Guest blogger bio: Lilli Ross is a singer, writer, dancer, and first-time blogger with Feministe. Her previous work has appeared in The Sun Magazine. She is determined to raise awareness about the issues of consent, deception, and manipulation in the context of sexual interactions.
Consensual sex is defined as sex that is free from acts of coercion, manipulation, or abuse, but consensual sex is an oxymoronic term; without consent, the act of sex isn’t really sex at all. It is assault.
Before I engaged in a sexual relationship with my last boyfriend, William*, I made the terms for my consent very clear: if we were going to become sexually involved, it had to be within the context of strict monogamy. Because he was also in recovery from alcohol and drug addition, I told him that I required full disclosure if he broke his sobriety, and I asserted my right to be informed if he chose to engage in sex with anybody else. My freedom of choice depended on these disclosures, and my ability to make decisions for my own health and well being required his acquiescence to my terms.
I had experienced childhood trauma from which I’d spent the past decade healing, and I was determined to avoid potentially harmful experiences that might set me back in my own recovery. I explained the reasons for my caution to William, and I prepared for the possibility that he would make a quick exit, especially if he were only interested in casual sex. This would be an important test, for if sex were his only objective, then surely he would pursue potential partners who required less of him. However, he impressed me by agreeing to all of my conditions on the spot; he told me that he wanted to explore something serious with me, and that he was willing to get tested before having sex, he was committed to being monogamous, and he was prepared to be honest and forthright about the status his sobriety.
I thought I would be safe with William; he had a boyish, earnest quality, a sweet smile, and an admirable intellect. He played classical cello and spoke nearly fluent French. He aligned himself with feminist politics, played up his role as a volunteer for victims of domestic violence, and shared stories about his participation in a safe-sex awareness-raising group in college. When we swapped information about our sexual histories, it was clear that he’d had far more partners than I, but he assured me that all of his promiscuous behavior had ended immediately after college. He also declared that while he might have been promiscuous in the past, he was always “safe” because he valued his own health and the health of others.
We didn’t officially consummate the relationship until about a month had passed, but, as I came to find out about fifteen months later, he had begun drinking, doing drugs, and having frequent and unprotected sex with other people behind my back almost immediately afterward. He put a great deal of effort into keeping me unaware of all of this behavior. He enlisted the help of his friends to cover for him and to tell me whatever lies were necessary to keep me in the dark; he came up with convincing excuses about why he couldn’t see me certain nights, or about why he was acting distant, and he participated in long-winded conversations about our relationship and my concern that he didn’t share my interest in a deeper level of emotional intimacy. I explained that I had to see evidence of his interest if he wanted to stay with me. He promised that he would work on this, because he would do anything not to lose me.
In the midst of all of his secretive drinking, drugging, and cheating, he would repeatedly coax me into have unprotected sex with him. He used his clean bill of health and our monogamous status to persuade me to do this, and occasionally his arguments would work, and I would concede. He pushed for unprotected sex even while knowing that he was putting me at risk for the contraction of countless diseases. He was exposing me not only to all of the people with whom he was having unprotected sex—some of them fellow addicts and alcoholics—but also that he was exposing me to all of the people with whom they were having sex. This awareness did nothing to deter him. If anything, it excited him; he probably felt some sense of prideful accomplishment in getting away with it all, as he’d always been unabashedly prideful about his cleverness, and he frequently expressed scorn for those with lesser intellects.
Again, there were times when his inconsistent and distant behavior gave me pause, but when I talked to him about it, he would become emotionally manipulative, sometimes breaking down into tears. He would talk about his fears of rejection and intimacy, the emotional abusiveness of his past romantic relationships, the tragedies of his childhood, and his troubled relationships with his parents—all part-truths that served to disarm me, elicit my sympathy, and make him sound all the more convincing. He chalked up some of his inconsistent behaviors and other oddities to a condition like ADHD or some kind of undiagnosed learning disability. He told me that his behavior had nothing to do with his feelings for me, that all other women were of no interest to him now, and he was committed to being with me for as long as I would have him. He told me that sex with me was the best he’d ever had. He told me he was in love with me…but all of this was just part of his plan to seduce me into a false sense of security so that he could be free to go out and have sex with other people whenever he wanted.
I was rendered completely helpless against his intentional deceptions. Because of his lies, I was powerless to protect myself from his reckless endangerment of my health and well being. I entered into a relationship with him under an agreement of mutual honesty and strict monogamy. I wouldn’t have been with him under any other circumstances, and he knew it. And yet, he went to great lengths to keep me around. In addition to all of the mental manipulations described above, he also acted the part of the devoted, loving boyfriend by bringing me into his life with his family; I was invited to Sunday dinners, major holidays, and get-togethers with his grandparents. He presented me to them as if I were his intended. He even went so far in playing the role of the dedicated boyfriend that he participated in couple’s therapy with me—his way of proving to me how committed he was to making it work. He even told me that he wanted to marry me. Multiple times.
Meanwhile, his disregard for me went so deep that he boasted about his multiple and dangerous sexual conquests to his friends, one of whom told me about it long after the fact. On one of his days off, William stopped by Whole Foods, where he worked, and he brought one of his “girlfriends” along with him. She was high on something and began to make a scene—all of which almost got William fired—and when his friend and coworker Charles* asked him, “Aren’t you with Lilli? What are you doing with this other girl?” William proudly replied that he was “fucking both of us.”
When I first learned of William’s infidelities, I made an appointment to get tested for anything and everything he might have given me. Then I demanded to know the full details of his transgressions, and I got two names from him—one was Elizabeth*, the woman who had caused a scene at his work, and the other was Mary*, a former coworker who now lived in Boston. During our relationship, I knew that William had been “friends” with both of these women, and I sometimes questioned him about the nature of their relationships, but he would always assure me that he had zero interest in anyone but me, and that he just found it easier to be friends with women—no doubt because of his sensitive and soulful nature. As I learned later, another woman whom he often referred to as his “best friend” had been yet another one of his sexual conquests.
During his “confessions” to me (in reality they were mere fractions of the truth) he had said that he was with his coworker, Mary, for three weeks, and they had always used protection. He said he that was with the hell-raiser and substance abuser, Elizabeth, for over a month, and that he’d had protected sex with her every time but once. I knew he was probably lying—he had successfully and brilliantly lied to me so many times—so when I got my test results back, I felt it my moral obligation to alert both of these women about their potential exposure to the high-risk HPV William had given me. The fact that he didn’t give me something even worse was only luck; his behavior had been so utterly reckless and destructive—it had been so full of disregard for me or my body or my health—that the potential injuries were almost as painful as the one with which I now had to contend.
Elizabeth did not reply to my message about the HPV, but I wound up having several online conversations with Meg about what had happened. She expressed her utmost shock when she learned that I’d been William’s girlfriend the whole time she was sleeping with him. Neither one of us could even understand how he had found the time. In addition, it turns out that he had sworn monogamy to her as well, and, as a result, they had never used condoms—not during the entire four months they were dating. Already their stories were vastly different—three weeks of protected but utterly casual/meaningless sex according to him, and four months of unprotected sex in the context of a “dating” relationship according to her. She even said that he bought her gifts of lingerie. After she broke it off with him (he had said he had ended it, of course), he continued to contact her for many months afterward, asking her to meet him for sex and telling her he was dreaming about her and missing her. Her timeline had him doing this throughout my entire relationship with him, even after she had moved out of town—at that point, he was trying to have online sex with her via Skype.
During the next few months after the truth initially came to the fore, even more information began to surface. There had been threesomes, I was told. There was a chance he’d brought women back to my apartment while I was out of town and he was house sitting for me. He was even known within certain circles to be somewhat of a sexual predator, but I did not run in these particular circles, so no one alerted me to the danger I was in.
Never in my life had I had an STI or any signs of anomalous cellular activity in my pap smears, but after a year and half of William’s willful disregard for my health, my body, and my sexual autonomy, my body now bore the signs of his abuse. It would have been much easier for him to be a “free” man having casual sex with as many people as he chose, drinking and drugging as much as he pleased, and doing all of this out in the open, but he chose to keep me hostage to his lies instead, trapping me in a sexually dangerous and emotionally unhealthy relationship that I never would have been in had I known what was really happening. He rendered me utterly helpless to protect myself—physically, psychologically, and emotionally—from his deliberately harmful behavior.
If there had been laws to protect me from his actions—laws that forbade the use of deception and manipulation to lure someone into dangerous and unwanted sexual situations—perhaps this wouldn’t have happened to me. At the very least, if it had happened, I would have had some legal recourse. As it stands, there is no prosecutorial action I can take regarding his loathsome behavior in the state of Virginia—and I’m not sure I could take such action anywhere else, either. But we can’t let the subtlety of this issue of consent confuse us from recognizing it as the violation it most certainly is. If someone were to ask William, even now, if I would have consented to sex with him had I known the truth, his answer would be an unequivocal, “No.” He knew it then, just as he knows it now: He was having sex with me against my will.
People lie all the time. There is no law against it. But lying becomes criminal when it is used to coerce others into sexual acts. “Why is deception tolerated in the context of sex? What protection does society provide to a person’s sexual integrity…? It is time to remove deception from the realm of sexual interaction in American society. Its tolerance promotes an unseemly status quo in our social fabric that denigrates the most intimate of relationships” (Decker and Baroni, 2012, p. 1167-1168).
William’s violation of my mind and body left me so confused and distraught that for months after the truth surfaced I was nearly suicidal. The physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, the loss of trust, and the helpless rage I’ve experienced have and will require significant amounts of time, energy, and my deliberate and unwavering intention to heal. The consequences of his behavior have fallen on me alone—but they have not fallen on him at all. What consequences has he had to pay? He has faced no social sanction aside from the loss of a few shared acquaintances. He didn’t fully get away with his lies, and that may hurt his pride, but he is free to do it again, knowing that he has little to lose. In fact, he already has someone else in his trap, I recently discovered, and I sincerely doubt that he has disclosed his STI status to her. I am just as sure that he is persuading her to have unprotected sex with him, because that is his modus operandi. But these women who fall into his clutches may wind up with far worse than high-risk HPV, and the emotional, psychological, and physical distress they will experience could have devastating consequences.
These situations call for a reevaluation of the law. We must consider what protections ought to be in place for the victims of these sneaky, slithery, crimes. This is a matter of bodily integrity, sexual autonomy, and personal safety. William’s use of deception and manipulation to obtain sexual favors is a violation, and it is abusive. He robs his victims of their freedom of choice and makes himself the overlord of what should be their autonomy, in every possible way.
We cannot let this continue, because no consent = rape. Period.
[*Names have been changed. - Mod]