She didn’t say no. But she didn’t say yes.
On a foggy morning last summer, I met Liam*, 18, for breakfast at a San Francisco café. Liam was a slender boy, a little nerdy-looking, with dark hair and oversize plastic glasses — not the type I would have pegged as a player. He described himself as athletic but not varsity material. That’s why, he figured, his surest route to respect once he got to high school was to hook up with as many girls as possible. “There’s a hierarchy among guys,” he explained, “and it is completely based on sports, looks, who you’re friends with, and your sex life — and on those things alone. Personality? Not really. Maybe if you’re a funny guy, then you’re ‘the funny guy,’ whatever. So bragging about how many girls I’d hooked up with, joking about it, was definitely a way to gain status.”
Liam said he got with dozens of girls starting in his freshman year, so many that he can’t remember all of their names. Admittedly, most of the encounters were pretty tame, involving little more than a few minutes of kissing, but since “hooking up” is an ambiguous term — it can mean anything from making out to intercourse — the content of the encounters was less important than the act of claiming them.
Although he treated girls as, more or less, disposable in those encounters, Liam talked about being “communicative and compassionate” — even if he was drunk. He talked about intervening early in his freshman year of college when he saw a friend about to leave a bar with a girl who’d had ten shots. “I know I’m a good guy,” Liam said.
But still. There was that one time after his junior year of high school when he hooked up with a girl at camp. One thing led to another. They started having oral sex, then moved on to intercourse. Or, to be more accurate, Liam did. The girl didn’t say no to the act, but she also didn’t say yes. They hooked up a few more times, then she abruptly broke things off without saying why. At the time, he felt like a victim — “She fucked me up,” he said — but now he’s not so sure.
“I took advantage of her,” he said. “That could have been a reason she ended things. Part of me is like, Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I regret it. But there’s also a part of me that’s confused. I know people who have really been taken advantage of in a forceful, aggressive manner. This seems different — I think it is different. But I don’t know.… I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Debate over the definitions of sexual consent and assault has been raging nationally for the better part of a decade. In 2014, California became the first state to mandate that universities receiving public funding use the “affirmative consent” standard in sexual misconduct hearings. Sometimes called “yes means yes,” it requires a sexual partner to obtain “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” agreement at each stage of an intimate encounter. That is a dramatic break from the past, when until a person said stop (and sometimes not even then), anything was fair game. In separate legislation, any California school district with a health class is now required to include consent education.
That it even occurred to Liam to be troubled by his actions is a sign of how young men are grappling (if some more sincerely than others) to integrate ideas about sex that often contradict their previous, deeply held expectations. Over the past year, I’ve been interviewing high school and college students about men’s experiences of physical and emotional intimacy. Some have found the spark in “yes means yes.” “I’ll put it out there,” said Myles, a college junior from San Francisco. “Affirmative consent is really hot. It’s exciting when the girl’s saying, ‘Yes! I want you to do this.’ ‘Yes! I want you to do that.’ It’s a pretty awesome thing for both of you to have that sort of connection.”
Other boys were less motivated by sensuality or even ethics than by merely avoiding trouble. Zachary, for instance, a high school senior also in the Bay Area, outlined a strategy that, at best, seemed to miss the point. “If the girl wants to go further the first time we hook up, I’m like — ” He lifted his hands in the air as if he’d been burned, then glanced downward, presumably to where a girl’s head would be. “She can do whatever she wants. I’m fine with that. But I’m not going to go there because I’m paranoid as fuck.”
Men who receive some form of consent education from their colleges do understand the concept, at least in theory, according to Nicole Badera, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan. In interviews for a paper she presented earlier this year to the American Sociology Association, nearly all of her subjects could offer at least a rudimentary definition: both partners wanting to be doing what they’re doing. Yet when asked to describe their most recent sexual experiences in both a hookup and a relationship, they would expand their definition to encompass their behavior rather than acknowledge misconduct. Not a single student admitted to rape, not even the one whose girlfriend cried and begged for him to stop.
Unlike Badera’s subjects, the boys I interviewed often knew when they’d done wrong. What they didn’t always know, especially when their actions fell short of rape, was how to address it. Caden, a college junior from the Bay Area, counted nine high school hookups in which he’d found himself in what he described as a gray area.
One time, he recalled, a girl at a party told him she’d taken a prescription drug that made her woozy, but he chose to ignore that. “It was just in one ear and out the other. I didn’t think about it at all,” he said. He ended up touching her breast under a blanket. “She was like, ‘Yes! Yes!’ But when she got up, she couldn’t stand straight. And I was like, Shit.” When he texted her the next day to apologize, she didn’t remember the encounter and told him not to tell her what had happened. “I felt awful,” he said. “I still do. But you’re trying to work it out: How aggressive is too aggressive? How much is too much? What counts as OK? We learn that affirmative consent is the best standard, but, especially in high school, it doesn’t feel realistic. And there was this insecurity that if I straight-up asked, no one would want to do anything with me.”
Liam never told anyone about what happened at camp. Though he is otherwise close to his parents, they are oblivious to his reputation. More to the point, they’d told him that high school was too soon to be sexually active — so he didn’t tell them when he had intercourse for the first time the summer after his sophomore year.
As for his friends: “If you tell someone about something like that, and it’s the ‘wrong person,’ that’s a terrifying prospect. You could be labeled as a sexual predator, a rapist, and that can destroy your entire life. And I’m very happy with my life. So I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I don’t know if I should call this girl this afternoon and apologize. That’s what I probably should do. But you and I both know I won’t.”
Few of the boys I met had ever had a substantive talk with their parents about sex, relationships, or consent. That’s typical, according to a survey of more than 3,000 high school students and young adults published earlier this year by the Making Caring Common project, which is part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. More than 60 percent of respondents had never had a single conversation with their parents about how to be sure in advance that your partner wants to be — and is comfortable — having sex with you. A similar share had never been told about “the importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you.” Other research has found that parents are vastly more likely to talk to their daughters about sexual readiness, contraception, and disease protection, perhaps because they believe girls are more vulnerable — emotionally as well as physically — to negative consequences. But that leaves boys to learn their behavior from one another.
Nick, a Bay Area native attending a college in Oregon, remembered learning how he was supposed to approach girls at middle school dances: “They were things of legend, like a club scene. A giant, dark room with music blasting. Looking back, it was horrible. Everyone made out there for the first time. In sixth grade, you’d walk up to a girl and tap her on the shoulder and be like, ‘Do you want to dance?’ But then in seventh grade, there was this unspoken shift where guys stopped asking. You’d go up behind a girl and just start dancing with her. So every five minutes, these girls would have someone’s hard dick rubbing up against them out of nowhere. And I think so many girls didn’t know how to say no in that situation. It established a tone that carried over into high school and — it’s the same stuff, but boys just keep pushing the boundaries.”
Flash forward, he said, to the spring term of his sophomore year of college when he met a girl in a bar. They kissed for a bit. When they met up again the following night, she invited him back to her place. “To a guy, that registers as Oh shit, this is happening,” he said. “Like, I’ve got to focus. There’s so much around performance anxiety. Especially for a guy like me who hadn’t had sex with multiple women before college. I want to do the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is. I just know what I know, which is a lot of really confusing and wrong shit.” The “shit” he’d been learning since middle school. “So immediately it was boom, boom, boom, boom, and we got to a point where we were about to have sex, and she put her hand on my chest and said, ‘Whoa! I don’t want to do that.’ And I thought, What? I was doing everything I’d been told to do! But in that moment, I could see just how wrong it was. The utter lack of communication that took place in those five to ten minutes. And even realizing that I didn’t feel great myself about what we were doing. I just thought that was the only option.”
Danny, a college sophomore from Portland, also grew up in a confusing high school culture. “I’m sure there were times when I was having sex with somebody that was too drunk to consent,” he said. “There were times when I had sex when I was too drunk to consent. I mean, I’m 99.999 percent sure I never assaulted anybody, but hookup culture is based on manipulation. It’s all about, Who can find the hottest one to fuck? And boys learn that they’re supposed to be aggressive, that force is sexy.”
Most of the boys I met said their parents had told them to “respect women.” Liam’s parents did. So did Caden’s. But when I pressed them about what that meant, they couldn’t really say. “Looking back on it, ‘respecting’ meant not being an outright asshole,” Danny said. “Is that really the standard?”
Even if it was, it was one that many boys wouldn’t meet. Brandon, now a junior at a Pennsylvania college, grew up in a progressive enclave in Wyoming. He, too, experienced a high school hookup culture that, like the other boys described, was all about the score, all about the story you brought back to tell the guys — or the one that inevitably got around, whether or not you personally spilled it. He recalled other boys chanting his name when he walked into the school gym the day after he’d first had intercourse. “It made me kind of sick to my stomach,” he said.
Essentially, according to Richard Weissbourd, the lead author of the Making Caring Common survey, parents have abdicated responsibility for talking with their children about sexual ethics or emotional intimacy. “If you ask many parents whether it’s really important that your son has a lot of integrity and is a good person, they would absolutely say yes. But if you were to ask, ‘Have you talked to your son in a concrete way about the many ways you can degrade women?’ Most parents, I think, would say no.”
Brandon has done a lot of thinking since high school — partly inspired by conversations with his older sister and his mother — about the low expectations set for young men. “It seems like as long as you are doing the bare minimum of being a decent human being, you are called a ‘good guy,’ ” he said. “I still fall into hooking up drunk or buzzed and not thinking much about consent. And I’m a good guy. What I’m doing isn’t wrong. It’s just that what other guys are doing is so bad. And I wonder: By participating in the culture, am I actively or passively perpetuating something that is damaging to girls in the long term?
“No one ever thinks they’re a rapist,” he added. “Except maybe in the worst situations. And you know what? Most of the time, not even then.”