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What Consent Actually Looks Like

by | Abuse Literacy

What Consent Actually Looks Like

Have you said yes to a sexual experience because you were afraid of what would happen if you said no?

Have you initially said no, but eventually given in because of his behavior? Whether it was sulking, violence, or spiritual abuse?

These situations, including many more, are not examples of consent.

They’re examples of victims experiencing sexual coercion.

It’s time to talk about what consent actually looks like.

Elizabeth is on the BTR Podcast sharing her story publicly for the very first time. A victim of every form of abuse, Elizabeth’s voice is powerful as she shares her story of recognizing and freeing herself from sexual coercion. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR podcast for more.

What Consent is NOT

Many victims of sexual coercion are conditioned to believe that if they aren’t screaming and fighting, they are giving their consent to a sexual experience.

It’s essential that women (and men) understand what consent is not.

Consent is not:

  • Saying yes out of fear of negative repercussions, including violence, sulking, neglect, blackmail, etc.
  • Saying yes now because you know that if you say no, you will just have to say yes tomorrow or another time.
  • Saying yes because it is your duty.
  • Saying yes because you already “began” and he has made it clear that it would be unfair to stop before he is finished.
  • Saying yes because clergy, therapists, or others have counseled you to be more sexual.
  • Saying yes to protect your children, pets, belongings, or others.
  • Simply allowing the sexual experience to occur, when you do not want it.
  • Saying yes (or allowing it to happen) after saying no repeatedly.
  • Saying yes after being spiritually abused.
  • Saying yes to avoid financial punishment.

This list is not extensive, but may help victims identify situations where they have been or are being sexually coerced.

Consent Is Not ‘We’ve Started, Now We Can’t Stop’

At BTR, many women, including Elizabeth, have experienced a similar type of sexual coercion. Abusers use the “we already started having sex, now we can’t stop” manipulative tactic when victims try to escape the sexual relationship:

I wanted to do what got asked of me, but I also was feeling like, well, it had happened so now I can’t stop. That was the message I was getting from him, that we’ve started, we’re basically married now, so we can’t stop having sex.

Elizabeth, member of the BTR.ORG Community

Add to that a dose of religious and spiritual abuse, and many victims feel locked in to daily sexual coercion and abuse.

So Then, What Does Consent Actually Look Like?

At BTR, we define consent as an enthusiastic, ongoing, “yes” based on the full extent of information they need in order to give their enthusiastic, ongoing “yes”. They know that their “yes” can be taken back at any moment, for any reason, without fear of negative repercussions.

If you are in a relationship where you are experiencing sexual coercion, BTR.ORG is here for you.

Our daily, live Group Sessions are a safe place for you to process trauma, ask questions, and receive the support that you need as you work toward safety. Join us today.

Full Transcript:

Anne (00:00):
Welcome to BTR. This is Anne.
I have a member of our community, Elizabeth, on today’s episode. She’s a wife and mom and a survivor of a 14 year abusive marriage. She’s a writer, working in the advertising industry outside of her career. Elizabeth works as a grant writer for Human Trafficking Restoration House and as a leader for her church youth group. She enjoys working out, being outside, and caring for her very energetic German shepherd. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth (03:49):
Thank you so much for having me

Anne (03:51):
Now, before we pushed record on this episode, Elizabeth was talking about how this is an opportunity for her to sort of process her experience. I’m excited to be part of that process with her and hopefully this will be a good experience as she shares. Is this one of the first times you’ve shared your story publicly, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth (04:11):
Yes. It’s the very first time and there’s very few people in my life that I’ve shared the full experience with.

Anne (04:16):
Mm, okay. So we are really honored to hear your story today. Let’s start at like the very beginning. Let’s talk about your childhood and how that influenced your marriage later on.

Elizabeth’s Background

Elizabeth (04:28):
Yeah. You know, looking back now, it’s so clear to me how everything, you know, growing up, set me up for what eventually happened later. So my parents actually married, they were a part of an arranged marriage through a cult. It was the Unification Church. They were married in Madison Square Garden with a bunch of other people. And they went on to have five kids. I’m the second oldest, I have two brothers and two sisters and growing up, it was just a lot of chaos. My parents were not in a good space emotionally, mentally. They both had rough upbringings and especially my mom was overtly, mentally ill and also had a lot of physical problems. So we were kind of left on our own a lot. The five of us sort of banded together and really worked together to survive. And a lot of times there were conversations about like, what’s mom’s mood today and like always watching, you know, what she was feeling because if things were not going well for her, that meant bad things for us.


So there was a lot of just mental abuse, physical abuse, that happened in that situation. And my dad worked on Capitol Hill in the eighties. We were out in West Virginia in the panhandle. And so he would commute into Washington DC and sort of leave us out there in the country and the side of a mountain with my mom who was homeschooling us. So we didn’t really have a lot of contact with the outside world other than like we would go to playgroup sometimes. But I always had this sense that there was these other families that were normal. Like their mom, you know, like seemed to like care for their kids and you know, would actually do things for their kids. But we always were doing things for ourselves. So like we would go to a play group and my older sister and I would pack the lunches, you know, just simple things like that.

TW: Child Abuse in the Home

Like I remember growing up and like, my job was to serve my mom coffee in bed. So that was just sort of like normal, but like I would look at other families and it just always felt like we were so different. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of involvement with Unification Church. When we were living in West Virginia, we ended up going to an evangelical church and that was sort of a refuge for me. And I remember going to church camp and I had become a believer at a church event at age seven. So I was a Christian and I wanted to follow God, but it always felt like I was somehow doing something wrong. I was confused. I could never, ever get my mom’s approval. There was just a lot of pain and chaos and confusion. So around 10, my dad is originally from the Midwest, so we ended up moving to the Midwest, you know, he grew up and his family was still there and that was sort of the start of things really going downhill shortly after we moved out there, my parents separated and my dad left. So that meant we had no buffer between ourselves and our mom.

TW: Attempted Suicide

So my mom would keep my older sister and I up late and accuse us of awful things and make us feel like we were to blame because our dad had left. There was just constant chaos. Like she would physically abuse us. Like, you know, I remember washing the dishes one day and she just came up behind me and smacked me across the head because I wasn’t doing it the right way. And that was a big theme, is like, I could never do things exactly the way she wanted them, but she had never taught me how she wanted me to do them.


So there was just a lot of shame in that, that I couldn’t ever figure out what my mom wanted, but she cut our hair, you know, as a punishment, one day, one night when we were staying up late and she was really angry at us, she started sawing at her wrists and that actually happened twice where she tried to commit suicide in front of us. So we were going to a church and pretty involved with the youth group there. And my youth pastor one day talked to my dad who we were still in contact with, but obviously weren’t living with and said, you need to go get custody of those kids. Because my older sister had basically shared what was going on. There was a torn nightgown that my mom had basically torn off of her body or something to that effect. So there was some evidence of what had happened. So my dad ended up going to get custody of us and we moved in with him and I was about 11 or 12. So that was something,

TW: Family Court

Anne (09:03):
Did he get custody relatively easily?

Elizabeth (09:05):
There was a trial, a court hearing. And what happened was my mom basically was not in a good mental space to, I think, be able to fight for us and my dad, I don’t remember this very well, but my dad says that even her attorney said, you know, she should probably go with her dad. I remember my older sister and I were in the judge’s chambers and he had us go over to the window and wave at our parents. And I didn’t understand why at the time, but I think he was looking at our body language when we were doing that. So I guess that had something to do with it as well –

Anne (09:41):
Custody by waving. Sorry, I’ve never heard of that before.

Elizabeth (09:45):
I know looking back now as an adult, I’m sure that there were other things that were going on as well, as far as evidence and all of that, but I don’t remember it. So we had been homeschooled. Like I said, it wasn’t always very well done. Um, just because there was so much chaos and there was a lot of trauma involved with having been homeschooled by my mom. I remember trying to learn to read the word turtle and I could not figure it out. And you know, she started physically assaulting me basically because I couldn’t read this word and another time I had accidentally, well, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Actually I was learning fractions and I filled out a pie chart in crayon, but I was riding on a surface that was kind of bumpy. And so the other parts that I had written in pencil also looked like they were in crayon, ’cause it was kind of bumpy.

TW: Emotional Abuse


And she got so mad at me because I had written in crayon the whole thing. And so she like basically screamed at me and then made me go back. And so I kind of scratched the crayon off of my pie chart, but when I took it back to her, she said, oh, that was actually okay. The rest of it was done in crayon. And I said, no, it was in pencil. And it just looks textured or whatever. And she kind of like blew it off and didn’t apologize. And you know, I felt that I had actually been right all along, but it didn’t matter. So I got put into middle school at the last quarter of seventh grade living with my dad and I’d always kind of wanted to go to public school. It kind of felt really cool. Like, oh, they get to have lockers and stuff like that.


But that was something that I’m just not realizing how dramatic that was because, you know, I had never been around kids like that. They knew all these really funny sayings and words that I didn’t know, and I could read better than them, but they said that I was slow because I just didn’t understand what they were saying. It was like they were speaking a different language. So I just remember at that time, just this sort of this growing need in me just for acceptance. And, but at the same time feeling a lot of shame and rejection, and like I was different again than everyone else. And everyone else seemed to have, you know, their lives together. But meanwhile, I had, you know, I was living with my dad in this very small house with my four brothers and sisters going through puberty at the same time, not having really any support because my dad is overwhelmed and you know, was dealing with his own problems as well.

Seeking Acceptance in High School


And so high school was a little bit better. I got involved with soccer and newspaper and writing, but at the same time I had friends that looking back, you know, were not healthy, would sort of make fun of me, but I was always just trying to win their approval. And I had this sort of mentality that, you know, my childhood wasn’t that bad. Obviously I was fine. It was a long time ago. I had moved on and was just trying to do my best and obviously was okay, so all throughout high school, I just, I really wanted a boyfriend. That seemed like to me like the ultimate symbol of acceptance. And unfortunately I was just sort of awkward and out there and didn’t really seem like, you know, there was a lot of interest from other people in me that way.

Getting a Boyfriend


So I would say that I was definitely desperate for attention. I graduated high school and was gonna go on to journalism school and be a writer. The summer after my graduation, I met a boy who I had known in the past through church, he was a friend of a friend who would come to church sometimes. And I kind of went to this birthday party where he was at and he was different and sort of grown up and we started hanging out and a month later we were dating. I finally had a boyfriend, someone who actually liked me, and to make things even better, his family was still together. His parents were together. His mom worked at a church and his mom was really involved with their lives. She would like do my laundry. So I would come home from college and stay with them over the weekend and she would do my laundry.

Noticing Red Flags


And it was like, I had been doing my own laundry since I was 13. And even before that, even when I was living with my mom, she would threaten to not let me use the washing machine and have to hang my clothes outside to get washed. Um, the fact that his mom was so involved was something spectacular for me. And I do remember, you know, talk about red flags. The first time I ever met his mom, she was in his room, changing his sheets. Now he was 17. We all kind of went downstairs and there was a bunch of us friends and he was like snapping at her to get out of his room. And I was sort of impressed. I didn’t think that you should talk to your parents like that, but I was also sort of impressed that he could do that. And she accepted that without it causing a huge blow up. I could never have an attitude with my mom like that of I wanted, you know, not to be smacked or something in the face.

Anne (15:04):
So to you, did it sort of signal a good relationship?

Elizabeth (15:07):
Kind of yeah. Yeah.

Anne (15:09):
Due to your experience, right?

Understanding Sexual Coercion

Elizabeth (15:11):
Yes. That seemed like something that was accepting, or like they could actually sort of, I don’t know, go back and forth instead of it just escalating into this awful scene. So yeah, you’re right. It was sort of, for all, I knew a healthy way of interacting. So I was a freshman and he was still finishing up in high school. He was two months younger than me and it just so happened to be around the cutoff date for grade levels. So he was in the delayed entry program to join the army. That’s what he was gonna do. And we just grew really, really close, really fast. And unfortunately that was escalated by sexual intimacy. That was way too premature, you know, and here I am a Christian and I’m having sex with my boyfriend feeling very guilty, because I knew better and wanted to do what got asked of me, but also feeling like, well, it had happened so now I can’t stop. And that was also the message I was getting from him, that we’ve started, we’re basically married now, so we can’t stop having sex.

Anne (16:21):
So this is what he told you? And that logic made sense to you at the time, right? With your experience. The reason why I say that is because you didn’t know at the time it was coercion. That’s why coercion works. I just wanna pause and let everybody know that the reason why coercion works is because for victims of coercion, it does make sense on some level. And so, because it makes sense, you think you’re consenting or you think, oh yeah, I decided to do this, but really that was the purpose of the coercion. That was the purpose of the manipulation. So I just wanna pause there. Did you also think you were “basically married”? Was that logical to you?

“All of Those Added up To Me… Just Going Along With What He Wanted”

Elizabeth (17:04):
Well, so that’s an example of it. Not exactly sounding right, but sort of entering into his world and his logic, which would end up being a long term problem down the road. Like we were living in our own world. People just didn’t understand us. And he always had an explanation for why he did things or why we should do certain things that sort of made sense. And I really wanted him to like me and I really liked him and I was again desperate, so that all of those combined added up to basically me putting aside whatever reservations I had and just going along with what he wanted, because another underlying issue here was just a lack of close support. So my dad at this time had remarried and I had three younger siblings and they were still living at home and there was just this sense that I was sort of a bother to them because they were sort of remarried.

Using Religion to Justify Sexual Abuse


They were dealing with my younger siblings and I just wanted to get out of the way and not feel like they needed to take care of me. You know, they didn’t wanna take care of me. They weren’t capable or they didn’t have the capacity to offer that kind of support. So I would come home and stay with my boyfriend’s family and maybe go over there. But they didn’t just didn’t seem like they were that interested in my life. But in the meantime I was getting very much ingrained with his family. I remember one time saying I really am not, I’m not okay with us being sexually intimate anymore. I wanna stop. And he basically said to me, show me in the Bible where it says that. And me not really, like I wanted to go flip through my Bible and find a verse, but I didn’t know what to, you know, where to look or how to interpret that. And so I just didn’t know what to do. And without, uh, someone behind me saying, oh, this is why that’s wrong. And you are very right to say it’s okay if you wanna stop – I just didn’t have the will. I just didn’t have the ability to say no.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne (19:09):
I’m gonna take a break here for just a second to talk about my book Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which also has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. Trauma Mama Husband Drama is a picture book for adults. So it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it. It’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations as well as infographics at the back.

“It Wasn’t Your Fault”

Anne (20:10):
What you didn’t have is understanding. I really want people to understand that they were sort of gaslit by society. Gaslit maybe by their church unknowingly. Gas lit by their abuser. Right? And so when you’re in that fog of abuse, you just, you don’t have the ability, but only because you don’t have the knowledge. Once you get educated about it, it’s like, mm-hmm, I can kind of take a step toward that, but I just don’t want victims to blame themselves. It’s kind of the opposite. I’m trying to say it wasn’t your fault. You were capable, but I guess I should be saying you’re right. You weren’t capable.

Elizabeth (20:47):
I just didn’t know better.

Anne (20:48):
Well, that’s what I’m trying to say. Like there’s nothing that you could have done at the time because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so when you don’t know what you don’t know, there’s no way to get out of that.

Elizabeth (21:00):
Exactly. And when I finally did, I couldn’t go back.

Anne (21:07):
Right? We’ll get to that soon. Yes.

When Victims Take Protective Action and Look “Crazy”

Elizabeth (21:09):
Yes. we, um, my freshman year I was at a big university. I was so obsessed with my boyfriend. You know, he would come down at every opportunity and I just didn’t get involved and I would go to classes, but come back so I could talk to him. And occasionally we would get into fights. Like one time his, he told his younger brother when I was at their house to come at me with this bath mat that it, the dog had peed on. And I was so mad. I was taking out my anger on his younger brother. And so I was like, why would you do that? And, and I was just really angry. His whole family got mad at me. I had crossed a line and I was so embarrassed and mortified. I just kind of withdrew and I didn’t take his calls.
I was like, we’re done, you know, he was egging his brother on and now I’m the one to blame, um, because of how I reacted, which wasn’t good either.

But I also remember feeling at that point, like, okay, I’m gonna break up with him. And then him talking to me and somehow feeling like I had no choice again, I had to stay with him. You know, it was a lonely world out there and you know, I had become part of his family and if I wasn’t part of his family, I didn’t have anyone. So I sort of forgave and forgot. There was no apology from his little brother. There was no apology from his family or from him. It was just let’s move on. And again, another theme that would emerge later on. So like I said, he was gonna join the army right after high school gonna go ship off to basic training.

Marrying the Abuser


And I decided that I was going to also join the army and I was gonna join the reserves. And we would go to basic training at the same time and everything would be great because I could transfer to a unit by wherever he is once he’s in the army and I could get my college paid for, which was a big deal because I had taken out loans in order to pay for my first year of school. So we started talking about getting married and it was always sort of brewing in the background because like I said, one of his arguments was that he thought we were already married basically because we’d been having sex. And so I was like, well, we might as well just formalize this. And so we decided that we would get married a couple weeks before we would both leave for basic training.


And we did. I remember walking down the aisle, you know, meeting my dad at, at the back of the church and going down the aisle and just feeling this sense of dread, not knowing what I was getting myself into, but also feeling like it was way too late. It certainly wasn’t a big wedding, but here all these people were. And I had to keep going. When I said my vows, I genuinely meant them. I really wanted to take care of him. I really wanted to be a family with him. I always remembered that throughout our marriage. But a couple weeks later I was set to ship out for bootcamp. And the military has learned the hard way that you give female recruits a pregnancy test before they leave for basic training. And I was the one that found out I was pregnant at the military processing station.

Anne (24:28):
Oh wow.

When Elizabeth Found Out She Was Pregnant

Elizabeth (24:30):
I don’t know when I’d actually gotten pregnant. It was before we’d gotten married, but I didn’t know that when I got married, all I knew that I was not feeling good. So they give you an option to basically nullify all of your contracts with the military or, you know, to stay in and go to training later. And I decided just to nullify everything and set my life on a new trajectory, he ended up shipping out just the same and went to training over that summer. And, and that fall, I went down and watched his graduation

Anne (25:04):
How did you feel when that happened? Did you feel happy, excited, sad? Did you feel confused?

Experiencing Shame As a Result of Abuse

Elizabeth (25:14):
I was in shock and there was also a sense of guilt because this is the natural result of doing what I had done the last eight months. And so , there’s a lot of shame as well. And so I made it a point to pretend like I’d gotten pregnant on our wedding night or something like that, just because of, of the shame also from, you know, a church environment that I’d grown up in and knowing very well that I was not fulfilling those expectations. And so basically lied for quite a while. So we moved to a base and I ended up having our son two months after we moved there.

Anne (25:59):
I’m so grateful that you’re sharing your story and how you felt, so many women have been sexually coerced like this have felt. They haven’t understood that they were being sexually coerced, first of all. And then maybe they do get pregnant or something. And so then they feel like they have to get married or then they also kind of wanna get married. So there’s these like conflicting feelings.

Abusers Use Victims’ Emotions To Manipulate and Control Them


Then the end result is usually that they aren’t able to get help because they aren’t able to tell other people what’s really going on. That’s sort of the end result, which is what your abuser wants. Right. But you don’t know that at the time, you just think you’re protecting yourself from embarrassment or whatever. And I, I think abusers know this and they use it against you, even if they don’t know it consciously, it’s a way that they end up manipulating their victims and that has happened to all of us. So I think that’s important to point out.

Elizabeth (26:54):
Yes, exactly. So I had my son and he became sort of the focus of my world. This was during the early stages of the Iraq war and my husband deployed to Iraq a year after my son was born. I ended up moving back to where we were from and going to college, but also just taking care of our son. And he ended up getting hurt and came home early, got a purple heart and all of that.


So I was taking care of him and he eventually got out of the army and we brought our life home to hometown and, and I finished college and I got a job.

Anne (27:40):
Really quickly. Is his injury like a long term type of injury that’s gonna affect him the rest of his life, or is this sort of a short term injury situation?

Elizabeth (27:52):
He had, um, some, some bad burns that eventually did heal up and he had a fractured hip that I think still does give him problems, but you would not know to look at him that he had been through that. So I will say though, that it sort of became his identity, so his service and all of that, which was obviously, you know, a good thing, but it became sort of this persona that he took on that is very much honored by people around him that was sort of used against me later on, which I can get to.

Anne (28:27):
Mm-hmm . Gotcha. Okay. I just wanted to know, like, was this something where he was maybe in a wheelchair or something.

“I Was Constantly Degraded and Put Down”


Elizabeth:

He was in a wheelchair for a while, but he was able to recover almost completely, I believe. Okay. Okay. We both attended college and ended up graduating before him and our son was getting ready for kindergarten. At that time, I was like talking about maybe homeschooling him, but the view of sort of my background and homeschooling in general was like, sort of looked down upon by him and his family just because they really just thought that my background was so crazy and ridiculous and shameful that, um, they didn’t want anything to do with it. And there was a lot of mocking that went on as well about it. So even though that was part of who I was, it wasn’t really welcome in that space.


I had worked as a reporter, but then I started working in communications and was really well regarded and able to, you know, know, use my abilities in a way that a lot of people saw, like it was very visible. It was very public roles in the legislature and in, in state government. So there was always this disconnect because here I was, I sort of had this important job. I’d go off, you know, in my fancy dress in the morning and go work for people who had a lot of influence, but I would come home and I was just constantly degraded and put down. And really there’s a lot of, like I said, mockery that went on about who I was and, you know, I sort of have this exuberant personality and you have a sense of humor and, and, but I was always regarded by him as not funny and just sort of stupid and too much.

“I Really Just Wanted to Have A Good Marriage”


And it was communicated to me in very subtle ways. That was the way he thought about me. But in the meantime, you know, I really just wanted to have a good marriage. And so I would read books about marriage, especially Christian books about marriage. And I would, you know, put those things into practice because I’m extremely self-aware, which I’m coming to understand is a trauma response. Well, that’s a whole other issue. And just trying so hard to be the wife that I wanted him to recognize me as, but it was never quite good enough. So one thing about him is that he’s a very picky eater and I love to cook and I love to serve other people. And so I would just make these meals, like he wanted like steak or, or like roast or something like that. And it was never quite good enough. He would kind of like put a bite in his mouth and he’d kind of like taste it and then like, have to say, oh, it’s okay. You know, maybe it could be done differently this time, this way next time.

Anne (31:24):
like a little bit of a condescending, like nice try honey, but kind of like that kind a thing.

“I Could Never, Ever Do Anything That Meant Anything to Him”

Elizabeth (31:33):
Um, it wasn’t even that sweet. So it was more like, like he would sort of like taste it in his mouth, like, and just, there was, you could just tell by his expression that there was something that was coming up short and I would just feel really sad, but I would resolve to try better. Next time I would just keep working to try to improve myself, whether that was my physical appearance or my abilities, or like working out. So I was a runner at the time. And I remember I had entered into the race, a 5k race in support of our son’s school. I ended up being the first place for the women’s division. There was a ton of people in the race, but there was still something that I was really excited about. I remember coming home and I have this medal and everything. And he’s like, well, when you beat my army PT score you’ll know you’ve really done something.


And I was just devastated because it just never was. I just never, ever could do anything that meant anything to him. I never was able to put my finger on what exactly was going on and why I could just never make him happy because all the marriage books that I was reading basically presented this formula. Like, you know, if you respect your husband enough, if you submit to him, if you do these things, he’s gonna love you back, or he’s going to, he’s gonna do his part. And it never worked for me. It never ever worked for me.

“This Is Not How Love Works”

Anne (33:01):
We’re gonna pause right here and continue talking about how this doesn’t work for anyone that this is not how love works. There’s not like some magical formula where you make dinner and they love you, which is ridiculous. So stay tuned, Elizabeth and I are going to pick up on our conversation next week. If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. And until next week stay safe out there.

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    This is just what I needed to hear to stay strong! Thank you for this amazing website!

    Reply

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