On Withdrawing Consent

CN: this post deals with the concept of consent and a specific positive experience involving physical contact.  It does not talk about any sexual content in the slightest, so I’m putting that upfront in case that’s helpful to know.

The other day, I spent a day downtown with a friend, and for a portion of that time we hung out the book store, which led to me sitting on a couch with him as he read a book out loud to me.  Not really a traditional friendship activity, in retrospect, but whatever (It was a book he’d already read and enjoyed before, about a necromancer who makes a deal with the devil, then belatedly realizes that was a bad idea and decides to fix it… by making another deal with the devil.  I interrupted with lots of critiques of the world-building, but it was a fun story to listen to).  During all this, we gradually moved closer together and, for a while, sat with our arms touching, sort of leaning up against each other.  It wasn’t exactly “cuddling”.  Sitting that close was just a nice kind of… reassuring bit of passive contact, pleasant but low-key, and it may not have been much, but it was enough that he noticed when I moved away. Shifting further to the side, I told him I didn’t want his arm against mine anymore (because that had suddenly become the case, even though it hadn’t been the case a few minutes before).  He accepted this and kept reading the story.

Later, when we were outside on the sidewalk and looking over the edge of a bridge, he inquired whether he had done anything wrong — as in, whether he had done something to make me not want to touch him anymore.  It made sense for him to ask this.  Our friendship, relatively new to both of us, had been tumultuous for a while due to differing communication styles, which led to us ticking each other off on a regular basis and then having to go through the long and emotionally-exhaustive process of getting everything sorted out again.  That’s part of why I decided to give up on trying to be his friend recently, a decision I’m still aching about, but the point is: he didn’t and still doesn’t know how to read me.

So when he asked me if he’d done anything wrong that time, I answered with something like, “Huh?  Oh — no, you’re good,” and tried to explain that that sometimes my touch preferences take sudden shifts in the moment and that this can lead to me getting overwhelmed — an idea I expressed not very eloquently.  “I just get overstimulated sometimes.  That ever happen to you?”

I was only asking him to try and make it sound normal.  This guy is more extroverted than I am and seems to have boundless energy reserves, so presumably, understimulation is more often a problem for him than the reverse… but to my surprise, he answered in the affirmative.  He just doesn’t give much indication of it, he explained, and then the problem builds up and he snaps without warning — which, as he acknowledged, is not ideal. Musing on how someone could get into that habit, I expressed my suspicions that it had something to do with a lack of social scripts to remove oneself from a situation before it got to that point, a lack of adequate ways to signal a need for an end without the risk of hurting feelings or bruising egos or starting a fight, “because it’s seen as impolite to decline things.”

And it seems glaringly obvious to me that any and all interpersonal relationships should make space for that possibility — that sometimes, or even all the times, people are going to dis-want some things, and there should be a way for them to back out or turn them down without causing a conflict or receiving backlash. While it’s good that he checked in to see if he should have done something differently, I’m also glad that I was able to put some physical distance between us when I needed it without an explanation being demanded of me on the spot, and that’s the way it should be.

My instinct is to end the post here, because that’s it.  That’s the end.  But at the same time, it feels like that phrase bears repeating — that’s the way it should be.  That’s the way it should be, and we don’t see enough of that because so often boundaries are treated as if they were created to be violated and consent treated as if it cannot be retracted once it is given and there’s no going down the touch escalator because it only goes up and telling someone you don’t want them to touch you anymore is “rude” and indicative of conflict and my mother looks at me like I’ve spit in her face when I tell her to quit stroking me. I see so much of this, so much of this, with hardly any examples to the contrary, and that’s not the way it should be.

But just saying “okay” and accepting it and moving on — that’s the way it should be.  And I shouldn’t have to feel grateful for that when it happens.


8 responses to “On Withdrawing Consent

  • Anonymous

    I hope this doesn’t seem too simplistic: What about the idea of letting someone you’re spending time with know upfront that there could be an issue? I suppose it would depend on the familiarity and comfort level one has with the person, but I think anyone you’d want to spend time with as a friend would appreciate knowing boundaries. Can only speak for myself, obviously!

  • Klaraa

    You are so lovely…
    This might even be used as a cue/short word to stop something. Like, “no I didn’t hate that from the beginning and am only speaking out now, but that touch was kind of nice at the start and is now becoming unpleasant and I’d prefer it if you stopped before it becomes incredibly annoying/painful/scary, but we’re okay and I don’t hate you for ever starting…”

  • Aqua

    I’ve been in situations like that by a very touchy-feely friend, while I’m a lot more averse to touch, but often times, he didn’t back off when I wanted him to. I also felt like I had to give an explanation, and felt like it wouldn’t be good enough. Ideally, I shouldn’t have had to do that. It’s sad where we live in a world where your friend backing off after you withdrew consent, without you having to justify it, is more of an exception than the rule. I like the idea of ‘dis-wanting’ something, to show that someone can tolerate contact up until a certain point, and that point has been reached.

  • Janet

    I really like this “dis-wanting.” My desire for and comfort level with touch does vary. Also, I wonder if sometimes I’ve been more comfortable with a certain level of touch than a friend. I’d like an easy way for them to be able to communicate to me that they want less touch, something that won’t cause embarrassment to them or to me.

    As I was reading this, though, another thought came up. I get easily overwhelmed on the level of emotional closeness. I wonder if anyone else has this experience. It would be so nice to be able to pull back a bit emotionally from a friend for a little while without its becoming a matter for major drama. The drama leaves me even more emotionally overwhelmed and therefore even less able to connect than I would have been had the friend understood that I needed a little distance to recover. Sometimes I can tell people, especially fellow introverts, that I just need a bit of “space” or “Introvert time,” but some people don’t seem to have a framework beyond “passive-aggressive” and “silent treatment” to describe what I’m doing. I’m not sure if this is what you had in mind when you wrote the article, but it came to my mind as I was reading, so I thought I’d mention it too.

    • acetheist

      I can kind of relate to that. Intimacy of any kind can be too much sometimes, and emotional intimacy is no different. If someone punishes you for withdrawing that sometimes, by spending less time with them or what have you, that sounds like they could be being unfair. I mean, on the one hand I can understand them being concerned or maybe hurt, but if being able to ask for alone time and some occasional distance is something that isn’t accepted or understood, I’d weigh the possibility that that may be the sign of an incompatibility.

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