Welcome to #AskCam, a column where sex and intersectionality are not divided but welcomed together.
How exactly do I address consent in casual relationship settings?
If I’m in a longer-standing relationship, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to talk about literally any topic….but if I go on one date with someone and I’m not vibing them then they kiss me or grope me or touch me in some way that my body is adverse, I get uncomfortable and can’t find the words to defend myself in the moment. Sometimes it’s because I shut down, other times I just prefer the out that I can ghost them and use that as a way to avoid the in-person confrontation.
If I don’t know the person at all, I’m fine. You creep on me at the bar or catcall me I’m telling you to your face to not sexually harass me, but it’s this weird in between where I almost feel a sense of either guilt, or obligation, or fear that clouds my ability to speak out.
Dear Casual Consent,
I think your question is an increasingly important one. There’s so much conversation lately about the ways that desirability, consent, and autonomy spill over into our everyday (*ahem* sexual) lives, and I think that we don’t really allow much space for navigating these things in ways that are free of confusion and awkwardness.
When I first read your letter, I immediately thought that this wasn’t so much a question of consent itself – you already seem to have a firm grasp on that – to me, your question speaks more about boundaries.
Boundaries are a tricky thing in itself – for women and people who have been conditioned and socialized as femme folks, we’ve been brought up with this idea that other people’s needs should come before our own. Empathy and compassion for others are admirable traits, but because conversations about autonomy and boundaries weren’t accompanied, the message that most of us received was that what we want and need aren’t as important as our partner’s wants and needs, whether they identify as cis-het men or not.
This message is even more engrained into BIPOC folks, particularly for Black women and femmes. There’s been a long history of Black care-taking and our narratives support those stereotypes, from The Help to Aunt Jemima’s face looking at us lovingly from the grocery store. America is obsessed with the idea of Black femininity equating service and selflessness, rather than allowing Black women and femmes to voice their own desires. So when I say that your question is about boundaries, I’m thinking about this history and how it affects our own lives.
So when exactly should a boundaries conversation come up? In my opinion, as early as possible. Even before the first date. I think that online spaces make these conversations a bit easier to have because we can all dictate how our certain profiles and online pages look and what content we choose to share on them. A conversation about boundaries could come up in the comments section of an article that you share, or in DMs about current events or a video chat about a show you’re both obsessing over.
If there are things that you are straight out just uncomfortable with, Casual Consent, the person you’re considering going out with should know. It’s important that you share this because your needs are important. Regardless of what kind of relationship you end up developing with a particular person, stating what you are and are not willing to engage in will, ideally, make the entire process of dating fun and exciting because you don’t have to worry about accidentally messing up.
In reading your question, I also get the sense that it can be harder for you to hold people you’re not as invested to these standards because you see them as expendable or temporary. I’m going to say, Casual Consent, that it’s still not okay for these people to engage in behavior that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. You’re not obligated to teach anyone that you deserve to be respected and valued, but rather, they should feel the obligation to be on their best behavior in your presence. But part of that also means that you have the choice to, at any moment, walk away or disengage safely if a person is continuously not making you feel safe.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation on how deeply they have hurt you. But at the same time, if someone isn’t aware that they are crossing a boundary, how can they know to do better in the future? Ghosting takes away the chance for the other person to understand this and be held accountable. So these conversations are also good for recognizing where miscommunications can happen, like if you two have different communication styles or read signals from other people in different ways. This is also valuable information to have, no matter how the relationship develops.
A lot of people are put off by having straightforward conversations about boundaries and consent, but you can make them fun. In sexual experiences, these conversations can turn into foreplay since once you have all of the things you don’t want off of the table, you’re only left with all of the things that you do want. And despite popular belief, that’s still a lot of stuff to choose from. But even before things get sexual, Casual Consent, you’re allowed to say “I’m really excited to go out with you, but I really need you to know that I just want to eat a nice meal and talk. I don’t want to be physical right now, and I’d rather let you know now beforehand.”
When talking about boundaries and consent, there’s no handbook or one-size-fits-all answer I can give. But communication is vital, and having these conversations can lead to a deeper understanding and more satisfying relationship with another person. Or at least, let you know that you’re in the presence of a jerk before you get too invested.
#AskCam will be back on July 7!
Featured Image: Michael Patterson, Creative Commons.