I don’t know how we got from the dance floor to Interstate 81, but we’re passing the city limits — and further from my college dorm — every minute.
My mouth moves slowly, talking nonsense, but my mind races: F***, I really don’t want to be here right now. He places his hand on my thigh where my white lace skirt ends. I smile, feeling repulsed.
We finally stop in front of a small house in a run-down suburb. A group of cars line the driveway. He swears under his breath. “Wait here,” he says, and I wait in the car as he drives into the house. Without him, it’s eerily quiet. My phone is sitting dead and useless in the cup holder.
Moments later, he opens the door and sits in the driver’s seat.
“My brother has friends. We have to go somewhere else,” he said, tossing the car into gear with an angry sigh and speeding down a dark road. We stop in front of a motel. The hall’s fluorescent lights are blinding. I sit quietly in a plastic chair, heels and skirt and all, while he haggles with the bored woman behind the desk.
He complains loudly about 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 go up to the second floor.
Our room is dark. I take off my jacket and in a few moments we are on the bed. This is the first time in my life that I feel a heartbreaking revulsion. I would like to be drunk. But the thought of giving an indication that I don’t want to be there doesn’t cross my mind.
Just wait for that, I’m rationalizing. So I reach out and kiss her back; feign passion.
When he’s finished, I head to the bathroom, turn on the light, and squint in the mirror. I note my sloppy mascara, my frizzy hair and my empty eyes. Sleep comes soon after; a relief.
A radiant sun wakes us up the next morning. We go back to town with the radio on. I chat despite feeling hollow, like a shell, and when he drops me off in my dorm, we kiss goodbye. I greet and smile. When I turn my back, I resist the urge to kiss the pavement.
I take the elevator to my room and head for the bathroom and a hot shower. I spend the rest of the semester in a gray depression. I gain weight. I binge drink to the point of fainting.
When I tell friends about my experience, they ask me why I didn’t ask him to turn around? Why did I say yes when my body was screaming no?
Their questions trouble me. I don’t have a good answer.
I didn’t feel in danger. I was not forced. 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.
It was consensual, voluntary, but unwanted sex.
It’s a murky topic in the world of consent: what happens when consent is given enthusiastically and freely – without physical or psychological coercion – but the person giving it doesn’t really want to continue?
These experiences do not fit neatly into our culture’s narrative of “aggressor” and “victim”. Essentially, the consent-giver has violated their own sexual boundaries – but that doesn’t make any subsequent trauma they may experience any less valid.
Two years later, after quitting drinking and starting therapy, I suffered the first of many panic attacks in the middle of sex with a longtime loving partner. I suddenly had a terrible fear. I burst into sobs, desperate to back down.
The next day, just leaving my apartment for a cup of coffee felt unbearable; every person I passed on the street seemed sinister. After two days these weird distortions passed and I was back to “normal” – but the same panic happened again only a few weeks later.
I was baffled, as was my partner at the time. I had never thought of myself as a victim of sexual violence, sexual assault or sexual trauma. Our sex life has suffered; it was impossible to predict when I would be triggered and the fear of being triggered was often 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 but viscerally unwanted sexual contact have remained 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 had flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks or deep shame.
These people – like me – had no way to process or understand their experience because there was no one “to blame”. Comments poured in.
One wrote: “It’s scary looking at the past and not knowing what to call a certain experience.” While philosophers have explored how the use of storytelling can provide catharsis for trauma, most of us have no language for it.
I came up with a phrase that I believe explains what I went through all those years ago: “flawless sexual trauma.” In my view, it is a 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 former therapist and told her where they came from, she said, “Well, sure. You were raped.”
But I hadn’t used those words. Raping me meant he was a rapist. And that didn’t suit me. I repeated the details of my encounter – emphasizing that they were, in fact, consensual – and my therapist shrugged.
“If it wasn’t rape, you wouldn’t be feeling all this trauma,” she said.
I think it’s this perspective that keeps people like me quiet. This creates a binomial: either you are traumatized, so you have been raped, or you have not been raped, so you are not traumatized.
What about people who have a one-night stand because it’s “planned” 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 had consented to a sexual activity that repelled me completely baffled me: why didn’t the thought of saying no cross my mind?
I researched the subject extensively and found many reasons why someone might enthusiastically consent to sex they don’t want.
Marital rape wasn’t even deemed illegal by all 50 states until 1993. The idea that a person can reject a spouse’s sexual advances and be backed 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, more than half of participants described feeling “pervasive pressure to engage in sexual activity”, saying the pressure came from “parents and family, friends and teammates , and media”. And too often, people in relationships may agree to unwanted sex out of a sense of obligation or duty to their partner or spouse.
Chris, someone I know who has worked in the area of sexual violence for more than ten years, explained to me: “It is never the victim’s fault if they are assaulted. And at the same time, sometimes we don’t even understand all of our own sexual boundaries, let alone articulate them – especially given how little real sex education most of us had access to and how little models that our culture provides for how to negotiate sexual boundaries.'”
This echoes my experience. In my high school sex ed class, the teacher spent five minutes wiggling his finger and reminding us that “no means no.” Then we spent the rest of the term learning how to identify sexually transmitted infections from a warning slide show.
But I never learned to identify my sexual boundaries, let alone actually assert them in the middle of a passionate moment. I often wonder how many experiences — from completely traumatic to disturbingly icky — I could have avoided had I had a comprehensive sex education that gave me those tools.
I believe we need to recognize that irreproachable sexual trauma is a legitimate phenomenon with real negative effects. Only then can anyone who experiences sexual trauma, regardless of origin, receive the care and support we need.
Hailey Magee is a Certified Coach who helps individuals set self-governing boundaries, break people’s satisfaction pattern, and master the art of speaking their truth. You can follow her at www.haileymagee.com or on Instagram at @haileypaigemagee.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.