Apologies for the cryptic title. This post is another one for the gray area convo, again about consent and its parameters. TW for rape and implied pressure from partners, as well as compulsory sexuality more generally. Except for the paragraph after this one, this is mostly an abstract/exploratory post about relationship ethics and feeling like you have choices.
A few times now, I’ve encountered a personal account from someone who says they consented to something but, as they also acknowledge, they “didn’t really know that ‘no’ was an option.” To me, feeling like you can’t say no would invalidate that as “real” consent, and originally, that’s what this post was going to be about.
But then I got to thinking — what does it mean to “know” you can say no? I mean, most people have the word “no” in their vocabulary, technically speaking. What blocks it out as a conceivable choice? Or rather: what establishes it as “an option”?
I wrote a few days ago about social cost as a presence that shapes our decision-making, but I also think it’s worthwhile to think of “no as an option” as a kind of presence, as well. In our culture, it’s not something that carries through all our interactions by default. We have to bring it into being. It has to be communicated.
So, what does that look like, in practice? How can that be accomplished? What actions increase the accessibility/availability of “no”? In other words: what can we do to actively minimize social cost? What strategies work, and what strategies fail?
I’m being weirdly formal-speak about this. Sorry about that. Let me try again:
What has it meant for you to “know” you can say no? What tactics have people used (or could they have used) to make that option feel real to you? And are there any tactics you could tell were an attempt but, regardless, didn’t work?
I know the obvious answer is just that these things are built on trust and communication, but I’m looking for answers that get more specific than that — since simply being straightforward doesn’t always cut it, and even if we set aside “clear-cut” individual cases of active manipulation and coercion and power imbalances, there’s still the influence of anxiety disorders/BPD/PTSD and growing up in an environment where refusing touch is socially-coded as rude (here’s just one of the posts Sara has written on that subject recently), which is an influence that carries into other relationships regardless of whether the other person is being deliberately cruel or not. In other words, even if you don’t see refusal as rude, it’s your job to communicate that, given that may people have good reason to expect otherwise.
So how do you do that and make it work?
In my experience, someone being sweet and nice and trustworthy doesn’t necessarily resolve the whole issue, since that can make me feel all the more guilty about turning them down. And may God eternally spare me from the words “unless that would make you feel uncomfortable.” Good intentions may not pave the road to Hell, but they sure ain’t always enough.
Also, heh, uh, I’m realizing as I’m writing this that some of the people I’ve known in person who’ve seemed well-versed in consent and deliberately tried to “make people feel comfortable” were, uh, as it turns out, some of the nastiest and most entitled people I’ve known and didn’t always practice what they preached. And now I get to deal with having negative associations with those behaviors. So there’s that.
The more I think about it, the more this sense (of no-as-an-option) seems like an intuitive thing… which I’m taking as an indication that I should do more thinking about it. Because, on the one hand, granted, I think it’s a largely subconscious assessment, but that’s also no help in telling me out to help create (instill? inspire?) that sense for the other people I interact with. I want to believe there’s some power in my hands to affect this matter.
It’s also occurred to me that plenty of people have probably written on this subject extensively before, and I gotta say, I don’t want to have to wade through it all in search of something ace-friendly.