“Do you want another biscuit?”
“Ah, no I’m OK thanks. I’ve had five and I had a big lunch – I’m really full.”
“Yeah, I’m sure thanks.”
“Go on – they’re delicious!”
“I know. I just…”
And then I sit and eat the biscuit and think ‘for fuck’s sake, I am a grown up. I should be able to decide whether I want a fucking biscuit.’ But then someone will pass the plate around again, and I’ll take another, because I don’t want to be rude. And by the end of the day I will be so sick of biscuits and so sad that these things I love very much (biscuits) have been ruined by the fact that I’ve had them politely shoveled into my face alongside the cup of tea that I don’t really like either.
This isn’t a metaphor for sex.
We’re getting better at talking about sexual consent. There are plenty of different ways to conceptualise it – the tea analogy being the obvious (and most recently viral) one. I’ve also seen lots of blogs and discussions around how we teach children about consent – the realisation that we tend to pressure children into physical contact with older relatives (Give Nanna a hug! Go on, you have to, she’s your Nanna!) came as quite a surprise to me. But as soon as you’re told about it you start to see it everywhere.
In bed, I pretty much know what I want now: it’s less a question of a guy asking me if I want his biscuits and more a question of both of us staring at a biscuit buffet, then deciding which ones we’d like to sample today. Sometimes shortbread, other times party rings. Sometimes he offers me a chocolate hob nob and I want it in the moment, then one or other of us quickly decides we don’t want a hob nob right now and we both eat crackers instead. I’m stretching it, aren’t I? Basically though sexual consent is about more than just having a safeword or having hard or soft limits regarding individual acts. There’s a great piece here by Meg John Barker on minimising pressure and communicating better in bed.
We suck at non-sexual consent
I almost – almost – titled this post ‘British people suck at non-sexual consent’, because so much of it is linked in my head to a vague sense of doing things out of politeness, until I realised that was arse. Basically humans are a bit rubbish at respecting people’s boundaries when we’re overexcited about a nice thing.
That nice thing might be biscuits, it might be the Wetherspoons ‘double up for a pound’ offer, it might be an invite to a party: whatever. If person A conceives of something as a ‘treat’ or a pleasure, and they offer it to person B, then they often assume that any refusal on the part of person B is – and should be – either ignored or twisted into a yes.
“Fancy another glass of wine?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t – I have tonnes of work to do tomorrow.”
“Ah, OK. Just a small one though.”
And then that person comes back from the bar with a large glass of wine.
Well-meaning, sure. Easy mistake to make. You want to appear generous and giving, after all. I have definitely made the same mistake in the past, countless times. Not to mention all the times I’ve panicked and gone “oh, err… DOUBLE” when the bar staff ask, because I don’t ever want to look like I’m cheap. We often walk a line which involves trying to work out whether someone’s ‘no’ means:
- ‘I’d love to but I don’t want to look like I’m putting you out’ or
- ‘I genuinely don’t want this.’
They sometimes sound similar, and yet there’s a chasm of difference between them.
Anxiety and saying ‘no’
I recently spoke to some people about freelancing, with the aim of giving some tips and advice on how to do it. And afterwards, a lovely blogger approached me and said: ‘how do you deal with the anxiety thing, when combined with freelancing?’ The answer is: not very well, to be honest. And a lot of that revolves around my inability to say ‘no.’
I struggle to say a firm ‘no’ – I’ll go ‘oh wow that sounds interesting’ or ‘I’m quite busy right now’, but I very rarely give a flat-out no. I find it hard to turn things down in social situations too. People I know through Twitter often ask me to go for a drink with them. They’ll say ‘oh I’d love to meet you!’ and I mumble and dissemble and fail to say what I really should: please stop asking. Not because I don’t think you’re nice, or even because I won’t enjoy having a pint or two and chatting about fun stuff. But because if I meet you I will then have to meet someone else. And someone else. And any one of you might bring your friends (a couple of people have done this) or take a surreptitious photo of me (ditto) or accidentally let slip my name to someone (many). None of these people are bad people, by the way: they just don’t have the same boundaries as I do, or understand the exact reasons why I have those boundaries.
It’s not just as ‘GOTN’ that this freaks me out – if I get a text from a close friend inviting me to the pub, occasionally my reaction borders on the seriously fucking weird. It’s a nice thing, and something I’d usually enjoy, with someone I love: and yet I’ll sob and shake and panic because now I have to go to the pub and I’ll never get all my work done and oh God what if they hate me for saying no.
That’s all my own fault: it’s something I’m working on. But it’s tricky to work on it when I know that often a ‘no’ is going to be met not with an ‘OK then’ but ‘go on!’ It takes a lot of effort to spit the word out: we’re accustomed to saying ‘yes’ – we’re trained to say yes. So when we manage to get round the tongue-twister of ‘I’m sorry but I’m busy’ or ‘I’m not sure I really can right now’, we don’t want to have to gather the courage once again to give a firmer ‘no’ the second time round.
Perhaps this is me. Perhaps I am the only one who feels like this. And perhaps – no, not perhaps, definitely – I do this same thing myself. Out of a fear of friends feeling like I don’t love them enough, I will often ask more than once. Say ‘but you’re the funnest one! You have to come out!’ then hate myself ten minutes later because I’ve done that thing I hate.
Safewords for not-sex
In Japan, the word ‘chotto’ often acts as ‘no.’ The actual word for ‘no’ – iie – is rarely used if someone offers you a biscuit or a top-up on your wine. Instead they say ‘chotto’, which means ‘a little.’ Like ‘it’s a little difficult for me to have more wine because I’m working tomorrow’, where everything other than the ‘little’ is implied. I like it: it’s a nice way to say ‘no’ without having to utter the word. And if we had a word like that I’d retreat into it at every available opportunity: the stark and simple strength of a flat-out ‘no’ being softened by a gentler word.
Am I saying we should have one of these? No. Because while it’d give people like me, who are terrified of offending their mates, a decent way to say ‘no’, we’re still stuck in the same boat. Not everyone in Japan accepts a ‘chotto’ as a final answer, after all: it just broadly replaces what ‘no’ would otherwise do, and we’re back to square one.
“Go on, you know you want to.”
So what am I after? I don’t know. I’m only really beginning to accept that this stuff can be hard, and the idea of coming up with a set of rigid rules or codewords feels silly in the same way as those people who think having a tickbox ‘consent’ app is a good way to go in the bedroom. I just wanted to acknowledge that even outside the bedroom, we’re not always brilliant at recognising what a human wants and needs. When I’m shagging someone, I don’t ever want to have to say ‘NO!’ – capital letters, shouted loudly, and with crossed-arms and ‘end the sex now’ body language. I want for our consent to be something that grows out of mutual trust and respect. Understanding rather than pressuring – an open question (‘what do you like?’) rather than a closed one (‘can I do this?’).
And I want real-life consent to be like that too. For it to become easier to walk that line between being generous and being pushy, and navigate the options between ‘that’d be lovely’ and ‘Fuck off with your biscuits.’
I don’t have a solution. I’m bad at it. But maybe realising just how bad I am at it is a decent place to start.
Sorry this one was a bit rambly. If you want more interesting stuff on sexual consent, go and read Bish’s excellent piece on consensual handshakes: he runs this as a workshop too which I’ve been to and which was spectacular. Also this thing about consent culture from Pervocracy.