Friday, October 4, 2013

Sex at the Edge, Part 2: Consent

The other night I was at a concert in my town when I saw the token "creepy guy" of my social circle. Many young women have had distasteful run-ins with this older man, yet he continues to frequent community events without being challenged for his poor respect for boundaries. An interaction I had that evening points towards why that is so.

I saw a young-ish looking girl dancing with him, and said to my friend (who knows the whole story of my negative experiences with this man) that I ought to warn her about him, 'cause I wish somebody had warned me about him. Later, that girl came up to dance near us, and my friend started to tell her of the man's reputation. I came over only to hear the girl say, "I don't want to know; I'm dating him." I told her about it anyway, in a general way, and she asked me, "Did you use your voice?" I was caught off guard by this question, which seemed to blame me for his actions, and said that I didn't have a chance to, because I was asleep when he did the creepiest thing towards me, (which was to crawl on me and whisper in my ear how he loved me, but I didn't tell her the details). Her response was to give me what was for me a very uncomfortable hug. "That's too bad my boyfriend took advantage of you in your sleep when you were a teenager, let me contaminate you with his energetic germs."

What I didn't tell her, but I wish I had as suggested by my friend later, is how scared I was in that moment that he was going to rape me. I wanted nothing more than to push him off of me angrily and tell him how not OK it was what he was doing, but I was alone in his house (he came back early in the middle of the night while I was housesitting for him on his trip to Burning Man). I was scared that might escalate the situation and push him to do something he might not do otherwise. So I lay there quietly pretending to still be asleep, hoping he would go away, and promising myself that if he tried anything more I'd fight him off tooth and nail.

I have told this story so many times that I grow weary of repeating it, yet the trauma of that fear still lives in my body. Not only do I resent him for it; I resent my community for not responding in any significant way when I spoke out publicly, years after the fact. It really left me with a sense that nobody cared. I also received a lot of remarks similar to what the girl said about using my voice that are indicative to me of a dissonance I have with the culture surrounding of events like rainbow gatherings, music festivals, heart song and drum circles, and wholesome foods potlucks. The ethic around touch and sexuality seems to be that touch is great and we need more of it in our lives; let's move away from mainstream culture by touching all the time. However I have not noticed people asking if a person wants touch. In fact, on the other hand, if someone speaks out against it they are often seen as uptight. So ultimately, the responsibility for stopping or preventing unwanted touch is on the person receiving it, and at risk to their social acceptance.

There are many examples of this. At my first rainbow gathering, which was amazing in many ways, I had a rude awakening to this lack of consent culture when I told an acquaintance of mine not to touch me and he acted like he was entitled to. When I asked the circle of people around us for support, not only did they fail to chastise him, at least one long-term friend looked at me in a way I interpret as her thinking I was ridiculous. I felt alone, scared, and angry (to protect myself) in the moment.

In another instance, a friend of mine came home from a festival with a traumatic story about a young man she was spending time with for a whole day and went into some hot springs with where the norm is to be naked. He suddenly grabbed her with no permission asked and she could even feel his boner against her leg. When she vehemently said that she needed space, he said, "What's the matter? We're all one anyway!"

This excuse of unity and oneness to violate people disturbs me greatly. On the other hand, I have experienced what is called consent culture around groups of people who identify as punks, anarchists, activists, and/or Reclaiming witches. In these communities, to my experience, there is a strong ethic around asking before doing anything physical to someone, and especially sexual. In some instances this ethic does seem to get in the way of moments unfolding organically--for example if someone is crying, or just sitting next to you during a moment of sweet group connection, it can feel very natural to put an arm around them, but awkward when the social norm is to always ask before touching.

I have given a lot of thought to this question of consent because of my experiences in both types of communities (and let's not even get started on mainstream culture!). The conclusion I have come to is that there are three types of situations that are best approached, in my ideal world, with different protocol. The categories are:

1. Situations where consent has clearly not been given, and there is no indication that the person has implied consent, or reason to believe that consent is implied. I would say this older man laying on me in my sleep falls in this category. Other important examples include having sex or kissing someone for the first time, or even the second or third, or anytime outside of an ongoing committed relationship, or when lots of time has passed between encounters.

2. Situations where consent is clearly implied, or there is ongoing consent, such as in a relationship where certain norms have been established. This is the area that I'd like to see acknowledged more in some of those anarchist social circles I mentioned. One example I've heard is that it's never OK to have sex with someone in their sleep. This is (to me) obviously true at a party with strangers, but with a trusted lover, being woken up to sex sounds delightful. This category includes all things previously discussed or agreed upon, and may include some kind of agreement like, "I'll let you know if you no longer have my consent for this."

3. Situations that fall into neither of these categories, but are some kind of grey area--such as putting your arm around a new friend who you think needs comfort, or trying something new but not too wild in bed with a relatively new lover (perhaps...armpit kissing?). These are things you think might be nice for the other person, but aren't 100%, or even necessarily 80%, sure.

For category 1, I think the best thing for the initiator to do, and in my mind the ethical thing, is to express verbally what they desire, and ask how the other person feels about it before moving forward. Obviously the other person must feel positively about it and say yes to do so. Also, there is something about asking consent to even discuss specifics. For example, if someone I don't know in a bar comes up to me and asks if they can give me a rim job, I would find that lewd and offensive. Prior to mentioning such details, I believe consent to discuss them is appropriate, perhaps something like, "I find you really attractive and am looking for some casual and kinky sex tonight, are you interested in hearing more?"

For category 2, but especially category 3, I've developed an idea of what I think is ethical, which is that you can go ahead and do what you want without asking, BUT if the person reacts negatively, take full responsibility for your actions. Apologize, empathize, and accept their response, no matter how unexpectedly strong it may be. In category 2 this wouldn't apply as much--the receiver would have more responsibility for not having communicated a revoking of consent. But in category 3, I think this is crucial. Another way of saying it is, don't do anything physical or sexual towards someone unless you are willing to accept their reaction, whatever it may be. If the fact you didn't ask traumatizes them, you are partly responsible for that.

I like this ethic because I think it allows for some open-endedness, rather than a hard and fast formal consent rule, but discourages people from taking the risk of not asking unless they are pretty sure it's OK.

Do you think that you would be a healthier, happier person if this ethic of consent was taught in 8th grade health class (or any type of information about consent for that matter)? How do you feel about being on the receiving end of it? Or the side of initiating touch with these ideas as guidelines? Any other comments about the issues raised in this post more generally? I'd love to hear from you, please comment below.