This story was originally published in the November 2021 Sexual Health and Safety issue of The DN.

Editor’s note: This story contains intense and personal discussions of sexual assault.

I don’t know a lot about hookup culture, and I’m definitely not a sex expert. I don’t even know what would constitute a sex expert. But I have had a few sexual experiences, and while there was a lot that I was able to Google ahead of time, there was a lot more that I really wish someone would have sat me down and told me.

I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase “no means no.” There’s nothing wrong with that statement — no does mean no. But what if someone wants to say no and they can’t? Or they don’t know how? Or they’re scared to? 

I entered my first year of college armed with a sense of freedom and the conviction that no means no would be all I needed to know about the boundaries of consent. I was sure that I would respect the wishes of whatever sexual partners I might have, and they would respect my wishes. I had decided I would never attend a frat party, so I didn’t think to be worried about being sexually violated. 

Armed with my knowledge that no means no, I waded into the dating pool at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And I never said “no” to any of the three people who violated me.

I said “I don’t know.” I laughed nervously. I told them I was kind of tired. I said “sure.” I offered to switch from painful penetrative sex to giving him oral sex, so we could finish faster. I didn’t say no. But I said it hurt. I got really, really drunk and made out with her. I woke up in the middle of the night in her bed with my pants off. I never said no. But I never said yes either. 

I never even considered reporting these assaults because there was no way they’d ever go anywhere. I invited the first person over and never said no to him. The second person and I were both drunk, and I made out with her willingly. I had been dating the last person for nine months, and he didn’t physically force me to do anything. 

One of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things about sexual assault through coercion is that there’s no recourse for people who have been violated in this way. Yes, technically sexual activity under coercion is illegal, but it’s already hard enough to navigate the legal system when there’s no evidence besides the testimonies of the two people. I was under no delusion that I could gain anything but more trauma by pursuing a legal charge or lodging a complaint with the university.

The absolute worst part of it is I don’t think any of them knew they assaulted me. Based on the “no means no” model of consent, everything we did was by the book. When I tried to communicate to the person I dated for almost a year that I felt pressured into having sex with him, he told me he wasn’t doing anything intentionally. But he kept saying how I must find him unattractive because we hadn’t had sex in months. He kept saying we should just try. He brought up sex any time we were alone together in a room with a bed. He didn’t see how that was just as much a way of pressuring me into sex as physically forcing me would have been.

While media has gotten marginally better at portraying the fact that no means no, one of the worst things it does is romanticize the “persistent lover.” The one who doesn’t give up. The one who keeps pushing and pushing and showing how much they care until their love interest finally flips and decides they want to be with them. 

Wearing someone down isn’t romantic. People aren’t waiting for a romantic gesture or for their minds to be changed about sex. If someone seems unsure about engaging in a sexual act with you, that is not a sign to convince them or seduce them. 

If you are engaging in a sexual activity with someone and they say that something hurts, you should not offer to try something else. The first words out of your mouth should be “do you want to stop?” And you should mean it. 

It took me a long time to realize that sex doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s not something you endure in order to make someone else happy. It’s an act where both parties are enthusiastically engaged. I spent too many nights trying to make my partner orgasm faster so that sex would be over before I realized that I shouldn’t feel bad about ending sex before they finished. 

This was a difficult lesson that I worked through in therapy for a long while before I really accepted it. And I still have doubts. Even writing this article, I’ve had multiple moments of doubt. But that just proves why people need to hear this. 

“No means no” shouldn’t be the standard for consent. You shouldn’t just take a lack of refusal as a green light. Ask the person who you want to engage in sex with if they’re really, truly, 100% into this right now. 

This applies to friends-with-benefits, a one-night stand or a committed relationship. There will never be a sexual encounter where you are exempt from making sure your partner is actively consenting and comfortable. 

Tell them that it’s okay to stop at any point. If something seems even the slightest bit off, err on the side of caution. It’s always better to stop having sex than to keep going when someone is uncomfortable. 

Instead of waiting for someone to say “no” before you stop, take the initiative to check in with them throughout the process.

Sydney Miller is a senior psychology major. Reach them at sydneymiller@dailynebraskan.com