HARMLESS: On Nonconsensual Violence During Otherwise Consensual Sex

On our first and only date we went to see Coraline at the Port Chester movie theater and I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely frightening I’d find it. Afterward he held my hand at Panera Bread as we tried to make conversation about the glassy horror of Other Mother’s button eyes.

Neil smiled at me like he couldn’t believe his luck. I shifted on the vinyl cushion and wished he were someone else. We were 15.

The following Monday I asked if we could talk before play rehearsal. I told him I’d enjoyed our date but didn’t feel the same way for him as he did for me. He nodded sweetly. Things were awkward for a while. Then he met another girl and I found another boy to chase.


I was the easy girl in high school. I would make out with you in the backseat of your Saab in plain view of the rest of the party. I would climb over storage bins of old ball gowns in the costume closet and let you stuff your hand up my shirt. I would sit next to you in the sound booth and make eyes at you until you relented and left a hickey on my shoulder that resembled a shark bite and horrified my parents.

I wanted to grind against the delicious denim of your thigh. I wanted friction.

I also wanted to be loved and chosen, but I balked at the clingy syrup of teenage romance. Too many boys confused partnership with possession, wanting me to sit quietly in their laps as proof of their virility. When I had to choose, I’d rather someone lick sweat from my breastbone in the guest room at a cast party.

Teenage girls were not supposed to behave like me. I was “boy crazy,” and then I was “slutty,” and then a boy I broke up with two weeks into our relationship called me a “whore” in front of our friends. No one defended me because it was only a joke. No one laughed, either.

That wouldn’t do. I sketched a superhero logo for myself: WHORELLA, spelled out in little condom wrappers.

It didn’t matter that I’d never had sex. I wanted to have sex. That made me worse than the cute sophomore girlfriends who dated senior boys and relented to pressure and lost their virginities too young in the candlelight.

Looking back I am sad for myself, and sad for those too-young girls who called me a “boyfriend stealer” behind their scripts at rehearsal. I am not as sad for their boyfriends who got me drunk and stuck their tongues down my throat.


My junior year of college, Neil and I were the only kids from our high school friend group whose winter breaks overlapped. We got Carvel ice cream and drove around our hometown talking about science fiction.

After his parents fell asleep, we snuck into his bedroom and listened to Pandora. We snuggled, wrapped up like newborn puppies in each other’s warmth. He smelled like boy and new muscle and winter.

He had a girlfriend who he didn’t see enough during the semester, busy with labs and seminars. She didn’t exist to me—she was far away, not here, not in this cozy bedroom with his lips kissing my hair.

Neil rubbed patterns against the skin of my stomach. His fingers drifted under my shirt on the edge of platonic. I could feel the hard length of his erection against my jeans. Girlfriend, I reminded myself. Gentleman. Don’t you dare, Ella.

His face lay close to mine on the pillow and he murmured something about being cute, getting hotter since high school. I whispered about self-control. I knew he would kiss me back if I closed the space between us. I understood that he wanted me to make the decision for him.

I wasn’t in high school anymore. I wanted to be chosen.


A week before spring semester started and we went back to our separate lives, we fell asleep together. I woke up around two in the morning with his fingers clasped around mine. Usually I had trouble sleeping so deeply with another person and it made me wonder if I was falling for him, this sweet kid who I’d known since we were children.

When would I ever be this close to him again, sedate and entwined? I kept thinking about our date all those years ago, what a massive mistake I’d made not recognizing his value at 15. He always remembered my birthday. He always bought me the most expensive cupcake at the bakery.

I wanted different things as a teenager. I was ready now.

I twisted toward him on the pillow, rested my forehead against his, our lips almost but not quite touching. “I need to go home soon,” I whispered.

Alertness swept his body. “That’s how you wake someone up?” he asked, eyes open and searing. I apologized, mortified that my come-on had backfired, but his hand tightened at my hip as he dragged me against him.

“Maybe I won’t drive you home,” he threatened.

Everything in me wanted to kiss him but I didn’t want it like this. I wanted him to be with me fully, to worship my skin and my hands and my mouth and think only of me.

I wanted to be a good decision at the right time. Neil would be my best decision, the nicest guy.

“Is that really what you want?” I asked.

He groaned and rolled away to stare at the ceiling. I played with his fingers still caught in mine. “You are scary,” he told me.

“No.” I shook my head. “It’s not just me.”

As I drove home, he texted me that if I managed to seduce him, it would be because he wanted me to.


Our emotional affair wasn’t discrete. He told his best friend and I told my best friend and they both thought we were making a mistake. Lucy always looked at me with such admiration but now her lips curled with disapproval. She didn’t need to say why. Neil had a girlfriend.

I didn’t care about his girlfriend. I wanted to fall in love with him.

When he did kiss me, finally, slow and savoring and almost not there at all… I felt beautiful. His nails grazed my back in careful torture.

I tried to pull his shirt up over his stomach but he drew away. Guilt wrote itself across his face.

And that was the end of that.


Two years later, the girlfriend had left the equation. We sat kitty-corner at the bar and felt no guilt as our knees touched. I watched his arms flex beneath his sleeves and his eyes caught on my sliver of cleavage. Alone in my car, someone grabbed someone else and that kiss was brilliant and urgent because this was finally, finally happening.

We’d lost the romance that once drenched our furtive touches but I didn’t need a love affair. I’d already had my first great love and now I craved light adventure, sexual tension shot through with friendship and security. That my singledom overlapped with Neil’s felt fated. At long last we were equally matched and equally free. I could feel everything I wanted to feel for him without secrecy or shame.

We returned to his bedroom, unchanged since 2013. He kissed down my stomach, nipped at my thighs, and I begged. It had been months since someone went down on me—my herpes status scared some people off from oral sex. Neil didn’t care; he’d known me before herpes, before I even lost my virginity.

When I came, I laughed. We both kept smiling.

We were having fun. True fun. Childhood friends playing, adults enjoying each other, kindness chasing lust up our spines. He kept calling me my dear as he sliced his hands into my hair. I liked the electric pain of that, how my scalp singed when he pulled.

“You can be rough with me,” I must have said. I liked it when he bit my shoulder. There was no violence in it, only joy. And then he slid inside of me, thank goodness, at long last.

He slapped me hard across the face and I am gone.

I am no longer here in my body. I am somewhere else.


I buried it. I didn’t think about it. We were high school friends, we were friends who slept together, we watched Archer and talked about string theory and ate ice cream. We once played a married couple in a Shakespeare play and drank lukewarm Diet Coke as we waited for our call time. We rang in so many new years with our friends, Lucy and Riley and Ella and Neil, his kiss pressed to my cheek as my eyes lit up.

We slept together one more time. He visited me at my first apartment in Brooklyn and curled his body around mine in that brand new IKEA bed. I bragged about building it with my bare hands. In the morning we got bagels and I walked him to the C train.

He didn’t hit me again—it was just something we’d tried and didn’t like, never acknowledged or discussed. I didn’t say anything about it. It was fine. Really, it was.


I started dating someone. Neil and I went back to being friends, or at least we tried to. He couldn’t hold a conversation with me anymore. We ate dinner in silence at a restaurant near my office. I sat beside him on the baseball field near his parents’ house and searched my mind for gossip about mutual friends—to say something, say anything. To remember that we were friends once, before we slept together, before our shared wavelength disconnected.

I asked Lucy about the awkwardness. She sucked on her teeth. “He can’t be friends with women he’s slept with,”she said. “He’s always been like that. I told you not to.”

I thought of his palm against my cheek, the way my head snapped sharply to the side. My skin stinging. How much it hurt.


Lucy threw a party. My boyfriend and I walked over together, our fingers interlocked. James wore my favorite blue blazer and didn’t complain about tagging along to another mid-twenties birthday rager. “You’re such a softie,” he liked to tease me, entertained by the contrast between my public image as a sex writer and who I was with him. I shoved him in the side and laughed, blushing madly.

Humidity clung to the walls of Lucy’s dark apartment. The living room had no windows, only laughing bodies of people I didn’t know. Lucy greeted us with solo cups and sharpies to write our names.

“I have a surprise for you!” she said. Neil and Riley stood behind her, manic smiles on their faces.

“It’s been so long,” Riley said.

Neil gave me a hug and shook James’s hand firmly.

I am gone. I am no longer here in my body. I am somewhere else.


My boyfriend hustled me out of the party. I leaned over the sidewalk and rested my hands on my knees, shame rippling up my throat. I was so fucking embarrassed. I couldn’t identify it, I couldn’t explain it. This was no simple panic attack. I felt struck.

James rubbed comforting circles across my back. “Why are you so upset?”

I babbled. Me too. The Kavanaugh hearings. My bad reputation in high school. Riley implying I was a slut at some party a million years ago. The disappointment on Lucy’s face. Neil’s tight v-neck and how he acted like nothing ever happened because it didn’t even register for him, it was a sex move, it was just play. Never mind that we didn’t talk about ground rules in advance, that I didn’t ask him to hit me, that he didn’t ask if he could.

Rough, I told him. That was all. I meant teeth and hair and his body pressing me firmly into the mattress, his hips snapping as he drove into me. I didn’t mean—I didn’t want—


I don’t know how Neil saw me. I don’t know why he hit me. I could probably talk to him about it; every so often he asks me how I am on Facebook Messenger and I stare at the notification and wonder if I’m a bad person.

I could tell him that he hurt me when he hit me, and that it took years to stop repressing the memory and admit it to myself. He would apologize. He’s still the boy who took me to see Coraline at the Port Chester movie theater. He never meant to be disrespectful.

I was the easy girl you knew from high school. I would cuddle up with you in your bed even though you had a girlfriend and pretend it wasn’t wrong as long as I didn’t kiss you. I would kiss you and slide my hands up your shirt and take every scrap of your affection I could get. I would hang around and hang around and hang around in case you changed your mind, in case your circumstances changed, in case you decided that you wanted a different flavor of woman.

Boy crazy slutty whore. Boyfriend stealer. Maybe that girl likes being slapped.

Maybe people think she deserves it.


This essay originally appeared on Patreon. To join my Patreon community and read more of my writing about intimacy, relationships and sexual violence, click here.

Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash.


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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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