Embodied Consent: Where is your ‘no’?

Image by Horia Varlan, via Flickr

The puzzle of no.

(Part 2 of my series leading up to my talk on Embodied Consent, happening October 11 at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference.)

So I’ve talked in this space about how hard it can be to say no. But what about to feel no?

In my work, Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we always come back to the body. The mind can play tricks, language can be contradictory, and emotions can cloud judgment. All of these things can be valuable allies in decision-making and healing. But the body is the holder of our most basic and profound truths.

Try this simple exercise. Think about a time when somebody asked you for something you didn’t want to give or do. No need to go deep into trauma territory for this: pick something that wasn’t too traumatic, but that you definitely did not want – like refusing a sales call, or being asked to stay late at work, or having to deal with that friend who is always getting themselves into trouble. Imagine the scene as richly as you can – where you were, what the air felt like, how you were positioned, what time of day it was.

Now focus on the part of you that, regardless of what you ended up saying, really didn’t want to do the thing. Focus on that feeling of ‘no.’ 

Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does ‘no’ feel like, physically? Is it heavy or light? Hot or cold? Is it sharp or blunt, curved or pointed? What is its density – thick like molasses, hard like steel, thready or fuzzy like cotton or spiderweb?
  • What does ‘no’ look like? Does it have a color? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a shape, a size?
  • What does ‘no’ sound like? Are alarm bells going off in your head? A door slamming?
  • What does ‘no’ smell or taste like? Do you get a “bad taste in your mouth”? Does something seem “fishy”? Do you smell staleness, or smoke, or something else?
  • Where is ‘no’ located in your body? Is it in your belly, roiling? Is it sitting on your chest, like an elephant? Does it make your feet feel like lead, or your shoulders feel burdened?

Once you begin to describe your ‘no’ with your senses, and locate it in your body (the sixth sense, called proprioception, comes into play here), your understanding of it can become clearer. Locating a feeling in the body helps us to concretize it, make it more real, and honor it rather than brushing it aside in favor of a polite response.

Embodied Consent: Where is your 'no'?

Image by Horia Varlan, via Flickr

The puzzle of no.

(Part 2 of my series leading up to my talk on Embodied Consent, happening October 11 at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference.)

So I’ve talked in this space about how hard it can be to say no. But what about to feel no?

In my work, Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we always come back to the body. The mind can play tricks, language can be contradictory, and emotions can cloud judgment. All of these things can be valuable allies in decision-making and healing. But the body is the holder of our most basic and profound truths.

Try this simple exercise. Think about a time when somebody asked you for something you didn’t want to give or do. No need to go deep into trauma territory for this: pick something that wasn’t too traumatic, but that you definitely did not want – like refusing a sales call, or being asked to stay late at work, or having to deal with that friend who is always getting themselves into trouble. Imagine the scene as richly as you can – where you were, what the air felt like, how you were positioned, what time of day it was.

Now focus on the part of you that, regardless of what you ended up saying, really didn’t want to do the thing. Focus on that feeling of ‘no.’ 

Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does ‘no’ feel like, physically? Is it heavy or light? Hot or cold? Is it sharp or blunt, curved or pointed? What is its density – thick like molasses, hard like steel, thready or fuzzy like cotton or spiderweb?
  • What does ‘no’ look like? Does it have a color? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a shape, a size?
  • What does ‘no’ sound like? Are alarm bells going off in your head? A door slamming?
  • What does ‘no’ smell or taste like? Do you get a “bad taste in your mouth”? Does something seem “fishy”? Do you smell staleness, or smoke, or something else?
  • Where is ‘no’ located in your body? Is it in your belly, roiling? Is it sitting on your chest, like an elephant? Does it make your feet feel like lead, or your shoulders feel burdened?

Once you begin to describe your ‘no’ with your senses, and locate it in your body (the sixth sense, called proprioception, comes into play here), your understanding of it can become clearer. Locating a feeling in the body helps us to concretize it, make it more real, and honor it rather than brushing it aside in favor of a polite response.

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.

Embodied Consent Workshop at the Wicked Women Conference

yes-238371_1280

I am pleased to announce that I will once again be giving a class at Bound in Boston’s Wicked Women event this year, over the Columbus Day weekend in October. This will be a revival and revision of the class I did last year with Sam at Safety Beyond Safewords, but I’ll be doing it on my own this time. I’m hoping to dig more deeply into the attendees’ own signs and signals, and overall make the class even more participatory and simpler. (Last year we tried to cover way too much material in 90 minutes.)

This year, the convention will also be a whole weekend rather than a single day, which is nice. I’m looking forward to helping more people understand their own and their partners’ yeses, noes and maybes.

I hope you’ll join us!