I like to call the fall of my junior year of college, “The Dark Ages.” I had just suffered a major breakup and was trying to “find myself,” which really just meant I bar-hopped every night and brought a guy home every other night. Usually these encounters began with many Tequila Sunrises and ended with very little dignity, but I always knew the following morning that the previous night’s fun (for lack of a better word) resulted from totally intentional decisions to wreck my self esteem.
On one of these miserable nights at the bar, however, I met Michael.* As I sipped on my five-dollar champagne glass and played Bingo with my roommate, I watched him chat with another one of my roommate’s friends at our table. What was it about him that enticed me?
Although a far-cry from Brad Pitt, he held himself so confidently. I stared as he threw his blonde head back and let out a big-bellied, care-free laugh. Every once in a while, he looked across the table at me and sarcastically remarked at my terrible Bingo luck. I promptly turned a flattering shade of tomato red and giggled like a high school teenager.
Michael’s advances screamed pervert, but I didn’t care. Later that night when he checked me out as I leaned over the pool table during our game, I felt flattered instead of disgusted. When he teased me for being nearly four years younger than him, I found his status as a graduate student at Florida State University even more alluring. I returned home with a smug smile on my face and his phone number in my phone.
On our first (and last) date, we went to a pool hall. Michael filled the night with jokes at my expense and just the right amount of compliments to balance them out. “Could you be any worse at this game?” he’d say, and then, “I never noticed you had freckles. I love your freckles.” He spoke like he’d known me for years.
The first red flag appeared when the game ended.
“I should go,” I told him.
“Okay, let’s leave,” he responded. But when we got in his car, he drove to a nearby Red Box.
“What movie do you want to watch?” he asked.
“Very funny, but I need to go home,” I replied.
“Nah,” he said. “You’re coming to my place.”
At the time, this remark struck me as amusingly confident, so I chuckled, thought, “What the hell?” and conceded.
When we arrived at his apartment, he chucked the DVD onto his black leather couch and started kissing me. He crooned, “You’re beautiful,” and “You’re amazing,” and I soaked up his words like a parched sponge. I stopped him when he reached to unbutton my shirt.
“We’ll be doing none of that,” I told him. He hesitated but respectfully nodded.
“Let’s just watch the movie,” he said.
Two minutes into the movie, I looked down to see my shirt unbuttoned and a self-assured smile on Michael’s face.
“I just wanted to see how perfect you were, and I was right,” he said.
I melted at his feigned innocence. What’s the harm in doing a little with him? I thought.
The cycle continued. For every article of clothing I fought to keep on, Michael battled twice as hard to take it off. “Come on,” he’d say, “We won’t do anything else after this, I promise.” Soon I had compromised almost every promise I made to myself and to him—except for one thing.
“Please,” he begged, “You know you want to have sex with me.” When I clung to my steadfast no with all my might, he let his annoyance show.
“But why?” he asked. “What’s wrong with me? Don’t you like me at all?”
“We barely know each other,” I explained as if he didn’t already know that.
“I totally understand,” he said. “And I want you to know that I respect you. But please, stop lying.” He moved closer to me. “We’ve spent all night together, you’re really going to do this to me right now?”
I felt my anger rising, so I pushed him off and told him to take me home.
Michael did indeed take me home, ending the night with a sweet kiss on my forehead and an empty promise that he would see me again. But after I locked the door behind him at 5 a.m., I immediately went into my bathroom and threw up.
I did this to myself, I thought, my hands shaking over the toilet bowl. I sat on the bathroom tile and cried.
Michael didn’t get what he ultimately wanted, but he got other things, and I blamed myself for that for months. Somehow it wasn’t until almost a year later that I realized what had truly happened.
Although painfully obvious, Michael’s poorly disguised coercion tactics worked on me, a girl with a 3.9 GPA who likes to consider herself relatively intelligent. You see, even obvious coercions often go unnoticed because they place all of the guilt upon the victim. The comments Michael made slyly re-framed me as the person who was stirring up difficulty for not giving in.
When we speak of the pressure to have sex, we often fail to understand that these threats don’t limit themselves to just the physical. We throw around phrases such as “Well, you need to also stand your ground,” insinuating that fault equally lies within both parties in instances of coercion. We fail to recognize that psychological and emotional turmoil can often be just as effective as the physical. In reality, this kind of purposeful deception violates consideration, trust and human decency.
Yes, we should all protect ourselves from this kind of coercion. But if you’ve been in a situation like mine, don’t believe in this fact alone. Believe that a pressured “yes” is not consent. Believe that first and foremost, coercers are capable of controlling themselves. Trust me, when you realize that your response to coercion makes you normal and not weak, you’ll feel liberated.
*Name changed for privacy.