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A Culture of Coerced Consent
The limits of Yes-Means-Yes
This Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your comments on making amends for being part of unjust systems. This week, we’re talking about the limits of consent culture.
Melissa Febos had a recent reflection in the New York Times Magazine about how covid has brought an unexpected peace to her life—with social distancing, men stop touching her without warning. She doesn’t have to spend her energy on avoiding unwanted touch or letting people down gently when they ask for consent to touch that she doesn’t want to give.
[Content warning: the linked article includes a story of sexual assault, as well as discussion of Febos’s stint as a sex worker].
One of her stories that stuck with me was her experience at a “cuddle party.” The party was limited in scope (she describes it as “a platonic orgy with clear boundaries”) and the event begins with everyone getting practice in asking for consent and respectfully accepting a no.
The trouble was, a “No” felt almost impossible for Febos to give, even when she was expected to:
The host spoke in a warm tone as he reviewed the rules. At the third rule (You must ask permission and receive a verbal “yes” before you touch anyone), he asked us to turn to a nearby person and perform a role play. One person would ask, “Do you want to cuddle?” The other would answer, “No.” The first would then respond, “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
The nervous young man and I faced each other.
“Do you want to cuddle?” he asked.
“No,” I said, and my mouth involuntarily stretched into a smile, as if I needed to soften the refusal. My face grew hot, and I felt myself blinking quickly. Was it really so hard for me to give an anticipated no? I felt uneasy, surprised by the strength of my reaction to the exercise.
Next, the host asked us to repeat the role play, but this time to ask our partners, “Can I kiss you?” Kissing is not allowed at the cuddle party, so this exercise was even more forgone than the previous one. Still, I had no interest whatsoever in kissing the young man, and to pretend, even in this transparent context, increased my discomfort exponentially. My voice croaked when I asked, and his face flushed when he said no. When he asked me, and I refused him again, my tone was so apologetic that it seemed farcical. I couldn’t seem to control my affect; like a pinched hose, the words eked out of me in odd directions.
After the opening exercises, Febos quickly finds herself saying “Yes” when she would rather say “No” and enduring unwanted touch in silence.
A culture focused on consent as the primary marker of whether sex is moral misses these kinds of clashes. (It also neglects whether the participants are willing the good of the other, and whether they’re right about what that good consists of, but that’s a whole ‘nother post).
It can be a relief to have some things be off the table rather than to have to navigate the constant threat of a question and a no. When I lived in California for a year, the surrounding society was fairly polyamorous, and everyone I met was polite and gracious about my demurrals. But it still changed the way I approached friendships—I didn’t feel like I could rely on my own romantic relationship to create a clear boundary.
A culture of constant questions feels like moving through Times Square, full of blazing advertisements, aggressive sidewalk hawkers, and semi-nude women. All you have to do is keep moving, keep your eyes down, and keep saying no, but that work diminishes the walk.
When limits are clear and expectations are shared, it can be easier to relax. When everything is up for asking, all encounters are more charged and tense. The burden of setting limits falls disproportionally on women.