Last spring, more than a hundred teenagers gathered in the auditorium of a Brooklyn high school. This wasn't your typical assembly. The teachers all left the room, so the kids could talk openly about something ostensibly on their minds most of the time: sex.
A young woman stood in front of the group and began the meeting by posing a simple question: How many girls there had ever said yes to sexual activity — even though they didn't want to?
Every girl in the room raised her hand.
"The boys in the room were just completely shocked," said Katie Cappiello, a co-founder of the youth-led anti-sexual bullying movement StopSlut, which was involved with the event (and with which I have volunteered). "They were horrified."
Many women likely wouldn't be surprised. For all the hand-wringing over the feasibility of things like affirmative consent — that is, the presence of a clear "yes" prior to sexual activity rather than an ambiguous lack of "no" — there is comparatively little attention paid to the fact that many young people, particularly girls, often feel pressured to consent to sex they don't want, and are not comfortable enough to ask for what they do.
While people agree to things they don't want to do all the time, sex is different. So long as society continues to peddle the idea that male pleasure is both easy and requisite while female pleasure is elusive and shameful, getting people to say "yes" or "no" is not enough. How can any young person enthusiastically consent when they're granted only an exceedingly narrow idea of what sex "should" look like in the first place?
"Sex is for the dude." The idea that women are the gatekeepers of sexual activity is, literally, ancient: In Greek playwright Aristophenes' comedy Lysistrata, first performed in 411 B.C., wives withheld sex from their husbands as a negotiating tactic. Today such thinking is reflected in the language of sex for women being deemed a "wifely duty" meant to keep husbands (or boyfriends) from straying; it's something men are owed and women aren't expected to enjoy. This rationale also underpins the concept of virginity as something men take and women passively give.
It's no wonder, then, that markers of early sexual steps so often focus on boys' experiences. Nina*, 29, said that when she first became sexually active, "Milestones and bases were very much from a male perspective, how far the male 'got' or advanced more than anything else." Emma, 31, agreed. "Conversations focused mainly on boys," she said. "I don't remember talking about female pleasure [with friends]."
Common narratives of sex remain so male-centric that the simple act of women expressing desire seems at once revolutionary and, in certain circles, inappropriate. This is why things like Broad City's nonchalance about sexual fluidity or Outlander's insistence on the female gaze can feel so empowering, yet Blue Valentine was initially slapped with an NC-17 rating purportedly for including a scene of a husband giving his wife oral sex.
The message, for better and for worse, is that sex that focuses on women's pleasure is somehow transgressive, because it bucks the mold of what sex is meant to look like. Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick told Mic that one of the biggest modern offenders of this sort of "unequal behavior" is pornography, in which people can expect to see "way more blow jobs than cunnilingus." There's nothing necessarily wrong with porn (or blow jobs), but there are potential problems when teens, in the absence of truly comprehensive sex education, view onscreen acts as representative of real-world sex.
Without discussion of emotions, pleasure and outside pressures in addition to biological basics of sex, messages that sex is "for men" can negatively affect the experiences of those beginning to explore their sexuality with partners. "I think it's true that a lot of societal perceptions are that sex is for the dude, and it's all about his enjoyment," Sarah, 23, told Mic. "And I think that when you're young, you sort of take that on, because you don't have any experience and you don't have anything to tell you otherwise."
While educating everyone about what consent means is critical, it's also worth remembering that people may say "yes" to sex to conform to social expectations or seek validation. "I don't think sexual desire was a large factor," Emma said when asked about her reasons for becoming intimate with early partners. "It was more, 'Will this make him like or dislike me?'"
Cappiello noted that most of the girls she's worked with "aren't talking about the great oral sex they received," either: "They're talking about the head that they had to give in the bathroom of a house party. The need for validation means 'this guy wants to fuck me,' but it never means 'this guy wants to pleasure me.'"
Different kinds of sex: This isn't about shirking responsibility for personal decisions or denying female agency. But given the prevalence of myths that sex is over when a man finishes or that women's sexual needs are secondary or anomalous, it's understandable that some young women might feel obligated to continue with sex after they've lost interest, or be guilted or shamed into things they don't want to do. Equally disturbing is that some may think sex must look a certain way and then consent to acts that are physically or emotionally uncomfortable in order to avoid social repercussions like being called a "prude" or to feel like they're fitting in.
The pressures Nina faced, for example, were compounded by being gay and offered only heteronormative definitions of intercourse in sex ed. "I was closeted," she said. "I found myself very often engaging in some kind of sexual activity with men and really not liking it and just doing it because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, so that was not a pleasant experience at all."
While consensual, these acts were hardly the positive experiences most would hope exploratory sexual encounters would be. "I didn't know what kind of discomfort was okay, and what wasn't," Nina said. "If I were talking to a young woman today, I'd be like, 'That's bullshit.' It's not about whether you give him a blow job or a hand job. It's not transactional and that's not how you define your sexual experiences."
Reward and punishment: Despite the fact that the majority of 18-year-olds are having sex, women continue to face a double standard around their sexual expression. If they resist certain acts, they risk being called a prude, but if they're too willing, they're a slut. "The boys have no problem encouraging a girl to get on her knees, as a way of her demonstrating her sexual prowess," Cappiello said, "but if she were to say, 'Now I want you to do this to me, and I want you to do it like this, because when you do it like that, it doesn't feel good,' that makes her slutty."
Herbenick also asserted there are real repercussions for young women openly exploring their sexuality. "Women still want to be sexual, because they are sexual human beings," she said. "They really are just trying to figure out how you do that without being treated so badly by their friends or peers at school."
In a previous piece for Mic, Herbenick echoed that young women aren't always equipped with the language or granted the social permission to adequately communicate what they want. "Young women will say that they don't necessarily feel they can give that enthusiastic consent because there's so much slut-shaming that goes on," she said.
Such thinking also hurts boys, whose experiences are often predicated by equally harmful expectations of masculine virility, aversion to femininity and a troubling dose of homophobia. "Boys are under a lot of pressure too," Cappiello said. "There are a lot of boys engaging in sexual acts that they don't want to do either," because they risk being called "pussies" or "faggots" for not going through with certain things.
Blurred lines: Of course, informed, respectful adults perform acts they don't find especially enjoyable out of a desire to please a partner, get pregnant or for any number of reasons that have little to do with libido. But for those first learning about what healthy sexuality looks like, the persistence of such a male-centric narrative of sex (and an offensively stereotypical male one at that), in media and beyond, can potentially blur the lines between consent and coercion, between murky "bad" nights and objective, if difficult to recognize, violation. As Mic previously reported, a 2014 study by sociologist Heather Hlavka found that girls "between the ages of 3 and 17 years old ... frequently wrote off harassment and abuse" and "overwhelmingly described [it] as 'normal stuff' that 'guys do.'"
If sex is something done to women rather than something women do, and heavily focused on men's enjoyment, then people also may not realize they're allowed to speak up at any point in a sexual encounter. "My friends have been sexually assaulted, but they don't even really understand that they didn't consent to it," Sarah said. "In college, there were also situations where friends said 'yes' and then changed their mind in the middle of it, and didn't feel comfortable stopping it. People don't realize you can change your mind midway through."
Consent is sexy — really: Learning what you want in the bedroom is in part a developmental shift that comes with knowing more about your body and having more experience, according to Herbenick. "We need to be asking young women and men to think about what they want, to be assertive about it and to draw lines that matter to them," she said. "A lot of that is encouraging them to say, 'How do I feel about this? What do I want for myself?'"
Cappiello agrees that addressing the issue starts with both thoroughly comprehensive sexual education and more meaningful opportunities to talk about sexuality. Indeed, after the initial shock in the auditorium wore off, she said a healthy conversation about consent ensued. "All of a sudden it became like, 'This is such a badass conversation that we're having, because who talks about sex this openly?'" she said. "It gave both sides the permission to be a little more honest and a little more understanding, and actually be hearing the other person."
Herbenick's students have had similar experiences. "As the semester progresses, they're talking more openly about sex and by the end of the semester, they're talking more openly to their friends, their partners, people they meet at parties, even to their parents," she said. "I've also had students tell me that they reported an assault or rape because they felt comfortable using the words they had to use to talk about what happened to them."
Luckily, many women often find their way to happier sexuality by adulthood. "It's night and day," Nina said, referring to her sex life now that she feels more comfortable advocating for what she does and doesn't want. "Now it's not taboo. Being clear on what we want and like is empowering."
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.