sent to my newsletter on Jan 26, 2020
Last year, I attended a cuddle party in San Francisco. An event like this sounds like a place to experience intimate time with people (and it is!), but it was sold to me by a friend as a space to both practice and think deeply about consent and boundaries.
The first hour of every party starts with an hour-long orientation of guidelines and exercises to explore consent. My favourite exercise involves getting into groups of three, where two people alternate asking questions to the third. They ask things like “can I braid your hair?”, “can I boop your nose?”, “can I give you a massage?”, “can I smear hummus on your face?”, and the third person must always respond with “yes”. None of these things actually happen during the exercise, but the third person can then reflect on how it feels to say “yes” each time. When does saying “yes” feel enthusiastic? tentative? neutral? scary? confident? The exercise is repeated so that each of the three group members can be the yes-answerer, and then roles rotate three more times where the answerer must respond “no” to every question. Sometimes I felt guilt when saying no, sometimes I felt unsure if I actually wanted something or not, sometimes I felt relief.
I spent a lot of time at the cuddle party practicing figuring out what I actually wanted to do with people, being brave in asking for it, and being brave in saying no to things I didn’t want. It was really hard!
My parents raised me with a lot more personal autonomy than I’ve seen most kids have. I was frequently told things like “listen to your body” and “you don’t have to do this if you really don’t want to”. I wasn’t forced to eat food I didn’t want. I was involved in creating a lot of the rules I was to follow, and I knew why they existed.
I feel like many adults don’t consider children mature enough to consent to a lot of things. I see this in laws about consent in terms of sex, but also in the ways we push children to do stuff. I think it’s useful to help kids try scary or uncomfortable things, and to protect them from dangers they might not understand yet, but I worry that we teach them not to think about their boundaries and needs.
I wonder how this affects the way we all learn to approach consent in the things we do - both sexually and in all other aspects of our life.
I went to the cuddle party with an intention to practice bravery and do scary shit. While I was there, I felt anxious and uncertain. I wanted the experience of connecting with someone, but didn't know how to help that happen, especially in a room full of strangers. One of the cuddle party rules is “if you're a maybe, say no”. I spent a lot of the party wondering how I could ever consent to anything while feeling so much anxiety and uncertainty.
Last month, I wrote a newsletter about navigating ambiguity when figuring out the “right” thing to do.
Rules sometimes exist to bring attention to important ideas and not to spell out exactly what to do. If I don’t know what the “correct” action is for some value I hold, I can try doing it one way or try doing it the other, observe how it feels, and adjust as necessary.
Sometimes when I feel “maybe” about something, it’s because I don’t actually want to do it but I feel too guilty or ashamed to say no. Sometimes it’s because I’m nervous, but in a way where it could be valuable to challenge myself and try scary shit. How do I tell the difference? Sometimes I have no idea.
So I try saying yes sometimes. I try saying no sometimes. Like the exercise from cuddle party orientation, I think about how it feels to say yes or to say no. I learn something for next time.
I’ve realized this means that it’s possible for me to consent to something I’m not excited about - it’s a different flavour of consent than an enthusiastic yes, but it still feels consensual. Consent isn't always a joyful or good experience. I can decide I want to try something, and then have a hard time. Maybe I know it will be hard, maybe it comes as a surprise. And even if it’s not a pleasant experience, I can learn something from it.
I have a clear memory of spending time with someone I had been crushing on for months. Our faces were inches from each other, and I thought about kissing him. For what felt like hours, our faces were so close, and I became more and more sure that I wanted to kiss him, and more and more sure that he wanted to kiss me.
Often my romantic feelings for people start out hesitant (“do I like them? do I want to hug them?”) and grow gradually in intensity. The hesitant and ambiguous nature of flirting helps me explore how I feel without having to be confident right away. I would often much rather tension build than to be asked how I feel when my feelings are hesitant and my reply is an awkward “...no? but maybe? but not yet? idk”
People often talk about consent not just as clearly saying yes to something, but as an enthusiastic yes. The things I’ve done with people after prolonged tension expressed through body language have been some of the most “enthusiastic yes” experiences I’ve had.
on feelings of obligation
There was a viral Twitter thread a few months ago that talked about checking in with friends to see if they had the capacity for heavy conversations before starting those conversations. I appreciated the discussion of practicing explicit consent and boundary setting. And then, as is common on Twitter, a bunch of people got upset about the thread. You can read the replies to get a fuller picture, but it seemed like people thought that the author of the tweets was being a bad friend, or even abusive. People claimed that listening to heavy feelings shouldn’t be seen as work - or if it was work, then it should be work that is expected as part of being friends with someone.
I have soooo many thoughts about this thread and the backlash, but here’s one question that’s been on my mind:
There are things I do for people because I think it will help them feel good, and these are sometimes things I wouldn’t really want to do otherwise. Sometimes I help a friend with tedious chores. Sometimes I do activities with partners that I’m not particularly excited about but that I know they enjoy experiencing with me. And sometimes I emotionally support a friend even though I’m already feeling tired or stressed. These things feel like they are an expected part of many relationships. But when I do these things, or request these kinds of things from others, how do I think about consent and boundary setting?
Where’s the line between “I’m not excited about this, but I want to do it because I am happy seeing you happy” and “I feel like I have to do this, but I really don’t want to”? And how do we build relationships with people where we can communicate that difference? And how much is this the responsibility of the person asking for vs. doing the favour?
And if I start an emotionally intense conversation with someone, but then one of us ends up feeling too overwhelmed, how do we make it possible for them to change their mind and stop the conversation?
on changing one’s mind
My favourite cuddle party rule was probably “you can always change your mind”. Consenting to something I’m uncertain about is a lot less intimidating if I know I can decide to stop at any time. But in practice, changing my mind and communicating it is really hard!
It feels difficult to build a relationship where people can change their mind without feeling like they’re letting the other person down. How can I help other people feel comfortable changing their mind? How can I feel more confident changing my own mind without feeling overwhelming guilt? I think part of practicing this is learning to be okay with letting people down sometimes.
At the cuddle party, they talked about how cuddling someone who secretly doesn’t want to be cuddled isn’t something most people would want to do anyways. So in the end, communicating that you changed your mind helps both of you, and creates a more consensual experience for everyone.
on knowing what I want
A lot of people talk about consent with a focus on how people interact with each other, but I feel like I could learn a lot about consent from continuing to build skills in checking in with myself.
It’s so much easier to communicate my boundaries and give consent when I know what things I like. It’s easier when I feel the difference between curious uncertainty and uncomfortable uncertainty. It’s easier when I can tell if I’m doing a favour for someone out of guilt-ridden obligation or a desire to help. But none of these things are black and white, there’s no magic formula to know what’s going on, and there’s no “right” answer for how to interact with people healthily.
Throughout all aspects of my life, I want to make an effort to pay attention to when I feel good or meh or bad, and I’d like to think about the motivations I have for staying in unpleasant situations -- even when there’s no other person involved!
One of my biggest takeaways from thinking more about consent for the past year or so is that there are no clear rules that define a consensual interaction. Every new situation and new person I interact with is different. Even in familiar situations with people I’ve known for a long time, feelings around boundaries and consent can shift.
While I think it can be helpful to call out clear-cut and extreme examples of coercive behaviour as “non consensual”, I don’t think it’s very helpful to label any interaction as “consensual”. Instead, I want to stay curious. I want to stay curious about what I want and how I can communicate my needs and boundaries. I want to stay curious about what another person wants and how I can help them feel comfortable communicating their needs and boundaries. I want to be okay with making small mistakes, and be in relationships where we can talk about mistakes and learn from them.
I read an amazing book a few months ago called Learning Good Consent: On Healthy Relationships and Survivor Support. It was a small book filled with short pieces people have written on their experiences and thoughts around consent. There were some lists of questions that I enjoyed, and I wanted to end this newsletter with some of my favourites: