When He Doesn’t Know What “No” Means

Author's note: It’s been impossible to turn on the news or scroll through Facebook this week without finding a new story about Brock Turner. Unfortunately, this is not the first or last time a story on college rape will make the headlines. One in six American women will be raped in her lifetime. Whenever one of these stories makes the rounds, I think back to college, when I slowly realized that one of my friends was a rapist — and subsequently cut him out of my life. He was charming and sweet, and it was easy to ignore the sinister parts of his personality. But those parts were just as real as the rest of him, and cases like Turner’s make me want to remind people that there isn't a singular profile of a rapist; many types of people are capable of sexually assaulting someone else.

This essay was originally published on October 1, 2014.

What do you do when your friend says he considers "no" to be an act of foreplay rather than a lack of consent?
One of my former good friends, Matt, truly believed this. He wasn't joking, nor was he discussing Louis CK’s social commentary on Louie. At the time, I was shocked. Today, however, I know Matt is sadly not alone: A recent study shows that men who have sex without consent do not always consider themselves rapists.
Matt certainly didn't. He was that guy everyone knew. He worked at the local bar and could go from being a complete stranger to your possible-new-best-friend-whom-you-have-plans-with-tomorrow-night in the time he took to pour your first shot. He was — and still is — the most charming person I have ever met. We talked about everything: politics, classes, where we hoped to be in the future, our distaste for cheap alcohol...everything but Matt's sex life.
I soon discovered Matt had a routine: He would bring a woman to his apartment, pour her a drink, and take her to his room. She would leave early the next morning, and Matt would never mention it. Aside from a few passing jokes (“There’s no way Matt can keep these girls’ names straight!”) I didn’t really give Matt’s “process” much thought. I had always prided myself on not judging someone for his or her sex life, and I certainly wasn't against casual sex; one-night stands were par for the course among my friend group.
Author has requested anonymity. Names and details have been changed.
During a rough patch in my relationship with my boyfriend, Matt was the one who comforted me; he took me out to breakfast, because nothing cures a heartbreak and a hangover like a bacon-egg-and-cheese. Looking back, it's moments like that one that hurt the most. He always seemed like one of the good ones.
Then, during our final year of college, Matt started hooking up with more and more girls I actually knew. Some were likely lured by the all-too-common, triple-A formula of college hookups: alcohol, attention, and accessibility. Some were drawn by curiosity: What was the fuss all about? Some genuinely liked Matt. One of my friends slept with him after her long-term relationship ended; afterwards, she said it was the first time she didn't feel in control while having sex. She couldn't recall how she went from crying on Matt's shoulder about her ex to putting her clothes back on.
After talking to her, I started feeling uncomfortable about Matt. I began wondering if all of these hookups were as fun and casual as I had let myself believe. I asked Matt why he slept with my friend; he said it was because she'd looked sad and lonely. At that point, I should have asked him how he had interpreted those emotions as an invitation for sex — but, I didn’t. And, I still regret it.
One night, I awoke to a frantic phone call from yet another one of my close friends who had gone home with Matt. She told me she had kept saying “no,” but Matt wouldn’t slow down. She had been scared and had run away — without even grabbing all of her clothes.
From these women, I started hearing the same, alarming phrase, repeated over and over: “I didn’t even want to sleep with him in the first place." When I tried to talk to my ex (and Matt's best friend) about it, he defended Matt. I couldn’t believe the two of us — two people who had previously been having consensual sex — couldn’t even agree what “consent” was.
What can you say to someone who doesn’t understand the word “no” — one of the very first words we learn as kids? When I confronted Matt, he expressed his awful belief that females don’t actually mean it when they say “no.” He insisted he’d always gotten “consent” because he’d never drugged anyone or forced someone into his room. At the time, I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t even verbalize a definition of consent that took into consideration all of the nuances that come with different (but healthy) sexual relationships. But, I did know that the line between consent and rape went beyond the presence (or lack) of substances or violence.
I felt betrayed. I had always seen “my Matt” as different from “their Matt,” but I could no longer separate his behaviors to make my life easier. There was only one Matt. And, these hookups had crossed a line. Was it a crime? I couldn’t decide — no one was willing to report him. But he was certainly perpetrating rape culture, and it was not OK. After a couple hours of fighting, Matt and I had nothing left to say. We just weren’t friends anymore.
For Matt and I, life post-friendship has as many shades of gray as our friendship did. We didn’t disappear from each other’s lives. We still have mutual friends. Some of them think Matt did nothing wrong; others have no problem calling him a rapist. In fact, one of my friends lives with him now. When Matt and I see each other, we proceed to act like strangers. When people show interest in him, I voice my concern. And when people talk about sexual assault cases in the media with disbelief, I remind them they knew Matt in college.
I’ll never be friends with Matt again. But, I can’t erase our past friendship any more than I can erase the pain he caused other people I cared about. Anyone could befriend Matt, or a guy like him — and that may be the scariest part of all. It's too simple to say you would never support or associate with a rapist; maybe you already have.
As a society, we don't have a clear definition of consent. And, all of the "consent" apps in the world won't make up for honest conversations. We know that peer influence has the power to prevent rape, and it's high time we all did a better job of asking questions and speaking out. If I had confronted Matt earlier, would my friends have been spared? Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that next time, I won't be a silent bystander. I will speak out — even if the person in question seems like a "good guy." After all, if we don't have one definition for "consent," we don't have one for "rapist," either.

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