My dating life really started in my late 20’s. I grew up fat and unpopular. I had some nasty skin conditions. I was generally low-status in my social circles. My dating pool was small. Up until age 21, I dated exactly one person, for about three months, at age 15. At 21, my wife and I got together, and were monogamous for five years.
When we decided to try polyamory, I was 26 and a few things were different. I’d lost a substantial amount of weight. My skin cleared up (mostly). I spoke confidently. I had friends. I had a law degree. I was generally much higher-status than in my teenage years. And probably most significantly, I discovered online dating and put in effort to make it work for me. Suddenly, I was able to meet people who actually found me attractive and might actually want to kiss me. So there I was, dating as an adult, with basically the experience level of a teenager. Needless to say, I made some mistakes and learned some hard lessons.
The biggest lesson I learned was that just because somebody does something doesn’t mean they wanted to do it. This is about the point where I expect the women reading will start rolling their eyes. How is it possible for someone not to know this??? Well, it is. And from what I’ve been seeing lately, a lot of men don’t really grok this.
In my teenage years, I got rejected… a lot. Like a lot. I must have heard “I just don’t feel that way about you” at least a dozen times. I’ve always been an assertive person, and when I was interested in someone (and as a teenager, I was interested in like 90% of the girls I knew), I let them know. Most of the time, I would just ask girls out. And almost every time, I would either get turned down or the response would be “ok, but just as friends.” Looking back, it’s sort of amazing to me how clearly my romantic overtures were rejected almost every time. Even the times I wasn’t rejected verbally, it became very clear to me that this person was not interested in me romantically or sexually, and I am not particularly good at picking up nonverbal signals, so when I say it was clear, I mean it was unmistakable.
In my teenage years, I knew nothing about consent and coercion. Nobody ever told me about that. Sex education was a joke. The internet was still in its infancy. I didn’t read magazines. The messages I got from tv and movies were that persistence, pushiness, and salesmanship were the way to “get” women. My peer group did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. So I was persistent. I was pushy. I tried to sell myself. I was coercive AF. Looking back, I’m incredibly thankful that none of these tactics ever worked, and that I was too scared (and believe me – fear, not ethics, was the reason) to ever try anything that involved touching a person. But still, my experience was that, even in the face of coercive, high-pressure tactics, if a woman didn’t want to kiss me, there was no way she would kiss me.
Fast forward to my late 20’s. Facebook was a thing. Blogs were a thing. I started reading about feminism and consent, but the conversation was still new to me. Some very gifted writers (the most influential being Miri at Brute Reason) had lovingly and painstakingly written some amazing pieces explaining feminism and consent to men like me who just didn’t get it. It was at that point that I started looking back and realizing that a lot of the stuff I did as a kid was Not Ok.
Still, my experience up to that point was that if a woman didn’t want to kiss me, she wouldn’t. And my first several experiences dating were great! I had some rejection, but also quite a few really great, mutually enthusiastic sexual and romantic experiences. Having abandoned the shitty high-pressure tactics I used as a kid, I my partners and I were able to be clear about what we wanted and what we didn’t, and we made sure that everyone had a good time.
Still, I was not used to actually being liked and wanted. That concept was still very new to me. I didn’t realize how that can complicate things and lead people to (completely reasonably) send mixed signals about what they want to do. I had never been in a position where someone liked me and found me attractive, and maybe wanted to kiss, but not get naked together. I had never been in a position where someone didn’t really want to make out, but didn’t want to disappoint me so would do it anyway. When you’re a low-status high school kid, this is not how people treat you, and I still hadn’t internalized that things were different now.
The first clue I had that some people would do sexual things even if they didn’t want to was that, well, I was doing it. There were a few times that I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the sex (I’m using that term broadly) that I was having, but I went through with it because I wanted my partner to like me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t have good boundaries about it because I’d never needed them before, and our culture relentlessly tells men that they should always wants sex and there is something wrong with us if we don’t. It’s embarrassing to turn down sex with a willing partner, so I pretended I was enthusiastic. Still, I never really did anything I regretted, and I certainly never experienced any harm from it, so for me, it was no big deal and I was glad to be able to make someone else happy.
It was a huge wake-up call when I learned that one of my sexual partners had not wanted it at the time. I made the mistake of relying on non-verbal signals instead of just asking, and I ended up hurting someone I care about. It wasn’t until then that I really understood that people aren’t always entirely clear about what they want in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t until then that I realized that people will do things they don’t really want to do, even absent coercive tactics, because clearly communicating a rejection can be difficult or even dangerous. It wasn’t until then that I realized that failing to have an out-loud, explicit conversation before engaging in sexual contact can end up hurting people, especially if, like me, you sometimes misinterpret nonverbal signals.
I’m writing this because I think that there are other people (mostly men) like I was, who don’t understand the potential for harm in these situations. A lot of the debate around these topics recently has been about who to blame and what each party’s responsibility is when unwanted sex happens. These conversations are important and necessary, but ultimately, if we’re having those conversations, it’s because something has already gone wrong. Even if you believe it’s the other party’s responsibility to clearly communicate, I urge you to take responsibility anyway. This isn’t about blame or obligation. It’s about what you can do to make things better.
Some people are malicious and just want to take what they want, but I have to believe that the vast majority want enthusiastic partners. And if that’s you, I urge you to not let it get to the point where we are debating who is to blame for the harm done. Wouldn’t it be better if there was no harm done at all? Do you really want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you? Wouldn’t it be better to only have sex where each party really wants to?
I also think the attitude is pretty common that sales tactics are ok because a reluctant partner will end up enjoying the sex if they just give it a try. And sometimes that’s true! But seriously, it is not worth the risk and it disrespects the autonomy of your partner. They are in the best position to decide what they will and will not enjoy. If you try to persuade people to have sex with you, you will end up hurting people. Are you ok with that? You might be, but I hope you’re not.
So please, if you’re like I was, don’t wait until someone tells you that you hurt them. Start being better about this stuff now. Pay attention to your partner. Ask them what they want. If they sound hesitant or reluctant, follow up on that. Look for nonverbal signals, but also get explicit, verbal ones. Be honest about your own desires. You might end up having less sex, but that is ok. The sex you do have will be better for everyone, your partners will be happier, and less harm will be done.