The consent conversation has desperately needed an overhaul for quite some time. On the surface, it seems really simple: “No means no.” However, digging deeper uncovers much more nuance than most of us may be aware of. I wrote a piece a couple of months ago entitled, “Consent is Fun,” which received quite a bit of positive feedback from men and women who were relieved to have some new tools and guidelines to work with. The truth is, though, having these conversations can still seem like more of a burden than an opportunity to connect.
From my perspective, we men have been taught that as the hunters and pursuers, a “real man” takes what he wants and that a woman will happily comply with that “real man.” Therefore, we strive to be like this tough, powerful archetype who ultimately gets everything he wants. On the other hand, those of us who do not fit into this archetype are taught that we have to trick, coerce and drug women in order to get them to sleep with us; we have to make the right moves, get her to want us and if we are in bed together, we’d better be having sex. This is because, sex being the ultimate prize, we equate her sleeping with us as the measure of our manhood.
I mention in my book “Man School: Relating with Women in the #MeToo Era,” how the movies I grew up with, like “Sixteen Candles” and “Revenge of Nerds” were prime examples of this behavior—which was celebrated by the way. In these movies, the “good guys,” the nerds, won because they got the girls, even if alcohol, drugs and trickery were involved. It is important to note that many times online, I have seen women comment that they don’t trust the self-proclaimed “good guys,” because those good guys have turned on them at some point. I believe that most men consider themselves to be the kinds of men that women can count on. We may have some blind spots regarding women and their experiences, just as they do with us, however, we truly want to “do the right thing,” we just do not always know where that line is. Aside from the fact that we have not been taught how to effectively communicate with each other, confusing words, actions and intentions have us looking for truth in all the wrong places.
In a perfect world, we would say what we mean and do what we say. This, however, is not the case. For instance, “no means no,” is a phrase I have heard for as long as I can remember, and while this is simple to understand, there is also the deep-seated contrary belief, and experience, that sometimes “no” means “try a little harder.” Women have been taught to “play hard to get” and to “make him work for it,” and so, the lines can be blurred and this can be confusing for men who believe we are supposed to be persistent and that she may be wanting us to just “show some effort.” In fact, many times I hear women saying that they “just want to be taken” and can be turned off by him “asking for permission.” At the same time, if the wrong man tries to “take her,” she does not want that either.
A friend shared a recent experience with me that illustrates even more of the disconnect within the realm of sex and consent:
“Emma” was working with a man she considered to be a friend on an out-of-town job. He booked a hotel room for them which she found out upon arrival only had one king-size bed. While she was disappointed to discover this, they had a good, platonic, working relationship and figured it would not be a problem. They worked together all day, went to dinner that night and she began feeling very ill with a migraine. She told him how sick she was feeling, they went back to the room and she crawled into bed. When he got into bed, she was curled up on her side and just about as close to the edge of her side of the bed that she could be. To her dismay, he curled up next to her and began to make subtle advances. Her body was rigid, she was completely unresponsive and yet he tried, again and again, to engage with her sexually; becoming less and less subtle. She stayed frozen, and awake, for hours until he finally gave up. When she angrily confronted him the next day, his only response was that she should have told him to stop. When asked why he didn’t get that her unresponsiveness was her “no,” he had no answer.
Why didn’t she tell him to stop? Trauma. Her trauma response is such that she freezes. Each of us responds to different kinds of trauma in different ways. Some of those ways include running, lashing out violently and freezing. In this case, all Emma could do was be as still as possible, hoping that he would stop. Her response, coupled with someone who believes he is supposed to keep trying and supposed to be persistent, created even more trauma for her. Why didn’t he pick up on her body language? He didn’t want to. Ultimately, he was not even focused on her; he was focused on himself, his “needs” and his intent to have sex.
Given that we are not effective communicators by nature, that we have not been taught consistently effective ways to have consent conversations and that our responses to fear may cause us to shut down, where is the line and who is responsible? In my opinion, each of us is responsible for creating a safe space for intimacy. If she couldn’t respond, he is still responsible. If the tables were turned, it would be her responsibility to make sure he was comfortable with what was happening as well. That said, we men have a wonderful opportunity here to take our protecting & providing to a new level by taking leadership in these situations and driving these conversations. Sex and intimacy are vital parts of our existence. When we recognize that to be true and commit to each other’s comfort in the process, we can begin to open up with each other in ways that bring about deeper connection.
While it may seem ridiculous to some, my opinion is that we have to tear things down a bit and just have these straight-forward conversations, with nothing left to interpretation. We need to set our fear of rejection aside and really say what we mean, and to be willing to hear honesty from our partners. For me, having these straight-forward conversations is access to even better sex anyway. The other thing we can do is to work on our sensitivities in regards to our partners. Being able to read their energy, mood, well-being, and body-language will not only have them feel safer and more connected to us, but it will also help us to determine the best approach in the moment. Some of the ways I have found to develop this ability include:
- studying Tantra;
- learning sensual massage;
- training in martial arts;
- taking Salsa or Ballroom Dance classes.
The best sex I have had has been with the women with whom I could communicate, who communicated with me, and where I knew where their boundaries were and they knew mine. So much healing work around sex involves partners being able to relax. From this relaxed place, we can achieve higher levels of pleasure and ecstasy. With this in mind, we can begin to look at consent as access to these higher levels and minimizing the anxiety many of us experience that gets in the way of our greater pleasure. Being with a partner who is turned-on and turning toward you as their partner is so much more “worth it” than being with a partner who acquiesces resulting from your coercion. How about if we start getting good at these conversations, focus on intimacy and get to know each other?
Related, here on The Good Men Project
Consent comes from a place of a partnership wherein two equal partners of any gender make choices together. From this place, both have the opportunity to flow and establish a connection.
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A guide to making consent fun and playful without being a creep!
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We can get in touch with the humanity that toxic masculinity and patriarchy have kept us away from.
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