IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Taking down the culture of consent: Why women say yes when they really mean no

"Girlhood" author Melissa Febos details how adolescents can become empowered over their bodies and relationships during their formative years.
Image: Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos is an associate professor at the University of Iowa and the best-selling author of "Whip Smart," "Abandon Me," and most recently "Girlhood."Beowulf Sheehan / Bloomsbury Publishing

For acclaimed author Melissa Febos, her entire world changed when she reached full sexual maturity at the age of 11. Boys and men started treating her differently, giving her unwanted attention, and her peers began to pull away. According to her, that troubling dynamic would shape her sense of self and her ability to relate to others for years to come.

In Febos' latest book, “Girlhood,” she combines those memories from her early life with interviews from other women to critically examine how the formative years of adolescence inform womanhood. The work is a collection of essays that speak to the most intimate issues impacting young girls and their development.

In May, Febos joined Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski to discuss the traumas she experienced as a young girl, how she recovered and what society can do to empower young people by changing the nature of consent.

“It’s important to foreground this conversation as one in which we’re expanding the definition of trauma,” Febos said. “Part of the reason why I spent a large part of my life not talking about my experiences in ‘Girlhood’ – what we sometimes call slut-shaming or body-shaming and this kind of damaging attention from men and the withdrawal of my peers – it didn’t fit under the larger category of sexual assault … and for that reason I dismissed it.”

RELATED: 6 ways to help our daughters live 'the confidence code'

She explained how she felt ashamed and kept the experiences a secret for most of her life, assuming she was responsible for the unwanted attention. “It wasn’t until I started writing about it and talking to other women that I realized how ordinary these smaller traumas [are] of losing our place in social life or the relationship to our body, to the estrangement from our family,” she told Brzezinski.

In Febos’ case, that translated into a behavior of always saying yes, despite her will. “It felt difficult to tolerate disappointing other people,” she said. “That actually [felt] more important than the integrity of my own wants and I basically traced this behavior all the way back to my adolescence, to my very earliest sexual experiences where at 11, 12, 13, 14 and onward, there’s a kind of curiosity, there’s the beginning of desire, and then I would end up in these situations where I didn’t want to go further and I didn’t feel like I could say no.”

“So you’ve just taken the entire Know Your Value message and advice about work and applied it to our own bodies,” Brzezinski responded. “And that is: Respect first, friendship will follow. So many times women in the workplace are trying to make friends and get people to like them and are impacted if people don’t like them.”

RELATED: Alicia Menendez: How women can destroy the 'likeability trap'

Febos added that the likeability trap places girls in a double bind where they are expected to manage their reputation and maintain purity, yet please everyone. “In these intimate moments where we’re supposed to react, we have these conflicting messages and so I think it adds up to compromising our own desires, our own integrity and sometimes our reputations because we’re painted into this corner very early in our lives,” she said.

When Brzezinski asked Febos about combating the culture of complicity and consent, she framed it as a societal imperative emphasizing individual respect over personal gratification.

“It’s OK to be for people to be disappointed. And honestly, I think the most important advice needs to be given to our boys. They need to be taught that it’s OK to receive no and to respect that over getting what they want, or some perceived idea of masculinity that’s attached to certain sexual acts,” she said. “If we teach both girls and boys – all kids – to listen to what they really want and to articulate that to other people and to respect what they hear from other people, we could induce a greater culture shift that’s really important, especially for our girls.”