of the solution. They trust that the bad guys women talk about when they talk about sexual assault are objectively other than them. They don’t realize that this isn’t binary, that there aren’t Good Men and Bad Men. All men exist and act somewhere along a spectrum, and too many men have been socialized to think that the best way to get laid is to be opportunistic about sex, and to believe it’s better not to know if a woman is ambivalent than to ask her if she is.