“Sometimes I say ‘yes’ when I’d rather say ‘no.’”
It’s been nearly 25 years, but I can still remember the beautiful Berkeley fall afternoon when I heard those shattering words. Katie and I were sitting in a coffee shop just off campus. What had started as a “friends with benefits” situation had blossomed into a sophomore year romance with this dark-eyed dance-and-philosophy double-major. Katie and I had been sleeping together for more than two months—and saying “I love you” for about a week—when she summoned up the courage to bring up this one very painful truth.
At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She spoke so softly I had to lean across the table to hear her. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said, “but sometimes I really don’t want to have sex. Sometimes I do, but not as often as you want it. And sometimes I want to tell you ‘no,’ but I can’t bring myself to do it. So I try and send you signals, hoping you can just tell how I’m feeling. But that doesn’t work, so it’s… it’s just easier to say ‘yes’ or just say nothing at all.”
My face flushed. I felt nauseated. I thought instantly of the previous night, where we’d grabbed what I thought was a hot half-hour when my roommates were both gone. Katie had seemed so passionate when we’d been making out, but then gotten very quiet once all our clothes were off. I’d told myself she wanted to have one ear cocked for the sound of a key in the door. I hadn’t considered—or hadn’t wanted to consider—the more obvious possibility: she was trying to tell me that she didn’t want to have sex.
I looked out the window. I couldn’t meet Katie’s eyes. My gaze fixed in the distance, my voice trembling, I asked what seemed the only possible question: “Are you trying to tell me I raped you?”
I was in my first women’s studies course, and just the previous week we’d been reading about sexual violence and the law. In class, where I was one of only three men, I’d felt rage thinking about all of those cruel assholes who didn’t understand that “no means no.” But now a dark and unseen possibility was opening up: not every “no” could be spoken. Maybe, I realized, sometimes even a quiet “OK” could be a “no” in disguise.
Katie started to cry. “Oh God, Hugo. No. Not rape. It’s just… I wish you could tell the difference between when I really want you and when I’d just rather be held.” She began to cry harder. “Fuck. It’s all my fault,” she wept. “I can’t expect you to be a mindreader. I’m so sorry.”
I begged Katie not to apologize; the responsibility was all mine, I insisted. I came around to her side of the table and held her. But something had changed for both of us, and the relationship was never the same. The one time we tried to have sex after that conversation, we were both so tentative (and I had, not surprisingly, a difficult time getting hard) that we gave up halfway through. We broke up two weeks before Christmas.