Was I raped?
In 1998, I was 24 years old. Somehow, though I have zero musical talent, I found myself in a band—as the vocalist, no less. We didn’t perform anywhere, although I think that might have been the ultimate goal. Really, we just met up at a studio in Jersey City, where I lived at the time, and jammed out on a few late ‘90s R&B songs.
Dave, a friend-of-a-friend from college, was the guitarist and band Svengali, and my lack of vocal talent became a bit of an issue. So each Sunday morning, before band practice, I would meet Dave at his apartment in Jersey City so we could practice the songs (Mary J. Blige’s My Life, Erykah Badu’s, Tyrone, SWV’s Love Like This) before wasting time and money rehearsing in the studio.
Dave had made a play for me from day one. I turned him down decidedly.
One day, at his apartment before rehearsal, he asked, sincerely, why I wouldn’t have sex with him. I told him, sincerely, that I wasn’t attracted to him in the least. And that was that. But Dave wanted to negotiate.
“Do you have to be attracted to me to have sex with me?” he asked, looking down at his guitar.
“Well. Yeah,” I said. “That’s usually how that goes.”
Dave looked up at me, his face brightening: “How about you just have sex with me as a favor.”
“A favor to whom?” I asked.
I blinked, sincerely not understanding.
“You’re asking me for a sexual favor.”
I bristled. “Because just no, dude. Like, no. Ever. No. Not interested.”
Dave put his guitar down and gave me serious puppy-dog eyes. “Give me one good reason why you won’t take pity on me and have sex with me.”
“One?” I asked. “Okay. I’m not attracted to you. At all.”
“You said that already. Give me another one.”
(At this point, my present 41-year-old self is screaming, just get the fuck out of there! Don’t sit on this motherfucker’s couch discussing this shit! Just say, “No motherfucker, I ain’t fucking you.” And be out!)
Instead, I gave him another reason. “Dave, I dated your friend for like two years.”
“But Jack hates me anyway.”
“No he doesn’t,” I said.
“Yes, he does,” said Dave. “Watch.”
Dave picked up the phone and called Jack, my ex.
“Hey Jack. What’s up. Aliya is here and she said she wouldn’t fuck me because—”
“—Yo get the fuck off my phone. Fucking bitch-ass.” Jack hung up.
Dave smiled at me. “See, I told you. Not an issue.”
“I’m on my period,” I said.
He was right.
For the next hour, we practiced. At least five times, I swatted Dave away as he stopped playing and tried to lean in for a kiss or a hug. I never felt endangered. I was just annoyed. I wanted to hurry up and practice my songs so the rest of the band wouldn’t be pissed because I couldn’t hit that low note on the Mary J. Blige song and we’d have to do that part over and over.
Finally, Dave put the guitar down and said we could take a break. He edged closer and closer to me on the couch. Touched my shoulder. Kissed my neck. I didn’t say no. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there and dealt with it. I figured once he saw I’d be as responsive as a corpse, he’d give up.
Dave leaned into me until I was on my back on the sofa. He pulled my pants down. He pulled my panties down. I provided zero assistance. (Picture trying to get a denim pantsuit off of a Barbie doll). Dave pulled his own pants down. He pulled his boxers down. He put on a condom, parted my legs with his own, held himself and guided his way inside me.
I said nothing. And I didn’t move a single muscle from start to finish. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours. I just know I held my breath because his natural odor turned me off. And I stayed rigid because I didn’t want him to think for one second that I was enjoying any part of it. I went blank. I thought we could just “get over with it,” the way a woman might do if her husband or boyfriend was in the mood and she wasn’t. Except he wasn’t my husband, or my boyfriend, at all.
Then it was over. He pulled his boxers and pants up. I pulled my underwear and pants up. He kissed me on the cheek.
He got the guitar out. He played some chords. I sang Mary J. Blige’s My Life while he played.
If you look at my life/and see what I see...
The question I’ve held on to for 17 years is this: Was I raped?
At no point did he force me down. He eased me down onto my back and I didn’t try to get back up. He never made me feel like he was going to physically injure me. And even though I’d rebuffed him for hours and swatted away his attempts to kiss me, once he put the guitar down and leaned into me, at no point did I ever say, “No, don’t do this. Please stop.” Then and now, my gut and my instincts tell me that if I’d told him to stop, he would have. Immediately.
But, at the same time, he did know. He knew I didn’t want to. Is that enough to make it rape? In a court of law, no jury would have convicted him. I didn’t give him verbal consent, and I never gave him verbal non-consent either. I’ve heard there are some athletes and musicians who actually require consent forms between two parties before anything goes down. If that had been the law, I would not have signed. He would not have consent. And that would have been that.
But it wasn’t like that. There was no paperwork to sign. So it was up to what went unspoken. We didn’t have the kind of established relationship required to suggest non-verbal consent. But when he leaned me back onto that tattered sofa—and I didn’t push back up—was that the moment of consent for him? Did he think my non-verbal cues said yes, while I thought any decent person would see they said no?
That day, we went to rehearsal as usual. The band broke up when one of us went off to grad school and I lost touch with Dave. Whenever his name came up in casual conversation, I always shuddered. Still, I never felt like he raped me. I felt like we had sex and I just wasn’t into it.
Over the years, my thoughts on the situation have become more muddled. Do I think Dave raped me? No. I don’t think that. He didn’t rape me. Do I think he’s an asshole who knew I didn’t want to have sex with him? Yes. Do I also blame myself for not being assertive and pushing him off of me and leaving his place? Yes. I absolutely do.
Here’s the thing. There were times with men, before and after Dave, that were very similar to that day in his apartment. The difference was: these were times when I knew I wanted to have sex with the guy—but I still played coy in the same way. I played the cat and mouse game, enticing the man to do exactly what Dave had done—beg.
In these instances—even though, again, I gave no verbal consent, I gave in. And it was different, because I wanted to give in. More importantly, it was my intention from the very beginning.
So inadvertently I taught those men that pressing for sex could sometimes end well for both parties. I was the queen of saying things like, sex on the first date? I’ve never done this before. Or things like, I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t. I have contributed to a culture that produced guys like Dave as a result of being shaped by that culture. I’m sure that, before me, there were women who wanted to have sex with Dave and still swatted him away for an hour beforehand. Women aren’t conditioned or taught to have a pure and simple, yes-I-want-to-fuck-you approach to sex. At least, I wasn’t. The unequal power dynamic of the cat-and-mouse game hurts both men and women. When I was younger, it was the only game I knew.
I wish I’d known then the things I’ve tried to teach my daughter. I wish I had known how much freedom was available to me to draw clear lines in the sand. I wish I had grown up with stronger nos and stronger yeses in my mouth more often. I wish I had learned the things I learned in easier ways.
I got a Facebook friend request from Dave years ago and I accepted, rolling my eyes. He comes across my feed maybe twice a year. Sometimes I get flashbacks to that night. I don’t feel terror or rage or even uncomfortable. I just feel like, Oh. There’s that asshole Dave I gave into and had sex with because he wouldn’t stop begging me.
I belong to a private group of women writers on Facebook. I shared the story about Dave and asked them all point blank. Was I raped?
None of us could come up with a clear answer.
Seventeen years later, I can’t come up with a clear answer either.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.
This piece was illustrated by Aliya’s stepdaughter, Skye Volmar.
Dave’s name has been changed.