Steubenville, consent, alcohol, and me: my stories of sexual non-quest

This post is going to contain some stories about my personal life – specifically, my sex life. If you’d rather not know that kind of information about me, this is probably where you want to stop reading. Also trigger warning for discussion of rape (but I swear there’s nothing explicit).

I generally don’t blog about rape. My specific opinion on the topic (spoilers: I’m opposed to it) is barely marginally helpful, as I am just as likely to set foot in the wrong place as I am to say something profound, and there are people who are much more directly affected by the discussion than I am. My preference is to read the opinions of others who have more pragmatic experience with the topic, either as someone who has been raped, someone who works with rape victims, or someone for whom fear of rape is part of their daily life and decision making. Listening to those voices has been immeasurably helpful to my own understanding of the topic and the sociology underpinning it.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking – more crystalization than a real ‘shift’ – is about the topic of consent and how it relates to alcohol. I managed to figure out on my own that you shouldn’t do anything drunk with someone that you wouldn’t do sober, and that you should extend that to a potential partner – if ze wouldn’t fuck you unless ze was wasted, it’s not okay. I don’t know that I considered that ‘rape’ before I began reading feminist writings (I probably would have just thought it was a shitty thing to do to someone), but I have no problem identifying it as such now.

I have avoided talking about the rape of Jane Doe in Steubenville, Ohio because, again, I don’t think I have anything useful to add to the topic. I’m glad the judge didn’t buy the argument that a girl who was so drunk that she had to be physically carried out of a room was still sober enough to consent to sex. I think that anyone who thinks that the blame starts and ends with the two boys who raped her is severely deluded, as are those who wish to completely exonerate them. Hopefully this case will be high-profile enough to spark a discussion about the messages we send boys about masculinity and about sex and about women and about consent.

In that vein, there is something that I can contribute to this discussion: my own stories. My whole adolescence (all the way through undergraduate, really) was a series of ridiculous misadventures in which I have way more stories about getting unlucky than the opposite. A friend of mine calls them “Ian stories”, I call them stories of “non-quest” – tales that would, from another person, probably end with sex, but either circumstance or my own skittishness ruins everything at the last minute with hilarious effect.

The stories I’m going to share below are not “Ian stories”, at least not of those kind. These are stories about me making the conscious choice to not have sex with someone because I thought we were too drunk. These are stories about me applying what I have learned from listening to feminists and others talk about consent. These are stories about how making that choice totally failed to result in me ruining my life or losing respect for myself or having my “man card” taken away or any such arch-masculine pearl-clutching nonsense.

Charlene*

Charlene was fiercely intelligent, funny, and raunchy as all-get-out. As you can imagine, we got along almost immediately. We were in town for a conference, but as is the case with these things we were more interested in the socializing and drinking than we were in the content, much of which we blew off to go hang out. As the evening wound on and the bottle of rum we were sharing got closer and closer to empty, Charlene and I got closer and closer to each other. Eventually, she suggested I accompany her back to her hotel room on some pretext that nobody thought was particularly opaque, certainly not me.

As we stood up to head back to the room, I noticed that Charlene was a little… unsteady on her feet. At one point I had to help her up the stairs. While the voice in my pants was resolute, the voice in the back of my mind recognized that this was a situation in which consent was somewhat precluded by intoxication. So, when we got back to the hotel room, I told Charlene about my concern. She looked at me skeptically, and told me she didn’t think she was too drunk, but I told her I didn’t feel comfortable. Laughing, she told me that while she had often told people that this was how they should act, she’d never had it backfire on her like this before.

We had sex the next morning instead.

Ashley

I’d had a crush on Ashley for more than a year. We worked together at a bar, and as is the feature of young women who work at bars in college towns, Ashley was drop-dead gorgeous in addition to being incredibly charming. She had also been dating a complete dead-end of a guy for a while, actually getting engaged to him for a while before wising up and moving out on her own. It was a couple months after their relationship ended that she accepted an invitation from me for dinner and drinks. As far as I can recall, I had no specific design on “getting lucky” that night, considering her agreeing to be seen with me to be about as much luck as I could reasonably ask for that evening.

At the bar after dinner, I got ‘the vibe’ that Ashley was interested in a bit more than what I had initially planned for the evening. Things progressed pretty quickly from there, to the point where it became abundantly clear that my place was a much better venue for this party. As we walked from the bar to my place, Ashley was pretty visibly drunk – at one point deciding that her heels were simply too great a challenge and walking the streets barefoot. Once again the struggle between my ‘two heads’ raged, with reason prevailing. I told Ashley it was probably a good idea for us to slow things down a bit. This time I could actually see her slump with relief – she was feeling ‘iffy’ about the whole thing too, and was glad I had said something.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t persuade her to stay the night, and she left town shortly thereafter. The only thing I managed to blow in that circumstance was my shot.

I’d had post-bar hookups with women before either of these stories took place. I’ve had more since. Similarly, I’ve been in situations where someone’s drunkenness put me off well before sex was an imminent option. That being said, the above two stories are illustrations of times when, but for my decision to put a stop to things, sex would have been had. By me. With them.

I liked Charlene and Ashley. I still do. And it was because I liked them, and because I didn’t want to put them in a situation where they would think less of me (or worse, feel like I had assaulted them), I chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t, I don’t think, about avoiding jail time or being labeled “a rapist” (although I obviously don’t want either of those things); it was about me recognizing that consent is a two-way street, and that alcohol is a big pothole in that street. It was about me understanding and believing the women who told me that they’d been date raped, and not wanting to cause that kind of pain to someone I cared about (or any human being, for that matter).

I don’t think less of myself for putting the brakes on with Charlene, or for never getting the chance to sleep with Ashley. My self-concept and my masculinity aren’t tied up in “scoring” with every woman I can, circumstance be damned.

I don’t think more of myself for saying no. Nobody deserves accolades for simply doing the right thing, and if what I did is rare, that says more about our culture than it does about me.

What I do think is that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I had pretended that consent is harder to sort out than it is, or that I was entitled to the body of another person because she wasn’t in much of a condition to say ‘no’. And the fact that this kind of thought process isn’t universal is something that we really ought to be concerned about.

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*It probably goes without saying that these are fake names to protect people’s privacy.

P.S. A few months ago I was at a gig. A young woman had clearly had way too much to drink, and was basically throwing herself at anything with a pulse and a dick. A table full of young guys humoured her for a few minutes, and then pooled some of their beer money to put her in a cab home. There is hope.