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Robin Mandell replies:
I'm an 18 year old virgin. A few months back, I was out clubbing with a friend, and she wanted me to make-out with a guy, because she does it all the time when we go clubbing. I started dancing with a guy, and we started kissing, which I DID want to do. But then he started putting his hand up my skirt, and then in my underwear. I kept pushing his hand away and telling him to stop and he kept putting it back. I managed to escape and didn't see him again, but I feel kind of violated, as he was touching me sexually. Is this my fault? I did want to kiss him, but I said not when he put his hand down my pants. Was this wrong, or was I asking for it, and is it just something that happens?
You did nothing wrong. The idea someone "asks for" something they don't want, something that they experience as a violation, is a trope that I wish would go the way of the dodo bird.
Understand, I'm not upset with you for saying that; I'm upset with the culture that sends messages that make you worry that that's what you did.
The only message that dancing with and kissing someone sends is "Hey, I like dancing with and kissing you right now."
It is not a free invitation to anyone to touch us in ways we didn't agree on or clearly and expressly ask for -- as in, "I'd love it if you put your hands in my pants," -- and it most certainly is not an invitation to someone to touch us in those ways, especially after we've explicitly told them not to.
I am sorry you had to encounter someone who so clearly didn't respect you as a human being.
Often people tend to view sexual activities as having an ascending order of importance, with lesser activities leading to greater ones. Sexual activities aren't so clearly ranked though, and really can only be seen as individual acts--acts that never supercede words. So, if you said that you didn't want that guy to put his hand in your underwear, that's what he needed to listen to, not his idea that a kiss automatically leads to more.
A kiss is just a kiss; it might be the most fabulous kiss in the world, but it's only a kiss, and only an invitation for more kissing (and not necessarily even that).
Respecting people's stated wishes around their bodies doesn't just go for touching genitals. Had either of you wanted to stop kissing at any time, and had pulled away, it wouldn't have been a consensual thing for either of you to insist on kissing more.
In any kind of sexual or potentially sexual interaction (in any kind of interpersonal interaction at all, actually) the person who doesn't want to do something, wants to do less of it, or wants to change how it's done is always the person who gets to decide what the people will do together, whether they've known each other for five seconds, five minutes, or twenty-five years. In a word, someone's no to something sexual should always trump someone else's yes.
It's not acceptable for someone to do something to our bodies or expect us to continue doing something with our bodies just because they want to. Somehow, this seems to be culturally comprehensible when it comes to physical things like hitting or kicking: no one would give me carte blanche to kick someone who didn't want to be kicked because I said it felt good for me to kick them. Yet, some people think the rules are different when it's something sexual. They're not.
If and when someone wants to have the sexual freedom to do whatever they want to a body, based only on their wants, we've all always got the opportunity to do that: masturbation, sex all by ourselves, affords us exactly that opportunity. It's also the only kind of sex where that's okay.
I think it can be helpful, when we've experienced something nonconsensual, to remember what consent really looks like and what we can and do have the right to expect in terms of consent from anyone who wants to be sexual with us.
The following list is from our article Driver's Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent.
- Consent is about everyone involved in a sexual or possibly sexual interaction. Not just women, not just young people, not just whoever didn't initiate sex to begin with, not just the person whose body part someone else's body part may be going into. Everyone. For sex to be fully consensual, everyone needs to seek consent, everyone needs to be affirming it, and everyone needs to accept and respect each other's answers, nixing sex or stepping back, pronto, if and when someone expresses a stop.
- Consent can ALWAYS be withdrawn. Consent to any kind of sex is not a binding contract nor does consent obligate anyone to follow through. It is also one-time-only: because someone consented to sex Tuesday does not mean they were giving consent for sex on Thursday.
- Nothing makes consent automatic or unnecessary. Being someone's spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend doesn't give anyone consent by default. Someone loving you or saying they love you doesn't mean they have your sexual consent or you have theirs. No one kind of sex means consent to another, or that anyone is "owed" any sex. For instance, someone who engages in oral sex is not asking for or consenting to intercourse; someone who says yes to kissing is not saying yes to any other kind of touching. Because someone has had any kind of sex in the past does not mean they will have sex or consent to sex again with that same person or anyone else nor that they are obligated in any way to do so.
- In some situations, full, informed and free consent cannot truly be given or shared.Those include: being drunk or wasted, being asleep, being unable to really understand what one is saying yes to, including possible risks and outcomes; being under severe duress, like when seriously upset, ill, grieving or scared or being unable to understand another person's words or other means of communication. Consider things like these to be a red light to even asking about sex: sex should usually be off the table entirely in these situations. Legally, when someone is under the age of legal consent, with someone of an age where sex is not lawful, and in most of the above situations, sex is a crime.
- Nonconsent means STOP: If someone is NOT consenting to something or says no with their words and/or actions, the other person MUST stop trying to do that thing AND must not try to convince that person to do that thing in any way. If they do not stop, or exert emotional or other pressure and that person gives up and gives in, they are sexually assaulting that person. Sex is not sex if everyone is not consenting. If anyone is not consenting or not asking for consent, then what is happening is or may be rape, sexual abuse or assault.
- A lack of no does not mean yes.
We or others can sometimes show by our actions that we consent to something, but it is also always acceptable to ask someone if they want to do something. While moans, groans, and body language can be effective forms of communication, they're not as clear as "yes," or "no," more!" or "less." With a partner who doesn't know us very well, or not at all, and whom we don't know very well, or at all, words in a shared language are much clearer than body language, which is difficult to interpret correctly if someone doesn't know our particular body language style.
There's this idea out there, I think, that sexual activity that just happens, without words, is sexy and desirable. This is often promoted by movies, books, and other popular culture representations of sex in which we don't usually get to see people negotiating what they both want. It's just as appealing to say "I want to touch you" as it is to start touching. I think consent is probably the sexiest thing there is.
I wanted to also address something you said in the first part of your question. You said your friend wanted you to make out with a guy because that's something she does all the time. So, while you did end up enjoying the kissing part of it, is making out with that guy something you wanted to do for yourself? It sounds like your friend was putting a lot of pressure on you, though I can only base that presumption on what you've said here, and know that I might be misunderstanding you.
It sounds like you only did what you wanted, and got yourself out of a scenario you didn't want. I hope you know though that you never have to do anything because a friend says it's awesome or that it's right for them. Sometimes when people are talking about sexual things with their friends, they can feel a lack of confidence or a sense of inadequacy if they perceive that their friends are more sexually experienced than they are. In case you ever have, or ever do feel that way, know that one person's awesome can always be another person's "not right now," "not yet," or "don't really like that."
I'm picking up that you're feeling pretty bad about yourself right now. Hopefully what I have written has been helpful to you in understanding what happened and how you weren't to blame for it, but it would also be natural if you still weren't feeling very good about this.
Sexual assault is really insidious, both in how it feels, and in the way we're often taught to blame ourselves for it in ways that, as I said above, people who experience other types of violence are not blamed. Yes, sexual assault is violence. Culturally, "groping" is underplayed as an act of sexual assault, but that's exactly what it is, nonconsensual sexual touching. I'm sorry that you experienced that, and sorry that you're feeling like it is your fault.
It truly was not and is not your fault. If seeing a legal definition of sexual assault, or, as it is referred to here, sexual abuse, is something you think will help validate your feelings, Rape Prevention Education offers this definition, taken from New Zealand law:
Sexual abuse is a term used to explain any act which is sexual in nature that someone does not, or cannot consent to. It is sometimes used to describe rape or unlawful sexual connection, but also refers to other sexual acts that are included in areas of the Crimes Act 1961.This may include:
- Sexual touching (e.g. touching genitals, breasts)
- Being made to touch another person sexually, or being made to touch yourself sexually in front of another person
- Some non-touching behaviour (e.g. being made to watch sexual behaviour, being watched while doing sexual behaviour).
You don't have to cope with this alone. There are places where you can get support from professionals or peers who will not judge you, downplay your experience or suggest you or anyone should be okay with anyone touching you in ways you don't want. We would be happy to talk with you at visit our message boards, where you can also get support from peers. Or, you could search here for a sexual assault center or hotline local to you.
I'm leaving you with a few links that I hope can offer you some more perspective. Whether you decide to get more support and help around this, or whether you feel you can manage on your own, I hope you can remember that you have nothing whatsoever to be ashamed about. You did nothing wrong, and deserve to be respected and cared for by other people, which includes, above all else, those people listening to and responding to what you have to say.