It’s our first date. I’m off on one of my comic book tangents, making the case that maybe Lex Luther had a point. (Not Lex as portrayed in the movies, but Lex from some of the comics.) He reaches out a hand, gesturing to my knee, “can I put my hand here?” The question is so causal, like he’s asking if he can put his feet on the coffee table or if he should take off his shoes when he comes in the house.
We ask people’s consent for things all the time in polite society. My date shows such a confident ease in asking permission to touch me, an aside so seamless that it’s not going to take away from the larger, very important treatise on the function of super villains. It’s a small gesture, but it’s dead sexy.
At that moment, I realize I very much want this person to touch me. In fact, I’m flattered that he wants to touch me. He’s a big guy with a kind touch. I want to touch him back. Consent isn’t some bureaucratic covering-of-bases that lets us proceed to the sexy stuff. It is sexy stuff.
After all, what is flirting? We drop little intimations that we might be interested. We look for evidence of receptivity. See if they’re open to it. See how we get along, being playful together. If we’re having fun and they seem amenable, we might increment our coquetry. If not, no harm done; we back off. In looking for those signs of approval and reciprocity, what we’re checking for is interest and consent to engage further.
Flirting is consent building.
If rape culture is comprised of the many ways that non-consent is sewn into the fabric of our customs and interactions, then we can work towards a culture of consent by seeding our stories, our habits, our conversations, and our etiquette with models of healthy reciprocal exchanges. The more we depict consent, the more normal it becomes. The more we practice consent, the less awkward it feels. The more we deal with consent, the more we are able to address nuanced and ambiguous situations with wisdom and fairness. A culture of consent is a culture of justice, freedom, and dignity.
Autonomy Is Key
Consent isn’t just for sex. It’s important to respect a person’s right to voluntarily accept or decline all kinds of things that will impact their autonomy. Autonomy refers to a person’s right to self-determination. If you light a cigarette in a car with another person, then you are putting smoke in that person’s lungs, so you ask, “do you mind if I smoke?” If you are serving food to someone, be honest about the ingredients. At extremes, people with certain health conditions could die from smoke inhalation or food allergies. Even if the stakes aren’t that high, we all deserve the right to decide what we put in our bodies and under what circumstances.
Pay attention to what people say. “If you were my girl, I wouldn’t let you out of the house looking like that. You think I want these other guys to see you in that?” he flashes a mischievous grin like I’m supposed to swoon. I know he’s teasing, and there are definitely women who would be delighted to play Beauty to his Beast, but I’ve known too many control-hungry creatures to walk freely into that battlement.
This guy doesn’t get a date, but his flirtation hasn’t failed. It has successfully and efficiently demonstrated to us both that we are not compatible.These early antics may be lighthearted but they also serve a vital function. They give us space to feel each other out, to show ourselves, to test-drive our synergy before we decide whether we want a more intimate interaction.
A person who doesn’t respect your right to choose where you go, what you wear, or what you eat is demonstrating a lack of concern for your autonomy, dignity, and safety. They are unlikely to magically start caring about these things as you make yourself increasingly vulnerable to them.
(Hey, maybe you’re looking for a Leather Daddy who will tell you where to go, what to wear, and what to eat. If you are, you probably already know a thing or two about negotiating consent in those interactions. That’s a whole different essay.)
Coercion = Not Sexy
Another time, I’m out with someone I haven’t seen since college. He parks in front of my building and asks if he can come upstairs. I decline. I tell him I’ve had a good time, I’d like to see him again, but right now it’s late and I just want to sleep. He insists that he needs to come upstairs because he’s too drunk to drive home. He’s not safe.
He just drove me home. Where was the concern for safety then? I offer to buy him a ride home, but he refuses to leave his car. I offer to come pick him up tomorrow and return him to his car. No, he won’t do it. Either he sleeps in my bed or he drives home drunk right now. He doesn’t say it like that, of course. He wouldn’t feel good about overtly strong-arming me like that. It’s more of a “come on, please don’t make me drive drunk.”
The thing is, I didn’t make him drive drunk. When we left the restaurant, I asked if he was ok to drive. Clearly, I shouldn’t have believed him.
I really did have a good time. I really did want to see him again. I really was attracted to him. I really am tired, though. I do not have the energy right this second to negotiate sloppy, intoxicated sex with a new partner while my body is weak from a heavy period that just started with painful cramping, and I’m allowed to just want to go to sleep without having to justify all this.
But I don’t sleep. I sit with him in that parking lot for another 2 hours while he sobers up, because I have just learned something very important about this person. He is willing to risk my life, his own, and the lives of everyone between my house and the bar in order to get our tipsy asses to my place so he can try to get laid. He is willing to blackmail me with the safety of other people on the road in order to get in my bed.
Here’s the thing about this guy, he’s not just one guy. He’s the fourth guy to drive me home and then insist to be let inside because he’s “too drunk to drive,” so I’m thinking they much teach this move in Sleezeball 101.
He probably doesn’t think about his behavior in terms of consent. He knows sex isn’t guaranteed if he gets in the door. He probably isn’t going to sexually assault me if I say no, but he’s going to make me spend the whole night saying no. He’s going to emotionally blackmail me into letting him touch me all night in my bed under the pretense of “cuddling,” even though I have told him I don’t want that. I’m supposed to make myself attempt to sleep next to someone who’s shown a concerning disregard for my sovereignty or else he’s going to go out in the world and do something incredibly unsafe and illegal. And he’s trying to make me feel responsible for that.
I am no longer having a good time. I am no longer attracted to him. I no longer want to see him ever again.
Flirting is Consent Building
Someone asked me recently, “Is there such a thing as consent-friendly flirting?” I say, flirting is a language that we use to establish consent within micro-interactions. It is an instinct-driven call and response, an emotional dance held under the sway of a cultural and personal history, unique to each of us yet following common themes. It is a language enacted with our entire bodies. It’s diction lies in unconscious utterances that betray our deeper patterns. The more we practice asking permission, where it’s appropriate, the more seamless our pickup game becomes. The more we fashion our habits around good consent practices, the better we execute our flirting with grace and precision. Consent is a powerful seduction tool, so learn to use it. And have fun!