Uncharted Waters

This post is an indirect response to Queenie’s recent post on gray areas.  The same warnings apply, so I suggest you go read her post before this one.

I may not have much to contribute, but I figure it’s the least I can do to draw more attention to the subject, even if I don’t really know how to talk about it.  But that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it?  And so some of us might as well wade in and get something started.

One of the first few things to come to mind, while reading that post, is something I tried to talk about in point #3 of this post here:

What do we call the inverse of repression, the internalized compulsory sexuality — not just the pressure to perform, but the pressure to believe in the necessity of one’s own allo(hetero)sexuality?  If we have a word for suppressing what exists, for burying and shoving it down, then what word can we use for artificially trying to fill an absence, for projecting a mask and trying to sculpt something out of the void?

There are a lot of suggestions in the comments for what to call this, and I’ll add another one here: revance, as a rebracketing of the word “advance,” with the same prefix as “repress.”  But regardless of what you call it, it’s apparent from Queenie’s post that we could stand to discuss it more often, both because of the sex-normativity that festers in our community and because, well…

It seems like almost everyone is dealing with this pressure in some way, but there’s a weird silence around the experience.

Here and there I’ve talked a bit about how these kinds of pressures manifest for me (exhibit a), but I know that’s not enough.  I also know that one thing that helps me talk about any given experience is having more conceptual tools for it, and maybe other folks are the same way, so that’s what I’ll aim to begin construction on here, while providing personal examples where I can.

– – – – – –

Besides a general aggregation of pressures from society, I think one thing that interferes in people’s sexual experiences (or avoidance thereof) is being what I call conflict-averse, which is a natural human inclination.  We’re social animals to a degree, many of us need and care about each other even when we shouldn’t, and recognizing that inevitable role in our decisions is yet another thing that the philosophy of diehard individualism has poisoned against our own self-betterment — but I digress.

I think being conflict-averse is “something to work on” in the way that being sex-averse isn’t, and I say that as someone who struggles with it imself (hard as that may be to believe, if you’ve noticed how willing I must seem to get into fights).  Conflict can give you a rush, but I don’t think it’s what anyone would call “fun” — and it’s worse when it’s with people you have any kind of significant relationship to.  And by “conflict,” here, this isn’t just meaning “explicit arguments,” but the broadest-possible sense of any “conflict of interest.”  Maybe I don’t mind expressing my preferences in general, but when I know they run counter to those of someone important to me (be that someone I’m stuck with or someone I’ve chosen), expressing those preferences regardless has Stakes — Stakes which remain emotionally formidable even if those Stakes are just “this might make the other person feel bad.”

To me, that’s painful and unpleasant, you know?  And I know a lot of other people feel the same way.

Under those circumstances, saying “no” comes with a cost, even when it shouldn’t.

That’s why I like that quote on the front page of the AVEN wiki that’s been there since the age of the dinosaurs:

If you just cuddle, that’s ok, and she loves you. If you end up having sex, that’s ok, and she loves you. If you get all self-conscious, totally lose the mood, and have an “Oh damn, I totally didn’t relax” freakout, that’s ok and she loves you. In fact, if that happens, I suggest you both make a point of laughing at the ridiculousness of it all – maybe pre-agree that if you freak out, then that means she has to feed you ice-cream until you calm down again, or some circuit-breaker like that.

-Oliver, in this thread about mixed relationships (which I have not read all of and cannot give you any detailed warnings about besides the fact that it talks about sex-aversion in a decidedly negative light)

To me, it’s the mark of a healthy relationship (or at least, my idea of a desirable relationship) if you can make situations like that feel low-cost in their consequences.  Cozy consequences, if you will.  Ideally, it should be easy.

…But too often it’s not easy, and in some (of my own) cases, I think that’s attributable to feeling conflict-averse and not wanting to brave a confused/hurt reaction if you withdraw or refuse consent unexpectedly.  It can feel like I’m pulling the rug out from under someone.  Which it shouldn’t, but it does.

The times when this has been least uncomfortable for me have been times when I had no emotional connection or had severed emotional connection with whomever I was rejecting.  The stakes feel more large, more looming, the closer I am to someone and the more I want to (or have to) keep them in my life.

Is it any wonder people have trouble with this when it comes to their primary partners?

In my experience, being conflict-averse has a lot to do with worrying how dramatic someone’s reaction might be to something you don’t intend to be dramatic.  And you know what?  A lot of the time, it makes every bit of sense to worry about that.  I’m not going to advise, “Relax, and trust your partner!” because you know what?  Maybe you still need time to figure out whether they deserve that trust.  I know I often do.

And maybe that’s not something everyone should hear, but I also know that seeing junk like “Just relax!” and “Just trust them!” and “Just trust yourself!” can go right in the garbage with “follow your heart” in my book, for all the good it’s ever done me.  I don’t even have a romofriend to be anxious about and that stuff still gives me a negative gut reaction at best.  What actually helps me work with/around/through uncertainty-and-hesitance on any given point is most often affirmation of it validity, not orders to reject or repress it.

– – – – – –

This may not pertain much to what gli was talking about, but in Cor’s post in this discussion, this is one of the lines that stood out to me:

For me, it’s much more about how it will hurt them, especially the more time I spend trying to “check” that I really want to stop.  To tell someone “no” seems to me to immediately bring up “when was no?” and lead to a judgment about time lapsed where I didn’t say anything and, therefore, they were violating me without knowing it.  (And again, to do that to someone who was a survivor and was terrified of hurting someone they loved — how could I make them into a rapist?)

Bolding mine, italics original.

What this question makes me think about — these anxieties about how saying anything could make someone feel too guilty, to make them feel like a Bad Person — falls under the part of the umbrella of conflict-aversion that I struggle with most.  Much of the time, I can power through ordinary stranger conflict-aversion through sheer annoyance.  With people I’m close to and care about, though, making them feel bad can feel so much worse than holding my tongue, especially if I don’t think I can get them to understand that it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

It’s like having roommates and letting them know that you need the dishes to get done or you want them to take a turn at cleaning the floor this time.  I’m not trying to make them feel bad for not having done it already.  I just need it to happen.  Regardless, I have to tread lightly knowing not everyone has the same approach that I do.

It’s another reason why I think the deed-oriented model of morality is a lot more practical and would, I assume, make things easier on a lot of people — because that means “hey, it turns out I don’t want this” doesn’t have to translate into “you’re a monster,” and I say that for the sake of people anxious to make clear that they’re not calling anyone a monster when they change the status of their consent or decide that something was a bad experience.

Anything, even sex, can be a mistake.  Sex-positivity can bite me.

– – – – – –

There are some unwanted experiences that I’ve had — and, by the sound of things, that other people have had — that felt/feel a bit like riding a conveyor belt.  Or perhaps “riding” is too active a verb.  Being carried by, rather.  Maybe this even involves some “voluntary” motion on your part, but it still feels like being carried by something else rather than the exertion of a will of your own.

This can be a negative experience when an inability to leave the situation feels like a built-in mechanism of the conveyor belt itself, strapping you in by convention or “obligation” or the incapacitating freeze-up of a bunny in fear.  There have been times when I’ve felt like I don’t have options besides passivity and waiting it out.

And I have to complicate that narrative by adding that, for me, the conveyor belt is not all bad.  Or rather, it is not the source of the bad.  There are times when passivity is the only thing I have energy for, and when constant concerned checking-in feels like an unceasing demand for Brain Work, for response, for social performance, in a way that can be psychologically and emotionally overwhelming enough that I will get… grumpy, shall we say.  There are times when the conveyor belt is the desirable option.  In kink terms, I’m basically a switch, and there are times when I actually do like being handled (ex. people touching my hair, tying a necktie on me, etc.) without much/any input on my part once we get past the “Hey can I do this?” “Yeah, go for it” exchange.

Neither of those experiences diminishes the other.

The conveyor belt can be what I want and choose sometimes, but it doesn’t make the bad experiences less scary; it doesn’t make those cases feel any less like I was never given an option to say no, to communicate, to leave.  There’s a difference between being passive and being frozen.

– – – – – –

I think “Why not?” was once supposed to be an encouraging phrase.  It’s always come across as aggressive to me.

This perception, of course, has been informed by experiences such as… the one where this particular person was trying to pressure me into “getting out of [my] comfort zone” (read: not a specific activity in particular, but whichever range of behaviors she believed fit the bill).  She tried to press me into explaining myself — into making a case for why I shouldn’t/didn’t want to do the bundle of things she was advocating (ex. enjoying more sex jokes, attending frat parties, etc.).  It’s the weirdest interaction with an atheist pothead I’ve ever had.  And all along was this implicit (sometimes explicit) demand of: “Why not?”

I don’t remember what I told her, but I remember feeling something along the lines of, “Well, why would I?”

In Queenie’s post, she talks about how multiple aces have felt like they’ve needed a reason “not to” when it comes to sex, to legitimize an absence of consent, and I think the general cultural sentiments swirling around the notion of “Why not?” have had in a hand in that.  The world is a vast place, and you shouldn’t be expected to come up with a “why not” for every single thing you could be doing right now.  An absence of cost is no reason to do something if there’s no benefit to it either.

– – – – – –

I hate the word “ready.”

I don’t hate the word itself, not alone.  I hate the word when it’s spoken about sex.

I almost don’t even care if it’s been helpful for other people (even if caring seems a nice thing to do).  I hate it because it’s always expressed in a binary of “ready” or “not ready,” with the latter always as a temporary status and the former as a permanent achievement.  I hate it because “ready” means “prepared,” which implies a process of preparing, which implies anyone who hasn’t consented to sex yet (yet) is in a continuous state of gearing up for it, a state of accumulating the criteria and maturing and ripening until the fated day — because it’s a universal destiny, this presumed eventuality whose only cause for delay can be whether or not you’re “ready.”

Being “not ready” is acceptable so far as you’re young, you’re in the early stages of a relationship, you’ve just come out of a bad one, etc.: you are a bud that has not yet reached fruition.

I need recognition of lack of experience for what it is, rather than being conflated with the state of preparation.  “No means no” failed where it taught “no means not yet” and “not until…”

Refusing to consent is harder than it should be.

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