Scott Heerman explains the problematic nature of relying up on signals as sexual consent.
A small maelstrom has erupted in the wake of an anonymous fraternity brother’s e-mail to an incoming pledge group. You can—and should!—read the content, controversy, and reactions by people like Jamie Utt and Cameron Conaway. Here I want to focus on a single line in the e-mail that invites a longer conversation among men. Because this piece arises from a particular controversy, it is going to focus on straight men and women—although similar conversations need to occur across the gender and sexuality spectrums. That said, I want to focus on this author’s deeply troubling use of “sexual signals” and “vibes” as an indicator of when to make sexual advances. In the e-mail, after describing a fantasized dance scene, the author instructed: “If she starts putting her hair over her ear, THAT MEANS SHE WANTS A KISS.” Now I have never been to Georgia. And never to this University. But it seems unlikely that any time a woman’s hair goes over her ear, she is asking to be kissed. But setting aside the possibly erroneous nature of this claim, we need to interrogate the power dynamic that using “sexual signals” creates. And we need to recognize that using these signals empowers men, and denies women agency over their sexuality.
In this particular case, the author is teaching men—recall that this is an instruction guide—what the green lights are for pressing ahead. Rather than empowering women to make those decisions for themselves, he and his friends have concocted their own metrics of when to kiss a woman. Compounding this already dangerous situation, the signal he is advocating for is incredibly vague. A woman’s hair can fall over her ears while dancing. Or while talking with friends. Or while doing a million other activities. In short, by establishing a set of pre-determined indicators, he has already coded the entire situation as a woman wanting a man’s advances in virtually every dance move.
Perhaps you think this particular instance of using “sexual signals” at a party is absurd. Perhaps you think that a woman’s hair over her ear is a downright strange signal to attach to. Perhaps you think that there are other signs and signals you can rely on. Perhaps you think that some signals are more rational and grounded than a woman’s hair falling over her ear. Think again. It does not matter what methods you use, what signs you look for, or what gestures you think are appropriate indicators of making a sexual advance. But regardless of any group of men’s ability to rationalize their sexual desires, women must be equal and active participants in sexual situations. Any time someone relies on anything less than active consenting questions, the system that strips women of their power remains in play.
Men need to stop relying on signals that deny women full participation in the decisions surrounding their sexuality. It may be that you think your dating methods are “normal.” That is the problem. Men have normalized a situation where they get to pick and choose the signs of consent without women’s active participation. But four little words can stop that norm dead in its tracks: “is doing this okay?” So just ask, already!