Soft Nos and Hard Situations
Defending My Boundaries
I may be the consent fairy, but that doesn't mean it's always easy for me to defend my own boundaries. A case in point is a situation I encountered with a friend over several months. I would see this friend in a group setting, and when I'd hug him he would whisper something explicitly sexual in my ear.
He and I had a sexual encounter shortly after my divorce, and while I wasn't interested in continuing that part of our relationship, I had not ever said that to him directly. The times he whispered in my ear were not opportunities to do that. He chose situations where we were with a group of people who didn’t (and didn’t need to) know we’d ever had a sexual relationship.The people around us didn’t know what he’d whispered to me, so my saying something back to him felt like I would have been just speaking up to reject him, and that felt unkind. It seemed awkward and maybe even a little mean for me to message him later to say "hey, that lascivious thing you suggested the other day? I'm not interested." So I didn't.
Finally, though, the subject came up in a messenger conversation, and I asked him to stop making sexualized comments to me.
His response was a little surprising to me, and fundamentally damaged my opinion of him. What he told me was; "I suspected they were making you uncomfortable, but you didn't say anything so I wasn't sure,"
What’s Wrong With This Picture
You see where the problem lies here, right? Instead of taking his suspicion that he was making me uncomfortable and not doing the thing he any more, he decided that until I forced the issue, he was going to just keep doing it. He didn’t ask me any questions that would confirm my comfort level, either. He thought I was uncomfortable with his sexualized behavior, but he enjoyed that sexualized behavior, so he wasn’t going to do anything that might jeopardize his ability to both keep doing what he wanted to do, and to think of himself as a good guy (because if I wasn’t complaining, then it must not be that big a deal, right?)
This interaction with my friend illustrates a core truth about consent. It's very often true that without enthusiastic consent, sexualized interaction feels off. My friend picked up on that, based on his comments to me. Had I not been uncomfortable, I would have whispered something back to him before breaking the hug, or snuggled deeper into the hug, or given him a big smile when the embrace ended. Instead, the way I actually reacted was to physically freeze, stay silent, and avert my eyes when the embrace ended. To be honest, this interaction was a trauma trigger for me, which is part of why it took me so long to speak up about it. My friend didn't have any way to know that. I didn't tell him it was upsetting for me. I still haven't told him that piece. He didn't install that trigger, I'm not mad at him for hitting it.
Here's what I am mad about. When I finally did say something, my friend's reaction was "I could tell you didn't like it." If that's true, that means he based his actions on prioritizing his desire to have this mild sexual interaction even though he thought I didn’t like it. He enjoyed it and was going to continue to do it as long as I wasn't willing to make things awkward for him.
Research tells me that my friend isn’t the only dude who fails to read soft nos when they might get in the way of them having sexual interaction with someone. We’ve taught men they shouldn't have to do that, and even that they can “lose their man card” if they show too much consideration for others. So my friend, who fancies himself quite the feminist and often posts things about consent and believing women on his social media, decided that unless I was willing to make an issue of it, he was going to keep doing the thing that pleased him regardless of how I felt about it.
The Bigger Challenge...and Opportunity
This is where the consent conversation gets tricky. Reading this account, my hunch is that your reaction falls into one of two buckets: either you think my friend is a hypocritical asshole and you wonder why I would still consider him a friend, or you think I'm unfairly painting a target on a guy for an innocent mistake. I'm other words, you're looking for someone to be wrong.
What feels true to me is that this is a complex situation where the concepts we understand about consent (e.g., don't interact without it) run headfirst into established patterns of behavior that have become unconscious (as long as they’re not complaining, whatever I do is fine.). So it is true that he was a bit of a hypocrite for posting things about enthusiastic consent when he wasn’t practicing it. It’s also true that I contributed to his behavior by not speaking up about my discomfort. Neither of us are bad people for our failures, and both of us have the opportunity to do better going forward.