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Auntie SparkNotes: Can It Be Non-Consensual Without Being Rape?

Dear Sparklers: if you need to talk to someone about sexual assault, you can visit the RAINN site, call 800-656-HOPE, or live-chat with a trained staff member at the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline for 24-hour, confidential help and support.

Hi Auntie.

I met my first serious girlfriend when I was 14. We dated until the end of my junior year. It was very toxic, but because I was in the closet as a lesbian, I didn’t reach out for help.

We were very on again/off again and she was almost always flirting with other people. At one point she started dating a close friend. Less than a week after, she kind of pressured me into coming over to her house (I didn’t want to initially because I knew she might pull something).

It ended in us hooking up. I said “no” more times than I can count. I even pushed her off me and asked to go home, but she refused to drive me.

She would cry and beg for “just one more kiss.” Then we would make up and she would give me a great big hug and start kissing my neck. Then I’d push her off again. This happened several times until…well, the HND.

I felt uncomfortable the whole time. The entire incident made me sick to my stomach especially because it was unethical; she had a boyfriend at the time!

I confronted her about that and other instances a few months after our break up. She said she never knew when I meant “no” because sometimes I would flirt with her or be all cuddly and then suddenly get cold and push her away, only to eventually take her back again…which bears some truth. A lot of truth actually.

In her words, “I’m sorry you feel that way but I know I did nothing wrong.”

But the other thing is, I would only ever take her back after she literally fell to her knees and cried. I hated seeing her like that. I felt guilty and sickened, not empowered, by her displays of remorse. I never felt like I was intentionally leading her on. But maybe I was.

And while I know “coercion” is a thing, I feel like I invited her advances by virtue of being inconsistent in the past. So it’s fair if she got confused.

So am I responsible for her cheating, or was it rape? It’s such a strong word and labeling her feels wrong, especially because so many other times she was patient and kind… is it possible to not be consensual sex but also not be rape?

I’m sorry this happened to you, Sparkler. And I’m sorry, too, for what’s going to be a very difficult reckoning period while you figure out how to deal with and heal from the emotional trauma you might be carrying. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers here, but I would like to give you some of my thoughts.

Your ex doesn’t need to be a rapist to have done something wrong in this scenario; she was manipulative, coercive, and grossly disrespectful of your boundaries, all of which is decidedly not healthy and not right (whether she cares to admit it or not.) There’s a whole, wide, terrible world out there of sex that is technically consensual but seriously awful, and which is much more common and much more complicated than the question of whether a hookup can be legally classified as sexual assault. Your ex may very well have believed you were saying yes to her, and based on your history together, maybe that was even reasonable. But that doesn’t change the fact that you wanted to say no, and it doesn’t make your feelings about what happened any less valid.

What matters now is that you take steps to deal with those feelings, and to apply what you’ve learned from this experience so that you don’t end up repeating it down the line. Before you embark upon another relationship, it’s vitally important that you develop the confidence to say “yes” only when you mean it, and to mean “no” when you say it, and to follow through by walking out the door if someone won’t respect your boundaries—even if that means you have to call a cab to get home. In your case, you may also want to spend some time considering what this relationship meant to you in the context of questioning your sexual identity, and how the dynamic you established with your ex (one in which your “no” was often the start of a negotiation that led to intimacy you weren’t necessarily sure about) may have played a part in dealing with feelings you felt confused and conflicted about. (It’s worth noting that you wouldn’t be the first gay kid to end up in an unhealthy relationship with an overbearing partner on your way out of the closet.) Overall, if you find yourself feeling uneasy or unsure about a sexual situation, remember that healthy, positive sex is something you do (comfortably and happily) with another person, rather than something another person does to you.

This isn’t easy work, of course. Learning to be assertive takes time, and often, it takes an uncomfortable experience with an overbearing partner to realize how important a skill it is. But unlike confronting your ex, it’s a process that will ultimately lead you to a healthier, happier place in which you feel empowered and in control—and where your choices are a reflection of what you want, rather than what other people might want from you.

To learn more about affirmative consent, please read Auntie’s PSA, here. 

If you need to talk to someone about sexual assault, you can visit the RAINN site, call 800-656-HOPE, or live-chat with a trained staff member at the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline for 24-hour, confidential help and support.

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