When I was 17, I was quite the hopeless romantic. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given that I, like most of my classmates, was raised on fairy tales and Hollywood romantic comedies. I watched Friends and rooted for Ross and Rachel. I walked hand in hand with my boyfriend and whispered our hyphenated last names to myself to hear what they would sound like. Not at the same time. I was at least clued-in enough not to fantasise about our future marriage in his presence.
I’ve never quite been able to replicate the drama and excitement that came with some of my teenaged crushes. Each potential love interest came with a set of possibilities and fantasies that could keep me entertained for weeks. Little weirdo that I was, I had a revolving cast of possibilities – boys who were objectively hot and I would probably say yes to if they asked me out, boys I kind of fancied, boys I really fancied and boys I wanted to marry.
One of the boys who were objectively hot was also a friend. He was funny, and I liked spending time with him, though I was pretty sure that I didn’t have a crush on him. He would go out with other girls and I wouldn’t feel any hint of jealousy. He just didn’t do it for me.
He, however, had other ideas. On the odd occasion we’d find ourselves alone, away from school or any of our mutual friends, and he’d try to kiss me. I’d usually freeze, allowing him to kiss me but not kissing him back. Afterwards I’d feel awkward and embarrassed, though he’d simply give me a cheeky smile and carry on like nothing had happened.
He kept up the game well beyond school. We were in our early twenties when he tried to force me to watch porn with him while extolling the virtues of anal sex. Eventually he leaned in for a pash at my 23rd birthday and – bolstered by alcohol and the presence of good friends – I pushed him away, letting out a delightfully loud, forceful, unfiltered and long overdue, “ew! Gross!” that sent him scarpering.
It may have taken me six years, but I got there in the end.
I worry, though, that my experience wasn’t all that uncommon. I’ve since heard stories from others that suggest that there are many teen girls who struggle to decline sexual activity. When it came to awkward and unwanted sexual situations, “no” didn’t seem to be in my vocabulary. I’d worry about upsetting my youthful paramour, being slandered as a “tease” or worse – being called “frigid”.
Truth be told, the trend had started much earlier, and it has continued to be an issue into my adult years. I’d been allowing boys to go further than I’d wanted to since I was 13. Kissing would turn into touching and I’d feel my body go cold as excitement turned into fear. I would make excuses to get out of the situation, but the word “no” wouldn’t pass my lips.
Strangest of all was the fact that I was no wallflower. In all other areas of my life I was quite capable of asserting myself, thank you very much. So why was such an outspoken (read: stroppy) girl unable to advocate for herself to end distressing situations?
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it was due to a mixture of being socialised to be agreeable at all costs, negative stereotypes about female sexuality, a lack of consent training from an early age, peer pressure and a fear of social retribution. I also can’t discount a lack of self-worth, as unpleasant as it is to admit.
And all that was happening in a time before online porn became a main source of sexuality education for young people.
If it was hard for teen girls to stand up for themselves before, what’s going on now?