100 nights of half-hearted consent


Before I even start, I want to clarify what consent means to me now:

  1. Consent is something that you give when your mind and body are in full agreement.

  2. It’s not something that you give because someone coerces you into giving it, or something that you give because you feel that it’s your obligation to do so in a relationship.

  3. It is not something you give half-heartedly because it’s the most convenient thing to do at the time.

  4. Consent is something you give when you have the full ability to make decisions, and when your judgement has not been clouded by alcohol or other substances.


It was really hard to bring myself to write this and to share this story openly. The content that I normally post on this blog is usually edited down to the last pixel, full of bright photos and creative ideas to (hopefully) inspire others. This post is going to be a little different.


I’m writing this because when I discussed this issue with a few of my female friends, they indicated that something similar had happened to them. I was appalled that I was not the only one who experienced this situation in a relationship, but at the same time I felt the need to bring awareness to this issue to those who might not be the most confident in speaking up or saying no.


I ended my relationship with my first boyfriend in July last year (I will refer to him as “M” for the rest of this post—to do him a favor and keep his identity hidden). M and I had been dating for about a year and half, and for the majority of our time together, we were in a long distance relationship. So when I broke up with him, I somehow convinced myself that it was the long distance that had torn us apart. I ended up using the long distance as a lie to myself to cover up a bigger issue that was looming in the back of my mind, but one that I chose to ignore.


It’s funny how when you’re immersed in a relationship, it becomes difficult for you to see the red flags that appear and to address them. For me, personally, it was even harder to pinpoint what was wrong because this was my first real, stable relationship. I had nothing to compare it to, and I didn’t have a reference to show me what was right and what was wrong. At times when I felt hurt, I told myself that it was “probably nothing” and to suck it up. There was no point in fighting when we were already in a long distance relationship, and when we only saw each other for three days out of a month. I didn’t want to waste those three days being angry.


But now that I look back, there was a red flag that appeared over and over again throughout our time together: one that I never chose to address fully because of I was afraid of hurting M, and hurting myself as a result.


The red flag was that I was constantly being pushed into having sex, even if I wasn’t consenting to it 100%.


Consent is a funny thing. You can give it one day and take it back the next. It’s something that you choose to give with both your body and mind being in complete alignment. Because I was a newbie to this whole entire official boyfriend-girlfriend scenario, I wasn’t aware of how sex was supposed to work in a relationship, and I thought that if I gave consent once, that I would need to keep on giving it. So there was a huge discrepancy when my body did not want to want to give consent, but my mind was under the impression that I was obligated to—in order to be a so called “good girlfriend.”


In the beginning it was easy to be on the same page as M and to give consent to everything. During the early stages of our relationship, we were spending ridiculous amounts of time together—taking the same classes, eating the same meals, interacting with the same group of friends. We didn’t live too far apart from each other, and we would spend at least 4 nights out of the week at each other’s apartments. I was comfortable around M, and felt like I could confide in M about everything that was on my mind. I was overwhelmed yet overjoyed to have such a huge, reliable support system that would be there for you 24-7, and who would truly understand you (without you having to condense down what you were feeling when you’re explaining it to a parent, for example). I felt truly beautiful, too, for the the first time—and not because of the clothes or makeup I was wearing—but because there was someone to see me beneath the surface, and to tell me.


So yes, during that time, I did give consent completely for all the times we were intimate. There was nothing fishy going on there.


After July 2016, only after three months of dating, my relationship with M had turned long distance. I had taken up a job in San Francisco after graduating, and he had just signed an offer with a company in San Diego. We respected each other’s decisions to live apart, but we were still determined to keep our relationship alive. With social media, video calls, and airplane tickets at our fingertips, we figured it wouldn’t be difficult to keep dating each other, and we drafted up a plan to see each other for at least one weekend every month.


Becoming intimate with M after going long distance became extremely difficult for me. It was very strange to be so intimate with someone who you only saw for three nights out of a month, and with someone who you only interacted with through Facebook messenger for the 27 other nights. The two of us became lazy and put off video calling and talking on the phone, which made M even more unfamiliar to me when I saw him in person. This is when I began feeling very strange and uncomfortable during sex, and when I began wanting to say no. But at the same time, I felt ashamed that I was uncomfortable. As his girlfriend, I felt like I needed to be attracted to him, and to always look forward to being intimate with him.


But there were nights when I said no. Traveling back and forth between San Francisco and San Diego would wear me out, and stress from work would put my mind in a bad mood and my body in an even worse one. Saying “no”, however, always put the two of us in one of these scenarios, which concluded with me saying “yes”:


Scenario 1:

Me (saying no): I don’t feel like it tonight… let’s do it tomorrow night instead
M: But I’m only here for two nights
Me: We didn’t do this every night when were at school…
M: But I only get to see you for 2 nights out of the entire month!
Me (saying yes): Okay… fine… I guess tonight works

Scenario 2:

Me (saying no): I’m really tired tonight… let’s just go to sleep
M: Ugh, why do you have to be this way?
Me: Seriously, I’m too tired to do anything, I’m literally falling asleep as we speak
M: Fine…
(The two of us start falling asleep)
M: I can’t sleep…
Me (saying yes): All right, all right, fine, I’m up.

Me: 0, M: 2

Scenario 3:

Me (saying no): Not tonight…
(M and I would fight for a while, with me doing my best at resisting, and then we would fall asleep)
(After a few hours of sleeping, M would wake me up, and I would have no way to back out since M had already started)


It’s unclear in the third scenario whether I had given consent or not. It's true that I did not give verbal consent, but once I was woken up, I chose to play along and didn’t actively choose to stop what was happening to me. I suppose I was consenting when I replied his actions with my own. I was indeed awake by then, and my mind and body were perfectly conscious.


Why I chose to say "yes" in each and every one of these scenarios that started out with a "no" comes from several different reasons. The first being that I wanted to be a good girlfriend, and I didn’t want M to think that I was not attracted to him because I didn’t want to have sex with him. I was afraid to hurt him and his confidence, especially as his girlfriend, who was supposed to be his biggest support.


The second reason for me giving in and saying "yes" is because I’m an introvert, and I’m not always so great at expressing my honest emotions. I tend to sugarcoat for the sake of making situations easier for the person I’m interacting with and easier for me. (My manager has even told me several times that I’ve had issues with communicating, and that I should speak out with my true opinions more often in meetings). Similarly in this relationship, I had chosen to bottle up a lot of what I was feeling to avoid conflict and to keep our fights at a minimum. Why spend time fighting when we could only see each other three days out of the entire month?


The first three scenarios do not compare to the fourth one, which I think was the most detrimental to me:


Scenario 4:

Me (saying no): I’m really not feeling it tonight… let’s do it another time
M: Why do you always do this to me? Are you not attracted to me?
Me: What are you talking about? Of course I’m attracted to you! I’m just feeling really uncomfortable tonight.
M: You don’t like me at all! What kind of girlfriend are you?
Me: Why is it always about sex with you? What if I wasn’t allowed to have sex at all for religious reasons, and our relationship was not physical at all?
M: (laughs) Honestly, I don’t think I would be able to do that… 

The fourth scenario is the most detrimental. It’s physical abuse to have someone give in to having sex without full consent, and then it’s emotional abuse to question someone’s emotions for you and call her an awful girlfriend for not giving consent. Consent is truly given when the giver wants to say “yes” out of her own will, and is not skewed towards saying “yes” because saying “no” will create a dent in the relationship. But in my scenario 4, what choice did I have, really? I had spent so much time trying to be a good girlfriend that it wasn’t worth saying “no” to ruin everything we had. Through scenario 4, M had somehow defined that being a good girlfriend = giving consent, and that being a bad girlfriend = not giving consent.


This pattern of half-hearted consent-giving kept up for months, and as it continued, I began to loathe having sex more and more. Unlike in the beginning when I enjoyed every last minute with M, becoming intimate with him became a chore—one that I constantly tried to avoid, but one that I always gave into in the end. Towards the very end of our relationship, there were times when I threw up afterwards—not only because I was being physically manipulated, but also because emotionally.


I realized that despite how well M and I got along, how good friends we were—that this needed to stop. The projects he and I worked on, all of photos that we took together, and all the memories we created together—they were precious to me, but not as precious as my own body and mind, which I felt that I had lost through this ordeal. Even now, a year after we had broken up, I find it difficult to get back into dating for the same reasons why I left M. I wasn’t aware before I dated M that I would end up being stuck in such a toxic scenario, and I always question whether the new relationships I stumble upon would end up being so far from what they look liked on the surface.


I can’t deny that it’s also very much my fault for allowing this to happen. My lack of communication, persistence, and confidence pushed me to say yes when I didn’t want to. And in the end, I not only hurt myself, but I hurt M too. If I had truly told him how I felt at the time, perhaps the two of us could’ve discussed the situation like adults and come to a compromise to change for the better.


In writing this I want to bring awareness to how important consent is, whether you’re in a relationship or not. As women, there are many scenarios where it may become difficult for us to give full consent, and I want us to recognize those scenarios and to fight harder when we see them. As for the men, you should know that consent is only given in its entirety. That old saying of “no means yes” is bullshit (I’m sure you know that already by now—we’re not living in the 18th century here). But even if she does say yes, you want to make sure that you didn’t actually manipulate her into saying yes.


I’m also writing this to highlight how a romantic relationship doesn’t have to involve sexual intimacy. If you really love and care for someone, you would continue to do so beyond their physical appearance. Sex is only a portion of a relationship, and I truly believe now that it’s only a very small part. I’m by no means an expert on relationships, but I do believe that what makes the relationship stronger comes from the deep conversations you have together, the laughs you share together, and the journey you take together to grow into better people.


Women’s bodies go through a lot more than we think—whether it’s from the media telling us to shrink them or from us giving them out unwillingly. But at the end of the day, our bodies are ours, and it’s up to us which clothes we choose to wear on top of it, what foods we let it consume, and to whom we give it away. That’s the least we can repay them with for carrying us this far.

Cindy Zhang