A few months ago, I was leaving a bar on a busy Friday night, after having had a drink and waiting almost an hour for a friend, who after being delayed, said that she'd meet me at my apartment instead. The man who decided to keep me company while I waited, however, had different ideas.
After about 10 minutes of hovering over me and trying to get me to go home with him, despite my clearly saying no each time he brought up how close his apartment was to the bar, he finally relented when I got outside, but not without sweeping me into a hug in which he lifted me a good 12 inches off the ground.
Again, it was a busy night in a busy part of town — there were dozens of people walking back and forth across the sidewalk I was on, it was relatively early in the night, and I wasn't necessarily in danger. Still, I felt my heartbeat speed up almost instantly while I was suspended in midair, likely because my brain immediately clocked two things: one, that this man already had a hard time taking no for an answer, and two, that he was at least 6'2" and much larger than my 5'1" frame. I knew in that moment that, had we been somewhere less public, that if he had no intentions of letting me go, this night could have ended very differently. I knew that, on some level, I was leaving this situation because this person was letting me, that if he truly wanted to overpower me, he most certainly could.
It's an incident I've thought a lot about in light of all the discussions happening around the #MeToo movement, particularly as the polarising allegations against actor Aziz Ansari came to light.
When a young woman using the pseudonym Grace alleged that Ansari had repeatedly initiated sexual activity and ignored her cues that she wasn't consenting, plenty of people asked why the woman who came forward with her story didn't just say no, or walk away as soon as she could. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wondered why Grace hadn't exercised the strength that Flanagan felt the women of her generation had. "As far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong," she wrote.
Similarly, Bari Weiss of The New York Times asked why Grace hadn't exercised her agency in the situation, writing, "If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door."
Reading these criticisms, I thought of how powerless I felt when that much larger man suddenly grabbed me and picked me up. Because this isn't about what happened between Aziz and Grace. It's about the relatable questions that have emerged since that story was published, among them the very tricky dynamics we've been forced to consider when it comes to sex, coercion and consent.
If you could have just walked away, you would have done that.
Eri Kim, senior clinical director at Safe Horizon
One of those factors is simple: size. Physical intimidation can be a factor in sexual relationships between people of any gender, but given that women are too often violently attacked and even killed for rejecting men, physicality takes on a different meaning in male-female relationships. It's something that men have taken note of, too. After all, a report from the CDC last year found that almost half of all female murder victims were killed by a romantic partner, whether they were former or current boyfriends or husbands.
Of course, size difference doesn't cause sexual assault, but the way we've been socialised to think of men and women's physical presences affects everything from who we're attracted to (for the most part, straight women are socialised to prefer taller, stronger men), to whether or not a woman feels like she can say no to someone during a sexual encounter.
"In general, I think the way we’re socialised is that, for men, it is permissible to use brute force," says Eri Kim, senior clinical director at Safe Horizon.
It's a belief that Kim says is ingrained in both men and women, even though not every man is violent or willing to resort to violence, and it's a belief that plays a role when someone feels threatened, physically or otherwise.
"If a person — man or woman — feels, I may not be allowed to communicate that I’m not consenting, [the situation] turns into a safety planning," she says. "Someone is ignoring your cues, and you’re in a moment of considering if this is safe, because a person is ignoring your space or violating your space, and feeling entitled to do so."
In other words, if someone is already disregarding your cues of a "no," your brain may begin trying to register whether or not this is a safe situation for you, and a factor in that consideration is whether or not this person can overpower you physically.
But physical intimidation isn't always about size.
"Even people of smaller statures can use their bodies in a way that’s intimidating, that signals, I’m willing to use brute force, or that, If psychological tactics don’t work, I can also resort to force," Kim says.
Saying no, then, becomes more difficult when you feel as if your safety is at stake. But "Why didn't you say no?" or "Why didn't you just leave?" are unfortunately all-too-common questions people ask survivors of sexual assault. When confronted with a perceived danger or threat to survival, however, the brain can go into fight-or-flight mode, sending signals to the rest of the body to either resist or try to leave the situation.
"If you could have just walked away, you would have done that," Kim says. "The human brain picks up on threat. The reptilian part of the brain will make a decision, and the only concern it has is survival." The main concern, she says, is getting out alive, even if that means freezing up or going along with a sex act that you were coerced into. "You're appeasing someone to prevent more violent behaviour," Kim says.
All of this isn't to say that women are never able to say no to sex without fear of danger, or that we always feel pressured to say yes to men. Many times — most of the time, I hope — women who sleep with men feel respected, and even if the man is physically bigger and stronger than they are, there's a mutual trust that allows people to make these decisions without triggering their fight-or-flight responses.
Ultimately, we as women (and people) have to put our trust in others to do most non-solitary things in life, including sex. So when we do go home with someone, we're putting at least a little faith in the idea that they won't hurt us — and sometimes, that faith can fail us in situations that involve consent. So we do what we have to do to get out of the situation safely.
As the passionate, and often divisive, #MeToo conversation barrels on, this is just one of the many factors to consider when it comes to how and why sexual violence happens, and how we can find solutions to those problems. It may seem obvious, but it's something we need to discuss if we're even going to begin solving such an insidious problem.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.