Sex has the potential to be beautiful and intimate. It can teach us about ourselves, our desires and our bodily sensations. It can teach us about others, how they treat us and how they trust us. It’s also an opportunity to learn about boundaries and consent.

As such, sex also has the potential to be dangerous and violating. As we’ve witnessed through the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, people have recently become more empowered to own their stories and their pasts. People have spoken up about instances when their sexual consent was absent, ignored, or taken for granted.

While the people of these movements often speak with confidence, naming instances as harassment, assault, or rape, I do not know how to use these same words.

Encouraged to think about sexual consent and to question its presence or absence in my life, I am often left wondering. Did I really consent to certain acts or not? Does the “R” word apply to me? Sometimes, thinking that it could or briefly admitting that it does feels more burdensome than pushing it all away.

Conversations about ambiguous sexual consent, rape, and mental wellbeing require honesty and vulnerability. Such a conversation exists below, discussing questions that may feel uncomfortable or intimidating to ask aloud.

A memory

One night, I fell asleep next to a romantic partner. I awoke when night was still heavy. My partner was awake, too. I felt tired and cuddly and allowed another body next to mine. Then, it became unclear what I allowed and what simply happened.

I felt too sleepy to even think about sexual consent. When a hand touched me, I responded physically in ”Yes,” but also knew that I did not want it. I have a vague memory of lying on my side, pushing the hand away in sleepy frustration. 

The following morning, my partner felt horrified at not having understood my intended “No.” They were brutally puzzled as they believed they saw me find pleasure in their touch. I didn’t remember the pleasure, only my frustration, and felt heavily bothered. 

For the rest of the day, I felt uneasy in the same room as my partner. That night, I called my friend. “I was so tired. I’m not even sure I remember what happened, but I really feel like in that moment, I did not want it.” I paused, my arm cramping from holding the phone to my ear. “Is that rape?” 

“That’s happened to me so many times,” my friend said…without answering my question.

Conversations about ambiguous sexual consent, rape, and mental wellbeing require honesty and vulnerability. Such a conversation exists below, discussing questions that may feel uncomfortable or intimidating to ask aloud.

“Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated.” (RAINN)

Educators and legislators first tell us that sexual consent is “No means no.” Then, it is “Yes means yes.” But, they add, it must be an “enthusiastic yes.”

However, yes-no questions during sex are rare. If asked, they often feel rhetorical. “You want me to continue?” “You like that, huh?” Saying yes is sexy. Saying no is off putting. 

We expect sex to be continuous and smooth. No breaks or stops. The awkward interruption that a “No” can cause makes the word even harder to vocalize. Most times when I have wanted to say “No,” it came out as “I don’t know” or “Not really.” Always a “No” veiled with some uncertainty. Some ambiguity.

When reflecting on the past, I am troubled by several instances where my sexual consent was ambiguous or absent. When we agree to be in a relationship, it can feel like we are unconditionally consenting to sex. When we agree to meet up with a casual partner, it often feels like we are consenting to sex for the entire night. So what happens when we do not consent or when we change our minds?

A second memory

One night, I lay next to someone, and when they touched me, I said, “No.” We had agreed to meet up, drenched in nighttime, alone in a room together. And I didn’t want it anymore.

Sometimes, during sex, I question whether I’m actively consenting to an act or not. Am I, my body and my mind, enthusiastically saying ‘Yes’ to this person’s touch? Sometimes, including that night, the answer is I don’t know which leads to Not really until I finally grasp the word. No.

“Hey,” I said, smiling a little out of discomfort. I circled their wrist with my thumb and forefinger, trying to pause its movement. “Hey,” I said, laughing a little. Why was I laughing? I said, “Stop.”

Before I say these words, or if I never say these words, it is easy to defend the person touching me. They never explicitly asked for my sexual consent. Neither did I, for that matter. Agreeing to be together at night felt like consent enough for the both of us. We seemed to have been saying “Yes” all the way up until this moment. So how could either of us call the other a rapist if we don’t communicate that our initial enthusiasm has given way to uncertainty?

The second after I said, “Stop,” I caught my breath. I tasted fear. “It’s the fear that, if we were to say no, we wouldn’t be heard,” Reina Gattuso writes in her article “Rape Culture is a Contract We Never Actually Signed.”  In saying “No,” I gave this person the ability to reveal themselves as someone who does not listen, who ignored my nonconsent. 

I said, “Stop,” and they are not listening. Does this now mean it’s rape? So how come I don’t feel like I’m being raped?

After my initial “No,” I remember that my body did enjoy it and found pleasure. If my body seemed to consent, does that mean that I did? I remember feeling ashamed. I felt like I embodied the stereotype of women who say “No” but really mean “Yes.” Except I really meant it when I said “No.” 

Didn’t I? I wouldn’t ask this, I wouldn’t doubt myself, if my body hadn’t enjoyed it. Since so much of sex, especially casual sex, is about pleasure, I sometimes wonder if my “No” is even worth thinking about. But I do think about it. I didn’t want that night to be about sex at all. 

A couple months later, again at night, I lay in bed. My roommate, one of my closest friends, lay in a bed next to mine. I spoke. “I’m scared to even say this out loud, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while.” I inhaled, the aftertaste of fear on my tongue. “I’m not sure if I consented that night.”

I’m not sure, I said, even though I knew.

I saw my roommate’s shadow sit up a little. “Oh?” she said, her voice soft and concerned. “We haven’t talked about this.”

We talk about everything.

While reflecting on my moments of ambiguous sexual consent, I have also thought about others questioning their consent with me. Considering moments when I did not listen to others as much as I should have feels even more difficult to stomach. In thinking about my own past and emotions, I hope to also acknowledge those of past partners.

When I ask interviewee Anonymous if she ever doubted her sexual consent, she responds with an immediate and emphatic “Yes.” 

I ask when she felt this doubt, and she says, “During, a little, and afterwards, for sure. Now, I feel weirdly neutral about it.” She notes that if these instances happened with someone else, someone who wasn’t a romantic partner, she might feel worse.

When I ask interviewee Erin if he has doubted his sexual consent, he nods. “There have been more moments than I’d like to admit.” He recalls times when he chose not to say “No,” feeling like he had to meet a romantic partner’s sexual needs.

“I’ve been in relationships where sex has been expected, and they don’t really ask. You have this gut feeling where it feels wrong […] where you feel like ‘What am I doing and why am I here?’ It’s not until after it’s happened that you realize, ‘Maybe I didn’t want that,’ but [it feels like] there’s no point in bringing it up because it already happened.” He leaves me with a question: “How much do you value yourself outside of physical intimacy?”

Erin also talks about ambiguous sexual consent outside of relationships. “Consent is not like opening the floodgates. It’s a continual process, and it’s hard to ensure that during hookups. Once you say yes at the beginning, it’s full send. That train’s going. I’m too far gone that if I say “No,” especially with someone [I] don’t know, I don’t know what will happen.”

The “R” word

When I write “the ‘R’ word,” readers immediately know what word I am referring to. This word, rape, feels akin to a curse. It carries a painful legal weight and a history of gender-based violence.

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), an anti-sexual violence organization, uses the FBI’s definition of rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Sexual assault is defined as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent.”

The importance of words and word choice

“I have used rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse to describe my past experiences with men. It is difficult to use these words because sometimes it feels like you have to justify these words to make them real to someone else,” my friend Stephanie wrote to me in an interview.

An experience of using the word rape

Stephanie told me, “I think [of] the word rape as being inherently tied to a legal system that does not support the experiences and realities of victims. […] I do not like to use the word rape, because I am not and likely will never pursue legal avenues that can enact ‘justice’ in my life.

“I also do not like seeing the way people look at me after I say, ‘I was raped.’ Because there’s almost this unspoken expectation that you must be broken in some way. It feels easier to say, ‘something happened to me,’ ‘I didn’t consent,’ ‘I was harmed’ than it does to say rape. 

“At the heart of it, the word rape fails to articulate the process of grieving, healing, and shame that one experiences after the act has occurred. Just saying ‘I was raped’ makes me feel like I haven’t done enough (to protect myself, to heal, to hold my rapist accountable, etc).”

The case for using the term “sexual assault”

The words we use are important, and rape is a controversial one. Some, including Krystal Skwar in her article “Rape or Sexual Assault? Which Word We Use Matters,” believe that the word rape carries too much cultural and emotional baggage in centering the victim as culpable. 

“‘Rape’ is still laden with cultural myths that blame the victim, and no matter how we define it, victims are still afraid to report because of these myths. Date rape, forcible rape, acquaintance rape, statutory rape — every permutation is steeped in shame,” Skwar writes. She supports using the expression sexual assault instead as she believes it puts more emphasis on the violence of the assaulter without portraying the victim in a shameful light.

However, this connotation of shame does not only apply to the victims but to the perpetrators of rape as well. In Heather Murphy’s article “What Experts Know About Men Who Rape,” Dr. Mary P. Koss says, referring to studies on men who have raped, “Asked ‘if they had penetrated against their consent,’ the subject will say yes. Asked if he did ‘something like rape,’ the answer is almost always no.”

The case for using the word rape

In 2013, an off-duty police officer raped Lydia Cuomo, a New York woman. She was subsequently “denied the status of a rape survivor” because the officer’s acts were legally considered sexual assault at the time. Cuomo argued that “using the word ‘rape’ is a way to help healing.” She recognizes that “it’s semantics, but semantics are really important. […] As a survivor, hearing the word solidifies what you went through and helps you move on.”

Stephanie also acknowledges, “These terms can be helpful, and they were for me when I first realized that what happened to me wasn’t right. I wasn’t imagining the harm, because it is codified under ‘rape.’”

Anonymous says that since “women in particular tend to minimize their experiences, the severity of the word is good in a way. That is what happened, and it allows it to not be minimized.”

Erin agrees, saying, “I think it’s a word that needs to be used.” He draws a comparison between the nuances of the words rape and anxiety. Anxiety can refer to a couple small instances or to something severe enough that the person can be institutionalized. “When we downplay our experiences, we stigmatize words like that. We don’t get to pick and choose which experiences we have, but there are supports in place. Using words with such gravity like rape enable you to access those supports. It will impact the time until you’re seen and how you’re treated by medical professionals.”

The persisting difficulty of using the word rape

“Why is that word—’rape’—still so hard say? Why am I so reluctant to apply it to my own experience?” journalist Stephanie Auteri writes on her coercive first time having sex.

Stephanie wrote to me, “It took me a long time to be okay with saying, ‘I was raped.’ It is still a hard thing to hear. When I first used it, I felt a great deal of shame and uncertainty. ‘Was it really serious enough to warrant this label?’”

“It felt like such a gray area. […] I feel assaulted, but I don’t want to call it rape, because I don’t feel like I was—not in any kind of traditional way of thinking about it,” said an interviewee of Alexandra Molotkow’s article “Why Are Women Reluctant to Use the Word Rape?

Erin said, “You imagine [rape] to be really violent and intense, when in reality it can simply be you not being in the mood and saying no and [the other person] continuing on.” This is true in the context of the FBI’s definition of rape. However, society’s definition of rape is of something violent and often brutalizing. In that case, is the legal definition lacking or is the societal definition overburdened?

In Molotkow’s article, I particularly related to interviewees who “felt wrong equating their experiences with those of friends who’d been through more overtly violent ordeals. They stressed that this didn’t make their own violations less wrong; the term just felt too loaded, too specific.”

When considering the “R” word in my life, its connotations of violence and legal proceedings do not apply. According to an Arizona resource on “Common Feelings of Survivors of Sexual Assault,” many feel that “this couldn’t really have happened” and that “it’s hard to believe something so awful and so painful.”

I have thought about my experiences. I have not felt disbelief or pain. I understand what happened and know it was real. Another person did not listen to my “No” and my “Stop.” They violated my trust and my voice, and that is fully awful. At the same time, no one physically brutalized me. No one ripped my clothes off. No one pinned down my limbs while I fought against immobility. I found moments of physical and emotional pleasure. Is pleasure not the opposite of the word “No”?

Words are important

When we use the word rape to name an experience, we don’t change what happened. But we do change how we (and others) think about it.

Some of us may want to invoke the weight and severity in naming an instance as rape. This can help us access support and acknowledge what has happened. On the other hand, some of us may choose to use the term sexual assault to avoid harmful connotations. As Molotkow wrote, “The decision not to use the term ‘rape’ is often just that—a decision.”

Silence can be a decision, too. Stephanie said that when she goes to group therapy, “you’ll hear someone from the group falter or stutter (where rape would usually be uttered) and then after a pause they continue.”

A decision

I recognize that I have had experiences that could qualify as rape. Using this word could help validate the violation of my desires. It could confirm that what happened was wrong. However, given the social connotations of the word, I cannot use it right now without feeling like I must feel pain and damage. Which I don’t. I do not want to use a word that, for me, dictates my emotions instead of supporting them. I truly believe that any legitimizing the word could give me has been achieved through confiding in friends and, especially, in writing this article. 

We decide which words we use to name our experiences and to best support us in the present moment. And remember, like sexual consent, we can always change our mind.


Note: Names of interviewees have been changed to conceal their identities

This article is part of Supportiv’s Amplify article collection.