Power In Your Hands

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.

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

I was reading Psychology Today’s recent article, The Power of No, this morning, and it got me thinking about a question that haunts alternative sexuality communities, or should.

The question is this: in a world where we accept the feminist precept that rape culture exists – which needless to say, I do – how do people – especially men – negotiate consent responsibly? And in particular: what can good men – men who do not want to contribute to this culture, but also want healthy, fulfilling sex lives – do?

In the mainstream world, women have been speaking up about phenomena like Schrödinger’s Rapist: the idea that anyone a woman meets may sexually assault her, and she is best served by behaving as if he will until she knows otherwise. With rape culture being what it is – an environment where men are often subtly or overtly taught to feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where women are taught that being nice is more important than protecting your boundaries – it’s not just difficult for women to say no, or for men to hear and respect it.  It’s equally difficult for women to say yes, and mean it. The larger culture around sexuality in this country doesn’t teach us how to say, and hear, no, or how to hear, or say, yes.  It teaches us to make moves, use lines, seduce, talk people into bed – or to accelerate sexually without getting a further green light.  It teaches us to resist, or be coy, or play hard to get so we won’t be labeled sluts.  Men who refuse to participate in these dangerous games become “nice guys” – many of whom wind up not behaving so nicely; women get trapped into a virgin/whore dichotomy, where their choice to say yes or no depends on how they want to be regarded, not on what they actually want.

In such an environment, is it any surprise that people don’t feel like they have any agency with regard to their own desires, their own bodies?

Groups such as polyamorous, queer, and BDSM communities, as well as other touch- and sex-positive groups, are under extra pressure to make sure that their members negotiate consent and boundaries well, because the frequency of initiating contact is so much higher than in the mainstream, monogamous world.  While these groups are by no means immune from abuse, rape, and other violations of bodily autonomy, they are places where people are deliberately practicing the skills of negotiating consent, all the time.

In my experience, the result of this practice, and the self-policing that communities like this tend to do, is incredibly beneficial. In the most obvious sense, it gives people the opportunity to practice saying no fairly often, and saying it in ways that minimize a sense of rejection.  It also gives people practice hearing ‘no,’ and responding to it in a respectful way.  Moreover, though, it gives people practice saying and hearing ‘yes’: an option that is impossible in a world where it is never clear whether your ‘no’ will be respected.  In the best of these types of communities, the need to frequently negotiate sexual and romantic boundaries provides a kind of laboratory space for people to experiment with agency, specificity, and desire: yes, you may touch me here, but not there.  Yes, I’d like to do this with you, but not that.  Yes, I’d like to be this to you, but I can’t be that for you. Someone else will have to fill that need.

In the best of circumstances, this kind of environment helps teach the men in it that asking is okay, so long as it’s done without pressure and so long as a ‘no’ is met with immediate, respectful backing off.  In turn, this teaches women that such a thing is not only possible, but the norm – which makes it safer for her to say ‘yes.’

What would it be like, I began to wonder as I thought about this, if all kids were taught early on how to negotiate specific, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent? If our culture wasn’t so afraid of, and screwed up about, sexuality that we could talk about it openly enough to exercise it healthily? What if “How To Say, and Hear, No – And Yes” were a required class for every college freshman? What if people who are not, and will never be, involved in alternative sexuality communities had some other means of practicing these essential skills so that they could flirt, date, have sex, live together, get married and raise kids in a way that involved conscious, clear, joyful choice?

If you wonder about this too, and want help finding your own boundaries and agency, contact me for a consultation.

In anticipation of my talk on embodied consent in September, I’m going to writing a lot about consent in this space. I’m away until August 10, so for the next two entires, you’ll be getting reruns. Here’s an oldy but goody that practically went viral when I first posted it.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.

Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.

***

Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.

 

In the wake of the horrific shootings this week, Twitter and other social media have been a-flurry with defensive remarks from men (hashtag: notallmen) and responses from women (hashtag: yesallwomen). The dialogue seems to be going past each other, in a way that neither increases understanding nor gets at the heart of why these awful things are happening.

In the midst of this, a therapist has written this marvelous article, about secondary trauma and how we might better understand all of this.

In short:

  • The women of this world express to men their experiences of what they go through on a day to day basis, living in rape culture.
  • The men of this world who are trying to understand, who want to help, who want things to change, feel helpless, depressed, and like part of the problem, and express these frustrations to women.
  • The women go, seriously, I just shared these horrible experiences with you and now you want me to soothe your hurt feelings? Screw off.
  • The women still feel unseen and unheard, and the men screw off, having nowhere to put their secondary trauma.

In the post, the author notes how men often don’t have a lot of emotionally intimate male friends, particularly if they are partnered, and that they get the majority of their emotional needs met by the women in their lives. When those women need to be listened to – witnessed, without judgment – about things that men by virtue of being men largely don’t experience, those same women cannot then be the witnesses for the pain men feel over what they’ve just been told. It’s like a therapist turning around to their client and saying, “What you just told me was deeply upsetting, and I think I need some support around how upset your experience makes me.” While the relationship is not analogous, sometimes witnessing needs to be one-sided. Which is why men need witnesses, too.

But Sarah O says this all better than I can summarize. Please, go read.

by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy PoirrierI was reading Psychology Today’s recent article, The Power of No, this morning, and it got me thinking about a question that haunts alternative sexuality communities, or should.

The question is this: in a world where we accept the feminist precept that rape culture exists – which needless to say, I do – how do people – especially men – negotiate consent responsibly? And in particular: what can good men – men who do not want to contribute to this culture, but also want healthy, fulfilling sex lives – do?

In the mainstream world, women have been speaking up about phenomena like Schrödinger’s Rapist: the idea that anyone a woman meets may sexually assault her, and she is best served by behaving as if he will until she knows otherwise. With rape culture being what it is – an environment where men are often subtly or overtly taught to feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where women are taught that being nice is more important than protecting your boundaries – it’s not just difficult for women to say no, or for men to hear and respect it.  It’s equally difficult for women to say yes, and mean it. The larger culture around sexuality in this country doesn’t teach us how to say, and hear, no, or how to hear, or say, yes.  It teaches us to make moves, use lines, seduce, talk people into bed – or to accelerate sexually without getting a further green light.  It teaches us to resist, or be coy, or play hard to get so we won’t be labeled sluts.  Men who refuse to participate in these dangerous games become “nice guys” – many of whom wind up not behaving so nicely; women get trapped into a virgin/whore dichotomy, where their choice to say yes or no depends on how they want to be regarded, not on what they actually want.

In such an environment, is it any surprise that people don’t feel like they have any agency with regard to their own desires, their own bodies?

Groups such as polyamorous, queer, and BDSM communities, as well as other touch- and sex-positive groups, are under extra pressure to make sure that their members negotiate consent and boundaries well, because the frequency of initiating contact is so much higher than in the mainstream, monogamous world.  While these groups are by no means immune from abuse, rape, and other violations of bodily autonomy, they are places where people are deliberately practicing the skills of negotiating consent, all the time.

In my experience, the result of this practice, and the self-policing that communities like this tend to do, is incredibly beneficial. In the most obvious sense, it gives people the opportunity to practice saying no fairly often, and saying it in ways that minimize a sense of rejection.  It also gives people practice hearing ‘no,’ and responding to it in a respectful way.  Moreover, though, it gives people practice saying and hearing ‘yes’: an option that is impossible in a world where it is never clear whether your ‘no’ will be respected.  In the best of these types of communities, the need to frequently negotiate sexual and romantic boundaries provides a kind of laboratory space for people to experiment with agency, specificity, and desire: yes, you may touch me here, but not there.  Yes, I’d like to do this with you, but not that.  Yes, I’d like to be this to you, but I can’t be that for you. Someone else will have to fill that need.

In the best of circumstances, this kind of environment helps teach the men in it that asking is okay, so long as it’s done without pressure and so long as a ‘no’ is met with immediate, respectful backing off.  In turn, this teaches women that such a thing is not only possible, but the norm – which makes it safer for her to say ‘yes.’

What would it be like, I began to wonder as I thought about this, if all kids were taught early on how to negotiate specific, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent? If our culture wasn’t so afraid of, and screwed up about, sexuality that we could talk about it openly enough to exercise it healthily? What if “How To Say, and Hear, No – And Yes” were a required class for every college freshman? What if people who are not, and will never be, involved in alternative sexuality communities had some other means of practicing these essential skills so that they could flirt, date, have sex, live together, get married and raise kids in a way that involved conscious, clear, joyful choice?

If you wonder about this too, and want help finding your own boundaries and agency, contact me for a consultation.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.

Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.

***

Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.