On Consent and Coercion

The following is written by someone who would like to remain anonymous. Thank you for sharing. 

The pressure to get married can be intense. I come from a culture in which early 20s is the ideal time to get married. I rarely felt any pressure to get married at that time, however, as I was focused on my education. But when I got to my late 20s, and went away to graduate school, that pressure formed over me like a dark, anxiety-producing cloud. A cloud that kept reminding me of how I was getting older, how I needed to settle down soon, of how marriage was an important part of being a Muslim.

Before this time in my life I had only dated on guy. Secretly. Despite that I knew nothing of how to date. I was never given any talks about how to deal with men in dating situations. I had been given plenty of talks about how I was not allowed to date, a rule I followed for most of my life. But I was never taught how to negotiate a romantic (or potentially romantic) encounter. I really wish I had.

In my anxious search for a husband I spent hours meeting Muslim men online. I was very naive. I had had few interactions with Muslim men outside my family and had these strange assumptions that all Muslim men would be respectful. Many were. But many weren’t. Many were right out vulgar or sleazy. But I guess that’s what online anonymity brings out in men, and not just Muslim men.

Most of my encounters with Muslim men remained online. But there were a few I met in person, some of whom I wished had never come into my life.

The first man I met in person was a bit older but a devout Muslim. Apparently he had spent his younger life sleeping around, drinking, etc. Basically doing all those things we’re told not to do. Therefore, at this point in his life he appeared to be making amends with God, in the way he thought he was supposed to (or perhaps told to). We had spent months talking through email and phone calls. He seemed quite nice. He even seemed quite nice in person, for the first little while. But then, it became clear, that he was a sexually coercive person.

“But I thought you said he was a devout Muslim”, you might say. In his head, he was. But his one weakness, he told me, was that he couldn’t control his sexual urges. He said he was working on it, and wanted my help. But over the course of the time we dated, he coerced me into having sex with him. Multiple times I made it clear I didn’t want to, but each time he got his way. I thought that if I didn’t he wouldn’t want to marry me. And because I was getting older I would lose my chance of getting married. I thought that if I didn’t let him have his way, I would be alone forever. But I didn’t realize how I was hurting myself with this way of thinking until years later. So much so that even after I broke things off with him I had a similar encounter with another Muslim man a year or so later, where my fear of not finding a husband allowed me to once again be coerced into a sexual act. Luckily, I only saw that man once.

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After these two encounters I felt immense shame. How could I have let myself get coerced like that? It seemed my desperation to get married, created by the pressures around me, allowed me to think that my acquiescence would nab me a husband. At that time I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t want such a man as my husband. I just needed to get married.

I am happily married now to a wonderful Muslim man. And in my search for a husband I did meet other good Muslim men. But I so, so, so wish I had been taught about issues of sexual coercion and consent when I was younger.  I so wish I had been warned of the men, including Muslim men (because we’re warned lots about non-Muslim men), who would try to sweet talk me into getting their way. I wish someone had warned me of the men, once again including Muslim men, who would exploit my insecurities to get their way.

Today, I refuse to feel the shame and guilt I used to feel. I am very comfortable placing the blame on those men who knew exactly what they were doing and exactly how much they were hurting me, and most likely other women as well. I feel anger toward them, but am perfectly comfortable with that anger because I know it is justified. They deserve my hate and my anger.

It should go without saying but sex should always be consensual. In my mind, that’s more important than who we have sex with. Our communities need to begin having conversations around consent and coercion and stop spending so much energy on who we have sex with. I really wish I had learned more about consent and coercion when I was younger.

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