18 April, 2011

Let's talk about...talking

Raise your hand if you have ever misinterpreted someone’s body language. Yep, that’s all of us. The woman with her arms folded across her chest could be annoyed, or she could be cold. The guy who isn’t making eye contact during a date may not be bored, he may just be nervous. According to A. Barbour, author of Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, the total impact of a message breaks down like this:

7% verbal (words)
38% vocal (volume, pitch, rhythm, etc.)
55% body movements (mostly facial expressions)

So if we know that 55% of our message is communicated by body movements, and we’ve all admitted that body language isn’t always reliable, then we’ve got a bit of a problem when it comes to communicating—especially about consent.

“But why do we have to talk about it? It ruins the mood. It’s not sexy. It’s awkward. (Insert other common excuse here).” I get it. Many people feel that talking about sex beforehand is too cumbersome a task to tackle. However, let’s consider all the important points that really need to be covered before two people have a responsible sexual encounter:

*What sexual acts are going to be engaged in or performed?
* If there will be oral to genital or genital to genital contact, will protection be used?
*What kind of protection? (Condoms, dental dams, etc.)
*When was each partner last tested for STIs?
*Do they have any?
*If yes, is the other partner comfortable with the risk of transmission?
*What does this sexual encounter mean for the two partners? (Is this a casual hookup, sex between romantic partners, or something in-between?)
*Are the partners monogamous or are one/both in another relationship?
*If the partners are heterosexual, what would happen if the encounter resulted in a pregnancy? (Abortion, adoption, keeping the baby?)

Wow. That seems like a lot of questions to ask before getting into the sex portion of the evening. Those questions are necessary though. The fact that we typically DON’T ask these questions is what often leads to problems down the line. Susie and Johnny have sex and while Johnny thinks it’s a good time and moves on, Susie thinks that this means that Johnny wants to be in a relationship with her. That scenario in itself is a topic for another blog entry entirely, but the point is clear. Consent has two components: it must be informed and it must be mutual. Informed meaning that both parties know what they are agreeing to, and mutual meaning that both parties actually agree. If Ryan thinks that he and George are just going to kiss, but George has below-the-belt plans in mind, these two are not on the same page. Conversely, if George had taken the time to ask Ryan if going below-the-belt was okay, then there would not have been an issue. “But it’s too awkward to ask! What if he says no?”

So let’s tackle the awkwardness excuse. Many don’t want to have the conversation because they’re afraid if they ask, the other person will say “no.” Well gosh, that seems like even MORE of a reason to have the conversation in the first place! Sexual contact without consent is a crime. Even if that crime never gets reported, the victim in that incident has to deal with the trauma that was inflicted on them, intentionally or not. This isn’t just for sex – this is for things as simple as hugging or kissing. You wouldn’t go up to a woman walking her dog and just start petting the dog without asking, would you? I would hope not – it’s a good way to get bitten. So if we ask permission for animals, why not ask permission for humans? Why, when grandma wants to give little Billy a big hug and kiss, but Billy is clearly uncomfortable, do parents say, “Now Billy, give your grandma a kiss.” We are instilling from an early age that sometimes, we have to acquiesce to touches or kisses just for the sake of propriety. Like we tell the kindergarten kids during safety lessons, “your body is YOURS!” and you get to decide who is allowed to touch, kiss, or otherwise enter your personal space. Consider if Billy’s parents, rather than forcing Billy to kiss grandma, told him, “it’s okay Billy, you don’t have to kiss your grandma if you don’t want to.” Suddenly we’ve given Billy his autonomy and reinforced that it’s okay to say no when he doesn’t want to be touched, no matter who is doing the touching.

Mike Domritz wrote an excellent book titled, “May I Kiss You?” and is part of the Date Safe Project, which encourages healthy relationships and consent. He came to West Chester University a few years ago and I was lucky enough to see his presentation. He talked about why consent is so important, even for something as simple as a kiss. Best of all, he provided a great “cover” line in case the answer to the question was negative. It’s very easy to turn that “awkward moment” into an “awwww” moment. It’s about respect, and not wanting to make the other person feel uncomfortable by kissing or touching him/her when it’s unwanted.

So tell me blog readers, what are YOU doing to ensure that consent is obtained and boundaries are respected?