So, this post is a bit of corollary to yesterday’s post, about asking for consent for platonic touch.
There are two kinds of consent that I’ll talk about here: “yes means yes” consent and “no means no” consent.
When we say that we strive for “yes means yes” consent in our relationships, what we mean is that the burden is on us to ASK before engaging in physical touch, and to get a non-coerced “yes” in response. The burden is NOT on your partner/friend/acquaintance to see what action you are trying to do, and to say “stop!”
That means using a lot of the same questions from my post yesterday, but we should also strive for yeses in romantic relationships.
“Can I kiss you?” “Yes!”
“Do you want a back massage?” “sure, please”
“Would you mind taking my shirt off?” “no, I’d like that?”
“Can I sleep at your house tonight?” “yes.”
The reason we want a “yes” is because it’s clear, explicit communication that doesn’t leave much room for error. You are asking about a specific activity, and they are consenting to that specific activity. When you want to do a different activity or kind of touch, you ask for another “yes”. And silence is treated like a “no,” because it’s not a yes. Lack of protest isn’t consent, remember.
So, “Do you want a back massage?” “……” “Hm, it seems like you aren’t sure, what if we stick to snuggling like this.”
I kind of assume none of y’all would just start massaging someone’s shoulders without asking, figuring that they’d say “stop!” of they don’t want it, but I’ll reiterate that, just in case. Don’t touch people without asking.
THAT BEING SAID –
A lot of people bring up how this doesn’t always happen in long term relationships/friendships, and that is *OK*. That’s where we move to “no means no” consent.
When you have known someone for long enough that you are fairly sure where their boundaries are, you may not ask every time you initiate physical or sexual contact. So, my partner of two years isn’t made uncomfortable when I slide up behind her in the kitchen and wrap my arms around her stomach, because we’ve established over the last two years that she likes physical affection, and isn’t easily startled. When I wake up in bed with a partner, and I snuggle up and wrap my arms around them, I don’t necessarily ask, because I’m pretty sure that they also want some morning snuggles. And I trust them to tell me if they don’t. We have moved to “no means no” consent. I feel generally free to engage in the kinds of physical touch that I am reasonably confident that they would like, or not mind, and I trust them to tell me if they don’t like it. I trust them to say “no”. I have received enough yeses to comfortably map out their boundaries, and when their boundary changes, for any reason, they will tell me so.
So if my partner had a terrible day, and is feeling overwhelmed, I might want to comfort them by snuggling up. My partner, who is feeling uncomfortable and oversensitized to touch, says “mm, actually, I don’t want this right now,” and I nod and move back, and try to provide other kinds of comfort. Another partner may wake me up in the middle of the night for sex, because I told them in the past that they should feel free to do that. I don’t feel like my consent is violated, because I told them they could do it anytime, but some nights I might sleepily murmur “nope, let me go back to sleep, I don’t feel good.” I might even pre-emptively revoke consent for something I’ve consented to! I might say “hey cutie, don’t wake me up tonight – I have an early morning tomorrow, and can’t afford to lose sleep,” or “blech, I feel sick – don’t touch my neck or stomach right now.” Does this sound like a familiar, healthy, long-term relationship? It’s probably because you and your partner already use “no means no” consent without even thinking about it.
What I want to highlight is a) making sure that new relationships start off using “yes means yes” consent, and b) try acknowledging when a relationship or specific activity moved into “no means no” territory. We only make that switch when we have received many yeses for the same activities from the same person. We build our internal model of that person; we have a lot of information. All data points suggest that my sweetie wants a kiss! There is a statistically significant chance that they are interested in my grabbing their hand while we walk!
…okay, I’ll stop being a data nerd.
But seriously, it IS all about data. When you’re with someone for a long time, or you’re friends with someone for years, you have enough information to make a reasonably good guess as to their boundaries. And if you trust them and they trust you, they’ll tell you when those boundaries have changed for any reason. When you’re with a new friend or partner, you simply don’t have enough information to comfortably assume what actions will make them happy, so you need to reach out for specific consent for specific actions.
Okay, those are my thoughts. Stay tuned for enthusiastic versus explicit consent, later this week.