Sex & Relationships

When “No Means No” Doesn’t Quite Fit

A Toronto writer's essay has sparked an important conversation about what constitutes sexual assault

Messy bed with two pillows, white bed linen

(Photograph: Getty)

The definition of rape—sexual intercourse by force or duress—appears fairly straightforward. But there’s another age-old and, some would argue, ethically-fraught issue increasingly being raised and debated: how do we deal with the fact that many women have submitted to sex even when they didn’t want to?

It’s an unhappy reality that women have rarely discussed outside of their own private peer groups, but that reticence may be changing. U.K. academic Mary Beard wrote an essay about a non-violent but non-consensual sexual encounter for The Guardian in 2000. Lena Dunham recounts a date rape experience in her new book, Not That Kind of Girl. Comedian Amy Schumer once joked in an act that every woman has been a little bit raped, i.e., had sex when she really didn’t want to, a situation she calls the “gray area of rape,” or grape.

A Toronto writer recently published an essay on the phenomenon, detailing her experience with an NYC-based man. According to the writer, the man, nine years her senior, wouldn’t take her repeated refusals seriously enough to stop trying, and rather than see the situation “turn into an ordeal,” she resigned herself to sex that seemed inevitable. For the writer, this situation qualifies as another category of rape, albeit a more “insidious” type.

The writer’s essay stirred up a tempest within alternative literary circles where the man she wrote about holds status. The essay and the reaction was picked up by various outlets, and some even decided to “out” the man. But alt-lit squabbles are obscuring the very real disconnect that exists when “No” fails to persuade an aggressive pursuer and “Just get it over with” seems a necessary option.

Here, the writer talks to FLARE about her experience, why she believes what happened to her was rape, and why she submitted to sex she didn’t want.

What prompted you to write the essay in the first place?

I had a Skype conversation with a close friend of mine about a week after being in New York, and I was recounting the events of what happened—what I did and who I met and the readings I went to and the fact that it was fun, and then I started talking about sleeping at [the man’s] house. I talked about it a little more and a little more and then I realized that I was assaulted, that I was raped. A light went off in my brain and I realized that I’ve been pushing this way so that I wouldn’t have to think about it but that’s actually what happened; what do I do about it now?

In the essay you describe the many times you said no and other physical signals you gave that indicated your lack of interest in sex. He didn’t get those messages. But you essentially resigned yourself to the experience. Why? Why didn’t you decide to do something else?

Like what? Like yell or kick or scream or fight it or him? It could be answered in a lot of ways. But the real answer is that in the moment I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what the answer was, I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew I was afraid and that I didn’t want it to happen anymore.

That’s a very powerful and honest answer: that you didn’t know what to do.

And that’s OK. That’s the main thing; it’s OK to not know what to do.

I have probably had over 50 women contact me personally now saying, “Your experience resonated; your experience made me feel something, it made me feel that what happened to me wasn’t such a joke and that I can maybe think about it more seriously.” And that’s all I can do—not knowing what to do should not equal you allowing the rape. It just means you were afraid. You had no one else. You just didn’t know. And that’s OK, and it’s real too.

When I read the essay I had conflicting feelings about what occurred. I felt very sympathetic to you repeatedly telling him you didn’t want to have sex and the circumstances were a little stacked against you, but why is it rape and not being simply taken advantage of?

It’s rape because I said no… I said no many times. That is what assault and rape is… People like to think about rape as a violent physical forcing of a body onto another with one body not consenting to it. And while that is rape, there are unfortunately many different kinds. And one of the more insidious kinds is the kind that I experienced, where the person being raped or being assaulted, even themselves isn’t sure if it’s rape because the rhetoric being forced upon them is so intense.

You didn’t use his real name in the essay, but he’s been outed online. What are your feelings on that? Were you aware of that process of unmasking him?

Yeah. I initially used a pseudonym as a personal choice. I didn’t feel the need to name him and that was mostly because I wanted the reader to focus on the actual thing that happened instead of who it happened with. So when his former roommate, contacted me, and said she wanted to name him and said, “Is that OK with you?” I said of course. I didn’t have a problem with naming him, it was just that I didn’t want to name him in the piece initially because I wanted people to read it first, know what happened, and then if somebody names him with my permission, awesome.

After the essay and after the outing, he went on Facebook and wrote a long seemingly apologetic message  [he apologizes to you and claims he “gravely misread” the situation and assumed sex was consensual]. What’s your interpretation of that post?

I thought it was very funny. He never once admits to the rape but he does admit to assault and he never once has contacted myself personally, never once. He’s never once contacted the other person that he assaulted once. He’s never even come close to saying anything real to us so all his apology was to me was a way for him to attempt to put the fire out on his career.

What has been the response to your essay?

It’s been overwhelming, incredible for the most part. It seems as though it opened up a dialogue about all of the types of rape and assault that can occur because now it’s young people who are really adamant to make sure that these things stop happening.

What would you hope that young women would get from your story so that it doesn’t happen to them?

I regret zero actions in my story…Unfortunately the way I dealt with that assault was that I dealt with it in the only way I could. I tried my best to sort of be polite and try to push him away because I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t want that happening and I failed in doing that. I failed. That’s OK that I failed.

I have nothing to say to young women other than to say to try your best to live a life that you feel safe in and that you feel happy in, and there’s no other advice I want to give because I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. I don’t want to tell anyone how to live their life. I believe that experiences that are sometimes scary are also sometimes the most valuable because, yes, this experience has been horrible, but I also have met and interacted with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met through them sharing their experiences of assault with me. It’s opened up a dialogue and I couldn’t be more grateful.

This piece was updated on July 30, 2018 to remove all identifying details.

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