Consent. It's a super hot topic right now, and since I am a fairly outspoken feminist-type, I figured I had the lockdown on what it meant and how I understood it. Then I went on a date that showed me otherwise.
The date was a good one. It was with a guy who I'm going to call Bo. I met Bo online. We had already gone for the "check and see if you look anything like your photos and have any personality in real life" coffee, and were proceeding to the second date/actual first real date. We had the perfect Vancouver-style night out: a walk along the seawall, sitting on the beach to watch the sunset, and dinner at a local pub. (In February! Isn't life grand?)
Then we went back to his place.
Sidebar: I have to say that I feel super uncomfortable writing about this. While I'm perfectly fine discussing insanely intimate details of my dating life with friends, writing on the internet for family, acquaintances, and random strangers to read feels like a whole different thing. It's weird and awful to think about and I don't want to do it. But I think this is part of a broader and very important discussion, and so I'm going to.
Obviously, when we got back to his place, the kissing started to happen. It was good kissing, and we both were enjoying it, so it kept happening. After some time, he suggested we "go somewhere more comfortable" at which point I did what I always do in these moments: state in a way that is, I hope, not too awkward, that I like to take things pretty slow and so not much more would happen than was already happening between us.*
My experience doing that has pretty much always been fine. Guys hear that and are understanding and non-pushy. Well, sort of. We'll get to that later. For now, let's go back to Bo.
Bo reacted in a way I didn't expect. Not only was Bo completely understanding and completely non-pushy, he proceeded, throughout the evening, to check in. To clarify the boundaries and make sure we were within them. I made a comment at one point that he had fantastic communication skills, and Bo replied, "Well consent is super important."
Later that night I realized that this was the first time I'd been in this kind of situation with a guy and felt completely safe and at ease.
This took me by surprise. I mean, it was a great sign for my date, but had terrible overall implications. It reflected a discomfort I hadn't even realized was there in the past - like when you've had chronic pain for so long that you don't even notice it's there anymore until all of a sudden it's better and a constraint you didn't even know you felt is lifted. The freedom is surprising and shows you that life wasn't healthy when you thought it was healthy.
At the end of the night we were doing the whole "I had a good time, let's hang out more" thing, and at one point I thanked him for being so great about my boundaries. He paused and then said, "you're welcome? For not raping you?"
I then realized that, yep, I had literally just thanked him for not raping me. And I had felt like it was a totally reasonable thing to be thanking him for.
What the heck?
Usually, I realized, when I'm seeing someone and in whatever phase of "taking it slow" I happen to be in, I need to be completely on my guard the entire time anything physical is happening. Except for the occasions when I'm ready to progress things faster than the other person, I find myself having to be constantly vigilant**.
Why is this? It goes back to Bo's comment about consent. Now, I can pretty much guarantee you that all the guys I've dated would, if asked, agree that consent is, indeed, super important. None of them would want a girl to do anything with them if she didn't want to. Their actions, however, reveal a slight variation in their interpretation of consent.
This is not to say what all guys are like. I can only tell you my experience of the guys I've dated and what their actions communicated. And I know some people are just going to read this and say "wow, she's dated a lot of jerks." I assure you, this is not the case. I have dated one guy who I would classify as kind of a douche, and otherwise they have all been caring, considerate men. This is not an indictment of them as people, but of overall misconceptions about what it means to have and respect boundaries in sex in our super-messed-up-when-it-comes-to-gender-and-sex society.
What usually happens.
Here is a basic template of what I experience on dates when physical things are happening, defining "physical things" as anything beyond a nice, friendly kiss (I don't think I need to get too detailed for you to know what I mean):
We start kissing and eventually, they start trying things. My response, once they approach a boundary, will be some combination of physically stopping him and using my words to communicate the whole slow-pace thing. Now, just because I don't want things to go further doesn't mean either of us want to stop everything, so we usually keep on with the kissing.
They always (well, mostly) respond well to the boundary (and if they don't, that tells me all I need to know about them and everything stops, forever), showing that on the surface, they agree that consent is, indeed, super important.
Then what happens? Five minutes will pass. Maybe ten. After some period time, they figure they should probably find out if that boundary is still there. So they try again. Then, a little later, they try again. And again.
Sometimes they take a different path to get there, and I get the feeling that they're hoping I won't notice somehow, which is super weird and gross. (Guys, do you really want to touch a girl's junk because you "tricked" her by going at it from a different angle? Is that really the kind of booty that makes you feel good? You're better than that.)
So basically what this means is that, because I'm not ready to have sex right away, I have to be forever vigilant. I don't get to just enjoy making out because making out is fun and we've both agreed that we're just going to make out. I have to be on guard, ready to reinforce my limit at any moment, because it's going to be tested. Multiple times. I'm not a super confrontational person, and my default response in any uncomfortable situation generally is to take on the discomfort myself before putting anything on the other person, so it's actually incredibly difficult for me to do this.
This all points to a few key misconceptions about what it means for a person to have boundaries in sex:
Misconception #1: Because I have a sexual boundary that means I don't want to have sex.
There is not even a grain of truth to this. My boundaries have nothing to do with desire. Just because I recognize and honour the fact that I'm not ready to have sex with you doesn't mean I don't want to. I might even be pretty frustrated with the whole situation - sometimes I wish my brain and heart would just shut up and let me get on with it. They don't.
I realize that not everyone worries about these things. If they want it, they ignore the brain and heart and go for it. Or their brain and heart never really have issues with sex happening. That is more than fine. So long as you're doing what feels right for yourself and both parties are on the same page about what's happening, have at it!
Misconception #2: That it's up to you to move my boundary.
Sexual boundaries are removed from the inside, not the outside. You testing or pushing at them only fortifies their inner resolve, because you are acting in direct violation of what they are there for: some form of protection.
Sure, you might exhaust my defensive resources enough to nudge it a bit that one instant, or you might catch me off guard and "benefit" from however long it takes me to process what is going on before I stop you, but is that really what you want? To get a little further than you would have because I got tired of stopping you? Plus, you have now significantly reduced your chances of me feeling safe enough to want to lift the boundary ever in the future.
Also, it's worth noting the important factor of physical size and strength. I do believe that, even subconsciously, there is a survival strategy at play in appeasing someone bigger and stronger than you. I may not be actually afraid that you're going to dominate me and just take what you want, but somewhere deep down I know that you could. This means that every time you go for it after I've expressed that I'm not ready, you are ratcheting up my concern and making me a bit weary of continually opposing you.
At the end of the day, the boundary isn't even really about you, it's about me. It's about me feeling safe and respected and like I actually know the person I'm with and that they know me. For another person it might be about something else entirely, but I can tell you that it's never up to you to make the change. Because you know what doesn't communicate respect and safety? Constantly being pushed in a direction I am not ready to go.
Misconception #3: That I'm not going to let you know when things have changed.
Hand-in-hand with the previous misconceptions is the idea that you need to keep testing because I'm not going to let you know when I'm ready to move forward. Trust me. I will. As has already been established, most people with boundaries still want to have sex. We just have things we need to see in place before it's a safe and fun thing to do. Once we're ready, we aren't going to sit around and hope you go for it. If we have been communicating a boundary, why on earth would we keep it a secret once it's lifted?
Misconception #4: That it's about gender.
This misconception goes both ways. I know that it seems like generally girls are the ones with the boundaries and guys are the ones going for it (maybe because, despite all our advancements, girls still bear the brunt of the consequences to sex), but it's thoroughly silly and dangerous to fully accept those generalizations across the board. In fact, I think I'm a bit of an anomaly in how consistent my boundaries are.
For most of my friends - male and female - boundaries seem vary greatly depending on a whole host of factors, including, but not limited to: their mood, how long it's been since they last had sex, how much alcohol they've had, how much they actually like the other person, if they may have eaten something funky, if they recently were dumped, and what their friends are doing.
Thinking that boundaries are about gender lead to all the crap we all know and resent: guys think it's up to them to make things happen and girls think that guys are going to always be good to go. Anyone who's been in a relationship probably knows that neither of those are true and both lead to major problems.
The TL;DR of what I learned after my date with Bo:
It was very shocking to suddenly realize that I had spent a decent portion of my dating life feeling a little unsafe. Especially considering that the guys I've dated have not been pushy or scary people. They, I'm sure, believe wholeheartedly in the importance of consent. They just learned the wrong approach.
There is a mighty significant difference between having to communicate a boundary once versus constantly monitoring it. It's the difference between being actually respected as a human person with agency over her life and being assumed to not know what I want. Between perceiving consent as an absence of resistance and as an invitation. Between "no means no" and "yes means yes". Between feeling safe and feeling, well, unsafe.
*Important Note: in no way do I think that there is a moral imperative for anyone else to take things at the same speed that I do. Some people might think I move too fast, others too slow. Everyone should do what is right for them. I don't take things slow because I think it's "right" or have rules about how far I'll go on different dates. I just know that I need to feel a certain level of safety, respect, and comfort with the person to feel good about going places physically. I also need to have uncomfortable sexual health conversations that are easier to do once you know a person a bit better. I listen to my heart and my mind and my body, because it knows what is right for me. As Amy Poehler puts it, if your boundaries are different, or non-existent, "good for you, not for me."
**Whenever I say anything to do with being constantly vigilant, I always think of Mad Eye Moody in Harry Potter and giggle a little inside. Do you? It's entirely inappropriate given the context of this conversation, but it's still fun.