The following is a continuation of my answers to many questions men have about the “Consent Pledge” I created (for men who have sex with women).
By signing the Consent Pledge, we are committing to actively checking in with our partners, non-verbally and/or verbally (as needed) before and during sex.
Non-verbal checking in means being honest with ourselves regarding questions such as: Does her body-language suggest she’s into this? Or does her body language seem reserved, neutral, frozen, or even aversive? Is she moving towards me, and melting into me? Or is she passive, and just “going along with it”? Or is she moving away from me, and tensing up? What do her eye contact and facial expressions suggest?
If your partner’s body language is screamingly, obviously stating that she’s totally into it (eye contact, moving towards you, hands on you, etc.), then you may need to ask less with words, or not at all. However, as discussed above, be careful thinking that you can rely on body language alone to intuit someone’s sexual boundaries, when you’re with a new partner. Especially among men who sleep with women: science has proven that we are prone to being highly “over-optimistic” in interpreting non-verbal cues from women that we’re attracted to. It’s just too easy for us to be wrong in our reading of the situation–especially if we’re in the heat of the moment and desperate for it to escalate sexually. And there’s too much at stake when we get it wrong.
Thus, I believe we men–for a long while–are going to need to supplement the body-based intuitions we have about women’s desires and boundaries, with explicit, verbal checking-in. Especially when we’re with new partners, and especially if one or both parties have been drinking or taking drugs.
We can ask questions such as: “Do you like this?” “Is this OK?” “How is this?” “Is this working for you?” “How is this pace for you?” “Is this feeling good to you?” “Would you like more _______?” “I want to _____. May I?” Or… “I want this to be just right for you. So if you want anything different, or want me to stop, will you let me know?”
An awesome question, suggested by sex educator Philippe Lewis, is “How do I know if you’re into something, or not into something?” If both partners asked this of each other, and got clear on the answers, before hooking up, it would get rid of the need for most of the other questions above. Is this really that hard?
Sure, it would be great if you already knew the answers to these verbal questions without having to ask. But the truth is, you probably don’t already know the answers to all these verbal questions about her desires, preferences, and boundaries. At least, not all of them.
Collectively, we’re wrong a lot, and we usually don’t know that we’re wrong. As discussed, most women online are saying they’ve been on the receiving end of behavior much like that which Aziz Ansari is accused of: intense, persistent verbal pressure and persuasion by the man to have sex, combined with him not paying attention to (or not caring about) her verbal or non-verbal cues suggesting that she’s uncomfortable with what is happening.
If we believe women on this–and I do believe them, and I encourage you to believe them too–then it’s statistically very unlikely that these boundary-violations they are describing as widespread are being caused by just a few “bad apples.” Rather, it’s more likely that this pushy, demanding, aggressively-persistent high-pressure sexual persuasion on our part has become so normalized, that we men barely even notice we’re doing it. It’s like breathing to us. That’s terrifying. For everyone.
In response to the allegations against him, Ansari claims that he thought that “by all indications [the sexual activity] was completely consensual,” and that “everything did seem OK to me” that night. And it is quite possible that he is being sincere when he says he believed these things. But just because he may have thought everything was completely consensual, doesn’t mean that everything was completely consensual. Just because everything may have seemed OK to him that night, doesn’t mean that everything was OK.
(In a different domain: one survey found that 93% of American drivers think their driving skills are above average. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone’s driving skills are above average, even among those who think otherwise.)
If you’ve have more than a few sexual partners, it’s likely that you’ve pushed past or overstepped a woman’s sexual boundary in the past, and you didn’t even know about it, because she didn’t do anything about it or say anything about it to you at the time. (Before #MeToo!) Or because you were just not paying enough attention to or caring enough about the verbal and non-verbal “soft no’s” and redirections she was giving you all along. She probably made these “no’s” softer more pleasant and kind than she might have, so as not to offend you or hurt your feelings, or arouse your anger–but these “soft no’s” should have been screamingly obvious, if you were actually intending to look for her signs of discomfort. )
“Soft no’s” are verbal or non-verbal cues, short of a full-out “NO!” or “STOP!” that indicate she is not comfortable with what’s happening, and would like something different. According to the account of the woman who accused Ansari of assault, she was giving him tons of these “soft no’s” throughout the night, and he just kept overruling them and steamrolling right past them. Dudes, that’s the wrong move.
Women are giving us these “soft no’s” all the time, either because they’ve been trained to act demure with men and not stand up for themselves in ways that are perceived as harsh or critical, or because they’re afraid we’ll get angry if they’re more direct with us in asserting their boundaries or they reject us, or because they genuinely don’t want to hurt our feelings. For better or worse, they’re actually trying to soften the blow for us in the way they deliver their messages.
Proactively looking out for these “soft no’s” during a hook-up, and adjusting course and/or checking in with her verbally if we think we’re receiving a soft no, should be the new normal among men. Get ahead of the curve on this new normal, and start now.
You probably think you’ve been doing a great job on this, and know where the line of her boundaries is in all cases. (I once thought that about myself too–in fact, I thought I was a master at this–and I am grateful to have received some very pointed feedback from women with direct experience of me in the past, that I was incorrect in that belief.)
What I hope we men have learned collectively, from #MeToo, is that we’re wrong about that way more often than we think.
Are you the counterexample to that trend? Maybe. But it’s probably more valuable and useful if you consider that you might not be, and do more verbal checking in to recalibrate to women’s sexual boundaries. Women are asking us to recalibrate. It’s our turn to decide if we’re going to do this simple and sensible thing they’re asking of us.
To my knowledge, there are few women out there thinking, “I wish men would speed their sexual escalation up, and pay less attention to my own desires and sexual boundaries as they rush to sex.” Whereas, as we’ve seen from the dialogue around the Ansari case, many women are asking us to slow down a bit in our sexual escalation while on dates, and check in with them to make sure they’re totally on-board before more escalation. And to care, and stop escalating, if they’re not totally on-board.
Another simple way to combine both non-verbal and verbal checking-in involves actively paying attention and being attuned to her body (which you should probably be doing anyway during sex!), and actively noticing if there are times when she contracts, pulls away, withdraws, or goes “cold.” If you notice that, then check in with her, with a simple “You doing OK?” to give her a safe opening to name any of her hesitations.
The precise timing or wording of the verbal questions is not the key–you may not remember the perfectly-worded example, and deliver it at the perfect instant, while you’re in the middle of a hook-up after a few glasses of wine on a Saturday night. But understanding and exemplifying the spirit of these questions is absolutely necessary:
By taking the Consent Pledge, we men are voluntarily and openly shifting the burden of establishing consent to us. (Previously, this burden was primarily put on women, who were expected to say “NO” loudly and forcefully, get up and leave, or even to push us away if they didn’t want our persistent badgering for sex.)
For those of us men who choose to take the Consent Pledge, the onus is now on us to check in with women we’re connecting with sexually, and to make sure they’re actually OK with what’s going on, and that they’re not feeling pressured about it.
This type of “checking in”–as exemplified by the sample questions above–should be done, certainly before anyone’s genitals are getting touched, sucked, or fucked. Probably before touching breasts or butt. And maybe, if you’re really not sure, it may be appropriate to ask even before leaning in for the first kiss. And ongoingly, from time to time, as these activities continue or escalate. It’s likely you’ll need to ask these questions less and less, or not at all, the longer someone has been your partner.
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