Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Consent 102: Clarifying the gray spaces

Parenting, Sexuality, Romantic RelationshipsAndrew Smiler

I learned how to put the moves on a girl watching Danny and Sandy. Most memorable—and easiest to understand for my 10 year old self—was his fake sneeze at the drive-in. From hands and arms at his side, to arm on the seat behind her, to fake sneeze and arm on her shoulder, he was smooth. Things went downhill from there, literally and figuratively. When Danny started groping Sandy, she objected. Strongly. Got out of the car and walked away. He lamented being alone at the drive-in, but didn’t understand what went wrong. At 10, I went with the storyline (and stereotypes) and saw her as prudish. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and had a fair amount of experience that I realized what was missing: her consent.

 

I also realized that he’s mauling her, not groping her, but that’s a different story.

I grew up in the 1970s and was taught “no means no.” In my 20s, I went on a few dates with a young woman. After an activity out (dinner, movie, etc.), we’d ended up back at one of our places and make out. At the beginning of each make out session, she’d tell me how far we’d be going, saying something like “no hands under shirts.” And then she’d inevitably take us across that line, moving my hand under shirt.

I didn’t have a good framework for how to understand what was going on and had no idea what to do when someone said no and then changed it to yes in the middle of making out. I wasn’t very good at the relationship thing at that point, so instead of talking about it, I just stopped calling her. Retrospectively, that wasn’t my best move, but it was the only thing I could figure out at the time.

Today, we teach kids that “yes means yes” and “no means no.” I think that would have helped my 20something self. Then again, there’s still a lot of nonverbal communication and indirect messaging that happens as a two-some moves from no sexual contact through their first sex together. These messages can be difficult to understand, and contribute to the notion that men and women come from different planets. The challenges are magnified for teens and others with relatively little experience in the dating and sexual realms.

If you’re not comfortable saying it out loud—whether it is about permission to cuddle, kiss, or penetrate—then you’re not ready to do it.

That lack of experiences often turns into a reliance on gender stereotypes and images presented by mass media, including porn. In those realms, it’s usually the guy’s responsibility to make the moves and girls rarely say—or mean—no for any length of time.

Below are some guidelines to help understand and navigate the grey areas so they become black and white. We’re big on consent here at GMP, whether those are lessons for teens or kids age 1-21.

The Indirect No.

Girls are given a double message about the word no. They’re taught to say it clearly when something sexually is happening that they don’t like. And they’re taught that being someone’s friend—and especially being someone’s girlfriend—means agreeing, or at least going along with, whatever their partner suggests in order to maintain or strengthen the relationship. This gets reinforced through lessons on politeness; a flat “no” may be considered incredibly rude.

So, when confronted with a situation where he is stereotypically pushing for more intimate sexual contact, she says things like “what if someone walks in on us?,” “what if I get pregnant?,” or “this [car/sofa/etc.] isn’t the right place.” All of these are indirect ways of saying either “no” or “not yet.” But boys are rarely given the decoder ring—there’s no male version of Seventeen to explain it to them—so they interpret this as either some form of making excuses or as a problem that needs to be solved. If he believes she’s making excuses, a nice guy will take this as some version of no and back off, while a jerk will continue to pressure her because he thinks she doesn’t know how to say yes.

On the other hand, he may understand “what if someone walks in on us?” as a problem to be solved. Being a problem solver—whether that’s figuring out how to get to the next level of Halo, finding a way to beat a 4-6 defense, fixing stuff around the house, or making the electronics play together nicely—is part of our (stereotypical) expectations of guys. With a goal of having sex and a problem of “someone might walk in on us,” he’s likely to start looking for solutions. He’ll get frustrated when she rejects each solution or finds additional problems to solve and she’ll get frustrated because he doesn’t understand her “no.”

There’s a simple solution though: ask/say if the message is really “not yet” or if it’s “no, never.” And remember that not yet doesn’t mean stop, it means keep doing what you’re doing but don’t go any farther.

Grunting & Groping

It’s not the clearest form of communication, but permission is often granted nonverbally. It’s one of the findings of a long line of research by University of Kansas researcher Charlene Muehlenhard, who has spent the last two decades studying sexual consent among college students. Her research indicates consent is often given nonverbally, often with one person—typically the guy—putting his hand (or mouth or whatever) someplace it hasn’t been before. He might rest it there for a moment, implicitly asking if it’s okay, before doing anything. If his partner doesn’t like it, she (or he) can move it away. If she just stops but doesn’t say anything, that should be understood as no.

With a goal of having sex and a problem of “someone might walk in on us,” he’s likely to start looking for solutions.

If he’s going too fast, or repeatedly puts his hand someplace where his partner doesn’t want it, then she may stop the action completely. Just ask Danny Zuko.

There’s a simple way to make this more explicit. When that hand gets to a new place, break the liplock for half a second and ask “is this okay?”

Be Explicit

Don’t ask about “doing it” or “hooking up” because those terms are ambiguous. Ask or tell the person what you want to do and if they’re okay with that behavior. Lack of vocabulary probably won’t be a problem. Be reasonably specific; if it helps you can be very technically specific—I want to put my tongue in your mouth and move it back and forth—and laugh about it.

If you’re not comfortable saying it out loud—whether it is about permission to cuddle, kiss, or penetrate—then you’re not ready to do it.

All of these forms of consent rely on the assumption that you’re both at least reasonably sober and otherwise capable of giving consent. If she’s passed out, as in Steubenville or Maryville, then there’s no consent. These guidelines also assume that both girls and guys can refuse sex and that people will stop when asked to do so. And even though I’ve mostly written for a male-female couple, these guidelines should work for any pairing.

-image from FanPop