Note: this post includes frank talk about sexuality.
Many women (and a few men) are speaking openly about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. And this has caused a lot of men to ask, “What qualifies as sexual harassment or assault? And have I ever crossed the line?”
I was once cornered as a student by a university department head who started massaging my chest and began working his way downward. (Even if I’d been gay, I’d have been turned off—he had hideous breath.) This was harassment. A few years later, an inebriated audience member at an improv performance dove onto me, jamming her tongue down my throat and her hand down my pants. This was assault. I wasn’t particularly traumatized, but I completely understand why others, especially women, are.
Two years before I met her, my college sweetheart had been a naïve 18 year old who thought she could get pregnant by French-kissing. Three weeks into college she was set straight: her Literature prof introduced her to drugs and sex—on the same night. Two months later she had an abortion. I was the first person she’d ever told. Even though she said yes, under the influence of drugs, this was blatant sexual coercion (the professor should have gone to jail). But it’s not always so cut-and-dried.
Coercion is the grey zone. There’s a squishy, unofficial set of Sex and Dating Rules that goes something like this: 1. Attraction is established—laughing, flirting, kissing; 2. Kissing turns passionate—this could be a yes; 3. Therefore, hands are allowed to wander experimentally; 4. If hands are not pushed away, they are allowed to wander further; 5. If hands are stopped with minimal assertiveness, this could mean, a) no, b) yes, but not yet, or c) receiver hasn’t decided yet; 6. Therefore, after a polite pause, hands are allowed to wander again; 7. If they’re not rejected this time, all systems are go; if they are, it’s a final no. For some, this scenario goes too far. For a few, it doesn’t go far enough (“Women want to be persuaded”). When does it become sexual coercion?
Stop! I’m going to suggest a Rule change that would have been laughable to me as a young, promiscuous (pre-conversion) man: Sex should never be transactional (“you give me something, I give you something”). That’s Harvey Weinstein’s rule. For humans, sex is inextricably entangled with self-worth, and with the need for emotional intimacy and commitment. Even if it isn’t that way for you, it probably is for the other person. To assume otherwise is to do so because it’s to your advantage–truth disintegrates when the “I want” monster enters the room.
So here’s my Replacement Rule: Never, ever use another person–even if they’re willing to be used. That’s not what they’re made for, and it’s not what you’re made for.
I’ll spend the rest of my life learning to undeceive myself enough to live by this Rule. But it’s worth it. So I’m in.