Can’t Say No: Understanding Sexual Violence and Lessons Learned About Consent
Last November I started telling the story of my first sexual experience. The idea was both compelling and frightening. I didn’t want to do it. I was sick to my stomach at the thought, but I had to write it.
When the time came, I connected to the Wi-Fi at my local library. My fingers were shaking. My chest was clinched tight. I took a deep breath and hit “Publish.” There it was. My parents and anyone who cared were going to know that I was not a virgin when I got married.
The day after I published “Confessions of a Late Bloomer,” I met Mel Carney. We sat next to each other during one of the last sessions of the library’s writers conference. Part of the workshop was getting to know the person next to you so you could retell their story.
Mel was a Vietnam Veteran. For 40 years he never spoke a word about his time at war. It was too painful. He went overseas with dreams of becoming a hero and came home to a nation that despised him.
In 2016 a VA psychiatrist encouraged him to write his story. He said it started out as a hand written page and a half. It had been hard to go back there. Eventually it became the novel Command at Dawn. After all those years, Mel found healing through writing his story.
Now Mel helps other veterans do the same. He visits VFW halls and anywhere vets are gathered around the Midwest helping them write their stories. He meets with a group of war heroes every Friday morning. He told me how freeing it has been to write about his experiences and how much he enjoys helping others do the same.
“So what do you write about?” he asked me.
“Kind of the same,” I said. We were basically out of time. I fumbled through something about faith and purity culture.
I’m tempted to give a qualifier here. Something like, the horrors of war are obviously not the same caliber of experience compared to what I’ve gone through.
No one cares whose wounds are deeper. I honestly thought my wounds were fairly superficial. Get rid of the shame, understand there’s no need for guilt—everything should be fine.
But I was not fine.
Sometimes when you have a lot of feelings it can be difficult to know just which bad experience they came out of. I began the process of unravelling misinformation to examine which of these ideas might have done the damage. I started shuffling through memories, looking for clues. I occasionally struck gold.
By that I mean I happened upon a memory that triggered an unexpected response. There are parts of my story that I gloss over, skip the details, quickly move to the next scene. That’s normal. It’s personal and would make us both uncomfortable. What I didn’t realize was that those memories weren’t just uncomfortable.
Understanding Sexual Violence
When I was in junior high I took Karate. Ralph Macchio and Chuck Norris were very cool and Jackie Chan was breaking into the US market. I learned a lot of great self-defense moves. I sometimes felt bad for the instructors—I definitely kicked them in the balls on purpose many times. Don’t worry, they wore protection and I was twelve.
I worked on my fitness because the first line of defense is to run away. Second is to scream. If neither of those work, you fight. We rehearsed what to do if I was grabbed from behind. What if someone twice my size pinned me down on the ground? Gosh, it was a lot of fun.
Other than a hair pulling incident in the school yard, where I was clearly in the wrong, I have thankfully never been in a physical fight.
The 90s seemed like the wild wild west. We were sure that we could be mugged walking home from school. The world outside felt so dangerous. We retreated into the sanctuary of our homes and cars.
What we know now is that the risk of being sexually assaulted by a stranger is very low. Unfortunately, sexual abuse by someone you know, especially an intimate partner or acquaintance, is extremely common. According to the CDC, over half of women and 1 in 3 men have experienced sexual violence.
When we think of the word violence, we imagine a physical struggle. There should be bruises, right? Actually, no, that’s not typically the case. Sexual violence is defined as “sexual activity when consent is not obtained or freely given.”
Here’s what I think is happening. Instead of looking for an enthusiastic “Yes!” many men proceed as if there’s a “Yes” until they hear, “No.” In this case, the primary concern isn’t what my partner wants, but rather what will they allow?
That little word, two letters, it seems so simple. Yet many women find it difficult to say when the time comes. Sometimes it’s casually dismissed, not taken seriously.
I do not believe that the majority of men are rapists and intentional abusers. Obviously, there are sexual predators that intentionally manipulate and force themselves on victims. I’m not talking about that scenario.
I’m talking about the guys who have been taught that manliness is measured by their ability to take control in the bedroom. I’m talking about foolish men who watch porn and think that’s good information on what women want. I’m talking about good hearted men who have never learned to use words to communicate.
This is compounded by women who have been systematically disempowered. I’ve written several posts about gender roles and evangelical culture. In these spaces, women have been taught to recognize man’s “God-given” authority. They are told to be quiet, that they talk too much.
We often overlook power dynamics. Roughly 4 in 5 female rape survivors reported they were under 25 at the time of their first assault, and almost half of those were under 18. We also know that sexual assault is more common for ethnic minorities. People who have less societal status, carry less power, are more vulnerable to sexual assault.
The struggle to resist is even more challenging for survivors. Sexual contact can be triggering. When a person doesn’t feel safe we usually imagine they go into fight or flight. But often the brain calculates the best way to survive in these circumstances is to freeze. He or she may not be capable of saying, “No,” pushing someone away or giving any resistance at all.
Are you starting to understand why consent is important? The damage of sexual violence cannot be understated. There are countless men and women walking around with the wounds of sexual violence.
Sexual Violence Tolerated in Our Culture
In the lead up to the 2016 elections, recordings emerged of the leading Republican candidate bragging about his ability to kiss and grab women whenever he wanted.
The recorded conversation from 2005 had the former president recounting his attempts to seduce a married woman. “I moved on her actually.” He said, “You know she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I'll admit it. I did try and fuck her, she was married.” He went on to explain that when you’re a celebrity you can do that sort of thing, grab women whenever you want and they just let you.
The video goes on and the two men approach their female interviewer. The presidential nominee says, “I better use some Tic-tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful... I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
I rewatched the candidate’s apology. It was one of those rare occurrences when he seemed to be reading a statement rather than speaking off the cuff. He said that he regretted the foolish things he said. Being on the campaign trail had changed him, he went on, because of all the people he had met. He hit on several conservative talking points and wrapped up by reminding everyone of former President Bill Clinton’s sex scandals. He pointed out that the things he said aren’t as bad as the way that Clinton behaved.
I would like to say both are unacceptable. Comparing yourself to another world leader who at best took advantage of a young intern and at worst was a serial sexual abuser is hardly a defense.
Absent from the apology was any mention of the way he had treated women in the past. Just simply that he regretted the words he said. The video was dismissed as ten years old and politically motivated.
The same was said of the 26 women who came forward telling stories of how he had grabbed, kissed and groped them—politically motivated. One of those was Karen Johnson who referenced the Access Hollywood tape when she said, “When he says that thing, ‘Grab them by the pussy,’ that hits me hard because when he grabbed me and pulled me into the tapestry, that’s where he grabbed me — he grabbed me there in my front and pulled me in.”
Even still, Evangelicals continued to support him. When it came time to vote, according to the Pew Research Center, 8 in 10 professed Christians checked the box next to his name. My beef is not with the former president. He has been 100% transparent about his character. My issue is with my brothers and sisters in the church who would support him.
When you put it all together, the indictment of the evangelical church on this issue could not be more damning. Women have been taught to be silent, blamed when men can’t control their lustful gaze and dismissed or devalued when they are abused.
Here you have one of the most powerful men on earth bragging about sexual violence and he is hailed as God’s Anointed One. How can anyone call themselves a follower of Christ and not openly condemn such behavior? Or should I not be surprised since evangelical culture has been teaching men to use women for sex for the past half a century?
My Own Experience with Sexual Consent
When talking about consent, I often give the caveat, “But I’ve never been raped or anything.” I told a friend not too long ago that I’d rather people think I’m a slut than a victim.
I’m a strong and confident woman. I own my decisions and the consequences that come with them. But my first kiss, having sex for the first time, even saying “I love you,” never felt like my decision. You’re not supposed to feel nauseated when you say “I love you” for the first time, right?
The memories of those moments threaten my very sense of self. I felt completely powerless. I hate the thought of who I was.
Did I feel anxiety because of all I had been taught about sex? I was so afraid that I would get pregnant, someone would find out and a whole list of terrible things. The messages from my Christian school and youth group were that I was ruining myself. Worst of all, I was afraid of damaging my relationship with God, the most precious thing in my life.
Evangelical purity culture taught women that they don’t own their bodies. (Note that I didn’t say my parents or the Bible.) We were saving our bodies for marriage as a gift to our one day husband. Messaging to men was complimentary--don’t have sex before your married because the girl is potentially another man’s wife.
Evangelical purity culture took away my ability to consent in many ways just like my boyfriend did. I was paralyzed by fear, with no clue what I actually wanted much less what was right for my relationship.
I blamed myself. I should have known what would happen if I spent the night. I told my boyfriend many times that I wanted to wait until I was married to have sex, but I knew that didn’t matter to him. Just like it didn’t matter when I told him I wanted to be committed before we kissed. I knew and I didn’t leave. I didn’t break up with him. It was my fault.
My anxiety around sex still lingers today. Other experiences reinforced those same bad ideas. I’m still working to dismantle them today.
Being single felt impossible. It didn’t seem to matter, churchgoer or atheist, sex was an expectation. Although, I rarely met single men who attended church. One Christian prospect ended things after our first date because I did not appropriately answer the question, “What’s your five year plan?”
I was a pastor. I knew the expectation was that I would be “sexually pure.” That ship had sailed. The only way to fix it was to be married. Getting there felt like wading through quicksand. I just kept sinking.
When my husband and I finally got together it just felt right. We had been friends for a long time and I knew that I wanted to marry him. We talked about sex and agreed that we didn’t believe it was wrong or sinful. I felt free and safe. When a guy pursues you for so many years, you don’t really worry, will he call me later?
I wish I could say that we lived happily ever after and our lives together have been rainbows and sunshine ever since. But after almost 6 years, we are still learning to be married.
Healing is no small task. About a year and a half ago I decided it was time we worked on our sex life. There were a lot of reasons I had let it go on for so long. I was carrying a heavy load of stress. The idea of working on my issues around sex felt overwhelming. I wasn’t in the place to take on one more thing.
I had completely disengaged. My husband assumed I wasn’t attracted to him anymore. We both gave up on me finding pleasure in sex. The thought of attempting arousal brought a flood of anxiety. I felt like a broken toy. All used up—I just didn’t work like I was supposed to.
I’m not one to give up easily. I believed we could find help. I was compelled to action by the idea that I might live the rest of my life with two options: pleasureless one-sided sex or no sex at all. Both were unacceptable.
I reached out to a sex-therapist. She gave us some things to try. Adam and I had a lot of uncomfortable conversations. Things have gotten much better, but the work is still on-going.
I am constantly in search of resources. I read books, listen to podcasts, meet with my therapist. Still, the thing that has been the most helpful is to tell my story. Talking with an empathetic listener, that’s where the magic seems to happen.
There’s something powerful in putting together a narrative, attaching words with feelings. People have different ways of doing this—some sing, maybe some do interpretive dance. For me, I talk and write. Something about getting the story out helps me step back and look at it again with fresh perspective. I ask questions and wonder about who I was in those moments. I think back on my younger self with curiosity and most importantly, compassion.
I know that I am not alone. There are countless women struggling through a lack of sexual desire—with feelings and reactions they can’t quite identify.
There can be many reasons for this. So many of us are carrying around secrets. There are things we just don’t talk about. I want to change that. I can’t know your situation like you do. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I know that healing is possible.
I want us to make a safe place where judgement is set aside and people can tell their stories without fear. Some of us have made big mistakes. Some of us have been hurt by others. Some of us are living in sorrow for the dying dream of a happy marriage.
We need to talk about it. That’s how we find healing. I believe that’s the grace of God at work in our lives.
We also have to stop the bleeding. Men and women need to learn to communicate about sex. Conversations about consent aren’t just for single people. I’ll write more about that next time.
If you want to receive email updates when I post new articles, click the subscribe button bellow.
 You can read Mel's story and find his book here: https://www.commandatdawn.com/  The CDC has a web site dedicated to information on sexual violence: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/fastfact.html  Transcript of Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood interview with Billy Bush. https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37595321  This article outlines the list of Trump’s accusers https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-sexual-assault-allegations-all-list-misconduct-karen-johnson-how-many-a9149216.html