Behind Closed Doors: Consent issues: know what means no

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April 28, 2009

5:56 AM

Long before the deep kisses and the hot, sweaty nudity, a compromise has to be reached between you and your partner: The two (or however many) of you have to agree to board the train to Pleasure Town together. This is true of any hookup — gay, straight, one-night-stand, committed relationship — every time.
The Take Back the Night slogan you’ve probably seen around campus reads “Consent is Sexy.” And the truth is, it is. I can think of nothing sexier, in fact. What could be better than someone accepting your advances and agreeing to get to know you in the biblical sense?

Now, I’m not a member of any sexual assault awareness groups, and I know you’ve all been through freshman orientation, so I don’t want to go over the legalities of consent. It goes without saying that consent is essential to every sexual act that involves another person. This column is related to that idea, but it is not the same.

I’m here, instead, to give you practical advice on understanding the signals being sent regarding sexual consent. All of this advice applies before the clothes come off, usually even before you’re alone together, and it applies to people on both sides. If you find that you’re often doing your best to flirt with someone and coming up short, here are few signals you may have missed. Or, if you find yourself always talking to guys who like you but you don’t, here are a few ways to deal with that.

Let’s start with good signs: eye contact, smiling and extra touching. In a word, flirting. This has to go on for a while before you can tell if it’s due to more than just politeness or an outgoing personality. If you get separated and he seeks you out, or if he blows off other people in favor of talking with you, he’s likely interested.

Test the waters. See how he responds when you put your arm around him or hold his hand. Move a little closer. As a gauge, an interaction in which your faces are closer than a foot and a half is likely romantic. Try a kiss on the cheek. Try a kiss on the mouth.

And move on from there you know the deal — unless at any point you get a red flag. A “no” is the clearest red flag, but there are many others of which you should be aware.

Here are some bad signs: avoiding you, looking over your shoulder as you talk, constantly trying to bring someone else into the conversation, moving away from you and not listening to you. If someone is showing you these signs, you should proceed with caution, because he does not share your feelings. Consent can be very subtle, but the ramifications of doing something without a partner’s consent are not subtle at all. Bow out gracefully if you’re feeling a push back. As I said earlier, if he’s interested, he’ll come back to you.
However, sometimes people just can’t take a hint. Maybe they’re drunk, really into you or just socially awkward. For whatever reason, sometimes you find yourself in a situation in which you’re saying subtly saying “no” and they’re just not picking up on it.

So how do you say “no” without being insensitive? Sometimes, you have to be insensitive. If you’re in a situation that you feel just isn’t right, go ahead and say it loud and proud. But if it’s not a risky situation — just a pesky would-be lover — try to limit their embarrassment. The key to saying “no” in a tight (but not dangerous) situation is to be clear but kind. It never feels good to be rejected, so remember that when you talk to her. Don’t just ignore her, she’ll keep following you. You have to be direct, and try not to let her friends hear you, try to be obvious only to her.

Don’t forget that self-esteem is a delicate thing. If she thought you were absolutely, definitely going to hook up with her, it can be a blow to her ego to find out that’s not the plan.

At the end of the night, the burden is on both of you to send out and to pick up on clear signals. I hope this column has helped. And if it hasn’t, practice makes perfect. Get out there and test the waters.

__Maya Horowitz is The Flat Hat sex columnist. She has boarded the train to Pleasure Town.__

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