When “No” Isn’t Enough And Sexual Boundaries Are Ignored

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Violence is so normalized that we often don’t even recognize sexual abuses in the moment.

By Sherronda J. Brown

I recently realized that sex is unhealthy for me. Not sex in theory. No, of course not. Sex is healthy for our bodies and even our hearts and minds.When I say that sex is unhealthy for me, I mean the kind of sex that I have experienced — an experience that I share with many women, femmes, and bottoms. The sex where my needs are neglected and my boundaries are ignored in favor of whatever desires my partner may have.

Not everyone experiences sex and the things surrounding it in the same way, for various reasons. Some of those reasons might include gender cultivation, (a)sexuality, choice of sexual expression, knowledge of self/knowledge one’s own (a)sexuality, or relationship with one’s own body. Some of those reasons might include how certain body types are deemed “normal” and acceptable while others are only ever fetishized or demonized.

Some of those reasons might include the fact certain folks are told that they should be grateful that anyone would even be willing to look at them, let alone touch or love them, while others are expected to always be available for sexual contact. Some of those reasons might include the fact that some people are afforded certain permissions to make decisions about their sex and love life without being eternally scrutinized, while others are nearly always assumed to be sexually irresponsible.

Some of those reasons might include past or current trauma and abuse. And a host of other reasons not mentioned here, or reasons that you or I have never even considered because they’re not a factor in our personal story.

I’m not straight. I’m just an asexual with a libido—infrequent as it may be—and a preference for masculine aesthetic and certain genitalia. Most of the sex that I have had is what we would consider to be “straight” sex, and I am fairly certain that I would enjoy the act more and have a healthier relationship with it if more sexual partners were willing to make the experience comfortable and safe for me. Instead, men seem to want to make sex as uncomfortable and painful as possible for their partners, whether consciously or unconsciously, regardless of whether or not that is what we want.

Many men seem to judge their sexual partners abilities the same way that they gauge how much we love them and how deep our loyalty goes — by how much pain we can endure. I say this based on my personal experience, as well as the experiences of many of the people around me who have been gracious and trusting enough to share with me their testimony. Many of us have been conditioned to measure ourselves in the same way, using our ability to endure pain as a barometer for our worth.

Not only do we need to address the fact that far too many women have sex when they don’t want to because it’s “polite”, but we also need to talk about how many of us, of various genders, are having sex that is painful and/or uncomfortable in ways that we don’t want it to be, but we endure it for the sake of being polite, amiable, or agreeable. Many times, we also endure it for our safety.

This goes beyond simply not speaking up about what we want during sex. It’s also about us not being able to speak up about our boundaries and limits without fear of the situation turning violent. The truth is that many of us have quietly decided in our heads, “I would rather suffer through an uncomfortable/painful sexual situation than a violent one, or one that I might not survive.” This is about too many men not being able to tell the difference between a scripted pornographic situation or a story of sexual violence.

There have been too many times when I have been engaged in sexual situations and told my partner that I did not want a particular sexual act done to me, and they proceeded to do it anyway, with no regard for my boundaries, comfort, or safety. I gave them a valid reason for why I did not want the particular sexual act done to me, but I didn’t have to. My “No” should have been enough.

I once had to blatantly ask a guy if he understood what the word “No” meant. He had been attempting to persuade me into performing a sexual act that I was not interested in and had already declined several times. Therefore, it seemed a valid question.

“Yea, I do,” He responded. “It means keep going.” His answer did not stop there, but I will spare you the totality of the violent picture that he painted for me with his subsequent vulgarities. His voice was steady with a seriousness I dared not question. There was anger behind it, but also excitement and pride. The very thought of ignoring my “No” seemed to arouse him, even as he was filled frustration at my audacity to ask him such a question. I abruptly ended the phone call, grateful that this conversation had not been in-person. A chill came over me and I felt the urge to cry. My head and neck ran hot and the rise and fall of my chest quickened. Anxiety gripped me as I remembered that he knew where I lived and my panic drew out for weeks.

This is only one of my stories. I have others that include blatant disregard of boundaries, harassment, and other forms of sexual misconduct. I spent much of the last year contemplating the many ways that I have been coerced, manipulated, or even forced into sexual situations or sexual acts in the past, and how this violence is so normalized that we often don’t even recognize these abuses in the moment. Instead, they come back to fuck with us days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries after the fact.

It took me more than seven years to realize that the first guy I ever had sex with coerced me into it. Literally trapped me in his apartment and refused to take me home until I gave in. After this, he went on to violate my trust and disregard my sexual boundaries in other ways until I ended our “friendship.” It took me months to name the time a former partner admitted to having once removed the condom during our encounter without my knowledge or consent as a sexual violation.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have stories like mine. And these stories belong to many people of other genders, or without gender, as well. This is our “normal,” and that is not okay. We need a broader understanding of what sexual violence and misconduct look like, and we need to deal with the fact that they are more a part of our everyday lives and common experiences than some of us are willing to admit.

We have to stop thinking of sexual violence and misconduct as something that only happens when someone is physically assaulted, drugged, or passed out. It’s far more than being groped by your boss, or terminated or otherwise punished for rejecting their advances. In a world where people do not feel safe saying “No,” not only to sex itself but also to certain sexual acts and types of sex, we cannot go on talking about sexual violence as if rape and harassment are the only true crimes. In doing this, we are leaving people behind.

The ways in which our bodies and boundaries can be violated are abundant. Too abundant. Fuck everyone who ever made another person feel like they couldn’t safely say “No.”

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