I don’t know how many times I’ve heard friends, relatives and acquaintances say that they think people overdo it with this whole consent thing – but they’re a lot. Every time I hear it part of my heart breaks. That’s partly because I have to explain again and again why I think this view is problematic, but it also makes me doubtful of my own experiences. And then something happens again which proves how important consent is and how our life would be much simpler, pain-free, beautiful and happy if we were more consensual in all its aspects.
The main anti-consent arguments I hear are a) lack of spontaneity and b) that it’s annoying to ask verbally, all the time if what we’re doing or want to do to others is okay. To both of these arguments I have numerous times responded that a) spontaneity is great, but without a container defined by consent it usually works mainly for the benefit of the person who has more power in the dynamic (in terms of race, gender, sexuality, body-ability, trauma history and a lot of other factors); and b) there’s a lot of non-verbal ways we can ask and receive consent (eg with eye contact, body language), but also asking for consent verbally every now and then is not the fucking end of the world – it just feels awkward because we’re not used to it.
Nevertheless, I can’t really blame people who are not consent supporters. After all in this society, we’ve made it perfectly acceptable and our main aim in life to always get what we want instead of being open to the possibility that it would really be totally okay if we don’t. In addition and in my experience, understanding deeply and really feeling into what it means to be consensual is about looking and accepting the darker parts of ourselves or the people we love. But we don’t want to do that. It’s easier to say that consent is not important.
I was personally harmed by non-consent long before I was strong enough to protect myself. I learned to minimise and hide that hurt well, but this also made me blind to the ways I was being non-consensual and hurtful myself. I remember with shame how when others said a clear no to me, I insisted because I REALLY wanted them to stay at that party with me, or to sleep on the same bed with me – even if there wasn’t any sex involved. I also remember with sadness how while I was fucking someone I really fancied, I suddenly woke up from my passion haze and saw on his face that he wasn’t into it at all. I don’t even know how many times before that I did the same thing without realising I was causing harm.
You’d argue that this wasn’t non-consensual as there wasn’t any verbal ‘no’ expressed or any boundaries stated. The answer is that it was and it wasn’t. What happened was definitely not my fault because I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, but the harm was done nonetheless and it was definitely within my power to stop it and prevent it from happening again. And it’s important to note that if I hadn’t started the journey of exploring my own trauma, if I hadn’t been meditating regularly or reflecting on my feelings in my diary often, I probably wouldn’t be able to wake up to that moment of realising how I was causing harm.
I want to share with you a recent experience which I believe illustrates quite well the complexity of the whole thing but also shows how if we want, it’s actually not that complex to become more consensual.
After having spent a whole day in nature, feeling connected with myself and quite open, I go online and arrange a date with a man who seems keen to meet me. I’m not super crazy about him but I like him enough so I’m like ‘why not’. I’m too tired to meet him that same day so I arrange to meet him a week later. During that week he sends me quite a few warm messages with lots of smilies and emojis, telling me how excited he is to be meeting me. Mindful of the fact that I don’t seem to be as into him as he is into me, I reply in a kind but intentionally less excited way.
On the day of our date I’m not in a great mood. I feel quite melancholic – not for any particular reason – it was just one of those days. I’m still up for meeting up with him, thinking that a cuddle will be nice. I take the bus and 10 minutes before I arrive I check in with myself and I actually see that I’d really rather be at home reading my book. It’s too late to cancel – I hate doing that to people but even more so because it’s last minute. I meet him and for most part of it, things are going nicely. There’s lots of sensual touch, he’s quite cuddly which is lovely, but as we touch each other I check in with myself again and I notice an uncomfortable feeling – like a hint of anger. I’m confused because even if I think I’m having a nice time, when I ask myself where would I rather be if I had the choice (which was an interesting thing to ask) – the clear answer is “home reading”. I realise that I obviously do have a choice so I try to find a way to tell him that I need to leave. I tell him “I need to go soon”, he says okay and we continue to fumble for a bit which is still nice, even if that hint of anger is still present. We both cum, chat for a little bit and then I get my stuff and leave, at which point my anger turns into deep sadness – which I understand is a direct result of having done something I really didn’t want to do.
Again there’s no one to blame here – or if there was someone to blame that would probably be me: I could have cancelled, even if it was last minute or I could have left right away when I realised I’d rather be home. But I bet if most of the people who read this put themselves in my shoes, they’d have found it as hard to do either of these things as I did.
This was a hurtful experience but you’d be somehow right to say that surely it wasn’t THAT bad. And the truth is it wasn’t – I treated myself to some comfort food, I wrapped myself in a duvet, read for an hour, slept, and in the morning after sitting with my feelings for a while I felt pretty much okay. But what’s also true is that given my own trauma history, I’ve done a hell of a lot of work to get to this point. There’s a lot of people out there who haven’t built the same resilience yet and the after effect of these sort of encounters can linger on for days (yes, I’ve been there).
There’s certainly some lessons I could learn from this. For example, I’ll certainly think twice before arranging to meet someone for sex when I feel open and connected. Maybe it’s also even better to meet them somewhere neutral and make clear that our date might not necessarily lead to sex. And I really need to start becoming more assertive when it comes to expressing my needs. But let’s face it, society doesn’t help with this: we live busy lives and we don’t always have enough time to check-in with ourselves; the concept of dating without sex is alien in the gay men’s world; and I also can’t think of anything else I could have done in order to get out of the situation right away when I saw I wasn’t feeling it – apart from making up a lame excuse (I’m not a good liar at all) or being a rude bitch (which is an option I consider seriously more and more).
But also let’s see it from another perspective: how about if that guy made clear that it would be okay if I changed my mind about the date, even if it was last minute? He could for example check in with me on the day about what my mood was like. He could also ask what I was feeling like doing instead of assuming that we were gonna have a certain type of sex. Or he could be mindful of my reactions while we were having sex – if for example I was avoiding eye-contact (I was), that’d be a clear sign that I wasn’t that into it. And when I said I wanted to leave soon, he could have asked me if I wanted to cum before leaving instead of assuming that that’s what I wanted. Even if it’s probably a lot to expect given that we’re not used to doing these things, I don’t think it’s a lot to ask.
There’s a lot more to say and I have the feeling that consent is gonna be a big part of my writing (and my personal life), but I’m gonna stop here for now. If you’d like to expand your knowledge I’d personally recommend Meg John and Justin‘s work. Meg-John’s consent zine which was published around the same time I wrote this is also great as a practical guide. I’ll admit I’m biased as they’ve been one of my main sources of education on the subject, but there are a lot more resources out there.