lessons in consent

This was originally written back in 2017. It was around the time Kitty Stryker’s anthology Ask was coming out, and I think Stryker had some post that inspired me. I picked it back up in 2020, and have since edited and added to it. Thanks to Jenna for betareading this.

Content note: We often hear consent applies to situations beyond sex, and this piece is an attempt to describe what I’ve learned about consent in my actions towards others in daily life. I’m not sure what content warnings are applicable (for example, this ranges from sex to giving unwanted hugs). If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. This is also NSFW because of sex.

Word count: ~1,900

My mother does many things right by me. One of them is teaching me to listen and obey when people say stop. At eight, I know no meant no, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

I am an only child, and when I have playmates over, the moment one of them says no or stop, my mother is listening to make sure I obey.

She never gives me the sex talk, but this lesson stays in my heart, even if it does need some polishing.

When I am introduced to safe words in college – whether by Joey W. Hill‘s novels or a sex educator who talks about having a piss slave – they are not a foreign concept to me. I remember my mother’s implacable notion of stop.

At seventeen, I am an expert at knowing sometimes we say yes when we mean no, and that sometimes no means yes. I am familiar with the layers of stop in my mouth like mille feuille pastry. The perfunctory, the exasperated, the joking, the I’m-serious-but-I’m-couching-it-as-a-joke stop – all these different ways of saying and understanding stop.

In my dorm room, Dom and I while the sunshine away watching Youtube videos. I don’t think about it when I reach down to touch Dom’s hair – long waves down Dom’s back – until Dom pulls away sharply.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” I say.

I am used to the casual way the rowing team grabs each other in affection. Lyn reaches between my breasts to snatch a stray hair. Me play-flirting with Ruth with a wall slam. Lyn, Ruth, and I giggling as we try to grab each other’s butts. My head in Sage’s lap on the couch of the dining hall as we wait for breakfast.

There are more times I apologize to Dom as I forget and reach for Dom’s hair. Dom eventually lops it off, but I remember this lesson. Years later, when I go to Dom’s twenty-first birthday party, I do not reach for it at all.

My senior year of high school, I realized Harriet didn’t like receiving hugs. I laughed and went out of my way to hug her, enjoying her discomfort.

During college, her mother thanks me for this, saying she can finally hug her daughter now. I demure, all’s well that end well and whatnot.

But I know now I should not have done this to Harriet.

Miette jokes I am her patron saint of moisturization; I joke she is my patron saint of communication. The pleasure of her company is worth taking time off of work, waking up early, and driving an hour for. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman would call the closeness we have – the kind where people ask if she’s my girlfriend – big friendship. Miette just calls it intimate friendship.

I am used to learning in trial by fires, but there is none of that here, only me listening and absorbing the ways she talks:

Can I vent to you?

Can I talk to you about something?

Is now a good time?

I’ve never asked my friends before doing any of these things before, and I have friends who are fine with it. But I like the courtesy Miette gives me – it reminds me of how I was raised, to always give an out when asking something of someone.

I’m not sure where she learned this: parents, therapy, innate knowledge, her own friends. Still, her knowledge ripples out: I fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and that ripples out to all the people my life touches. When people compliment me on my excellent communication skills, I credit Miette.

Thanksgiving or Christmas. My mother’s side of the family descends upon our house for an all day marathon of eating, mahjong, and bullshitting. After they leave, it’s my mother, my aunt, my father, and myself in the kitchen. My mother says to me, “You’re a good communicator. I knew you were a mature kid when you asked me why I was upset and what you could do to fix it.”

There’s the surprised glow I feel at receiving recognition for a hard won skill. There’s also bitterness, because this is a skill I learned to survive. This is a skill I taught myself in a seventeen-year-long trial by fire. By hour-long yelling matches with her where I was silent. By trying to placate her anger, which she can not name as anger. By trying to figure out what I had done wrong, what I could do better, how I could be better – when the answer was I was never to blame.

My ability to communicate is a survival skill, made for a single purpose. But a skill can be applied in many ways, and there is still more for me to learn.

After college, and one year into my adult job, Xavier becomes my first love. We are acquaintances, then significant others, then friends. Kinda. My friends laugh at that. Girl, you might as well still be dating him, they say. If it’s hard to describe the intimacy and importance between Miette and I, it’s even harder to describe Xavier and I. The lines between romance, friendship, erotic, life partners; move like the tide, the moon, the shoreline.

He doesn’t use words to name how he experiences me. One of the few times he does, he notes, “I liked that the first time we hung out, you asked: Can I cuddle you? Can I put my arm here? Can I scratch your hair?

I am always asking him questions. Affection comes natural to me, my fingernails scratching scalp, rubbing the part of his head that gets sore from ponytails. (I remember those quirks from when I had long hair.) But still, I ask him before I run my hands through his hair, because I know people will touch it without asking.

I ask him if I can talk to him about something heavy. We are both wordsmiths, but he’s a Cancer, and I’m a Virgo. My skill of trying to parse out the miscommunications between my Pisces mother and I are useful as we try to feel the shape of the way we tangle together.

I am asking, because we are always changing. There are times we fuck without condoms and others with condoms and lube. There are times he is fine with anything sexual, sometimes anything but penis-in-orifice sex, and others we sleep together as chastely as siblings.

I am always telling as well: No, I didn’t want hickeys at first, and now I want them lining my neck to spine like the way royalty wears their glittering crowns. No, I didn’t want to suck your dick when you hadn’t been tested yet; yes, I do this time.

Xavier also complicates things for me. Months into our relationship, I learn he doesn’t say no. I panic, thinking I’ve coerced him whenever I’ve initiated sex. In a way that suggests it’s no big deal to him, he shrugs and tells me when in doubt, he just says yes. I understand on a new, visceral level the idea that anything less than a “hell yeah” is a no. I learn how hard it is for me to apply this, especially when I realize how difficult a yes is to believe when you know someone is reticent to say no. I eventually decide letting him initiate sex is the best way I can navigate this quandary.

But letting him set the pace is messy as well. I learn he usually does not tell me when his sexual boundaries change, whether green- or red-lighting sex. I have to pursue those hunches myself and – as I learned with my mother – pin his feelings down with my words, like a butterfly in a display case. I learn he says no, I don’t want to have sex with you, but humps my hip with the goal of his sexual gratification and promises that platonic pussy eating is a thing (I disagree). Platonic nipple sucking becomes a good compromise (as it turns out, I can do this).

I do not share these things to discredit Xavier or suggest he is not worthy of deciding for himself who, when, and how to (not) have sex. I share it to say our sexual consent presented choices and decisions I’d never considered. No book, fiction or nonfiction, had prepared my imagination or my ethics for this. Matching my actions to him, my self, to my beliefs, was difficult for me at times. I am both proud of how I navigated these choices and nervous how it looks to others.

As much as I wish it to be, this post is not a neat account of how I learned perfect consent. As Kai Cheng Thom says, “I truly believe that every sexually active person has committed or will commit some form of sexual harm in their lifetime.” I wonder if despite his nonchalance, I committed some form of sexual harm to Xavier.

I don’t know how to ask him that, if I should ask him that. Although our break up was amicable, we are not in each other’s lives anymore. How would I exhume a years-past relationship? It is also not his responsibility to absolve me. Or, as Tina reminds me, perhaps he really did mean it when he said it wasn’t a big deal.

Rachel is the upperclassperson I always admired but was too shy to approach. Eventually, after college, I nervously press the add button on Facebook, and social media is what connects us across a thousand miles. When I finally join Instagram, we are messaging each other, talking about podcasts, femme icons in our families, and dunking on men.

me: omg i'm dying. laughing for reals bc autocorrect knows I was thirsting for dick yesterday.
Rachel: hahaha
me: sorry, that was TMI! should've asked first
R: GURL. there is no such thing as tmi with me tho i appreciate your thoughtfulness. i love for honesty!! lol
me: phew! was just texting another friend where we have no TMI and sometimes i forget it's nice to ask before doing so!
R: your consent culture is on 💯
me: i fully credit miette for modeling good communication to me in practice

Once Xavier and I are done, there are less chances to practice consent. I am single and have no one to touch. So I’m surprised when Tina and I are talking, and she says, “Oh, yes, I noticed when we were at the farm that you stood to the side and waited for the animals to come to you.”

Which isn’t how I remembered it. I’m a city-girl through and through, and none of the farm animals were fluffy enough to tempt me into petting them. But as I thought about it, she was right on a broader scale. When I see dogs and cats, I let them sniff my hand and decide if they want to hang out with me or walk away. If they don’t want to be pet, I respect that.

And I think, as well, of the times in my friendships I’ve waited. I’ve made offers of touch, of dinner, and waited to see if they’d draw close, or choose to go elsewhere. I think of the friends I’ve made, the secrets they’ve told me because I didn’t ask for them, because I waited for them to tell me of their own accord.

“Huh,” I replied, “I guess it’s a skill that served me well.”

It has. And I am still learning.

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