I was reading Psychology Today’s recent article, The Power of No, this morning, and it got me thinking about a question that haunts alternative sexuality communities, or should.
The question is this: in a world where we accept the feminist precept that rape culture exists – which needless to say, I do – how do people – especially men – negotiate consent responsibly? And in particular: what can good men – men who do not want to contribute to this culture, but also want healthy, fulfilling sex lives – do?
In the mainstream world, women have been speaking up about phenomena like Schrödinger’s Rapist: the idea that anyone a woman meets may sexually assault her, and she is best served by behaving as if he will until she knows otherwise. With rape culture being what it is – an environment where men are often subtly or overtly taught to feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where women are taught that being nice is more important than protecting your boundaries – it’s not just difficult for women to say no, or for men to hear and respect it. It’s equally difficult for women to say yes, and mean it. The larger culture around sexuality in this country doesn’t teach us how to say, and hear, no, or how to hear, or say, yes. It teaches us to make moves, use lines, seduce, talk people into bed – or to accelerate sexually without getting a further green light. It teaches us to resist, or be coy, or play hard to get so we won’t be labeled sluts. Men who refuse to participate in these dangerous games become “nice guys” – many of whom wind up not behaving so nicely; women get trapped into a virgin/whore dichotomy, where their choice to say yes or no depends on how they want to be regarded, not on what they actually want.
In such an environment, is it any surprise that people don’t feel like they have any agency with regard to their own desires, their own bodies?
Groups such as polyamorous, queer, and BDSM communities, as well as other touch- and sex-positive groups, are under extra pressure to make sure that their members negotiate consent and boundaries well, because the frequency of initiating contact is so much higher than in the mainstream, monogamous world. While these groups are by no means immune from abuse, rape, and other violations of bodily autonomy, they are places where people are deliberately practicing the skills of negotiating consent, all the time.
In my experience, the result of this practice, and the self-policing that communities like this tend to do, is incredibly beneficial. In the most obvious sense, it gives people the opportunity to practice saying no fairly often, and saying it in ways that minimize a sense of rejection. It also gives people practice hearing ‘no,’ and responding to it in a respectful way. Moreover, though, it gives people practice saying and hearing ‘yes': an option that is impossible in a world where it is never clear whether your ‘no’ will be respected. In the best of these types of communities, the need to frequently negotiate sexual and romantic boundaries provides a kind of laboratory space for people to experiment with agency, specificity, and desire: yes, you may touch me here, but not there. Yes, I’d like to do this with you, but not that. Yes, I’d like to be this to you, but I can’t be that for you. Someone else will have to fill that need.
In the best of circumstances, this kind of environment helps teach the men in it that asking is okay, so long as it’s done without pressure and so long as a ‘no’ is met with immediate, respectful backing off. In turn, this teaches women that such a thing is not only possible, but the norm – which makes it safer for her to say ‘yes.’
What would it be like, I began to wonder as I thought about this, if all kids were taught early on how to negotiate specific, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent? If our culture wasn’t so afraid of, and screwed up about, sexuality that we could talk about it openly enough to exercise it healthily? What if “How To Say, and Hear, No – And Yes” were a required class for every college freshman? What if people who are not, and will never be, involved in alternative sexuality communities had some other means of practicing these essential skills so that they could flirt, date, have sex, live together, get married and raise kids in a way that involved conscious, clear, joyful choice?
If you wonder about this too, and want help finding your own boundaries and agency, contact me for a consultation.