Why Non-Verbal Signals Fail as Substitutes For Consent

bit lip

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!


Photo: Flickr/Baylee_Farris

About Scott Heerman

Scott Heerman is an author and contributor to The Good Men Project.


  1. The music industry needs to place a warning on the use of their products, for playing music too loud while fornicating could interfere with verbal consent signaling.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    The author is probably still a virgin.

  3. This article is somehow written to suggest it is all the fault of the man, keeping him responsible should something go wrong and women are acting like children unable to decide what they really want.

    Is this OK, is that OK? This is a grey zone, to ask for what and how many times even for the smallest favor? There are indeed men doing this and women are complaining about it. Interesting that only the man has to ask her, but she has not to ask him for anything. Consent should not be seen as a one-way road.

  4. That last paragraph is terrible. “Men have normalized a situation…”, “Men need to stop…” Do you really wish to suggest that women have had no part in forming the standard narrative as to how romantic situations unfold, and no part in the solution? This is horrible sexist tripe, seriously it’s terrible.

  5. Megalodon says:

    Men need to stop relying on signals that deny women full participation in the decisions surrounding their sexuality.

    Well, the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument says that men can and should be aware of signals that their presence is unwanted and threatening and signals that women are uncomfortable and afraid, and that waiting for women to make an explicit verbal refusal before ceasing interaction is an oppressive and threatening requirement.

    So perhaps we should amplify or expand your admonition. Men need to stop relying on signals to suggest consent and affirmance from women. But men need to always rely on signals to detect refusal and fear. So signals are not good enough to mean yes, but are more than enough to mean no.

  6. “Men need to stop relying on signals that deny women full participation in the decisions surrounding their sexuality.”

    There is so much wrong with this sentence. I’m sure it felt good to write and the motive behind it was positive but I’d encourage you to think through the practical ramifications of the underlying premises being true. Divorce yourself from the “political” and think through this pragmatically- consider the way you just characterized human physical relationships. We’ve just crossed into absolute absurdity and jumped onto a slippery slope that leads to even more laughable destinations. Not only that, but it erases the experiences of half of humanity as well as paints a completely untrue picture of how the vast majority of male/female relationships work.

    I get the idea of positive consent. I like the idea and support it as a way to improve all peoples’ sexual experiences. I like the idea of increasing verbal communication in sex; especially for significant “advancement” of the interaction. However, all forms of communication have a role here though and humans rely on non verbal communication quite often.

    • Note that in the bit you quoted he says “rely on.” He’s not saying ignore non-verbal communication. He’s not even saying that non-verbal communication doesn’t happen. He’s saying don’t rely on it…because it isn’t reliable and it often leads to unequal power dynamics in which men are deciding which signals matter even though it’s women who are expected to be the ones who communicate via signals.

      • “it often leads to unequal power dynamics in which men are deciding which signals matter even though it’s women who are expected to be the ones who communicate via signals.”

        I’d say it often happens in reverse too.

        • AS it’s women that tend NOT to give clear positive verbal signals in these situations, Maybe that’s where the area where the solution exists. Women as a group giving up the overly “romantic” BS that if he’s the right guy he will be able to read my mind. That would go one heck of a long way towards a equitable solution, instead of dumping more “romantic” expectations on guys.

          • I’d strongly advise against waiting for that solution, Trey….unless you have another lifetime after this one. ;^)

            • I know better……married a long time…..I’ve been married for 150% longer than the years I wasn’t.

              Just sad that the suggestions all seem to require men to jump through the hoops…….it would be nice to see some equality be suggested

  7. What is the effect of ignoring a woman’s non-verbal cues during her sexual arousal? Would it be taken as non-interest? Asking if you can move forward, instead of doing so when it is offered nonverbally may ruin the mood/mystic that she’s enjoying…..That physical ying/yang of a shared body experience. Not all women are sexually verbal, Some prefer a physical level of communication. I’ve been told to shut up it’s ruining the “mood” and the I should rely on her clearly delineated physical clues.

    Different strokes for different folks, is what I’m saying. Not saying that push it to the hilt is a OK style ,but there is a physical and touch based style of intimacy that is just as valid and real as the verbal style.

    • ” I’ve been told to shut up it’s ruining the “mood” and the I should rely on her clearly delineated physical clues. ”

      Absolutely. Especially in LTR/married relationships, men must learn when to shut up and LEAD. “Is this okay” can be incredibly unattractive behavior when we’re talking about simple affection or married sex. A guy needs to know how to “take her” with love, respect, AND assertiveness. Of course, when trying “new stuff”, it’s important to ask or pay close attention to her body language.

      Even single women usually prefer potential suitors to have enough confidence to “know” when to touch her arm, hold her hand, or kiss her lips. Intention is everything.

      • When having sex, I would say to them “You can tell me AS SOON as you feel uncomfy to stop, let me know what you are feeling and we will stop. You’ll be safe, do NOT have sex just because you think it’s what I want but have it because you want to”. Give them opportunities to say no, let them know they can stop half way through, even just before orgasm if they feel the need.

  8. 😉
    “Men need to stop relying on signals that deny women full participation in the decisions surrounding their sexuality.”

    Sexual research has shown that most people give consent non-verbally. So that raises the question of why?

    • Hi Anonguy
      Some men are obviously not able to read nonverbal signals that say a woman don’t want sex.
      Especially when they are highly sexually aroused and focus only on their own pleasure.

  9. Ok lets try that one more time…. censorship FTW!
    “Men need to stop relying on signals that deny women full participation in the decisions surrounding their sexuality.”

    Sexual research has shown that most people give consent non-verbally. So that raises the question of why?

  10. You're right! says:

    Non-verbal communication isn’t a thing that people do.

    • Yes they do. I’ve done stuff on cam with someone before, ask them to do something and they say no…then they do it 3 seconds later, then after everything they thank you ?!!?!!!!!!??!!!?! They say no, but do it, and like it and everything they do makes it look like they’re comfy so either they were reluctant or shy at first then changed their mind or they say no as a way to joke around. I still treat the no as no but I do find it weird when the no is followed up by doing the activity, makes me wonder why they say no? There was no threat of force, coersion, both of us were happy. I guess it’s somewhat similar to how people say no they don’t wanna dance, whilst being dragged out to the dance floor and start dancing. The no is said because of shyness but they internally get themselves to shoo the anxiety away? I’ve done that myself.

      Words are good but they can be confusing at times. Sometimes people say no because they don’t want to, sometimes they say no because they are shy (I do this when asked to dance, a second or third time usually gets me to say yes). I’d say it’s important to know why someone says no, a person who is shy may be encouraged to break their anxiety and face their fears, once they face them they can have a very positive experience. She was very shy and insecure of her body, I reassured her and we both enjoyed the experience. I had found out that her previous partner said absolutely horrible things about her body, namely her genitalia hence her reluctance and that after we did our thing her confidence grew because of my reassuring her.

      If you ask for a blowjob for instance, she says no, then changes her mind and does it without actually saying yes then there is implied consent there. If you look at ONLY the words spoken without looking at body language then you won’t get the full picture of what is going on. I do believe some people say no as a way to feel less slutty or because they are expected to, but then some may change their mind. You have to be very very mindful of their feelings though, even a yes isn’t 100% guarantee of consent. You need to see if they look scared, in which case a yes is possibly them saying yes to avoid being attacked in other ways, or they could just be nervous like I was my first few times in a sexual experience with someone. Tone of voice will play a role too, a happy yes is what is needed, but when people are shy and full of anxiety it can become hard to know what their actual desires are so ask again a few times, ask if they feel ok (like I did with her, and she was ok), make sure it’s a pleasant and positive experience.

      • You're right! says:

        Sorry, I was being sarcastic. I thought the article was foolish.

      • Ugh. Your dancing example absolutely convinced me of the opposite of what you’re saying. I’m shy. I like to dance sometimes and sometimes I don’t want to dance. Sometimes I don’t want to dance at 11:47 PM and then I want to dance at 11:54 PM. And that’s okay.

        But if you pressure me to dance? Keep asking? Pestering? Gross. That’s a guarantee that I won’t be having a good time.

        Not that my personal preferences prove anything. And that’s the point. Your preference is to be pestered. The fact that you’re holding your preference up as a universal is extremely distressing to me. I have had to deal with tons of people pressuring me to be less shy in my life and none of those times contributed to my personal growth. In fact, they helped me shrink farther from it. Embarrassed me. Shamed me. I needed safe people and safe environments to find myself and I was fortunate (and tenacious) to find those situations.

        The universal rule that you’ve extrapolated from your own study with an N of 1 is harmful.

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