Guy Talk: Consent Isn’t As Simple As “No Means No”

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Back in my 20s, I used to party quite a bit, sometimes to ridiculous excess. Drunkenness was rampant, and so were the accompanying shenanigans.

Once, a large group of us took a limo bus downtown for a coworker’s birthday. On the bus was a girl I recognized from work, but had never met. We ended up chatting sporadically throughout the night. But since we were constantly moving around, our exchanges never lasted more than a few minutes at a time.

By the end of the night, she and I were probably the only two people still coherent enough to carry on a conversation. Back at the birthday girl’s apartment, everyone else having either passed out or stumbled home, we found ourselves sitting next to each other on the couch.

There had been a tiny sliver of flirtation between us, but mostly, it had just been idle chatter up to that point. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed any indication that she was the least bit interested in me. Then again, I hadn’t telegraphed any interest in her, either. But that was because I hadn’t been interested in her. Not until that moment, anyway.

Still, I was buzzed, so I figured: What the hell? She’s kinda cute.

I draped my arm over her shoulders and continued talking.

Okay, she just moved in a little closer. That’s a good sign.

More idle chatter. Just meaningless prattle now.

Alright, let’s go for it.

I kissed her.

Woo hoo! She kissed back.

I kissed her again. We spent, I don’t know, maybe the next ten minutes making out.

Hey, it’s going pretty well so far.

I started unbuttoning her blouse.

Nice. She’s actually helping me with the buttons.

As I slowly removed her outfit, I began to notice that, while she was still kissing me back, she didn’t seem particularly “into it” anymore. She didn’t push me away, but it felt as though she had mentally checked out for the night and was just going through the hookup motions now. Her kissing was even starting to feel, well, uninspired.

I had never made out with someone who was acting so blasé. I was actually at a loss as to what I should do next. So, I just kept kissing her, attempting to rouse up some excitement.

I failed. Miserably. Instead, she started shifting restlessly on the couch.

Okay, now this is just getting awkward.

I had to stop. I pulled back and looked her in the eyes. Flashing as flirty a smile as I could muster, I asked, “Is everything okay? Are you cool with this?”

Her response wasn’t quite what I expected: “Yeah, I’m fine. Just do what you need to do.”

This particular statement wasn’t spoken with annoyance or frustration or impatience. It also wasn’t spoken with any enthusiasm whatsoever. It was the most matter-of-fact, emotionless comment I had ever heard from someone I was in the midst of undress with. I was utterly creeped out. I felt like I was living through one of those movie scenes where a guy is having sex with a prostitute, and she’s alternating between checking her watch and rolling her eyes towards the ceiling.

So, I stopped what I was doing and sat back in the couch. With barely any hesitation, she reached for her blouse and started putting her clothes back on.

We talked – awkwardly – for a while longer. Neither of us brought up what had happened, though. We just went right back to our previous idle chatter, now with way more uncomfortable pauses in the conversation.

By now, I had pretty much sobered up, so I told her I should get home. She mumbled “okay,” then curled up on the couch. I grabbed a blanket lying nearby, covered her up, and left.

And that was the last time I ever spoke to her. I randomly saw her again once or twice over the next few months, but never made the effort to say hi. Then again, neither did she. And I never did learn her name. I guess we both just put the night behind us, pretended it never happened, and pretended we had never met.

To this day, I have never figured out what was going through her head that night. I think it was pretty clear that this was just a random hookup for both of us. But that still didn’t explain why she would just so calmly and indifferently go along with everything I was doing. Partway through our makeout session, she must have lost interest in hooking up with me. Or, she never really had any interest at all.

Yet, she never stopped me.

And that’s why I still get uncomfortable even thinking about that night. As a guy, I’ve had “no means no” ingrained in me. I’ve been taught that if a woman pushes my hand away, or resists my advances, I have to notice those cues and respect her boundaries.

So what happens when a woman tells me, “Just do what you need to do”?

I’d like to believe I’m pretty in-tune with the emotions of those around me. Even half-drunk, I can usually tell whether someone is quietly enjoying themselves, bored, seething on the inside, or just shy and introverted. It wasn’t hard for me to notice that this woman had disengaged and to react accordingly.

But then, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t noticed. What if I hadn’t stopped? Would she have said “no” at any point? Or would this have become a night she regretted, and I a guy she felt violated by?

Looking back on that night, I realize now that sexual situations are way more complicated than the black-or-white lessons and catchy slogans we’re taught about consent. Real life isn’t as simple as “no means no,” because in this case, she never once said “no.” She never once resisted, even when it became clear that she was no longer interested. And yeah, that makes me feel a little bit icky on the inside.

So what was she thinking that night? Why was she okay with letting me “doing whatever I needed to do”? I guess I’ll never know.

Dennis Hong blogs here and doles out dating advice here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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