I feel a long post building, so brace yourselves.
Here’s the inciting incident for this thought-explosion:
Every few months (weeks, even), a female friend of mine, and not always the same friend either, will run into a situation that I run into all the time. That situation is that they are being pursued by someone in a romantic context in whom they are not interested, but the pursuit has been portrayed as friendship, or as something unclear and muddled (though usually pretty aggressive), and so they haven’t felt comfortable saying a flat-out “no.”
We joke about them as “surprise dates.” But they’re actually pretty awkward, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes even dangerous.
At best, you hope the person will “get the hint” that you only perceive them as a friend and will back off of any other advances. At worst, you find yourself out with someone who has encouraged you to drink too much, or maybe has gotten you into his home in a context that seemed innocent at first, and when sexual advances get made you may not be equipped to deal with them.
I recommend an excellent book of essays called “Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.” It discusses, much more effectively and coherently than I can in this entry, the dynamics of consent and the ways in which many people believe that we have to change it. I just want to comment on the theme from personal experience.
As someone who values friendship with all kinds of people from both sexes and all genders, it’s really frustrating and tough, personally, when I get into one of these situations. Usually it’s an invitation that’s vague: “Let’s hang out! Come to this party!” and you agree without thinking about it, and then realize later, Oh, no, the vibe I’m getting from this person is romantic or sexual and that’s not what I intended at all. Then you go into the situation with your guard up, trying to indicate by your choice of words, your body language, and your polite-but-distant mask that you don’t see this as a romantic situation. Which is exhausting. I can’t enjoy a movie if I’m sitting scrunched up in the far side of my chair because I don’t want you to put your arm around me.
I’m not blaming people who ask someone to do something because they’re interested but are nervous about asking that person on a real date; I just think clear communication is the most respectful way in which to conduct these interactions. I have a friend who’s been dating her boyfriend for several years and lives with him, yet guys–more than one in six months–will ask her to “hang out” and then try to kiss her or continually comment on how hot she is or otherwise make it clear that their interest is not platonic. I don’t understand how this works–do they honestly think that their pursuit, which ignores the commitment she chose, will be successful? Would they want to be with someone who would do that to a committed partner?
I think part of my issue is the whole narrative of the guy as the pursuer. When you frame romantic relationships in terms of predator/prey, there’s an inherent power imbalance. What’s more, it promotes miscommunication and makes it harder for everyone who is just trying to be clear about what they feel and what they want. The idea that women “play hard to get” means that men who would otherwise get the hint and stop a pursuit are galvanized to keep trying when they are subtly (or even not-so-subtly) rejected; the idea that women will fall for someone as long as he woos her correctly is disrespectful of the woman’s right to choose who she wants to be with. Maybe getting to know someone better does increase your chance of a connection, but too often that gets interpreted as just the need to wear someone down, which is not a recipe for anyone’s long-term happiness.
Here’s what I think, and where we get back to the book I mentioned earlier. I think that things would be easier and safer for all parties if we re-conceptualized consent: not as the absence of a “no,” but as the presence of a “yes.”
There’s a great article that my friend Kayleigh sent me once about how women can get into situations they don’t want to be in because they don’t want to be perceived as a “crazy bitch.” I’ve definitely experienced that. The article mentions, as an example, that if a guy is hitting on you on the subway and you don’t want to talk to him, even something as simple as saying, “Listen, I don’t know you, I’m not interested in you, and I would like this conversation to be over” will get you labelled as a “crazy bitch,” which, depending on the circumstances, could even incite violence. In the examples I’m using, it’s more like not wanting to hurt the feelings of someone you do find to be interesting or nice, someone you would like to be friends with. If they’ve never come right out and said “I want to sleep with/date you,” your bringing it up, even when it’s pretty clear, will all too often get the defensive response of, “What? That’s not what I was trying to do at all, how full of yourself are you?”
(Note: The conversation, when I have it now, hopefully goes like this: “Hey, I just want to be clear about something, and I’m sorry if I’m being presumptuous, but I just want to let you know that I think you’re great and I’m interested in being your friend, but nothing else.” Not to say, “This conversation is over, step away from the woman.”)
Sure, a thoughtful person will take your honesty well, despite any disappointment. But it sucks to have to plan that conversation, it sucks to have it, and it sucks to know that someone might freak out at you for it.
What if, instead, at the age our kids started dating, we taught them that how it’s done is by clearly articulating our feelings and/or desires and then asking if the other person feels the same? I remember going to a seminar called, “Can I Kiss You?” at Carleton about asking for consent for all romantic intimacy. At the time, I thought, “But what about the romance? What about the spontaneous kiss with the fireworks that changes everything? What about the fun of that moment of anticipation?”
Since then, I’ve come to realize that asking if you can kiss someone, or hold their hand, or if they would like to go on a date with you can be hella romantic. It’s all in how you do it. And it’s way better than worrying that someone you didn’t expect is about to launch their face at you from across the room.
So that’s the idea: When in doubt, ask. If you want a date, ask for a date. If you want a hookup buddy, admit to it from the start. If you want to play with someone’s hair, ask if it’s all right. And let the assumption be that it’s a no, if you didn’t ask and get a yes or if the person didn’t ask you to do the thing you want to do.
Back to my “if we taught our kids this” paragraph–if asking for positive consent were just part and parcel of what we taught as the way to approach relationships, I think people would learn early to take rejection more gracefully. After the third or fourth “No, thanks,” and the first or second, “Yes, I’d like that,” they’d realize that the No is not the end of the world and the Yes is really exciting. Then you get to enjoy the fun of what comes next without wondering and worrying what the other person wants or means!
But Laura, you may say. I might screw up my friendship with this woman, because right now she doesn’t know I’m interested and she still wants to hang out, but if she found out I dug her, she’d get all weird and awkward!
First: She knows. Believe me. I’ve been a woman for 25 years. She. Knows. Second: If your friendship isn’t strong enough to survive a respectful conversation, if her interest in you doesn’t extend beyond making you do things for her because she’s aware that you’ve got feelings for you and so you’ll do whatever she wants…why would you want to stay in touch with her?
I’ve remained friends with people on both sides–people I was into who didn’t like me the same way, and vice versa. It’s really not that hard, once you give the friendship a little bit of space.
A final example: The reason I stopped online dating was that I had too many encounters where I managed to have a decent conversation with someone online, agreed to get coffee, had a pleasant time talking at coffee, and suddenly the person assumed that this meant we were in a relationship or that something physical was going to happen that date. What a relief it would have been if the assumption was instead that we were two people who could have a nice conversation, and then if we felt chemistry and attraction we could ask each other on an actual date. I don’t know about you, but I can have a pleasant conversation with almost anyone for an hour, but I don’t want to date the majority of the population with whom I can comfortably converse.
I will absolutely admit that I do not, as of yet, ask every time I kiss someone for the first time, or what have you. Usually by that point the mutual feelings are pretty clear (we’ve been on what is clearly a date, we’ve been really engaged in each other, we’ve started holding hands, etc.) but I still have room for improvement. So to you, blog readers, I promise: I will try to do this. But on the flipside, I’m also going to hold the people interested in dating me to this standard as well.
Unless I say “yes,” or better yet, ask you out, we’re just friends.