Thoughts on Sexual Etiquette

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.

Iona Italia

Iona Italia, PhD, is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith. With a mixture of Scottish and desi ancestry, she has lived in five countries and speaks four languages. Iona is currently based in Bombay, writing a book on her Parsi roots

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Iona Italia

Iona Italia, PhD, is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith. With a mixture of Scottish and desi ancestry, she has lived in five countries and speaks four languages. Iona is currently based in Bombay, writing a book on her Parsi roots

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sexual Etiquette

  1. Elisso,

    He says that there is no reason to approach intimacy in stages, i.e. you can leap upon a total stranger and grope them and that should be OK. He also says a no need not be respected. I’m not being ‘paranoid’ by finding that a despicable attitude.

  2. Terpsichoral: no, you don’t understand Randy right at all. You’re interpreting him in a paranoid way. What he mainly tries to say is, in practical life there are a lot of situations where rules don’t work and only make all kinds of contact harder. He doesn’t advocate doing things somebody clearly doesn’t want at all. Read his comment again, but now with an open mind.

  3. Randy, So if I understood you right, you’re saying that leaping upon someone and grabbing their erogenous zones without permission is OK, we should be allowed to continue even if we hear a no, and you enjoy forcing your girlfriend to have sex on demand, even when you know she doesn’t want and isn’t enjoying it.

    You’re sick. Get help.

  4. About the boss scenario, I agree that it can be extra uncomfortable for the person who is in the lower position of power. But I struggle to see it as abuse or harassment unless when the person in the higher position of power asks the other person out, phrases it in a way that suggest that there will be consequences depending on the answer.

    Of course, I understand that even if there’s no such suggestion, it’s ovious that many people can’t take rejection and it’s normal to feel coerced, not knowing how your superior will react. Maybe in cases like this, it wouldn’t be that bad if you make extra sure that the other person knows that there will be no consequences at all if they refuse?

    I actually do this in all situations where I may face rejection (not only in those where I have the upper hand) because decent people in general are unconfortable rejecting others, so I always try to make clear that I understand if they refuse.

  5. “There are three principles that need to be respected.”

    Let’s see where this takes us. Although you claim this isn’t about the law, the fact is that harassment is a legal issue, so you can’t really disentangle yourself from that. We are talking here about things that will place mostly men into prison.

    “The first is that intimacy has to be approached gradually”

    No, that is false, and it’s not how humans often behave. I counter this with the rule that “unexpected intimacy should be regarded with compassion”. This idea that we need to tiptoe around sex, because it’s a nuclear bomb, is pathological.

    “the person must feel free to say ‘no’ without any fear of repercussions”

    That’s certainly true. But I would add two more rules… “a person has an obligation to be clear and firm with their ‘no'”, and “anyone who has a right to say ‘no’ also has the right to say ‘yes’ and that includes students, teachers, employees, bosses, or anyone else you might interact with in your daily life as a normal, breathing human being. If a sexual relationship is improperly affecting some other outcome, like college grades, that’s a separate issue, and should not be an assumption, but should require proof. As a corollary to the right to say “yes”, people have a right to exchange sex for money.

    “you have to respect the other person’s ‘no.'”

    Of course. But simultaneously I add “It’s simply human nature that not all ‘no’ means ‘no'”. So it depends on how the “no” is expressed. Is it a firm “no”, or is it the opening line in a negotiation? This is how humans actually behave, and it’s time we start admitting it.

    “No one ever owes you sex, not even a girlfriend or boyfriend or a spouse”

    That’s only trivially true. A girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse who won’t have sex isn’t going to maintain that status for long.

  6. “Kevin Spacey’s confession”

    What confession? In the statement I saw, he said he didn’t recall anything like that happening. He said he was sorry that Rapp’s mental illness had, unknown to him until now, focused on him for decades. He said that if Rapp is telling the truth, this is something he’d remember, so it must have been because he was drunk and presumably not himself.

    Was there some other statement that I missed?

  7. Egalitarian,

    I think the differing expectations of men and women are inevitable and are driven by two factors.

    First, and perhaps most importantly: the differential in physical strength. What might be distasteful to you coming from a woman would probably be frightening to her coming from you.

    The other is the different attitudes men and women have towards sex (many men love the idea of being catcalled; many women hate it).

    Having said that, as an individual you absolutely have the right not to be sexually harassed or assaulted and to have your consent respected in all the ways I outline in the description. Which is why, with the single exception of the situation in which physical strength differences are likely to be a factor, you’ll notice I didn’t gender this advice.

  8. James,

    Thanks! That completely changes the electrician scenario. Now I agree that wasn’t harassment.

    The boss though I still think would be abusive. If my boss were ‘very attracted to me’ and asked me out, I would immediately start looking for another job. That’s a harsh thing to do to someone.

  9. While I think that many types of social etiquette need to be encouraged or make a comeback, I think when it comes to the initiation of romantic relationships it needs to be acknowledged that the rules, and expectations, are very different for men than women. While it’s certainly acceptable for women to make the first move it’s not often the case. Even if a woman makes a bumbling, awkward, forward, or even lewd advance she is unlikely to face the common cruelty that men often face when rejected, or currently more important the potential legal implications of simply being misunderstood.
    I consider myself very lucky to be happily married in an age where women see men as monsters and men look at women like Russian roulette.

  10. Iona,

    Thanks for responding. In the case of the electrician, I haven’t been clear enough. It was at her work, and he was asking about the dress before he went under the desk so that he wouldn’t end up looking up it. Arguably a better question would have been “do you mind if I go under the desk?”, but I’m sure he’s not the first person to muck up a statement.

    On the point about the boss. As I said, I recognise the difficulties around that but I can’t see it being de-facto harassment. I used to employ women my own age. I never had cause to ask them out, but what if I had felt very attracted to one?

  11. James:

    The Tinder example doesn’t seem like harassment to me, just normal office chit chat.
    However, your boss asking you out is harassment because if you say ‘no’ there may be professional repercussions. Some bosses don’t take rejections lightly and may take revenge on you. This is potentially serious.
    As for the electrician: remember my example about not chatting up women when your presence is an implicit physical threat? If you are a woman on your own and you’ve just let a complete stranger into your home, you are definitely going to feel threatened if that stranger starts making lewd comments (such as the electrician’s about wanting to look up her skirt). You’re in a very vulnerable situation there. It’s taking advantage of and playing with your fear. That’s wrong.

    Elisso:

    Believe me, a man who focuses on his partner and on their joint experience during sex is WAY more attractive than one who goes through the motions like a zombie, scarcely noticing there is anyone else in bed with him.

    And, if I am being a typical woman in wanting men to err on the side of caution, then perhaps if you sleep with women you should pay attention to what I’m saying.

  12. I agree with everything here, but what I find difficult about the current climate is that acquiescence is not necessarily clear cut – it depends on the perceptions of the two parties involved. And the legal bar for harassment is now so low that a small mistake can cost you your career.

    For instance, I was listening to Radio Scotland other week and they had a lawyer on answering questions about what is and isn’t harassment. There were three examples of harassment which made me feel uncomfortable. Firstly, a director of a company had asked a female employee out for dinner. That was, according to the lawyer, harassment. Because the girl felt uncomfortable about it. She hadn’t said no at this stage. The second was an employee who said that one of her colleagues had engaged her in a conversation about how she (the other employee) used things like tinder to find sex partners. Again, de facto harassment because the complainant was made to feel uncomfortable. There was also a lady who messaged the show to say that she felt harassed when an electrician asked her if she was wearing a dress before he went under her desk to sort out a socket.

    It’s a horribly difficult area. I feel for the girl who was asked out for dinner – she may have felt compelled to since her career could depend on that director’s good favour (Maybe he shouldn’t have asked, but then maybe he just enjoyed her company). Less so for the tinder woman, and very little sympathy for the electrician example.

    The thing is, Harvey Weinstein probably knew all along that he was breaking the above rules, and it didn’t stop him. Nor would it stop anyone else with such contempt for humanity. I worry that the focus of this campaign is now on relatively small misdemeanours (like touching a journalists knee), justified by thin-end of the wedge arguments which are quite tricky to reason with and debate.

    There should be a culture of respect. But I think the idea of harassment (as opposed to abuse) requires at least the qualification that the injured party has stated that attention is unwelcome and that the perpetrator has continued before it is considered harassment.

  13. I do like Iona and most of what she writes, but this looks typically like the ideas of a woman wanting men to be as careful and hesitant as possible. Not everything works with a list of rules, and a man thinking all the time ‘am I doing right?’ is not attractive company. Also I think she grossly overrates non-verbal signals and the unambiguousness of them.
    Still, I do appreciate her attempts to get things straight, and at least this may be a basis for something else. Only I don’t find the same things ‘self-evident’ as she does.

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