I have a habit of dropping myself into strange and challenging situations, like I’m a lab rat in a maze, so that I can witness myself navigating my way out. It’s a recurring practice in learning about myself. Often, I’m surprised and impressed with my emotional piloting skills and I get to go, ‘Hey, look how you did that! Nice work.’
This experience was no different.
We met for sushi. I was struck by unfamiliar thoughts and new feelings in my body. Instead of thinking, ‘Do I want to see this person again?’ or even ‘Does this person seem like someone I could build something with?’ I was asking myself, ‘What do I want right now?’ and nothing more. It was a new kind of living in the moment. It was a pure sense of now, untainted by past or future. My desires could be exclusively of the present.
The first indication that there was a schism between us around consent arrived in the form of a request disguised as an offer. We were done eating and he said, “What do you want to do? Want to get a drink? Or you could introduce me to your cats?” He wanted an invitation to my apartment and hid that desire in a cute package about my cats. It may seem innocuous enough, but it’s a manipulation of the truth in order to get what you want without asking for it. I said, “You’re trying to get invited to my apartment?” He smiled sheepishly. I told him I had never been on a date where a connection had no potential to go anywhere beyond one date. It was new for me and I was finding it curious. He said he appreciated my candour.
We got a drink next door. Eventually, I asked if he wanted to sit next to me. He thanked me for the invitation and sat down. He moved his hand over my thigh haphazardly.
“What do you want? You can ask to hold my hand. I like being asked.”
“Can I hold your hand?”
He was sweet. I liked how he touched my hands like he was exploring them. He played with my nails like they felt good against his fingers. Then he asked if he could kiss me. We made out for a bit. I liked how he kissed and I liked how he smelled. I suggested we go back to mine “for more of this but possibly nothing more than this.”
We started making out on my couch and immediately his hands were on my chest over my shirt, then quickly under my shirt, then his hand started going down my back under my pants.
“Whoa, you gotta ask, man!” He froze. “Just ask. Check in.” I kissed him and he didn’t move his hands at all.
“Did I frighten you?”
“A little, yeah.”
“Just ask before you do something new.”
We started making out again. He approached with caution due to what I imagine was new self-consciousness.
“Can I lick your nipples?”
“No,” I said with as much patience as I could muster. I had just pulled his hands away from my boobs and now he wanted to use his mouth?
Kiss, kiss, kiss. I was paying very close attention to my desires. I was struck by my ability to know that I was definitely not ready to have my nipples licked, but could back up and work my way towards having my chest touched over my shirt. After a little while, I felt a movement forward in my body and a craving for something more. I invited him to touch me when I was ready, and my body very clearly told me when it was ready. But then he used his mouth over my shirt. I was a little exasperated. ‘I guess I didn’t specify that he could touch me only with his hands,’ I told myself. After some time there, my body told me it was ready for him to go under my shirt. There, he used his hands and this time he did wait for the word that he could use his mouth. He asked what I liked. Nibbles? Yes. Licking? Yes.
I told him I like my neck to be kissed, but not with too much tongue. I asked if he liked his ears nibbled and checked in on pressure.
“Is this good, or harder? Do you like this spot?” He was able to tell me what he liked.
I liked how he was touching me, alternating firm and soft. I liked the sounds he made. I liked that he kissed me on the cheek very tenderly from time to time. I thought he was starting to get it. He touched my foot very gently, thoughtfully. He was giving. It felt really nice. He worked his way up my leg, massaging. I liked that, too. I was wearing very wide leg pants and he was able to make it to my underwear, at which point he pulled away and stared.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
Blank stare. Deer in headlights.
“See, you have to know first, so you can ask for it.”
“Can I touch your vagina?”
“No. But you can squeeze my butt over my underwear.”
I still had my pants on. He had been leaps ahead of me the whole time. I couldn’t help but think, ‘He’s been having sex like this? Not waiting for invitations, just doing things and thinking that not getting a ‘no’ means it’s okay?’’
We both got tired and I knew I wasn’t going any further than that. We put our shirts back on. He stared vacantly into the distance in what looked like shock.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I’ve never communicated like that before.”
“It’s cool, right?”
“Yeah, I like it. I think I need that.”
“Welcome,” I said.
So…where was this guy in 2017? Did he hear the stories and think, ‘That’s not me, though’? He had obviously never been exposed to communication like this, and likely been violating people’s boundaries left and right. People hadn’t been telling him to slow down, hadn’t been telling him ‘no,’ hadn’t been modelling this kind of talk during sex or any kind of physical intimacy. Clearly, he was interested and liked it, but he wasn’t seeking this information out, nor was he dating people who were already doing it.
So, how do you practice consent without sounding like a robot?
1. Practice asking before you do anything new and practice doing it confidently. This can take many tries. You can record yourself and watch it to see how it comes across. Do it in the mirror. I used to think it would be weird if someone asked me, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ but then someone asked me, “Do you want to have sex with me?” and it was so fucking hot I was floored. Have you ever tried it?
2. Pay attention to your prosody (how you say what you say: intonation, volume, pitch, vocal quality) as well as your body language and eye contact.
3. Get in touch with what your desires feel like and then practice asking for them. This takes time. It takes mindfulness and patience. We can’t feel our desires if someone is going for what they want without checking with us. Notice if you want something or if you’re letting it happen. Start with, “Can I ____ you,” “Will you ____ me,” and “Would you like to ____ me?”
4. Be clear about whether you are making an offer or a request. Are you asking to do something to someone for them or for you? Are you asking someone to do something to you for you or for them? All are great! Having clarity on which is happening in each moment can help you relax into the action. I love being felt up because I love seeing someone else take pleasure in my body and touching me the way they want to touch me. That’s someone doing something to me, for them. I also love giving face massages. That’s me doing something to someone, for them. (For more on this, watch Betty Martin’s video on the Wheel of Consent.)
5. Take your time. Check in with your body and ask it what it wants. Our bodies know and they tell us, they just don’t speak in words and most of us have spent our lives telling our bodies that we (read: our brains and thoughts) are in charge.
Remember, not getting a ‘no’ is not the same as getting a ‘yes.’ Wouldn’t you rather know not to do something that someone doesn’t want you to do? Equally, it’s so hot to know that what you are doing is eagerly wanted and truly welcome. When I ask if someone likes something and they go, ‘Yes, I love that,’ I’m so much more confident doing it. And when I know that someone can tell me ‘no,’ I know I can trust them.
And if you sound like a robot, so what?