Before I say anything else, I want to say to you, if someone has been leading you on: I feel you. You probably are unhappy and upset that your crush didn’t have the same things in mind that you did. It’s normal and common and it’s okay to be sad.
We’ve all felt led on at some point or another. We’ve all been sad, disappointed, heart-broken, because we felt led on. It happens to the best of us, and it sucks.
I have a trick that I’ve used many a time so that no one I am interested in leads me on, and I want to share it with you: the trick is to destroy the idea that people can lead you on. Write your feelings on a piece of paper and kill it with fire. Or for a safer option, cross everything out until the paper tears, then break it into tiny pieces and throw it in the trash can.
Because that’s where assumptions and expectations we build up without communicating about and negotiate them belong: in the trash can.
Now, keep reading, you. As I was saying, I get it, and I’m not here to judge you. We all grow up – and, I have to say, folks with privilege on different axes (male, white, cisgender, etc), more so – to believe that if we like someone, and we think that they like us, that (often wishful) thinking is enough for us to feel entitled to what we want from them. Some people grow up being taught that if they give someone special attention (whatever that means for everyone), and the other person doesn’t outspokenly, decidedly, explicitly tell them to go away, it must be because the feelings are mutual. We are all socialized to think playing hard to get is a legitimate and healthy courting strategy; we all learn that explicit, verbal acknowledgment of feelings or interest is too vulnerable, too unsexy, too desperate. So most of us spend y e a r s trying to decode nonverbal behavior – and how ableist is it to advise everyone to just do that, huh?
Countless magazine articles, podcasts, books are dedicated to tips on how to know your guy is into you, how to know if “she wants the D”, how to tell if you’re both into the same kind of sex, etc.
I feel like this is a not-so-secret top secret that could or should put all these media out of business but, there is a simpler way, there is a way which ensures you are never led on, that you never lead someone on, that you can know for sure if they want sex or a relationship or for you to fuck off forever, and that is ASKING FOR CONSENT.
Here is the thing: no one has ever led you on. You have never led anybody on. You are free of that burden, you have cleaned off that stain on your romantic history. You’ve felt that way, as have I, I’m sure. And those feelings – that heartache, that disappointment – are very real, and valid. The action of “leading someone on”, however, is not real.
It is one of many unfortunate consequences of a society that does not value explicit consent, that does not empower us in our sexual agency, that breeds entitlement in those who hold privilege and power over others. And so, while you may feel however many emotions when something doesn’t turn out the way you hoped it would, you were not entitled to any particular outcome. And if we are all being honest, you didn’t know what the outcome could be because you probably never asked.
If you had, you would have had given your friend the chance to explicitly opt in or out, to choose. But you didn’t, so either this person is not informed about what they are opting in or out of, or they had to exercise their agency and bodily autonomy the only other way they could: ghosting, lying, excusing themselves, pretending or hoping you are still on the same page. And let me be clear, those are not ideal communication strategies either, but the person with the expectations is the one responsible for asking, for making sure.
Asking, checking in, making sure, all of that is scary. It is vulnerable, it is brave. I get it. The good news is, it really is up to you to never be led on again. You are not in a helpless pit of someone else’s doing. Not only is practising consent mandatory and the only way to make sure you are trekking through the wide world of dating and relationships ethically, but it is also the only way you’ll know what’s up, for sure. It is your best source, better than any advice column or expert TED talk. Better than your daydreaming, which is unreliable at best when it comes to the matters of someone else’s heart.
Furthermore, I am sorry to say, the alternative to asking is assuming, and that’s not an option. It can’t be. So much sexual assault happens where assumptions lie. This is why I am so vocal about the idea of leading someone on or not, because one underlying idea for “leading on” to make sense is that the only, ultimate, unspoken (because it’s supposed to be obvious) goal is sex, and that withholding or withdrawing consent is done out of spite, is a deliberate action to hurt the other. Everyone is free to say no to any thing at any time without having to explain themselves. No one should be “on trial” for exercising consent.
So, here is my advice for you, for when you fear you might be leading yourself on, in 3 steps:
1. Figure out what you want to ask or suggest. It’s okay if you don’t know for sure. You are allowed to say “I don’t know for sure, but…”
2. Prepare yourself emotionally for rejection. Rejection is awful, but so is reacting in a toxic, harmful manner. Not wanting the same thing you do is not a crime, and it is not wrong. A good practice I’ve started is saying, “thank you for taking care of yourself.” They trusted you enough to give you a no. Treat it, and them, respectfully.
3. Ask. And have fun. There is a rush to asking and an even bigger rush when things DO go your way. And even when they don’t, it’s okay. You’ll live, I promise.