I’m a sucker for a classic love story. Carrie and Big from Sex and the City, Noah and Allie from the Notebook, All these tales, while different, follow a similar scaffolding: Boy likes Girl, Girl doesn’t like Boy, Boy eventually convinces her otherwise. They ride off into the sunset on a moped, or a bike, or if we’re in the deep south a vintage pickup truck, usually the type without seatbelts.
You see, growing up, I never took part in, or really even witnessed a real-life love story, and chances are many of you reading this are in the same boat. Children are rarely exposed to a parental romantic love for one of two reasons, the first being they were never privy to their parents’ moments of intimacy, and the latter being that a high percentage of marriages end in divorce. Considering that sex, romance, and passion are not something we learn from our parents or our school systems, society has left it to the media to teach the human population what physical and emotional intimacy looks like between partners.
Starting in middle school I began binge-watching episodes of “Sex and The City”, whenever I was home sick with the stomach bug or a runny nose. The 1990’s phenomenon followed the lives of four Manhattan women, focusing primarily on the love saga between Carrie and Big. Their hot and cold romance kept my eyes glued to the screen, and while their affection was not always mutual, there was a key difference in their methods of pursuit. If Carrie desired Big, and he did not feel the same, she left him alone. However, if Big desired Carrie, and she did not want him in return, he waited outside her apartment, he followed her to Europe, and he wrote her endless love emails. Writing that sentence it’s clear to me that Big’s behavior was creepy. However, when watching the show I, along with many other women not only failed to recognize the problematic nature of this relationship, I proceeded to romanticize it.
Next, let’s look at the Notebook. A Nicholas Sparks novel turned iconic film follows the ‘romance’ of Noah and Allie. However, to get Allie to agree to a date with him, Noah climbs a Ferris wheel, asks her out, and threatens to let go and plummet several stories if she is to say no. Some of you may be saying this scene was all in good fun, and no one would really scale a Ferris wheel and threaten their death if the object of their desire wasn’t interested. Many of you would probably say the same thing about Big, as who has the money, time, or guts to follow their crush internationally. And on a certain level that’s true: grand gestures in media rarely happen in reality. However, both of these love stories end with the guy getting the girl, and so audiences are left with a very perverted message. These acts of sexual harassment are not only acceptable acts of affection, but they’re effective ones too. In summary: To get the girl you can’t take no for answer.
Now, I haven’t been staked, or sent dozens of flowers asking for forgiveness, or been bombarded with voicemails from potential suitors. However, a few weekends ago, while being blinded by strobe lights at a club in California, I reconnected with a guy who I had met through a mutual friend. Let’s call him “Carl”.
Carl seemed nice enough- so I journeyed back to his place, settled in on his couch, and the two of us started browsing for something to watch. I’m well aware that an invite to go back to someone’s room and watch TV is very rarely an opportunity to bond over your mutual love of Netflix Originals. However, when a glorified strangers lips practically jump you before a show’s theme song has even ended, it can feel a little jarring, especially when that’s not something you had in mind.
I want to make clear that it wasn’t Carl’s attempt at a Netflix makeout session that disturbed me. We had kissed prior, so it wasn’t unreasonable of him to think I’d want to do it again. The problem lied in his response, as when I pulled away and said I just wanted to watch the show, he grabbed my chin, put his lips close to mine, and whispered that we could watch TV after having sex.
Carl like many of us learned about heterosexual relationships from Hollywood. As discussed above, ‘the don’t take no for an answer’ technique is everywhere. And so when I declined his advances yet again, Carl’s response of, “What? Why not? So what are we going to do instead?” was practically scripted.
While I eventually became fed up with Carl’s antics and left, there was a part of me that felt I had been the one in the wrong. After declining him a second time he appeared genuinely shocked, and his voice wreaked of annoyance, as if it bewildered him that my decision was up for discussion. As if I had inconvenienced or insulted him by saying I didn’t want to.
Carl, just like Noah and Big, assumed that if he were persistent enough I would eventually ‘give in’. Not only because of his charm, and supposed good looks, but because Hollywood perpetuates the false idea that no means “convince me to say yes”. This romanticization of a twisted pursuit is perverted and manipulative, and flat out gross. However, it is also quite common. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been coerced into being with a guy or at least been made to feel guilty for saying no. Girls are demonized for declining prom invites, or sexual advances, or even a simple ride home, and it only worsens as they become women.
This is not to say that men are always the coercers and women are always the ones being coerced, as both parties can lie on any part of the gender spectrum. However, on-screen romances often give men the idea that they are entitled to a women’s body and love and desire. It also leads women to believe that they owe a man something.
However, let me make something very clear: you do not owe anyone anything. You do not have to justify your decision to opt-out. Saying the word “no” is never something you should feel obligated to apologize for, and for those who are granted permission to touch, love, or desire you- they are guests in your home. A home where you make the rules, you decide the guest list, and above all else, you should feel comfortable.