Recently, I went out to drinks with two fellow feminist writers. While we were waiting, and waiting, and waiting for my beer to arrive (it didn’t come until after we’d eaten all the food), our conversation ranged from submission tactics, to the horrors of dating in the modern world, to consent. As I described a recent Tinder date to them, complete with how he kept trying to hold my hand and I kept pulling it away, telling him, “I talk with my hands,” we came to the conclusion that campaigns like “No Means No” are, in their own way, dangerous.
Consent is more than the word "no," and by focusing solely on verbal language – as important as it is – we’re letting men off the hook.
(I'm afraid that I can only speak to the straight experience, here.)
I’ll share the details of my date as an example. I’d matched with a guy from out of town on Tinder. After a two month dry spell, during which I’d only matched from guys just passing through, I decided that I at least needed to get out of the house. I asked a friend who was staying with me to watch my son and made sure that Tinder guy (who we’ll call Adam) knew about the kid/babysitting situation. This wasn’t going to be a hookup, in other words.
He was in town for a wedding and hadn’t rented a car, so he took an Uber over to the restaurant I’d suggested. It’s my favorite preferred first date spot, an outdoor patio that’s always busy, has a well-lit parking lot, and lots of stores and other restaurants nearby. When I’ve explained to male friends the reasons I’ve chosen it as my go-to first date spot, half the time I get a blank look. They do not live in a woman’s world, where safety is always a concern, and you plan the exit strategy before you plan the date.
Adam had already arrived and sat down when I walked under the arch onto the patio. I had a hard time finding him because, well, he was at least 25 pounds heavier than his pictures and had significantly less hair. Not that either of those are problems, mind you. It’s just that I see women getting a lot of flak online for using slimming angles, for holding the phone up high and sucking in their cheeks, tummy, and whatever else we’ve been told needs to be minimized that week, when they take online dating pictures. It’s yet another arena in which men are held to a different standard than women.
The date itself wasn’t a horror story. He could carry on a decent conversation, at least, and remembered to ask me a few questions about myself. This was, sadly, an improvement over my last time out. I was slightly bored by his narrow interests, and my smiles were a little forced, something the waiter read correctly, judging from his sympathetic looks. But Adam kept trying to touch my arm, or brush his leg against mine under the table. He tried to hold my hand, inspiring the now-infamous among my friends, “I talk with my hands!” line. And, since, there was no chemistry, it felt awkward and forced. Like he’d read a book on how to interact with a woman on a date and was following a script.
At the end of the evening, when we stood up to leave, I felt obligated to offer him a ride back to his hotel. He hadn’t been a jerk, just boring. Once there, I pulled up under the well-lit portico, in full view of the bellhops, leaned back in my seat and said, “Good night.” He reached over for a hug. I turned my head to the side, angled my body away from his, and gave him a half-hearted not-quite hug.
There was no body language that said "kiss me." There was no leaning in, no glancing up through the eyelashes, and nothing that could be interpreted as an invitation. He still grabbed me as I was pulling me in and planted one on me.
Bolder friends than I have told me I should have bit down on his tongue, or shoved him away, or kneed him in the balls (impossible to do when there’s a console between you). I am not bold when a man is aggressive with me. I’m shy. My triggers around men go back to an abusive childhood and, unless I’ve invited a man to be more aggressive in bed, I do not react well. I froze, pulled back when he went in for a second kiss, and minimized the situation in order to get him the hell out of my car. I drove away scrubbing at my lips with the back of my hand and feeling vaguely gross.
I didn’t say "no" to the kiss. Then again, I didn’t say "yes" either. And not just with my words, with my body. If a man or woman doesn’t know how to read basic body language by their late thirties he has some major catching up to do. It’s not hard to tell when someone is really interested in you, and as a more woke male friend of mine put it — consent isn’t just "yes," it’s an enthusiastic "yes!" When we reduce the issue of consent to just a word, however, we’re allowing others to abdicate their responsibility to read a situation correctly. To learn simple body language cues like when a woman turns her head to the side when you’re hugging, she doesn’t want to kiss you.
And, once again, we’re putting the full burden of consent on the shoulders of women. It’s up to us to speak up, to push a man away, regardless of any past trauma or triggers. Regardless of whether or not we’re in a dark car, in our cubicle working late, or in a situation where we decide that submitting to the unwanted physical affection is safer than making a scene. I have girlfriends who’ve given men blowjobs in order to get out of a bad spot because they judged that to be better than vaginal rape. I have sat still, squirming inwardly, when a controller at a former company walked into my cube and gave me a back rub, urging me to “keep up the good work!” I was the only one left in the office, even the cleaning crew had gone home, and I was scared of what might happen. How many of us have made these judgment calls? Too many.
I have to wonder if, after a lifetime of being excused from ignoring the cues of consent that go beyond the word "no," it builds up to a general callousness towards women’s consent in general. An attitude of entitlement towards our bodies, our smiles, and our time. The word "no" is the bare minimum, and it’s time we start holding men to a higher standard.
Top photo: Flickr/Marina Montoya
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Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on xojane.com and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children's Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram or Facebook.