The recent wave of harassment allegations has increasingly exposed the way a distinct power imbalance can blur the boundary of consent. If you didn’t initiate a sexual encounter with a powerful man, but didn’t protest his advances, is he clear of any wrongdoing? What if you didn’t say no, but didn’t like what happened either? If you acquiesced at the time, but feel sick thinking about it now? In the post-Weinstein era, many women are reflecting and asking themselves these questions, and more. “I’ve been finding myself raging angry,” says Alicia, 38, who in her early 20s was in what she calls an “uncomfortable” relationship with a senior colleague. “But I don’t want to say anything, because it’s so embarrassing that I didn’t say no.”
The Cut spoke with five women who are seeing their experiences with bosses, mentors, or teachers differently today. There are a few common threads: The women were all under 22 when the relationships began; they were approached by men who were older, sometimes by decades; and they considered their relationships to be consensual at the time. Here are their stories.
“I’d convinced myself that I was irresistible to him, which was really intoxicating.” — Lauren, 34
I was 19 and I got an internship at a record label. The boss was in his late 30s and was this hot-shot executive who was totally self-made. I admired him, and I wanted him to like me.
One day, he called all the interns into his office to listen to a new song. There were a bunch of us in the room, but he singled me out and asked me what I thought. I felt special.
Not long after, he gave me his personal phone number and told me to call him, and we started having these long conversations after work, which would start with him saying things like, “What are you ambitions? I want to help you.” After a couple of weeks, he told me how pretty I looked and was leaving notes on my desk and taking me to dinner. Then one night he said, “You know what would be really great? If we had phone sex right now.” I can’t believe this now, but I did it. I was on the phone at my parents’ house and he asked me to tell him how big his dick was and then he came loudly into the phone. After I was like, “Okay, I have to go,” and I felt immediately regretful and dirty and like I had been backed into a corner.
Not long after, I was dropping something off in his office, and he said, “I really want to fuck you,” and how crazy it would be if we went to his apartment a few blocks away. I felt uncomfortable, but also like maybe this is something I wanted to do. Again, he had a ton of influence at the company, and I’d convinced myself that I was irresistible to him, which was really intoxicating.
We went to his place, and he did what he did, and didn’t really care about pleasing me. Then it was like, “Let’s go back to work,” and we went separately. This happened several times over the summer. Every time he told me he wanted to have sex, I would feel excited like, He really likes me. Then we’d sleep together and I’d go back to work and feel horrible. He was always sure to remind me, too, that if I did well that summer, I could go on to do a zillion things. It was all part of keeping me quiet.
At the end of the summer, I saw this other intern crying in the bathroom, and she told me that she had been seeing our boss and he had ended it with her. In my head I was like, What?!, but I never told her I’d been sleeping with him too. I just let the internship run its course, and I never spoke with him again. I also didn’t end up working in the music industry.
I’ve been thinking about that summer a lot lately, and I’m like, God, this guy was the biggest piece of shit, and he made me feel like a piece of shit. I have felt so ashamed about this, because I went along with it, but I do think it’s time to unpack some of that guilt. It’s not a coincidence that this guy and men like him go after women who are just starting out. I really felt at the time that he held my career in his hands.
“He was gross and old. But I wanted him to want to have sex with me.” — Sarah, 44
It was my junior year of college, and I was turning 21, and my theater professor was 56. He had been my professor since freshman year, so we were buddies. And he was the cool professor who partied with us. He was the guy who wore Converse and drank too much and was fun in class.
I lived off campus, and at some point I was walking to class, and I ran into him and from then on, we started walking together. The part I have to take ownership of is that — and this is still so confusing — yes, I wanted him to like me, but I didn’t want to have sex with him. He was gross and old. But I wanted him to want to have sex with me.
I would get better parts the more I hung out with him. Then one weekend, we went on a school trip, and we were all partying in his hotel room and I was really drunk and passed out on his bed. Apparently he told my best friends that I was fine, and so they left me there. When I woke up, he was having sex with me. It was awful. I felt like I was drunk and in his hotel room so I had basically consented. I am wise enough now to know that’s fucked-up.
After that trip, he started sending me letters and showing up at my house with gifts I didn’t want, and I did this weird teenage thing where I said, “Let’s just be friends.” He wouldn’t accept it, and so I felt forced into a relationship with him. He would invite me over and I felt like I couldn’t say no. Everyone had heard that we’d had sex at the hotel, and I was almost trying to take ownership of it. I didn’t want anyone to know that maybe someone had had sex with me without me knowing it.
There was one very short moment when he came over and nothing happened because my friends were there, and I thought it was cool that he liked me. Then he asked me to go over to his house, and I went, and he wanted to have sex again. I told him I had herpes, which was just something I said to get out of it. He was like, “Well, we’ll just do this then,” meaning oral sex, and I did it. There were only two times I ever had a sexual encounter with him and they were both horrific.
I stopped going to his class and he gave me an incomplete. It was so shady, like, just give me an F. But he wanted me to come to him and beg for a grade. He was wielding any control he had.
I didn’t have the language then to support how I felt. It’s been confusing to me for years, because I was there, I was a part of it, and now as time passes and we do hear more of this stuff, the more enlightened I get about it. I could cry right now, and I don’t ever cry, thinking about how I felt at that point in time.
“He looked at me and told me, ‘Thank God you’re not beautiful.’” — Sheila, 55
It was my first Christmas party in a corporate environment. I was 21, and I worked for this bank, and they threw the party that year in this big executive foyer.
After the party, there were only six or eight of us left and we were in the conference room with the lights off. Under the table, my boss’s boss started fondling my leg. Then we ran out of Champagne and I went to get more from the fridge, and he followed me and came right up behind me. I was leaning into the fridge, and he was up against my butt and he took down my panties and he was rubbing me and he put his finger in my vagina.
When he stopped touching me, we went back to the conference room and I said I had to go home and he said he would take me in a cab. I didn’t want that to happen, so I ran back into my office. But he found me and he dropped me off at my house and said he would call me the next day.
He didn’t call, and I was thinking, Oh shit, I’m going to lose my job. I didn’t come from anything. I was going to college at night. I wouldn’t have been able to pay my tuition and rent without that job.
Then at 6 p.m., he showed up at my door with a bottle of Champagne and I was like, The only way to keep my job is not to say anything and have sex with him. We had sex, and I felt relieved when he left.
A couple of months later, we were leaving the bank at the same time, and we got into the elevator alone and he started fondling me. He asked if he could come over on Saturday morning, and that became our thing. It was always just sex, and the sex was good.
This went on for a few years. Then one day he said to me, “Thank God you’re not beautiful.” And when I asked why, he said, “Well, beautiful women get whatever they want, and they don’t work toward things. They don’t have to.” After that, it slowed down a lot. I didn’t really want to be near him at all. I’d always wondered, Why did he pick me? It was because he thought I was easy pickings.
Luckily, I got into business school, so I had a way out. Years later, I got a big job at a well-known company, and other men I’d worked with at the bank reached out to say they were happy for my successes. But not him.
“I felt dirty and ashamed. But also, I’m a people-pleaser.” — Alicia, 38
I was in college and had an internship at a newspaper that stretched over two summers. The first summer, there was an editor who would bring me articles he thought I should read and give me feedback on my pieces. He was by far the best writer on staff, and so it was such a compliment for him to be taking an interest in my work. The second summer, I had an internship somewhere else, but it fell through at the last minute. The editor requested to bring me back, and it felt like a huge gift, so I felt like I was in debt to him.
On the last day of the internship, he kept me late going over edits for a feature I was writing, and the next thing I knew, it was midnight. He walked me to my car, which under normal circumstances would have been perfectly acceptable. But then he kissed me. I remember thinking, Ew, this is gross. He was about 20 years older than me, so I felt dirty and ashamed that this was happening. But also, I’m a people-pleaser. Here was somebody who had just spent all this time fine-tuning a story I’d written. I felt almost ungrateful.
I got a phone call from him before I left to go back to college. I think he was panicked, like, “Are you going to freak out?” My predisposition to always want to make people feel comfortable led me to say something like, “Oh, everything is fine!”
When I was home for break that Christmas, the newspaper asked me to come in. I got called out to my first murder scene, and when I came back, he called me into his office, which was in the back of the newsroom. He asked all the questions an editor should ask, and then when we got through the whole thing he was like, “Just sit on my lap.” I remember thinking, No. I didn’t say that though. And he was insistent. The managing editor, who was the head of the newsroom, walked in. This was someone who had known me since I was quite literally a child. We went to the same church. He saw me, and he kind of physically jumped back. And then he walked away. I was mortified.
When I got back to school, the editor started writing me daily poems, which he followed up with articles he thought I should read. He knew I loved journalism, and he would find ways to give me assignments remotely. I got kind of hooked on this, and for a time, I did think of him as my boyfriend. But there were red flags that things weren’t normal. I once called him with a basic question and went to run errands, and when I came back to my dorm, I had dozens of messages — all from him. His behavior kept escalating, and eventually I got a job across the country and he finally left me alone.
Not long after I started my new job, I was home for a few days and decided to go to the managing editor of that newspaper, because I had seen the byline of a young female intern at the paper, and I saw this guy’s fingerprints all over her story. I couldn’t be certain that the same thing was happening to her, but I felt a responsibility to come forward and say there’s a problem here. He told me, “Look, this isn’t the first time women have come forward to complain about him.” Then he promptly showed me out.
I think for a long time I thought it was my fault, and I felt tremendous shame about it. And now I’m like, wait a second. This man managed to leverage my own personal ambitions, my own dreams, against me for his own gain. I am still pretty resentful of that, because I did stay in journalism and there are always doubts of, Would I have had the opportunities I’ve had without him? And I hate feeling that way.
“He’d ask me to do things that I had never done before.” — Rebecca, 34
It started right after I graduated from high school, and I mean right after. I was 18, and he was in his 20s and had been my teacher. When he asked me to hang out, I was excited, because I thought it was going to be a group thing and then it turned out it was just the two of us, and he told me he’d been looking at me. I’d had a crush on him, so I basically died.
From the beginning, he insisted that we remain a secret. I think he was worried about getting in trouble with the school. The first time we hung out, he had me drive to a parking lot and he picked me up there. That never changed. He never, not once, picked me up at my house.
After a few months, I went off to college, and so from that point on we only saw each other when I was home on break. There was always this feeling of, I hope to get to see him. It felt like he had more than 100 percent of the power, which I think stems from the fact that a teacher is very much in control of a student — at one point, he had given me grades, he had assigned me homework. Even though I wasn’t his student anymore, it was still very much him calling the shots, and me waiting to be told what was up.
This played into the sexual part of our relationship, too. He’d ask me to do things that I had never done before, kind of like he was teaching me, and I was the student again. He wanted me to go down on him, and have sex in positions I wasn’t really comfortable in. There were a few things I refused to do, and after, I worried that he was going to lose interest.
I didn’t want to give him a reason to end it. And it felt almost out of place for me to be the one asking for something, because he was so clearly the one in charge. And so he treated me like garbage and I let him, and that went on for two years.
Thinking about it recently, the whole thing makes my stomach turn. It wasn’t illegal, but it certainly wasn’t kosher, and he knew that because he was so insistent on keeping it hush-hush. For a long time, I looked at this as just another relationship, because it was wanted and consensual then. But I’m not sure it would have happened or been the way it was if he hadn’t been my teacher first, and that’s a bad feeling to have.
Note: Some names have been changed to protect subjects’ identities.