As a sex educator, I do this activity when I’m teaching high school and college students about consent where I give them specific scenarios to help them learn how to read into the nuances of sexual communication. One of the slides says: “You’re hanging out with a girl who you just went on a second date with. She came back to your apartment and you’re making out on your bed. You go to touch her butt and she pulls your hands away but keeps kissing you.”
And then I have them pick from the following options: “A. She’s a tease; B. She definitely wants to have sex tonight; C. She wants to keep kissing but doesn’t want you to touch her butt; D. You don’t know what she wants, you should pause and check-in.” Usually, they get into an argument about whether the correct answer is option C or D — which makes me super proud of them. As a class, we talk about how if you’re reading someone’s sexual body language, C is a pretty good assumption to make. But the thing is, you’ll never know for sure unless you talk to the other person (the correct answer is D).
While C or D seems like the obvious choice to so many of us, it clearly is not a universally recognized truth. And what happens when you don’t respect a partner’s clear sexual boundaries they’re communicating to you — is persistence against their will. Otherwise known as coercion.
This past week since the Aziz Ansari babe.net allegations came out, I’ve had a one track mind. I haven’t been stuck on parsing out what happened to Grace, because that experience is all too familiar to me and so many women and queer folx in my life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been coerced into doing something sexual I didn’t want to do and talked with friends about their shame around the same.
No, that isn’t what I’ve been circling around in my head this past week. For that conversation has been a part of my being for far longer than I’m comfortable with.
The topic I’ve been stuck on is this: Persistence, when someone has said no either verbally or non-verbally, is one hundred percent, coercion. It’s non-consensual. I’ve been thinking about how this narrative — that women and queer folx have to be convinced into sex — is one that has been woven into the history of our country. It shows up as a romantic plotline in some of the earliest Hollywood films, as well as some of your favorite recent Indie films. It’s an aspect of popular songs and music videos. It’s displayed in the advertisements that light up Times Square. It’s romanticized throughout our culture.
And because of the flurry of news stories lately, you might have seen a lot of people claiming that there is no such thing as non-verbal consent. As your sex ed bestie, I am here to let you know that is untrue.
And today we are going to break down the nuances of consent.
Non-verbal consent is just as real as verbal consent.
When someone has active and open body language, that likely means they want to keep going. When they’re nodding their heads in a clear “yes” and smiling at you, or holding eye contact — those are pretty good signs that you’re both on the same page. And if someone is dodging their head to avoid your kiss or pulling your hands away when you go to touch them somewhere — that is a really good sign that you need to pause and check-in.
You could ask something like, “Do you want to keep going?” or “Do you need a break?” or “Is this okay?” These check-ins show that you respect them and care about their sexual agency. It also gives space to have a conversation about desire on both ends. What do you each want out of this sexual situation?
However, neither verbal nor non-verbal consent matter if it was given under the context of pressure, coercion, or manipulation.
Let’s talk about what happened with “Grace.” Ansari (allegedly) continually pushed her boundaries and when she told him to back up, he did, but only for five minutes before (allegedly) bringing up sexual acts she had already said no to.
Sexual violence isn’t just when someone has the intent to harm someone else’s body. Sometimes, the person causing harm has no intentions of harm. In fact, sexual trauma often comes from sex that is one-sided. Meaning one person wanted to have the kind of sex that was had — usually the person with more power in the relationship — but they didn’t pay any attention to or don’t even care what the other person wanted (or didn’t want, for that matter).
This is even more vital when power dynamics play into our sexual experiences.
Living in a society where oppressive systems are built to keep so many of us suppressed and quiet, it’s important to remember that the privileges we do carry, follow us into the bedroom. A cis male celebrity, for example, has the privilege of being a cis man, ultra-wealthy, famous, and hyper-connected to resources (like a fancy lawyer for sexual assault allegations).
The thing about consent is that it isn’t just something to be obtained by one person. It’s a nuanced and ongoing negotiation between everyone present in the sexual encounter. I know none of those words sound sexy. The word “negotiation” doesn’t exactly make me wet, either. However, knowing the ways in which my partners want to be touched and f*cked — does turn me on.
Just because someone has said “yes” they want to have sex with you, doesn’t mean you have consent to do whatever you want. It should be about mutual desire. Get specific about what you both want. Get specific about what sex means to you. I will literally die blue in the face telling people to communicate more about sex and their desires. Not only does it lead to consensual sex, it also leads to mutually pleasurable experiences!
If people took just one second to ask their partners about the kind of sex they want to have or if they even want to have sex at all, instead of shoving fingers down their throat — then maybe we wouldn’t be here. But when you don’t pause for that check-in after someone has told you “Maybe we should slow down” or pushed you off of them — what happens next is coercion. When you ignore someone’s body language or verbal communication that they don’t want to keep going, that is sexual assault.
When you don’t value your partner’s pleasure as important, you aren’t respecting their sexual autonomy.
Navigating sexual consent when there is emotional manipulation involved can leave victims of coercion with a lot of shame and is also proven to leave lasting effects of PTSD. These instances of coercion go beyond one-night hookups or casual sex — it happens in intimate relationships too. At best these moments are manipulation, and at worst – they’re abuse.
When someone says “But babe, I’m so horny — can’t we just have a quicky?” after their partner has told them they’re tired or not in the mood, that is also a form of emotional manipulation. Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean your partner has a right to your body whenever they want it.
If you’re out on a date and they’re pressuring you into drinking more, that also is a sign of coercion if they later try to have sex with you when you are not sober enough to consent or don’t want to do it. So often, I hear friends say that they’ve had sex out of guilt. Their date got the meal and drinks, so sex feels like an expectation.
If you’ve said “yes” whilst under pressure from your partner, you’re allowed to feel hurt by that. You’re allowed to process your emotions and let that person know that what they did wasn’t consensual and wasn’t okay. These different tiers of emotional manipulation often get overlooked as a non-issue in our society and I hope that starts to change because of brave women like Grace.
My best advice to every single person as a sex educator is to talk about it. Talk about sex, talk about pleasure, talk about desire, talk about intimacy, talk about communication in relationships. Please.