Content Warning: This contains description of an unwanted sexual encounter.
In 2010 a woman accused me of rape.
Here’s the story. I met a woman in Houston while on tour as a musician. We exchanged numbers and when I came back to town a few years later I looked her up. We met for food, then went back to her place and decided to have sex.
Actually, I assume we decided to have sex because clothes were coming off and body parts were being pushed together, but there was never any words exchanged, or verbal confirmation that we both wanted to have sex. I simply made a move, and she didn’t say no.
I leaned in for a kiss, she didn’t say no.
I put my hands on her breasts, she didn’t say no.
I reached down her pants, she didn’t say no.
We went through the motions, all the way up to and through intercourse, and she didn’t say no, so I assumed she was enjoying herself and everything was good. Then after sex was over (it didn’t take long), she turned to me and said the three words no decent person ever wants to hear.
You raped me.
I was stunned. It was like she told me “you have a carrot growing out of your forehead”. I was very clear I didn’t have a carrot growing out of my forehead, and I was equally as clear I didn’t rape her, at least according to my definition (I’ll talk about that later).
Thankfully, what I did next was smarter than my previous decision to have sex. I stayed and listened. At the time, I wasn’t thinking “okay Dave, you know what to do here, be a good listener” I just knew leaving wasn’t the right move. When she said “you raped me” it was a feeling, not a logical conclusion. I didn’t defend myself. I knew I screwed something up, but I also knew that I had no intention of hurting her.
Six hours and me making a few runs to the local convenience store for cigarettes and snacks later, we seemed to be at peace with everything (or maybe just gave up trying). The sun was coming up and we parted ways. Although I still felt confused, I took an ounce of solace in the fact that I did my best to show her I cared (despite my ignorance) and was willing to make things right.
I wish I could say that experience changed the way I related to women, but I had no idea what I did wrong. That may seem hard to believe, and even as I write that now it seems ridiculous, but I thought that because she didn’t say no, I did my job.
Turns out there’s a lot more to that story, and it starts with a fundamental misunderstanding.
All-Night Burritos vs. Sexual Assault
Over the next couple years I met some very gracious people who helped me understand how a woman’s experience was very different than my own, and the realizations were shocking.
When I leave a bar at two in the morning and have to walk a few blocks to my car, I’m mostly thinking about where I can find an all-night burrito shop, not “how can I avoid sexual assault”, yet that’s the reality for most women.
I almost never feel unsafe. I’ve never said no to someone and been afraid they would become violent. I’ve never walked through a crowded bar and been afraid someone will grope me.
In fact, for most straight men the concept of an unwelcome sexual advance is as foreign as the concept of bad pizza.
When I began to understand how a woman’s experience was radically different than mine, it changed the way I thought about initiating sex.
I saw some of the reasons a woman might be a “no” but not feel comfortable saying it. I saw how her “yes” might actually be “I’m okay with it” instead of a clear-minded, enthusiastic “yes”.
I started to wonder how many of my sexual experiences were the “I’m okay with it” version of “yes”, versus the “I really fucking want this” version of “yes”. I was embarrassed to say the least.
I consider myself a “good guy” and yet even with the best intentions my ignorance and lack of ability to understand another person’s world led me down roads that ended in hurt, suffering and regret. So I set out to change. To chart a different course, I had to first acknowledge that the sex I had been having was primarily outcome oriented.
Another slice of humble pie.
By the way, if I had a dollar for every time this process of self-inquiry made me feel like absolute dog shit — I’d have a lot of dollars, but pushing through that guilt (and not escaping into shame) has been, and continues to be, a pivotal key to my growth.
For more on shame vs guilt, I highly recommend Brené Brown’s TED talk.
Celebrating the Word “No”
If I wanted the women I was sexual with to be on the same page about being a true “yes”, I needed to create an environment where “no” was welcome and even celebrated.
When the goal was a certain outcome, all I cared about was getting a “yes” (or not getting a “no”) so we could move forward. However, when the goal changed to finding a win-win — something we both wanted to do — “no” became just as valuable as “yes”. We asked different questions, and listened differently to the answers.
Using our voice (as well as cultivating the wisdom to know when words aren’t enough) became the foundation on which anything we did together was built, and if that wasn’t there, nothing was possible.
A funny thing started to happen after communicating like this — I would hear things like:
I’ve never had anyone actually care about what I wanted.
So you mean I can tell you what I want and you’ll listen?!?
Thank you for asking me.
The more I listened to women and heard about how much bad sex they’ve had, the more I saw how rare it was for men to show this kind of concern over a woman’s experience.
I began to make in-depth communication routine in sexual experiences with new lovers, but not just because I wanted to avoid regret. It turns out when you enter the world of “yes”, there’s so much to discover about what people like and what turns them on.
Dan Savage said something fascinating about the difference between straight couples and gay couples, and it highlighted the ways in which communication can do more than just make sure everyone is okay. He pointed out that when two men initiate sex, one of the conversations they always have is “what are you into?” That’s because there’s no default way two men (or two women) have sex.
With straight people that conversation doesn’t usually happen, because we default to the standard narrative around how men and women engage sexually. We do what’s “normal” and “expected” but often miss out on finding the edges, quirks and desires that make us and our lovers unique.
If straight people paused and asked “what are you into”, especially in the early phases of a sexual relationship, there would be a lot more pleasure, enthusiasm and fulfillment.
The Myth of “Killing the Mood”
The more I stressed the importance of communication with romantic partners, the better my love life became. The more I slowed down our interaction and brought awareness our desires, our fears and our enthusiasms — the hotter we would get for each other.
That’s because getting what you want is great. If you went into a restaurant and the waiter brought you some random food, then said “I just assumed you wanted this” or “my last table wanted this so I ordered it for you” how would you react? Would you be happy? Even if the waiter happen to bring exactly what you wanted, wouldn’t that miff you a bit?
I’ve been that waiter, and my problem wasn’t that I needed to get better at guessing what the customer wanted, it was that I needed to ask. As men we spend so much time and energy trying to learn “what women want” but overlook the simplest solution — just ask them. And listen.
It’s worth acknowledging that talking about our desires is often easier said than done. It can bring up times we’ve been shamed for wanting something. Maybe for women it’s times they’ve been slut-shamed and for men it’s being a “sissy” for liking anything sensual.
It’s hard for us all to speak up, but when I made these kinds of “what do you like” conversations a regular practice, my love life changed for the better.
Women would tell their friends about me, not because I knew a bunch of exotic sexual positions or had discovered “tantric secrets to the female orgasm”, but because they were amazed that a man genuinely gave a shit about what they wanted. It’s important to note here that there’s a big difference between being interested in “what women want” in general and being interested in what this “specific” woman wants.
One woman even joked about starting a yelp page so she could write me a 5-star review, and let everyone know what a good idea it was to have sex with me — all because she felt safe.
I don’t say this to make myself look good, I say it because I’m desperately trying to have men understand that emphasizing communication doesn’t make sex worse, it makes it better, and makes people want to have sex with you again. We need to challenge the commonly held belief that communication will “kill the mood”, because it’s robbing us of the kind of sex that not only feels amazing, but leaves everyone better for it afterwards.
Win-Win or No Deal
When I slowed things down, I also noticed that not only was I not checking in with her, I wasn’t checking in with myself. Am I really ready to move things forward sexually?
For so much of my life I had been an automatic “yes” to sex if I was attracted to someone, but once I started getting honest with myself I found there were a lot of things I wanted to communicate, especially because I wanted the experience to be meaningful and fulfilling.
I wanted to know if there was anyone who would be upset if we were together. I wanted to know if she was comfortable with us being casual lovers, or would that not work for her? I wanted to know when the last time she got tested was, and I wanted to share my results.
Most of all, I wanted to know that she had a clear mind, because if there was anything in the way of her or I being a full, enthusiastic yes, then we should consider calling it off or discussing the topic further.
I understand it may sound like I’m preaching here, but I’m plenty guilty of having sex that wasn’t fully consensual. The more I became familiar with what a true “yes” actually feels like, the more I saw how many of my previous experiences weren’t that. It’s humbling, but if we don’t collapse into shame our past can motivate us to create a different future.
When Women Have a Voice, Everyone Wins
If I could insert myself into the brains of every man on earth and share one simple thing I’ve learned it would be this:
When women don’t have a voice, everyone loses.
That’s the thing I never got, until I did. Everything I wanted sexually, everything I worked so hard to get in my twenties was available all along, and it wasn’t because I didn’t have enough “game”, it was because I believed that on some level that I had to convince women to want sex.
This may not come as a big surprise, but it’s worth repeating.
Women don’t need to be convinced to want sex.
In fact, women love sex (maybe even more than men) but they only love sex under the right conditions — otherwise it’s pointless. Much like a garden won’t grow without the right soil, water and care, most women can’t access their sexual desire unless they feel safe, and we as men have the brilliant opportunity to create that, but when we don’t we’re simply shooting ourselves in the foot.
When women don’t feel safe, they don’t want to have sex. Then because no one is having sex it becomes scarce and men chase after it more, and women withhold it more. Now we have to play games to coerce each other to do something we both already wanted in the first place.
Welcome to the insanity of today’s culture.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are places on earth where women feel safe and men take a stand for things like permission and true consent. I’ve been lucky enough to be welcome in those spaces, and you know what happens? People have sex, or they don’t, but either way they feel great afterwards.
When women don’t have a voice, everyone loses.
But when women have a voice, everyone wins.
That’s the world I want to live in.
Have some thoughts on this and want to discuss them? Go to the Facebook thread.
My friends Christina & Stephanie discussed this article in an episode of their podcast T&A Talk Sex. It’s a fun and sexy show, click here to listen.
Here is a dutch translation for Charlie magazine.