What’s the point of a conversation about consent?

What’s the point of a conversation about consent?

Written by Ginny Torok

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I never had the birds and the bees talk. Maybe I didn’t pay attention in sex-ed class or maybe they never taught us what the kids would all be gossiping about in the halls. In 7th grade, the first time I heard someone refer to a sexual act, I had no idea what they were talking about: “Did you hear that Heather gave him a hand job??!”

In my suburb there was this kids’ club – like, really, a club – with fog machines and foam nights, and lots of kids drinking Red Bull, and grinding, and making out. Girls used to leave the house in school clothes, then change in the club’s bathroom into the extreme low-rise, thong-grazing, painted-on jeans and halter top looks that were all the rage in the early 2000s. Parents were strictly not allowed in the kids’ club. The one time I went to the club with a couple of cool girls, I ran into my friend crying in the bathroom because a guy had “fingered her” in the foam while they were booty dancing. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was scared of it.
Some weeks later one of my friends, a guy, asked me if anyone had ever “gone down” on me. The answer was a hard no.
Me: “Yeah (obviously)”
Him: “Who?”
I threw a guy who had once talked to me under the bus. My friend was shocked, and I pretended like I knew why, as I tried to remember the term “going down,” so I could look it up later. I wanted to be the cool girl who could fit into any mold, and wasn’t ever as awkward or scared or out of place as she felt.

I never kissed anyone until 10th grade. I didn’t plan on that. I was terrified of guys, but I never showed it. Rather, I must have been terrified of guys who were in control. Because I also once mailed a letter to a boy asking if he liked me… the type where you circle yes or no. My first kiss may have been much sooner had he ever answered my letter. Once a boy asked me out, whatever that meant in 6th grade. I said “maybe,” and I never talked to him again… until college when he tried to have sex with me.

Anyway, my first kiss was in 10th grade with a boy I guess I was kind of dating. We went to a dance together, whatever that meant. But I didn’t know what to do. I read a Cosmo article that said, “as he leans in for the kiss, whisper ‘ah’ to create a relaxed open-mouthed position with your lips.” Apparently I didn’t do it right, because he told the next girl he dated (my friend… also a virgin), that I made a crazy face, and together they made fun of me for it. He wasn’t that cool, or attractive, or particularly good at kissing, but I didn’t talk to anyone about that – they had a laugh over the face I made.

That was the first time I ever felt sexual pressure. Whether consciously or not, the guy in that situation was demonstrating a classic power play to pit two girls against one another based on their sexuality – using one sexually insecure girl on another, to make each feel as if her ability to “kiss the best” would deem her worthy to be dated. A couple years later at a party, we walked in on the same girl in her underwear in the bathtub with a guy, going, “I’m so hot… don’t you think I’m so hot?!” We made fun of her.

After being thoroughly embarrassed about my kissing incompetence, I now knew that the guys I was scared of held the key to my confidence and my reputation as a cool, desirable girl.

I read once in some men’s magazine that if a girl is wearing red or black lingerie… she wants it. So, I wore both. As any nonchalant, cool girl who is totally sexually confident does – I dressed in red and black lingerie and attended my first “pimps and hoes” party. My friend and I surveyed the scene, saw some boys who we decided were cute, sipped a Smirnoff Ice, and started acting drunk.

He was my height, wearing a hemp necklace and a furry, purple “pimp” hat. I knew him from school, since he was a year older than me, funny and kind of cool. We started talking, and I don’t even know how it happened, but we ended up in a really creepy, empty room with dirty carpet. At some point we went to his car, and we did it – I was on top. I had the same feeling I did with my first kiss, but as usual I played it cool. It wasn’t like anything I expected. It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t hurt really. I didn’t bleed. It lasted like 5 minutes, and afterwards I asked him not to tell anyone. My friend had disappeared, and I sat in my car and made myself cry before I changed clothes and went home.

My second time was basically the same experience, and I began to think this was what sex between young people was like. The third person I had sex with was a drinking buddy. We used to AIM late at night, and he’d try to get me to sneak out and meet him in the park to presumably do it. I’d agree, then something would always “come up.” He started calling me a tease, like being a tease was the most hated type of girl you could be. I didn’t want to be a tease, so I had sex with him.

In the years that followed, I went to college and had sex with other guys for whom I had no feelings. I turned off the emotional side of my brain that used to make me feel guilty after I’d willingly let them take advantage of my insecurities. I turned on a ruthless, crass side that made me talk about guys like they talked about us. They were just numbers that I used to tell my friends about last night’s crazy story. I was the cool girl with no emotions – I was never the crazy girl who wanted some guy to call her or ask her on a date. I was the girl who made fun of the guy’s face he made. I had won because I was in control, and I was no longer scared.

I came home for Christmas once and saw my first kiss at a party. We talked about that hilarious face I made, then we got drunk and made out, so I could have the last laugh. For a second I felt like I showed him. Then, I realized he had just made me prove my self-worth through my kissing abilities. I felt a little sad, because he didn’t actually like me and he never had. Then I turned that off and started acting cool again.

Years later I ran into my “first” at a bar. He looked older now, and I looked much prettier. He didn’t remember my name. He told me I looked skinnier, and he admired me for it, because it must have been hard to lose the weight. Oh, you mean my baby fat? For a minute I felt sad he didn’t remember me. I suppressed those feelings. I said, “you know what… you were my first.” He looked shocked, and sad, and he apologized. I pretended like it was totally cool.

Today I’m dating the most amazing guy I’ve ever met. 6 months into our relationship I would still get mad if he’d try and have sex with me too early into the night. “I’m not just going to have sex with you! You have to at least talk to me a little!” If sex was my currency, he had to trade intellect for it.

I’m glad for the recently heightened conversations about consent. But in observing my lifetime of blurred consensual sex, I’m not sure the way we are referring to “consent” quite addresses the real problem. No one ever asked me straight up if I consented to having sex. In any case, I probably would have said yes, even though I didn’t mean it. If I had said no, I don’t think they would have forced me. But I never wanted it. The type of non consensual sex I had was much more complex than yes or no. What I wanted was to be liked and valued, and I was conditioned to believe that my sexuality was the most valuable thing about me. I may be alone in this experience, though I suspect I’m not.

I don’t have the answers, so I end this story with a question – When a young woman’s value and self-worth is defined by her sexuality and little else, what’s the point of a conversation about consent?