A letter to my brother, and all his college friends,
College is awesome, right? No parents, no curfew, no rules, and there are girls everywhere. It is an alcohol-fueled, school-spirit-enhanced buffet of ladies, and it’s hard not to want to sample everything on the menu. So you should! Seriously, I’m not going to rain on what could potentially be a literal parade, so just be safe and have fun.
You’re waiting for the “but,” because I’m your nagging big sister and that’s what I do. Here it is: Be safe, have fun, but don’t be a manipulative, coercive asshole about it. There’s story after story about on-campus sexual assaults, astoundingly high rates of date-rape, and even more terrifying estimates of unreported incidents. I’m not worried you’ll be that guy, but there are still dozens of tempting and legal ways to be a douche when you’re trying to get some action. Forgoing these “techniques” requires recalibrating your hook-up goals to emphasize consent, respect, and yes, pleasure, instead of “scoring.”
There are strategies to get laid that are violent and criminal, and there are methodologies that are just mean-spirited and misogynistic. You can find the drunkest girl in the bar and hand her another shot. You can physically back a girl into a corner at a party until the only way out is through you. You can cut a girl down to size with backhanded “compliments,” belittle her until she thinks the only way to feel good again is to win your attention. You can taunt her with insults about prudishness, until she thinks she needs to prove something. You can taunt her with insults about sluttiness, until she thinks she might as well confirm what you already think of her. You already know that these dick moves are beneath you.
There are milder forms of deception and coercion, though, tactics that are dangerous because of their efficacy and subtlety. These are the ones to which I want to draw your attention. You can lie about your feelings for her. You can promise things you can’t deliver. You can agree to commitments you know you’ll break. You can hear hesitation or uncertainty in her voice, and ignore it. You can play with her emotions, knowing full well that if you were honest about your lack of intentions, you’d lose your shot at a hook-up. You can know that if she were sober, she wouldn’t be doing this, and you can go for it anyway. A court might not convict you, but I hope you know that these are dick moves, too.
The pronouns in this essay thus far would suggest that I think only men can be coercive when it comes to sex, and we all know that’s patently untrue. We know male rape is a real issue, and that the stigma against victims can be excruciating. We know that women can lie and scheme their way into sex just as well as men. We know that insults to masculinity, epithets like “pussy,” or accusations of homosexuality can compel guys to do things they don’t want to do, just to prove a point. The toolbox may look different, but we know that girls can wield emotional manipulation and social coercion with expert dexterity.
All these strategies work more often than we’d like. I hope someday we can better teach teenagers (and adults) to call bullshit when they see it and to let the insults roll of their backs instead of eat at their self-esteem. But in the meantime, the fact that those manipulative moves might work doesn’t mean you should use them. These are tools for weak people, people for whom sex is a contest and winning matters. Sex can, and should, be fun. It can be playful, it can be casual, but it isn’t a game. Whether enacted by men or women, these bullshit strategies are not sexy, they are not cool, and—quaint as it may be—they are not very nice. There’s nothing wrong with a little push-pull, a little back-and-forth banter with a prospective partner, but assigning a winner and a loser to a sexual encounter sets us all back a couple decades.
You should never feel like you’ve been convinced to have sex, and you should never feel like you’re doing the convincing. You want partners—one-night-stands or long-term relationships—who want to have sex with you as much as you want to have sex with them. The culturally established “no means no” is too low a bar. Only yes means yes. And I’m not talking about an “I guess we could…” or an “I don’t really care….” or an “Only if you really want to….” or a “Might as well…” I’m talking about an enthusiastic, excited, sustained “Yes!” Are those “yesses” less frequent than the non-committal, hesitant “not-nos?” Yeah, they are, but it’s worth it to know that the people you’re fooling around with really want to fool around with you, too.
Alcohol clouds everyone’s decision-making abilities, but it doesn’t make us deaf. Even at frat row, bar crawls, or crowded house parties, you need to listen for that “Yes!” And you need to be saying it too! If you’re a “Yes!” and your partner is a “Yes!”, then I revert to my original advice: be safe, have fun. Consent is not a traditionally sexy concept, but I absolutely guarantee you that two enthusiastic, excited, sustained “yesses” is what it’s all about.
Your big sister,