Even at the height of the #MeToo movement this past winter, it was difficult to talk about ambiguously consensual sex — the kind that’s technically consensual, but doesn’t totally feel that way.

It’s sex you have with someone because you’ve been hanging out with them for a while, not because you’re ready. Sex you feel like you should want to have, but don’t. Sex you have anyway, because staying, or saying yes, is easy. Leaving, or saying no, is harder.

“I just went along with it,” one of my friends said of the first, and only, time she hooked up with a guy she’d been hanging out with last semester. “It wasn’t that I felt violated, or that I was being forced to do something . . . it just felt like it would be such a big fucking deal for me to be like, ‘no.’”

They met the week before finals last semester. For a month afterward, they hung out on the weekends and did “everything but” sex. She’d pretend to be asleep or make an excuse to leave before he could suggest it.

One night, though, six weeks after they’d started hanging out, he wanted to have sex. She didn’t, but worried that he was getting frustrated with waiting. And since they’d been hanging out for so long, shouldn’t she want to by now?

She waited until he fell asleep afterward and crept out of his room around 4 a.m. She trekked from his frat house to her best friend’s couch and slept. She never heard from him again.

I can do it, she had told herself that night.  I can be the girl who has casual sex.

But she couldn’t — not without feeling the encroaching sting of Catholic guilt. More than that, though, she was disgusted that she’d hooked up with him because she’d felt like she should, not because she really wanted to.

“It was almost like an expectation at that point,” she said. “He expected that that’s what we were gonna do, ‘cause we had almost done it a couple times and I just didn’t want to … it’s not like if I would’ve said no he would’ve forced me or anything, but it’s just like, that’s what we were gonna do.”

Two stories centered on ambiguous consent blew up last semester, and were met with such widespread vitriol that #MeToo spurned and treated them like uninvited guests at a “Real Housewives” dinner party.

One, the New Yorker’s fictional “Cat Person,” culminates in sex that the 20-year-old female protagonist realizes she wants no part of but doesn’t stop or leave right away.

The other, published by babe.net, details a real young woman’s date with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. At his apartment after dinner, he pushes her into various sexual acts while she does everything from implying she doesn’t want to, to straight-up saying “no.” But she doesn’t leave right away, either.

Because these women don’t remove themselves the moment they become uncomfortable, many felt it was unfair of them to question the sexual encounters’ consensual nature. These stories had no place in the #MeToo movement, they argued, because it is meant to shed light on criminal, unambiguously wrong behavior.

But even though there was nothing physically preventing these women from leaving, that doesn’t mean there was nothing in their way.

“People now consider being in a relationship more serious than having sex,” one of my other friends told me, when I asked what she thought was different about the way we date now versus the way our parents did in the 1980s and 1990s.

The umbrella term “hookup culture,” favored by media outlets when describing millennial relationships, tends to imply that everyone is hooking up with one another all the time.

That’s not true.

What has changed, though, is, like my friend said, our collective attitude toward sex. Not only do we, generally, not take it as seriously as the generation before us, but it’s become an expectation because of how casual we’ve made it. To say “yes” is to adhere to that expectation. To say “no” is to create conflict that can feel unnecessary, and isn’t always taken well.

Once I went home with a guy, and after he’d led me to his house and his room and up onto his bunk bed, I sobered up and realized I didn’t actually want to be there. I told him one of my friends was texting me about some emergency Uptown, so I needed to go meet her immediately (alone).

But when I was halfway back Uptown, I realized he was jogging to catch up with me on the opposite side of the street. He followed my friends and I into a bar, after I met them outside, and finally left when I explained, numerous times, that I would rather stay with my friends than go home with him (again).

The word “no,” today, or anything like it, isn’t taken literally in sexual situations. It’s not even taken seriously. Usually, you need an excuse — you’re on your period, you don’t do casual sex, you pulled a muscle in your vagina earlier and can’t, etc. And even those, however ridiculous, don’t always work.

The problem is not just the fact that saying “yes” is easier now. It’s that saying “no” isn’t always enough.

daviskn3@miamioh.edu

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