Perhaps I should’ve known better than to throw myself in the fray considering A. what an important issue this is to me personally, and B. how controversial I know some of my opinions on the matter to be. But something positive did come out of this particular stress-fest: I’ve finally put my finger on what rankles me so much about the whole “no means no” and “yes means yes” campaigns advocating for always securing verbal consent before taking any kind of sexual action with a new partner.
Because here’s the thing: words are not magic. Saying “yes” does not open an invisible door to mutual satisfaction that could not have been opened any other way. And even if it did, it would provide no guarantee that the door would stay open.
“Yes” is, at best, a conditional agreement to engage in a specific act, it is not a carte blanche that allows you to ignore body language, or any other nonverbal cues.
And here I will use a very personal example.
When I was sweet sixteen, I was raped by a twenty-four year old Frenchman named Stephane. He isolated me on a mountain top, manipulated my teenage emotions, and literally tore into me from behind while I cried into a slab of granite. From an ethical standpoint, what Stephane did was clearly rape.
From a legal, technical standpoint, however, the only thing that made it rape was our age difference. Not only was I too terrified to say “no,” at one point I said “yes” under circumstances that could have been (mis)construed as offering consent.
You see, he asked me if I’d ever had sex before, and I misunderstood his thick accent, thinking he was asking if I wanted to have sex with him. All I could manage to say was, “Here?” in a tone I thought sufficiently panicked that he would get the hint and back off.
Then he laughed and said, “No, I mean, have you ever?” Realizing what he must actually have asked, I replied, shamefaced, “Yes.”
Because I had, in fact, lost my virginity, to an adorably awkward seventeen-year-old Jew, two months earlier. And it was right after the word “yes” came out of my mouth that he yanked down my pants and went to work.
Now, I seriously doubt that Stephane genuinely mistook my “yes” as consent. He was a predator, preying on my confusion, and my body language was very clearly in opposition to what was happening. But it certainly could have been argued that he did, and doubtless would have been had it gone to trial. I can just picture his lawyer telling the jury that, due to the language barrier, and the fact that I had at first misinterpreted the question as him asking me if I wanted to have sex, that he, poor confused foreigner, took my “yes” as consent.
Now, I completely understand, respect, and admire the impetus behind the campaign, and particularly the shift from respecting a “no” to getting to a “yes.” But the focus is still not quite right.
The very idea of “getting” or “securing” consent is problematic. It puts the focus on one partner who has a desire for X getting the other partner to verbally agree to X before proceeding. Doesn’t give the other person in the equation much agency, does it?
If you begin from a place of empathy and compassion, genuinely wanting to create an experience for and with another person to whom you grant total agency, so long as there is clear communication about what is and is not desired, I don’t believe that communication needs to be strictly verbal. In fact I often find that nonverbal communication is more genuine and reliable as a means of determining what a person really wants and enjoys.
Let’s say you’ve been talking and flirting and laughing with the person in question (PIQ) for half an hour. S/he has been giving you plenty of clear indicators of interest (IOI‘s): lots of eye contact, initiating touch, responding positively to innuendo, etc. Your eyes lock, and the moment feels right for you to move in for a kiss.
Now, given all the nonverbal communication you’ve already exchanged, and given that you are a fabulous kisser (right??), it is reasonable to believe s/he would enjoy said kiss. But you still need to be sure that a kiss is desired before you plant one on her/him. Yes? It’s entirely possible that you’ve misunderstood those nonverbal cues, particularly if reading body language is not your strong suit, and being a good and ethical person (right??) you want to treat your PIQ with respect and leave plenty of room for her/him to gracefully decline.
In the classic “getting consent” model, you would at that point ask a direct question about whether or not the PIQ would like to be kissed by you, or if it’s okay for you to kiss him/her. And that is a perfectly serviceable, if slightly awkward, method of establishing agreement, so long as said agreement is enthusiastic and decisive. If, on the other hand, the verbal agreement is in any way belied by the tone of voice (i.e. hesitant or nervous), physical stance (closed off, looking down or away), or other observable behavior of the PIQ, then it is not to be trusted. Back off, don’t go for the kiss, and change the subject. If the PIQ really wants that kiss, s/he will bring it up again.
Better yet, rather than asking questions about what your PIQ wants or doesn’t want, try simply offering her/him the opportunity to actively participate. So there you are, your eyes are locked, you’re thinking it’s kiss time. Try leaning in slowly, very slowly, maintaining eye contact the whole time, and watch how the PIQ responds. If s/he leans back or away or does nothing, abort mission: s/he is not responding enthusiastically. No need to apologize or backpedal since you haven’t done anything wrong, just smile to put your PIQ at ease and let her/him know you can take rejection gracefully, and change the subject.
If, on the other hand, the PIQ leans toward you, too, then stop and allow her/him to complete the movement. Let her/him come to you, to kiss you, to show you beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act is enthusiastically desired in this moment.
The same approach works for just about any sexual contact. You want to hold hands? Reach out your hand with an inviting smile and wait for the PIQ to reach back. You want to get naked? Put up your arms and gesture for the PIQ to pull your shirt off. And so on. Simply present the invitation, and settle for nothing less than enthusiastic participation.
Now, when I say enthusiasm, realize that that means very different things for different people. Not everyone is the human equivalent of a Muppet. Some people are far more subtle in expressing their enthusiasm. For this reason I recommend you spend plenty of time observing the PIQ before you even consider initiating any kind of intimate contact. Try to get her/him to talk about things that s/he is passionate about so you can see how s/he expresses enthusiasm. Now you have a basis of comparison against which you can measure his/her responses.
Once your PIQ is actively and enthusiastically (whatever that means for them) participating, then verbal communication about what is desired becomes part of the foreplay rather than an awkward interruption thereof. And more to the point, there is no question as to whether the verbal agreement you got was genuine and whether it is still viable.