'I Gave Consent For Sex I Didn't Want to Have'

I don't know how we got from the dance floor to Interstate 81, but we're speeding further beyond the city limits—and farther from my college dorm—with every minute.

My mouth is moving slowly, talking about whatever, but my mind is racing: F***, I really don't want to be here right now. He puts his hand on my thigh, right where my white lace skirt ends. I smile, feeling repulsed.

We finally stop outside a small house in a run-down suburb. A cluster of cars litter the driveway. He curses under his breath. "Wait here," he says, and I wait in the car as he goes into the house. Without him, it's oddly silent. My phone sits, dead and useless, in the cup holder.

Moments later, he opens the door and slings himself into the driver's seat.

"My brother has friends over. We have to go somewhere else," he says, throwing the car into drive with an angry sigh and driving fast down a bleak road. We pull up outside of a motel. The fluorescent lights in the lobby are blinding. I sit silently in a plastic chair, heels and skirt and all, while he haggles with the bored woman behind the front desk.

He complains loudly at the price of the room: $80. I sit in silence, embarrassed. I feel dirty and cheap. She gives him the key. He takes my hand as we walk up to the second floor.

Hailey Magee Experienced Consensual But Unwanted Sex
Stock image. Getty/iStock

Our room is dark. I take off my jacket and within moments we're on the bed. It's the first time in my life I've felt gut-wrenching revulsion. I wish I were drunk. But the thought of giving any indication that I don't want to be there doesn't cross my mind.

Just wait this out, I rationalize. So I reach up and kiss him back; feigning passion.

When he's done, I walk to the bathroom, turn on the light, and squint into the mirror. I take note of my sloppy mascara, my frizzy hair and my empty eyes. Sleep comes shortly after; a relief.

A bright sun wakes us the next morning. We drive back to the city with the radio on. I make small talk despite feeling hollow, like a shell, and when he drops me at my dorm, we kiss goodbye. I wave and smile.

I take the elevator to my room and make a beeline for the bathroom and a scalding shower. I spend the rest of the semester in a gray depression. I gain weight. I binge drink to the point of blacking out.

When I tell friends about my experience, they ask why I didn't ask him to turn the car around? Why did I say yes while my body screamed no?

Their questions stump me. I don't have a good answer.

I didn't feel unsafe. I wasn't coerced. In fact, I moved the interaction along smoothly: smiling, participating, even feigning enthusiasm. The truth is, I don't know why I didn't say no. But even after all these years, I often find myself wishing I had.

It was consensual sex, freely given—but unwanted.

It's a murky topic in the world of consent: What happens when consent is enthusiastically and freely given⁠—not under physical or psychological coercion⁠—but the person giving it doesn't really want to proceed?

These experiences don't fit neatly into our culture's narrative of "perpetrator" and "victim." Essentially, the consent-giver has violated their own sexual boundaries⁠—but this doesn't make the subsequent trauma they may experience any less valid.

Two years later, after I'd quit drinking and started going to therapy, I suffered the first of many panic attacks in the middle of sex with a loving, long-term partner. I felt suddenly, terribly afraid. I burst into heavy sobs, desperately wanting to shrink away.

The next day, the simple act of leaving my apartment for a cup of coffee felt unbearable; every person I passed on the street seemed sinister. After two days these strange distortions passed and I returned to "normal"—but the same panic occurred again only a few weeks later.

I was baffled, as was my then-partner. I had never considered myself a victim of sexual violence, sexual assault, or sexual trauma. Our sex life suffered; it was impossible to predict when I would be triggered and fear of being triggered was often trigger enough.

We all understand that sexual assault can have disastrous consequences on an individual's mental and physical health—but the possible traumatic impacts of technically consensual yet viscerally unwelcome sexual contact have gone largely unexplored.

When I recently shared an Instagram post describing my experiences, I heard from hundreds of people who reported that days or years after consensual but unwanted sex they had experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks or deep shame.

These individuals—like me—had no way to process or understand their experience because there was nobody "to blame." Comments flooded in.

One wrote: "It's scary to look back at the past and not know what to call a certain experience." While philosophers have explored how using narrative can provide catharsis for trauma, most of us have no language for this at all.

Hailey Magee Experienced Consensual But Unwanted Sex
Hailey Magee experienced consensual, but unwanted, sex and writes that the trauma that can be caused from this needs to be acknowledged in society. Hailey Magee

I have coined a phrase that I believe explains what I experienced all those years ago: "blameless sexual trauma." In my view, it is trauma that results from ignoring or repressing one's own sexual boundaries to engage in a consensual, but unwanted, sexual act

When I shared my trauma symptoms with a previous therapist and told her their origin, she said: "Well, of course. You were raped."

But I hadn't used those words. Me being raped meant that he was a rapist. And that did not sit right with me. I repeated the details of my encounter—emphasizing that they were, in fact, consensual—and my therapist shrugged.

"If it weren't rape you wouldn't be feeling all of this trauma," she said.

I believe it is this perspective that keeps people like me silent. It creates a binary: either you are experiencing trauma so you were raped, or you weren't raped so you aren't experiencing trauma.

What about the folks who have a one night stand because it's "expected" and feel hollow the next day? Are we only going to take their trauma seriously if they press charges against their Grindr date?

I think we need to talk more about the trauma that can be experienced even from a consensual sex act. For years, the fact that I consented to sexual activity that repulsed me absolutely baffled me: Why didn't the thought of saying no cross my mind?

I researched the topic extensively and found many reasons why someone might give enthusiastic consent for sex they don't want.

Marital rape wasn't even deemed illegal by all 50 states until 1993. The idea that a someone can reject a spouse's advances for sex, and be supported by the law, is relatively new. Meanwhile, many men feel that rejecting sex is not an option. In a 2019 study of 87 boys and young men, over half of the participants described feeling an "omnipresent pressure to engage in sexual activity," saying this pressure came from "parents and family, friends and teammates, and media." And all too often, people in committed relationships can agree to unwanted sex out of a sense of obligation or duty to their partner or spouse.

Chris, a person I know who worked in the anti-sexual violence field for over ten years, explained to me: 'It's never a victim's fault if they are assaulted. And at the same time, sometimes we don't even understand all of our own sexual boundaries, much less articulate them⁠—especially given how little actual education about sex most of us had access to, and how few models our culture provides for how to negotiate sexual boundaries.'"

This resonates with my experience. In my high school sex education class, the teacher spent five minutes wagging his finger and reminding us that "no means no." Then, we spent the rest of the quarter learning how to identify sexually transmitted infections from a cautionary slide show.

But I never learned how to identify my sexual boundaries⁠, much less how to acutally assert them in the midst of a heated moment⁠. I often wonder how many experiences—from the completely traumatizing to the disquieting "ick" ⁠—I could have avoided if I'd had comprehensive sex education that gave me those tools.

I believe that we need to recognize that blameless sexual trauma is a legitimate phenomenon with real, adverse affects. Only then can everyone with sexual trauma—regardless of its origins—receive the care and support we need.

Hailey Magee is a certified coach who helps individuals set empowered boundaries, break the people-pleasing pattern, and master the art of speaking their truth. You can follow her at www.haileymagee.com or on Instagram at @haileypaigemagee.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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