Campaigns like the recent Twitter #MeToo initiative, together with the publicity generated by the allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein and by Kevin Spacey’s confession, have placed the topics of consent and sexual harassment at the forefront of people’s consciousness.
In some cases, people have been citing very minor gaucheries and awkward attempts at courtship as harassment. This has muddied the waters of discourse, causing paranoia among some men, who believe they may be subjected to malicious, time-wasting harassment cases as the result of innocent misunderstandings. It has also provided cover for the insidious remarks of others who have taken advantage of these blurred boundaries to excuse and normalize truly reprehensible (though not necessarily criminal) behavior.
What I’m going to say here may seem like common sense to many. I hope so. But I think it is useful to spell it out (and a number of people have asked me to do so). These are not legal guidelines; I’m not a lawyer. These are ethical requirements. Some misunderstandings and miscommunications are, of course, possible in borderline cases.
Let’s begin with the concept of harassment. There are three principles that need to be respected. The first is that intimacy has to be approached gradually. If you’re uncertain of the etiquette of how to interact with someone, let the other person take the initiative. But err, always, on the side of caution, especially with strangers. If they extend a hand, don’t take hold of that hand and tug them towards you for a bear hug. And, if you do misread things, make a note to take a step back in future. If you try to kiss their cheek and they shrink back, cut out the cheek kissing for now. Never proceed one stage further towards intimacy without some very clear indications of enthusiasm on the other person’s part. This rule is applicable to everything from a handshake to orgasm.
The next principle is that the person must feel free to say “no” without any fear of repercussions. That’s why there is a taboo against asking your student, employee, tenant or patient out on a date. It puts them in an awkward position. They may want to say “no” but not want to jeopardize their job, grades, housing or medical care. This may change, over time, if you get to know each other very well and your relationship shifts from a professional to a personal one. Power imbalances can change. But proceed with caution. If in doubt, refrain.
And remember that these power imbalances can be situational, too. Men, if you’re alone with a female stranger in a scenario she might find threatening (you’re the only ones in the carriage on the last train or in the tower block lift late at night, for example) don’t approach. Let it be. Ask always when the object of your affections feels safe and free to refuse and the only awkwardness they may feel is in not wanting to hurt your feelings.
Finally, you have to respect the other person’s “no.” No is often a more honest answer than yes. It takes courage to say no. Most people are reluctant to say it because of the hurt or offense it can cause. When you hear it, take it seriously. Sometimes, yes, a person’s attitude towards you may change over time and you can, cautiously, tentatively, ask again if you think you detect a new vibe between you. But only later. Much later. Don’t bombard the person with calls or messages. And, please, don’t ask for explanations or justifications. While you deserve to be treated with respect as a fellow human being, no one owes you their time, friendship, love or sex. No one is obliged to meet you for coffee, let you private message them on Twitter, go on a date with you or give you their phone number. No one. No matter what their reasons. They could decide against you on the basis of a freckle on your nose and that would be completely justified.
Also, not everyone is comfortable saying a clear and unequivocal no, especially to things that it might seem churlish to take offense at. We’ve all had the experience of thinking “I really don’t like this but it would be petty to mention it.” You do need to learn to read and respect non-verbal signals. If someone cringes back when you try to hug them or shies away as you approach, keep your distance, at least for now. If, when you call or message, the reply is a businesslike “hello, what can I do for you?” or “what do you need?” then perhaps they won’t welcome a daily message detailing all your thoughts and feelings like a diary or a nightly call “just to hear your voice.” Take your cues from their responses.
In sexual situations, all of this is doubly important. Part of the beauty of sex is that it is such an intense experience of being in the moment. Like dancing, singing and other absorbing pursuits, it demands your full presence, your intense focus. It’s the closest thing people regularly experience to a sense of Csiksentmihalyian flow. It’s also one of our most profound experiences of empathy, since, in sex, we take as much pleasure in the responses of our partner, in our imaginations of what he or she must be feeling, as we do in the physical sensations of our own bodies. In really great sex, it can even become difficult to mentally disentangle the two: even should we want to.
But this means that consent, in sex, is always specific. This degree of pressure may be exquisite and a fraction more may cause pain. What was enjoyable yesterday may be unappealing or even repellent today. What you were loving a moment ago may now feel uncomfortable, physically or psychologically. You don’t need verbal consent at every stage. Of course not. That would be both impractical and unromantic. But you must respect a “no, not now, not today” or a “no, stop.” Instantly and unequivocally.
No one ever owes you sex, not even a girlfriend or boyfriend or a spouse. It’s not something you can purchase (unless we’re talking literal prostitution), with an expensive dinner. While consent can’t be revoked retroactively (however much you might regret having agreed to sex; we’ve all been there), a partner can change his or her mind at any time before or during. There is no moment at which it is too late to say “I don’t want to do this,” “I no longer want this” or “I want to stop this.” No reason need be given.
And observe the other person’s responses; read the signs. Don’t spring something new on them before they have a chance to react, especially if they might find it painful or repulsive. If in doubt, ask. And doubt whenever you don’t see the body language and gestures and hear the sounds (or blissed-out silences) of pleasure. Is the person stiff and tense (except in that one specific anatomical spot, obviously); do they look wide-eyed with fear; do they seem cold and indifferent? Not everyone has the confidence to make their wishes known or express their dislikes. Ask.
If all this seems too obvious to mention, I’m glad. Because these are rules to live by.