The “Wearing-Down Approach” to Consent

February 7, 2012 § 3 Comments

My friend Veronica likes to use the phrase “the wearing-down approach” to consent.  She sometimes adds, “a.k.a. coercion.”

This describes when someone keeps asking, or keeps calling, or otherwise continues to push a boundary you’ve set until you either escalate your “no” or give in.  They don’t escalate the aggression of the approach, instead they stay neutral or more often add a level of helplessness or neediness to the situation.  They keep testing the boundary, changing the emotional pitch, over and over, to see if it will stand.

Let me just state…


I have so rarely heard anyone discuss begging and posturing low status and neediness as a means of coercion.  Yet it comes up time and again in accounts of friends processing past experiences of rape and other coercion.

Of course, there is such a thing as more accurately portraying the intensity of our feelings about something, there is such a thing as checking in again as time passes, there is such a thing as making sure someone is sure.  But there is also such a thing as tiring someone out by getting them to set the same boundary over and over again.  And there is also such a thing as learning to over-express emotion to control someone else’s behavior by exploiting their empathy, and often their learned sense of responsibility for someone else’s feelings.

Coercion can be overtly violent, but it can also be less overt and manipulative.  We’ve all met one of those people who can’t take no for an answer but doesn’t blow up, who plays angles and manipulates more “nicely”.   A lot of us have done it and at point or another, and some of us are trying to break the habit.

But I hope we can start calling a spade a spade and clarifying in our own minds and hearts that repeatedly pushing  against someone’s boundary or posturing multiple emotional pitches to try and get a different response is disrespectful and unethical.  It teaches people away from consent.  It is the opposite of love and counterintuitive to it.  It is coercion.  And it is abuse.


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§ 3 Responses to The “Wearing-Down Approach” to Consent

  • Miriam says:

    Ahhhh thank you for this. This is so true. I once knew a guy who would not stop asking me for sex, even though I said no every time. He never laid a hand on me or said anything overtly threatening, but the guilt and discomfort that I started to feel was not insignificant.

  • Hannah says:

    This is exactly how I lost my virginity. I thought “watching a movie” meant actually watching a movie but instead he kept asking me over and over and over again no matter how many times I said no and that I wasn’t ready… but I was 17 and he was 21 and I didn’t even think to tell him to leave (it was at my house). I’m still not even sure if I would call it abuse or a form of rape and I still have a lot of confusion over it, I’ve mostly spent time ignoring it happened because I’ve felt guilty and responsible for not being firm enough or strong enough with my “no”, that I could have stopped it…When I told friends or family what happened they would just say “Oh, that’s shitty” and that was that.

  • There are a lot of elements in your story I relate to. And a lot of parallels with other women’s stories I have heard.

    The first boy I had a crush on was a friend of my brother’s a few years older than me. The first time we were alone, he spent the rest of the night trying to get me to suck his dick (his charming phrase) by telling me to and making jokes about it. He said it easily fifty times and was impossible to derail, bringing everything back to that. But, the scary part was that I started to feel ashamed and to wonder whether it wouldn’t be easier to go along with him to get him to leave me alone. That’s what I felt when I was annoyed INSTEAD of anger. Not because I wanted to, but because I wanted to be left alone, and that is NOT consent. Afterwards, my crush was cured, and I suppose that meant my boundaries were strong enough he didn’t bother badgering me again. But I felt ashamed about the interaction for years.

    A friend of mine who is a strong woman and a feminist had sex with her boss at a drunken after-work party after he asked her into his office and begged (not threatened) her in a shockingly low status, pathetic pleading, desperate tone. She was really freaked out after the experience and overwhelmed with self-hate, until a close friend of hers who works with BARCC finally talked it through with her. He said, “I think you are upset because you communicated consent in a nonconsensual encounter,” and laid out how he saw the situation, the power dynamics and the disregard of expressed non-consent, her trying to escape and negotiate out of the encounter and finally letting her guard down, so to speak, and somehow considering that tantamount to consent. The conversation helped her process the experience and understand just what the hell had happened in a really creepy, confusing, damaging encounter.

    The experience you describe seems confusing the way experiencing abuse in a system of abuse always is. Rape culture is a broader, stronger thing than one person’s ability to coerce. It’s men being conditioned to think their desires are more important than other people’s body autonomy, women being conditioned to think they need to be “nice” and not hurt other people’s feelings regardless of what they want, all of us and especially women being estranged from our desire and capacity to consent, people making excuses for what ought to be criminal behavior.

    My first boyfriend and I wanted each other so badly, it would be difficult to put into words. There was and is no question that I desired him, and despite hours alone together making out, not once did he make any assumptions about my consent. He was safe to want, and to be wanted by, with clear boundaries between himself and the person he was with despite any level of emotion or desire. That should be the bottom line demanded by and from everyone. I’ve written in other places about how we were in a broader context that coerced us not to consent and not to have sex, but on an interpersonal level, it was a relationship with a safe person that was transformative and healing for me. That was the first sexual experience I had that taught me how things should be, what I really wanted, and set the bar for the kind of unyielding shared respect as well as intense shared passion I wanted with sex partners. Consent is something even beyond desire, and it is certainly something well beyond failing to defend oneself adequately from someone else’s onslaught of coercion, in whatever form it may take. It is an active and not a passive verb.

    I have had confused, mixed feelings about most of my early sexual experiences, and some of my later ones. It’s encouraging to me to hear your thoughts and feelings about your experience are changing over time. The anthology Yes Means Yes was really important for me in processing my experiences, sorting the interpersonal and the systemic. So was bell hooks book on sexist and feminist masculinity The Will to Change and her phenomenal book All About Love. And the book Healing Sex by Staci Haines is one I talk about often as something I wish would be written for an audience who does not identify as having survived child sex abuse. One point that she makes that I repeat often in life is that the one thing ubiquitous among survivors of trauma she has worked with is that every single one of them in some way or another undermines their own experience. They argue that they didn’t fight back hard enough, they wanted it somehow, someone else had it worse, they are just overreacting, too sensitive, imagining things. It gets worse when society echoes the same messages. She states that memory resides in the body, and the truth is to be found there. I’ve found that to be true. And shame is often the feeling I have that marks the place of experiencing abuse I need to tend to and heal.

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