So what is “embodied consent,” anyway?

For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

 

Embodied Consent: Where is your "yes"?

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

(Part 3 of my series on Embodied Consent, leading up to my talk on the subject at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women Conference next weekend.)

One of my favorite truisms about consent is that a true “yes” is not possible without the option for a true “no.” That being said, one of my primary objectives in this workshop is to help people find their “yes” – to open up possibilities, take chances, and make room for greater joy.

So, if we’ve confronted our cultural reluctance to say no, and been able to identify and locate what our “no” feels like so we can use it, then we are one step closer to being able to employ our “yes” without fear.

Because while the possibility that a “no” won’t be heard or respected is terrifying, the prospect of hearing or giving a “yes” can also be daunting. What does “yes” mean? What am I agreeing to? What does the person saying “yes” expect from me once they’ve agreed? What if one of us changes our mind?

Part of dealing with all of these possibilities is the same process as the “finding your no” exercise: embody it. Imagine something you said “yes” to wholeheartedly, and remember it in as vivid sensory detail as you can.

  • What does “yes” feel like in your body? Warm or cool? Expansive, or small and delicate, or like a cozy sweater that fits your body perfectly?
  • What does “yes” look like? What image comes to your mind? Are you glowing with light, or is the “yes” in a tiny box inside your chest? What color is it?
  • Does your “yes” have a sound? Loud or soft? For all to hear, or just for you? Is it a shout, a sob, a laugh, a song?
  • What does it smell or taste like? Sweet or savory? Metallic, or wooden, or like cotton or wool? Does it remind you of a crisp fall day in the woods or a summer evening by the ocean or…
  • Where is your “yes” located in your body? Everywhere at once, or mostly in one place? Are there other parts of you that are still unsure?

Exploring and locating your “yes” in this way doesn’t completely remove its potential complications, but it helps you meet it and talk with it, which makes its possibilities more flexible. It makes it possible to go from a vague “yes to everything” to a more nuanced dance, where you can check in with yourself moment to moment and see what the borders, contours, and limits of your “yes” are.

More than that: when you are clearer about what both no and yes are like in you, your partner can get a better sense, too – not just because your communication will be clearer, but because your whole self will be. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Embodied Consent: Where is your “yes”?

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

(Part 3 of my series on Embodied Consent, leading up to my talk on the subject at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women Conference next weekend.)

One of my favorite truisms about consent is that a true “yes” is not possible without the option for a true “no.” That being said, one of my primary objectives in this workshop is to help people find their “yes” – to open up possibilities, take chances, and make room for greater joy.

So, if we’ve confronted our cultural reluctance to say no, and been able to identify and locate what our “no” feels like so we can use it, then we are one step closer to being able to employ our “yes” without fear.

Because while the possibility that a “no” won’t be heard or respected is terrifying, the prospect of hearing or giving a “yes” can also be daunting. What does “yes” mean? What am I agreeing to? What does the person saying “yes” expect from me once they’ve agreed? What if one of us changes our mind?

Part of dealing with all of these possibilities is the same process as the “finding your no” exercise: embody it. Imagine something you said “yes” to wholeheartedly, and remember it in as vivid sensory detail as you can.

  • What does “yes” feel like in your body? Warm or cool? Expansive, or small and delicate, or like a cozy sweater that fits your body perfectly?
  • What does “yes” look like? What image comes to your mind? Are you glowing with light, or is the “yes” in a tiny box inside your chest? What color is it?
  • Does your “yes” have a sound? Loud or soft? For all to hear, or just for you? Is it a shout, a sob, a laugh, a song?
  • What does it smell or taste like? Sweet or savory? Metallic, or wooden, or like cotton or wool? Does it remind you of a crisp fall day in the woods or a summer evening by the ocean or…
  • Where is your “yes” located in your body? Everywhere at once, or mostly in one place? Are there other parts of you that are still unsure?

Exploring and locating your “yes” in this way doesn’t completely remove its potential complications, but it helps you meet it and talk with it, which makes its possibilities more flexible. It makes it possible to go from a vague “yes to everything” to a more nuanced dance, where you can check in with yourself moment to moment and see what the borders, contours, and limits of your “yes” are.

More than that: when you are clearer about what both no and yes are like in you, your partner can get a better sense, too – not just because your communication will be clearer, but because your whole self will be. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Finding your yes, no, and maybe, part 1: No

In anticipation of the talk I’m giving the weekend of October 10 at Wicked Women, I want to write some posts that lay groundwork for the concepts I’ll be working with in that talk.

The first of these is the very simple idea that saying no is hard.

In last year’s talk, Sam and I started with a great exercise that involved people asking each other for a kiss, and being required to say no. We then checked in with how it felt for people, both to say no and to hear no. The responses were powerful, especially for a controlled situation, with low stakes, where everyone already knew they were going to have to say, and hear, no. The foreknowledge and low stakes didn’t stop people from finding the refusal difficult, the rejection, disappointing.

Research performed around the turn of the millenium in Britain showed pretty clearly that saying no, even to ordinary things, is a disfavored behavior in our culture. A paper on conversational analysis, cited here by the fantastic Yes Means Yes blog, showed that even people turning down a non-sexual dinner invitation from a friend tended to soften their refusals, to pause, hesitate, hedge, placate, and explain rather than actually admitting that they didn’t want to.

It is built into our culture to avoid saying no; this makes imprecations to “just say no” nearly absurd. Think about how hard it can be to even hang up on a telemarketer or close the door on a fundraiser, let alone tell someone you like that you can’t meet them for lunch. Escalate that to telling someone you might want to sleep with at some point – or that you’ve had sex with a hundred times before! – that no, actually, you don’t want to have sex with them right now, and you begin to see the elaborate language we have built around refusal. We don’t want to seem prudish, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to put ourselves in danger, or appear arrogant by refusing before something is even offered.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that for most of us, these softened hedged rejections are entirely clear. We know what these refusals sound like, and look like, and so pushing past them tends to be a matter of will rather than a missed communication. What this indicates, sadly, is what we already know if we think about it: very few rapes occur because of misunderstandings or lack of clear rejections. They occur because a small subset of men repeatedly look for cracks in those soft nos, and apply leverage until they can “wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

But those people are not whom I’m addressing, here. I’m looking at people in communities where, while there are certainly a fair share of predators, most people are trying very hard to do things right.  People want to be “game” and try new things. People want to push past their own boundaries, and sometimes don’t even know what those boundaries are yet. People with well-established boundaries find their boundaries shifting depending on who they’re with, where they are, how many years have passed. And people are playing deliberately with power dynamics, where the person running the scene is highly responsible for their partner’s safety. It’s very easy to say, “Establish a safeword, negotiate in advance, know your limits,” and so on. It’s harder to know what to do when a scene becomes more intense than you signed up for, or when someone is suffering in silence out of pride, or when what you thought you negotiated turns out to be something else entirely, or when you are trying to deliberately push limits and go farther than you have before.

Add to this the social awkwardness that tends to permeate the geeky community (which overlaps mightily with kink and other alternative sexualities), and signals may not be as absolutely clear as was previously thought. “No” becomes not just difficult to say, but difficult to locate and identify in yourself.

Part of this talk will be about returning to the messages of the body, to get more clarity on what “No” feels like, and how to communicate it – and hear it – better.