Heather Corinna replies:
I'm 20. I had sex with a not-quite-boyfriend, okay, ex-boyfriend who I broke up with but still have feelings for. He decided that it would be fun to try some light bondage. It took me by surprise, but I usually do like that sort of thing. But at certain points...I felt really scared, and at others, I felt pleasure. However, the overall experience was negative, and I found myself wanting to stop--but I couldn't say no. I started to cry and he untied me. I wanted to slow down and just kiss, he wanted to finish. So I let him come on me, but I really didn't want him to. I felt really violated. Afterward he tried to cuddle with me, but I wouldn't let him. He tried talking to me a little bit about it, and said that I could have said no and that would have been better than crying--but the thing was I couldn't say no. What happened?
I'm not going to be able to tell you exactly what happened here, because I wasn't in your head or his, I don't know what the dynamics of this relationship are or have been like outside of this context and I don't know your sexual history, including with this person. This is one of those posts I wish we would have been able to have as a conversation instead, because there's a lot of extra information I wish I had, and I'd have asked you a bunch of questions first before giving you any advice.
But what you did say told me plenty. I can fill you in on some of what I took from this and think may help you better figure out what happened for yourself, and give you some helps to better avoid a situation and outcome like this in the future.
I want to make one thing crystal first. Trying to figure out whether this was truly consensual or not was difficult. I'm still not 100% on my judgment, which is that I think it was consensual on your part, but just barely. I must have asked ten different friends and colleagues about this, and no one felt they could make a completely solid call.
You don't seem to be saying that he did anything expressly against your will. What I think I'm hearing you ask isn't "Why did he do these things to me?" but "Why did I take an active part in these things when they're not what I wanted and they felt so emotionally wrong?" The difference in those two questions illustrates one big difference between nonconsent and consent for me. If I'm getting this wrong, we may not be talking about sex, but about sexual assault. Because this was your experience, not mine, you are more the expert that I am in knowing if this was consensual. If you feel this was not and thus, was assault, disregard a good deal of what I'm about to say, let me know. I'll adapt my answer to better serve you and will hook you up with some resources for assault victims.
What you seem to be describing is an iffy sexual scenario with very high emotional and sexual stakes. You were having sex with an ex where your feelings were unresolved, and I suspect his were, too. It sounds like you were having a kind of sex you hadn't had with each other before and had not talked about at all. There appear to have been domination and submission dynamics that were largely, if not entirely, non-negotiated and unacknowledged, and not simply because there was bondage, which those dynamics aren't automatically part and parcel of. With even just one of those factors, this was more likely to go poorly than well. With all of them? It was bound to be a disaster, which you obviously didn't know at the time, but which I can hopefully help you recognize better for the future.
Let me tell you some things I see in this that give me big red flags:
Any time we want to have any kind of sex with someone else, no one person should be doing the deciding. If we and someone else want to have sex in a way where one person really IS doing all the deciding, but which is also consensual and healthy, we need to jointly negotiate and decide that beforehand and throughout, which includes what that means, what limits and boundaries there are and how communication is going to go so those limits and boundaries are respected. That's a kind of power exchange that has to be negotiated very well and will not be something we can do with just anyone.
It sounds like you did agree with him that bondage was something you also wanted to do and was something you consented to, but I don't see you talking about that part or any discussion about it, so I can't tell how mutual a decision this was. You've enjoyed it in the past, but is it something that felt right to do with this person, in this situation, at that time? Did you feel fully able to say yes, no or maybe-but-only-within-these-conditions to this? Did you two, before engaging in the bondage and any other sex, talk about what you both wanted to do and how you wanted to go about it, especially given you've been involved in the past? I'm guessing, from the sounds of things, that you didn't. Maybe you didn't because you haven't in the past, with this kind of sex or any other, and didn't know how or know you needed to, or maybe you didn't because of the tricky emotional dynamics between you; maybe both.
No absolutely means no, and if and when no is said it should be respected absolutely. But sometimes, even when it's what we're strongly feeling, no is hard to say, especially with some kinds of sexual situations, activities or emotional dynamics. I can see why it would have been hard to say no here.
A lot of people who do bondage and/or sexual play with power, dominance and submission or pushing boundaries often use safewords, and "no," just like "stop," is not usually suggested because those words can often be a part of sex play, especially in power exchange. Instead, something much more benign, or even silly, is better, ideally a word that just wouldn't tend to come up during sex so a sexual partner would have an immediate "What the...?" when they hard it, like say, figgy pudding, cyclops or Fred Phelps. For any kind of situation where you might not be able to talk well or clearly, you can have a hand signal or movement that you both agree means someone needs to and will stop what they are doing instantly. With clear communication tools like that, and a partner acknowledging and respecting whatever signals you had, chances are much better you would have been able to have things stop at any time you wanted them to. Safewords or signals come in handy with any kind of sex, not just what someone may consider kinky sex, and are particularly helpful when trying something new, or going deeper into something than we have before.
Even if and when we have things in place like safewords, and even if and when we agree to bottom sexually, that doesn't mean that the other person is allowed to just not pay much attention or to only or primarily pay attention to their wants and their own experience. Topping isn't just about taking extra power, but about taking and holding extra responsibility. Safewords are like fire alarms: they're for when every other cue one might give is either something they can't convey, or which somehow managed to get past a partner's radar when they WERE trying to pay attention. Before you began crying, there were probably other cues a partner paying attention and wanting to have this be something you both felt good about would have picked up on and immediately checked in with you about. For example, you were probably pretty unresponsive or quiet at some points. You probably were not expressing that everything was feeling really great to you, and asking for things to keep them feeling great or make them feel more great. It was on him to pay extra attention to things like that, just like it would be on you to pay attention to signals from any sex partner you had or have. If we intend to have healthy sex of any kind with someone else that's really about mutual pleasure, we need to be paying attention to more than the barest basics per their cues.
When I asked my friend Laura about this, she said, "With different partners or on a different night things could have gone well, but I'm guessing that he missed some pretty clear signs that she was not 100% comfortable. Seeing those signs is a big part of being a good top, but that's not a skill that people acquire after having been sexually active for only a handful of years. Some people never acquire it. It sounds like he's got some learning to do in this area." I'd very much agree.
If someone is dominating sexual decisions, isn't being attentive to other cues besides saying no or crying we are giving, is pushing to still get off for themselves when clearly, their partner is not with them anymore, that person has made it pretty clear that what they want and need takes precedence over what a partner wants and needs. That is absolutely scary when that's not what we want, not what we signed up for, and when that isn't happening in a safe space with someone we trust to hold the power for both of us temporarily. It's supposed to be scary, because in most contexts like that, we are in some kind of danger. Our fear is trying to tell us so we can react and protect ourselves. I think at least some of why you didn't feel able to say no is because you felt scared. It's harder to say no when we feel scared than it is when we feel safe (which is some of why the meme about how rape victims are only victims "if they said no or fought back" is so dumb).
You say that you felt both pleasure and fear. Sometimes people want to experience both of those things together sexually and enjoy that, like how some people enjoy riding rollercoasters or climbing Mt. Everest. However, feeling fear with pleasure when we want to kind of explore that emotion in a safe space with a safe person, and have negotiated how we will do that is one thing. Feeling fear when that is not what we want, or because we have a valid reason to be afraid, like being in an unsafe space, with an unsafe person, or going about sex in an unsafe way is something else entirely. It sounds to me like fear isn't what you signed up for or wanted. It also sounds like you weren't feeling pleasure in feeling fear; those feelings were in conflict for you. I also want to be clear that feeling physical pleasure doesn't automatically mean we want something or that something is okay with us. Sometimes things will feel good or right in our bodies that feel very bad or wrong in our hearts or minds.
I think you felt fear because this was an unsafe and unsound emotional space and situation. It seems like until you realized you were feeling fear, and couldn't say no when you wanted, you perhaps weren't in tune with this being unsafe. Sometimes, that happens. If our feelings around someone or a situation are conflicted or difficult, it's much easier to be less in touch with what's safe for us or them. You may also have been enjoying a feeling of risk up to a point, but then had the dynamics change or gotten to a point where the scales were tipped per what felt risky-exciting and what felt risky-scary.
I also feel there was an express insensitivity and lack of care for you on this person's part that made you feel scared. When someone says they just want to slow down and kiss, answering a request like that with, "Well, I want to get off and come on you," isn't someone aiming for mutual pleasure and comfort. Telling someone when or right after they've been crying that some other response besides crying "would have been better" is callous. When someone we care for at all is crying, we don't chide them or tell them what they should have done. They're upset -- duh! -- so what we do in that moment, if we're not total asshats, is just comfort them. I think you had a reason to feel scared, because I think you were vulnerable with someone who was giving you cues they were not a sound person to be that vulnerable with.
I'm going to assume you broke up with this person for a reason. I would be very surprised if whatever dynamics you didn't like when you were together before were NOT still present in sex or other interactions after the relationship, especially if you two had not resolved those issues beforehand. A breakup all by itself doesn't resolve a dynamic, it just makes it so we no longer have to immediately deal with it. If one kind of relationship with someone ends, and we enter a new kind of relationship with them, we have to figure that we need to press reset and start again at square one, even if in the new relationship, we're doing some things together we did in the previous one, like being sexual. The context has changed, so we need to account for that, and reframe and renegotiate everything in that new context.
One of the people I asked about your situation was my friend, colleague and Scarleteen advisory board member Carol Queen, author of Exhibitionism for the Shy, The Leather Daddy and the Femme and contributor to about a gazillion other sexuality books. She added some things I think are very important additions and good jumping-off points for some of my final thoughts:
What jumps out at me is the disconnect between the unresolved feelings around this person and relationship and the lack of sensitivity on the part of this guy. In an intimate position with him, you went into an emotional space in which you could not advocate for yourself successfully. That it involved kinky play may have been pretty much beside the point if the deeper level was "We've broken up but I still want him and I can tell by what he's doing that he isn't in tune with me emotionally and what I want, and that just makes me unbearably sad and helpless-feeling." While it's unrealistic to always expect a partner who's in tune with you will do ONLY what you want, it's an emotion many of us have at least sometimes, and it can definitely tangle up your ability to speak up for yourself. Kind of a good argument not to have sex with your exes.
There's also "sub space" -- when a person goes so deeply into submission that they cannot easily speak up to negotiate -- that this may have had a tinge of, but I think the "unresolved feelings" issue is the bigger one, unless you have ever had a comparable experience fooling around with bondage, kink, or BDSM.
Carol brought up a few things that speak to some more of my gut feelings about this, which I want to share with you.
I wonder if some of what may have been going on here was effectively topping out of bounds on this guy's part, or perhaps even sex that was about expressing his anger or resentment towards you, which may or may not have been intentional (you're the best judge of that, since you know him). I don't know how he felt about you breaking up with him, but suggesting something like restraining you, especially if that wasn't something you two did in sex together in the past, which it sounds like it wasn't if the suggestion surprised you; your feelings of fear; his desire to ejaculate on you in this context; his level of general insensitivity and what seems like may be an intentional lack of attentiveness to the space you were in makes me wonder if this wasn't revenge sex for him. Sexually topping and/or humiliating someone who made you feel on the bottom emotionally in the past, certainly is a thing that can make people who felt powerless feel very powerful.
It may even be that some part of you knew or felt that was part of the dynamic in being sexual with him. That dynamic being powerful or charged, after all, would also be charged for the other person in it, not just for the person on top. If guilt or regret was or has been something you've been feeling, those feelings may also have played a part here. In other words, maybe before it got to certain points you felt you wanted to be humiliated or punished in some way, or felt like your guilt might be alleviated by letting him be sexually dominant.
Another thing to bear in mind is that you may not ever have bottomed before this incident (which I'm not sure you consented to, even if it wound up being what happened). I know that you've engaged in bondage before, but being physically restrained does not automatically mean being submissive. In this context, it seems to me you clearly were, and again, not just because of restraint. This person was not being a good top, but this person clearly topped you. If you have never bottomed before, some of how you felt may have been experiencing that, either finding out that while you may like bondage, you do not like domination and submission or finding out that this was NOT the way to go about submission in a safe way you enjoyed. He also may not have topped before, so any lack of education or information on his part in topping could have also played a part in this trainwreck. For all I know, he felt as out of control as you did. Our advisory board member Leela Sinha weighed in with this: "Simplest answer: he's bad at sex. Other extreme: he wanted to strike out at her. Likely middle ground: he meant well but is self-absorbed, bad at sex and hasn't dealt with his feelings so probably some of them squished out sideways."
I don't know what your assertiveness is usually like in sex or with this partner. But in any kind of sex, most certainly when we're playing with power -- be that taking it or giving it over -- it's crucial we feel able to assert ourselves and are only in sexual situations where we feel confident we can and will be supported in that. I would not advise most kinds of sex, period, for anyone who didn't feel confident about negotiating what they want. Maybe that's something you need to work on in general, or maybe this is situational, where you just you need to be sure you're only choosing sexual partners and situations where you feel truly able to do that. Maybe you also need to pay closer attention to your own feelings: if there's a next time where fear crops up at all, pay attention to it then and there, and know that means you need to stop everything and check in.
It's really not my place to tell people who ask me for advice who to have sex with and who not to. I usually feel it's overstepping my bounds. But now and then, it feels appropriate. Like now. I don't think you should have any kind of sex with this person again. Ever. I strongly feel that whatever is going on here, it's bad juju. I'm not even sure this person even likes you, and think it's possible he may dislike you, based on some of his behaviour. If one or both of you still have feelings you need to resolve, I think you need to either resolve them alone, or if you want to do it together, should do it with your mouths and your words in a public setting, not with sex, ropes or in anyone's bedroom.
I want to make sure you're giving yourself room in all of this to have something go badly now and then, to take what you need to from those experiences that will benefit you, but to leave any regret or guilt in the dust. beating ourselves up is never productive or in the interest of our self-care. We all make sexual bad calls sometimes or don't see bad stuff coming. I think some of why you feel so bad about this and felt violated is also because you may also feel self-betrayed in all or any of this. When we feel our boundaries got crossed by someone else and by ourselves, those can tend to be very hard feelings to manage.
Sex is kind of like driving. Not everyone is a good driver, but even excellent drivers still get in accidents sometimes. As good as any of us can be behind the wheel, not only is everyone and everything else on the road outside our control, we may sometimes space out things we usually remember to do, like checking a side mirror or using a turn signal. Sometimes those small errors aren't a big deal, while at other times, they are why we got in a crash. There are some places in this situation where using a signal, looking out for another driver, and making sure your seatbelt was securely fastened would have helped you a lot, but so it goes. We're all human. We all err. So, we do what we can to take care of ourselves and others in an accident as we need to, take things of value away from the experience to help us moving forward and then cut ourselves a break and leave an accident that's in the past in the past.
I'm going to leave you with a few links I think may help you out. I'd also suggest that if you want to engage in BDSM of any kind, you not only make sure you're choosing sound partners for that -- just like you would for other kinds of sex -- but avail yourself of at least a good book or two on the topic to know how to better enact those kinds of desires and make sure a partner knows how, too. A couple basic books I'd suggest are SM 101, A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman, Different Loving by Gloria Brame, and if you're going to bottom, The New Bottoming Book by Janet Hardy.