Saturday, August 20, 2011

"No means no."




[Possible trigger warning for sexual assault]


When I had my first sexual encounter, he didn't ask. We were just friends and we were hanging out in his basement watching movies, and then he put his arm around me and I didn't object, and then he put his hand on my breast and I didn't object, and then he started rubbing my vulva and I didn't object.

I'm making that sound worse than it was. I didn't object because I had a total crush on him and it felt great and I was happy and excited this was happening. But I didn't say any of that--I was 15 and extremely socially awkward and had absolutely no idea of how to respond to sexuality, so I was completely silent and frozen. Silent, frozen, and happy, as it turned out. But he had no way of knowing that. All he knew was that I didn't stop him.

Would he have stopped if I said "no"? Almost certainly. But... almost certainly. Some other factors to bear in mind: I was at his house, which was not close to any bus route and was about ten miles from my home. We were alone in the house. He was much bigger, stronger, and older than me. He owned weapons. He was more or less my only friend at that time in my life. And he was not someone who could maturely talk through conflict--I never saw him get violent or threaten violence, but he tended to go to direct to TantrumVille without stopping in CommunicationTowne.

I want to stress again that I just liked having my pussy stroked; none of this was running through my head at the time. But I wish it had been running through his. Because if I had been doing the rape math in my head, if I had been going along with it out of fear or obligation, he wouldn't have known. He didn't rape me--but it would have looked exactly the same to him if he had.

That's the problem with "no means no." There's a lot of reasons someone might not say "no," and being into the sex is only one of them.



Is it "really" rape if you don't know the person isn't consenting? Probably not legally, but in terms of the effect on the person who's being used sexually while they're paralyzed with fear, might as well be. Accidentally shooting someone isn't murder but it leaves them just as dead.

Anyway, this question ought to be irrelevant. Whether fucking someone who doesn't want it but doesn't object is rape or not, it's crappy and it's avoidable. It's not like good sex ever comes out of a situation where one partner is silent and immobile.

There's a little more finesse than just asking--you need to ask in a way that makes it clear "no" is an acceptable answer, and be sensitive to the difference between "...okay" and "OH YES"--but even without finesse, just asking makes 90% of the difference.



I know why he didn't ask. He didn't ask because he thought I might say "no." But this doesn't mean that he wanted to rape me. What it means is that he was afraid I was in some sort of strange, precarious mental state in which I would have to say "no" if I was asked, even though I really did want it, but once I had said "no" he couldn't do it.

Unfortunately, this mental state does exist--although far less often than people think, really--and I lay the blame for that squarely on slut-shaming culture and the myth of "spontaneous" romance. I lay it on every romantic drama where one character forces a kiss on another but it's okay because it was the kiss of true love and they understand as soon as they get into the kiss. I lay it on every teen sex comedy where the girl who says "let's fuck, baby" is gross-out comic relief and the girl who says "ooh, I shouldn't" is the real sexy one. I lay it on every girl who thought it was coy to say "no" when she meant "yes" and every guy who told the whole school that his date said "yes" too quickly. I even lay some of the blame on Cosmo and all the times it describes sex as something that spontaneously breaks out when the mood is right, like laughter or a bad case of the contagious yawns.

Until "yes" means "yes, sex would be lovely right now" and not "yes, I am an icky slut with no sense of romance," it's going to be hard to live in a world where only yes means yes.

But it's not all down to society. In my personal world, yes means yes fully and right now--Rowdy and I still ask before we fuck and we still take nos gracefully and unenthusiastic yeses with "we can just cuddle and that would be fine," and enjoy the enthusiastic yeses that much for it. I haven't fixed Western culture yet, but I've fixed my bedroom, and that's a start. If enough people can just say that, maybe the culture can change a little after all.

67 comments:

  1. This post really resonated. (On a related note: Jesus Christ, this is why I hate romcoms.)

    This is especially annoying to me because I'm autistic and can't pick up nonverbal signals easily, so I won't so much as touch someone without explicit permission and some people interpreted that as me not being friendly enough, which UGH.

    So, yeah, yay for explicit consent!

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  2. It's too easy to mis-read signals, for feelings to change and regrets, or simply to get caught up in a self absorbed mission to get laid (which is easy early on); so especially as a man, and the 99% chance that I'll be the bad guy in a bad outcome (even if mutually desired), it's hard to live in a world where it's anything but "yes means yes" (although usually as a warm and gentle "is this ok", expecting verbal AND visual confirmation).

    I'm not sure why getting a no, even though they want to say yes, is a bad thing - if there isn't trust that they won't slut shame them, or confidence in their choice, isn't no a better answer?

    And yes means yes (for both partners) really deepens the experience, it allows me to check the pacing, show that their feelings are important to me, and helps keep the focus on there being two people pursuing mutual pleasure (even if mutually looking to just get off with each other)

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  3. When I was younger (and even geekier) I subscribed to a quantum theory of female desire, such that asking would collapse the wave function.

    In fact it seemed that asking would always collapse the wave function to zero, because asking appeared to be an inherently unsexy thing to do. Far better to let the wave function build incrementally. That's the model that romance novels follow - and no matter how 'bad' they are, lots of women read 'em!

    If men who don't ask get more sex, then what is the motivation to ask? Except to avoid the rare worst-case scenarios?

    If women consider it sexy to ask then men will ask, but they don't. Well, a few do, but most don't...

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  4. The most horrible "get a no when she means yes" is when she's been told that she's a bad person if she says yes. The song "Shipoopi" from _The Music Man_ lays this out explicitly. (I was totally grossed out when I heard it at the Shakespeare Festival last year.) If you say yes too soon you're a "hussy."

    The only cure for this is for all of us to refrain from either doing it or expecting it. Yucch!

    A suggestion for those of us for whom coyness is erotic: first you establish consent, then you roleplay coyness. It takes a little work to get back into the swing of it, but it works! You can have your cake and eat it too--enthusiastic consent and the fun of seduction--if you make sure you have consent, and then both parties put on a make-believe of seduction.

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  5. Anon - If men who don't ask get more sex, then what is the motivation to ask? Except to avoid the rare worst-case scenarios?

    Has this actually worked for you in practice? This is something I've encountered tons in the media and in gossip, but not much in real life, even outside my sex-positive bubble.

    I think it's actually very rare for women to say "no, because you asked" who weren't planning to say "no" in the first place.

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  6. Asking isn't unsexy. "Sweetie, want to fuck until we die of orgasm?" is clearly not unsexy.

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  7. Ozy - Yes, that, exactly. Maybe "do you consent to sexual activity with me, to include an initial trial of kissing and 'groping' activity to be followed with intercourse if it is acceptable to all parties?" isn't sexy (although frankly I know people who could pull that off), but asking doesn't have to sound like that.

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  8. @Holly - How can a man tell? It's not like women frequently say "I'm up for some kissing and groping and fingering, but no oral or vaginal sex." Well, not outside our sex-positive bubble...

    If you do actually have a plan, you might just think of sharing it with us?!?

    (Actually, I don't think there often is a plan. Or if there is, it's easily subject to spur-of-the-moment change.)

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  9. Anon - How can a man tell? It's not like women frequently say "I'm up for some kissing and groping and fingering, but no oral or vaginal sex." Well, not outside our sex-positive bubble...
    Maybe not in so many words, no. But if you say "I'd really like to kiss you now," she can lean in and make a kissy-face or she can make a "you're a great guy, really" face. It's pretty easy to read the difference there.

    Likewise, it's not difficult to make "can I touch you... here?" sexy and still leave her an out.

    And I don't want to phrase this all in terms of a guy testing the limits of a purely reactive girl; hopefully this is a give-and-take because she's groping and kissing you, which is an exceptional indicator of sexual enthusiasm.

    If you do actually have a plan, you might just think of sharing it with us?!?
    Let's not "you" and "us." I'm not every woman and you're not every man. I cannot account for what some woman I never met did or said to you, a man I've never met.

    But if you want to know, you could at least try asking. Or even telling--"I'd like this evening to end in sex, but what were you thinking? We'll take it as far as you like it, honey."

    (Actually, I don't think there often is a plan. Or if there is, it's easily subject to spur-of-the-moment change.)
    Absolutely true! In which case, it can be subject to spur-of-the-moment renegotiation.

    (And again, don't think "dry legalese" when I say "negotiation." Think "ooh, baby, I want to fuck you now.")

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  10. I like getting rolled over when I'm asleep and being penetrated before I'm awake. My fiance likes being stroked and played with in his sleep. I care enough about consent that he had to explicitly state that I have access to his body whenever I like for me to be OK with waking him up with a blow job, and early on we had discussions where he's stated that if I showed the least bit of hesitation when it came to sexual activity, sex would be instantly put on hold, but I know that there is a school of thought that since he/I can't withdraw consent when we're sleeping, it would never be OK for sex to be initiated while either of us are unconsious, even if we've given prior permission.

    I certainly don't think it's OK to engage in any level of sexual activity when someone is stiff and unresponsive, but actual verbal conversations over every stage of sexual activity is a lot of not fun. Especially if you don't like talking dirty. Also, there are differences in where people think the need to ask ensues. Hugging, kissing, groping? Penetration/envelopment?

    Is it OK that we didn't converse the first time we got remotely physical, because the cue to progress further for both parties was eager reciprocity? It depends on what version of yes means yes we're talking about.

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  11. Anon - I think sleeping sex is okay with explicit prior consent. (For obvious reasons, that really does have to be spoken, because I don't know how you'd unambiguously imply that.)

    As for actual verbal conversations, they really never did me wrong, but I think that if you're very sensitive to body language you can get away with that. If someone is physically responding to and leaning into your touches and touching you back, I'm going to go ahead and consider that enthusiastic consent.

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  12. I should also add, I think it makes a difference whether this is an ongoing relationship or a first-time thing.

    While an ongoing relationship obviously doesn't mean blanket consent, it does mean you're better attuned to each other's signals and have a better baseline understanding of each other's preferences.

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  13. I had an experience somewhat similar to what you
    describe, except that I didn't enjoy it. I've never known what to call it in my mind. "Rape" doesn't seem fair, yet it wasn't consensual either.

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  14. I like your framing it as a negotiation rather than a question, because I think that what some people find unsexy about consent is the idea that asking for it has to be tentative. If you are turned on by your partner being a bit aggressive, you might not enjoy hearing "Can I touch you here?" Calling it a negotiation highlights the fact that there is a whole lot of space between being tentative and actually touching someone without their consent.

    If "I want to fuck you" functions as a directive about the rest of the evening rather than a conversation starter, that's a problem with your entire relationship, not your dialogue.

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  15. It's so easy to ask, too - I was lucky, guys would always say "Is this alright?" Before doing something...and I was always free to say yes or no, and sometimes did. I always offer the same courtesy to them - or if, in the heat of the moment, I do something I wouldn't normally do, I always try to take a moment to stop and check - "Is this OK? Do you like this?" and so forth. It doesn't take much, and it makes me, and hopefully him, feel so much safer and in control.

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  16. When I started dating my husband, the first time we really started making out and getting sexual, he waited for a "yes" from me. I didn't put it into those terms at that time, but I will always remember that while he made it very clear that he wanted me, he was also clear in conveying that his hands were going to stay on the outside of my clothes until I specifically told him to do otherwise through words or actions. (I ended up taking his hand and sliding it under my panties. God bless non-verbal communication.)

    My husband is pretty awesome all around when it comes to sex and relationships though.

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  17. And this is why, in the romance-ish (fantasy/romantic comedy, because mixing genres is funny) novel I'm writing, the guy holds back because he's not sure if he's misinterpreting the signals the girl is sending, until she pretty much says, "stop being a gentleman, damn it, I'm trying to seduce you!"

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  18. I wonder if this cultural baggage around asking and clearly conveying consent is one of the reasons for this split between American and Dutch teenagers: http://www.slate.com/id/2272631/slideshow/2272617/fs/0//entry/2272609/

    Even though people in both countries start having sex at about the same age, a majority of American teenagers , both male and female, end up feeling like they weren't ready, and feel regret.

    I'm wondering if part of this might be because open communication and explicit consent are considered "unsexy" in the US, and so people are having sex that confuses and worries them. If you're not sure if your partner is actually consenting, or if you're not sure if you really have the right to say no to your partner, that seems like it could lead to a less than fun experience even if nobody feels violated at the end.

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  19. There have got to be better RelationshipEd classes to get this. I will confess to also having labored under the "quantum waveform" delusion for many of my earlier years, while still being concerned about consent. So, I just tried to go slow enough to give people time to back out if they wanted, though, in retrospect, I have really no way of knowing if anyone was just "frozen" as you mention. But I was convinced that if I was too explicit, the waveform would collapse to "no". (This probably also had something to do with my atrocious self-esteem, thinking that it was a minor miracle in and of itself that any woman was interested in me, and if I was so gauche as to be direct about it, the spell would be broken and she'd realise she didn't want to be with a smelly ogre like me. No, I don't think I thought this consciously at the time, I'm just putting it together in retrospect.)

    And I'm not really sure where I got that idea. But it came from somewhere, presumably by cultural osmosis, so if you want to counter it, there's going to have to be something explicit that does so.

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  20. I haven't fixed Western culture yet, but I've fixed my bedroom, and that's a start. If enough people can just say that, maybe the culture can change a little after all.

    Yes! I have to believe that if enough people do this much, we'll reach a tipping point. You know, eventually.

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  21. Hold on. Both partners must exercise situational awareness. If one doesn't explicitly say "No", but the situational cues for assent aren't there--the responsible, initiating partner must stop. Paying attention to your partner is most important, as is some empathy. Aside from being a decent human being, it leads to better relationships AND sex.

    Having said that-if an individual is in a situation where things are happening that make them uncomfortable, they gotta speak up. "Is it 'really' rape if you don't know the person isn't consenting"--it isn't. Some assholes have used risk mitigation as consent, ie "if you must, put on a condom". That's NOT consent, and it's really not if there's a power differential involved.

    In your given situation, the information that would separate a felony from a consenusal encounter is in only one person's head--to be fair, that person has got to TRY to share that information.

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  22. Hershele OstropolerAugust 21, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    It took me a couple of years of immersion in feminism to start to tease apart the act of rape and the crime of rape:
    The crime of rape is, of course, anything that violates the law in the jurisdiction (and I'd include in that when the statute calls some or all of the acts "sexual assault" rather than "rape"). For instance, in New York and, if I'm reading the pertinent section of the law correctly, Washington State[1], bondage is rape. Even if the putative victim has to spend a week talking the other person into it; that and more subtly consensual forms of bondage are the crimne of rape but not the act of rape.
    The act of rape is something that makes someone feel victimized. That's a broader definition than I'm comfortable with, but I'm trying not to take over your blog here. So "fucking someone who doesn't want it but doesn't object" is usually an act of rape[2] but not, in most jurisdictions, typically the crime of rape. If someone says "yes" but means "no," it's difficult to say that's ok but it can be difficult to say what the rapist (act of) should have done differently.

    Obviously there's a lot of overlap between the two. Indeed, the task of a legislative body addressing nonconsensual sex is outlawing as much act-of as possible without throwing people in prison for entirely consensual behavior. But they're not the same; I don't think they're likely to be and I don't know if they can be. I'm only going to condemn the act of rape, whether it's a crime or not.

    [1]Though I suspect under lenity courts would be hesitent to read it that way if the prosecution's case hinged on it.
    [2]I don't automatically consider compliance nonconsent; if the complying partner feels free to say "no" (but you never know, do you?) and the other knows it's compliance, they're adults who can make their own decisions.

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  23. Hershele OstropolerAugust 21, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    For some reason it wouldn't let me post this all at once.

    When I was younger (and even geekier) I subscribed to a quantum theory of female desire, such that asking would collapse the wave function.

    In fact it seemed that asking would always collapse the wave function to zero, because asking appeared to be an inherently unsexy thing to do. Far better to let the wave function build incrementally. That's the model that romance novels follow - and no matter how 'bad' they are, lots of women read 'em!


    I've been there. What snapped me out of it was internalizing that women enjoy sex and declining all offers is not a victory, followed by the realization that, correspondingly, a woman who declines me isn't going to spontaneously express interest if I don't ask, but a woman who would say yes if I asked might not spontaneiously express interest either, so asking can't make things worse.

    I certainly don't think it's OK to engage in any level of sexual activity when someone is stiff and unresponsive, but actual verbal conversations over every stage of sexual activity is a lot of not fun.

    If conversations about sex bore you, you're either having the wrong sorts of conversations or the wrong sorts of sex.

    While an ongoing relationship obviously doesn't mean blanket consent, it does mean you're better attuned to each other's signals and have a better baseline understanding of each other's preferences.

    Only in an ongoing relationship is the idea of "default state of consent" possible. Not automatic, of course, but possible. With discussion. Probably better suited to BDSM than vanilla, or at least among people who have some familiarity with BDSM concepts.

    If one doesn't explicitly say "No", but the situational cues for assent aren't there--the responsible, initiating partner must stop. Paying attention to your partner is most important, as is some empathy. Aside from being a decent human being, it leads to better relationships AND sex.

    That's easy to say here; I can see it being difficult to put into practice through a haze of lust and confirmation bias (and possibbly other factors that cloud judgement).

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  24. I know I make a comment like this on every single "ask before you initiate" type of post here, but still, it needs to be said (OVER AND OVER until everyone gets it): maybe some people are manipulative douchebags who want to feel "taken by force" or who think being asked for consent "ruins the spontaneity" or some shit...but I believe those people are in the minority.

    Personally, I love being asked permission/asked "are you enjoying this?"/etc.; it makes me feel respected and safe. If someone seems concerned about my happiness and well-being at the kissing stage, I will be approximately 2000% more likely to proceed to sex. Conversely, if there's no evident concern for my consent early on, I start wondering what will happen if I want to slow or stop the proceedings later. I mean, maybe my partner would happily stop the moment I said no, but I can't assume that - especially when they've given no evidence of understanding consent issues thus far.

    Also, a guy who notices a bit of hesitancy and asks me about it is a guy who pays attention to body language and physiological signs and is a good communicator - both huge indicators of bedroom prowess. :D

    Probably the idea that "asking a woman for permission will cause her to say no" comes from the old myth that women just aren't sexual beings. If no woman wants sex, of course she'll say no if you explicitly request some. You gotta just assume you deserve the sex as payment for buying her dinner or whatever, and don't give her a chance to back out. :P

    Re: the idea that asking permission is awkward and hard: as with just about anything else, it gets easier with practice. Also, lots of things are awkward and hard - being interviewed for a job, asking for a raise, asking someone out, breaking up with someone, etc. - yet I don't hear people whining "Awww, do I have to?" because everyone knows that these things are an inevitable part of life. If you want a job, you have to interview for it; this is non-negotiable. You can't just show up at the office with your briefcase and hope for the best.

    It would be nice if people had the same non-negotiable attitude toward getting consent: "I want this person to enjoy what we're doing together, and that means paying attention and asking questions...period. Even if I don't feel like it. Even if it's difficult for me to say the words. Even if it means my partner might say no. Because caring about a partner's well-being is just...what you do."

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  25. I stayed in a relationship an absurd amount of time when the first encounter did result in essentially the same level of not-asking/not-objecting - sort of, he misinterpreted my moving his hands above my waist as, apparently, "please, stick your fingers into me from a different angle" as opposed to what I had in mind "don't go below the waist (especially inside me)." And it isn't like I've never tried to interpret physical cues, because there is that palpable sense of "don't say anything! Saying nothing is sexy! Saying something means you want to talk instead of have sexytimes!" We all fuck up. And it isn't even really dirty talk, yes the "do you want this/me to do that" kind of statements and hearing the enthusiastic "FUCK YEAH I DO!" can be dirty and sexy, or the "Do that other thing instead!"

    But those first, awkward-y, getting to understand/learn about this new person's preferences/desires/signals? I have to say that I vastly, vastly preferred my current partner's "are you okay with this?" check points, up to when clothes were coming off for the first time "how far do you want to go?" And that has worked out pretty well.

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  26. "I don't want to phrase this all in terms of a guy testing the limits of a purely reactive girl" - Holly

    But what if that's the situation you're in? What if the girl you're with consistently declines to talk about sex, or deems vague hints followed by silence to be an effective "yes"? Who seems so uncomfortable discussing sex that you start to think maybe you shouldn't be talking about it with her? And she wants you to take the lead, initiate sex and keep going until you hear a "no", but she's normally so accommodating and eager to please that you can never tell if she's really into something or just being polite...

    You know, hypothetically speaking. What can you do with someone like that?

    "If conversations about sex bore you, you're either having the wrong sorts of conversations or the wrong sorts of sex." - Hershele Ostropoler

    Yeah. So how can I have the best of both?

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  27. In that situation, that woman has serious problems and she still needs to talk about them. If she expects to be psychic, that's wholly unreasonable.

    As for conversations, I've found that if you only ever communicate about sex then it's a lot more awkward. I'd say that the best relationships, conversation-wise, are the ones where all parties share their feelings and emotions and commicate often, without hurting each other.

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  28. I've yet to fully free myself from the waveform model, in part because whenever I've verbally asked the answer has been no. When I've physically asked, the answer has still sometimes been no (and I've always respected that), but every yes has been nonverbal -- or has come from me, after the woman asked. One possible explanation is that I asked verbally because something had already suggested that the answer would be no.

    Recently I spent much of a night flirting with a woman, ultimately finding myself really wanting to kiss her but without the privacy to say or do anything. Later we accidentally bumped into each other in an empty hallway but before I could say or do anything, she said "don't get creepy."

    Holly, what the hell is in the picture for this post?

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  29. Well, if I was in that situation, I'd say "I'd love to have sex with you, but you don't seem to want to, so we won't." And then I wouldn't, until they brought themselves to discuss it.

    Maybe they're otherwise a great person; but I need a partner, not a cipher, myself.

    I feel that people shouldn't be rewarded for behaviour like that. If they couldn't get laid by acting like that, maybe they'd work towards getting better at communicating.

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  30. I was recently in the situation you describe, except I really, really didn't want it. (It was an old friend; I was okay with kissing but not interested in sex. I tried to hint that I didn't want it but couldn't bring myself to say "no, seriously, stop, I'm not interested, leave now" because I thought I had led him on and he would be angry.)

    It was pretty awful, and it's left me terrified of situations in which people might assume my consent and I might not feel comfortable saying no. I think anyone who would touch someone else sexually without being sure they were into it is an ass, even if the other person didn't explicitly say no.

    @Mr. Monster: Then don't have sex with her? Say "I can't tell if you're into this or not, and I'm not comfortable with that."

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  31. Mr. Monster-

    Have you told her explicitly that you want to talk about sex? If she's generally accommodating and eager to please (or, you know, likes you), she might put some work into communicating better about sex if she knows it's important to you. If she thinks you're doing it for her sake, but doesn't personally think it's necessary, she just may not see what the point is.

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  32. Count me as one of those people with lots of quantum waveform experiences. I mean sure, when a relationship is established it's much easier to read your partner and have comfortable conversations about sex and all that. The issue is that if you don't establish early on that this will be a relationship based on sex, it never gets to that point. Someone has to take the initiative, and as long as asking explicitly has a lower success rate than letting things progress naturally, you can't blame people for preferring what's been rewarded.

    (See also: "Foot in the door" sales/debate technique, every guy who complains about getting friendzoned, every girl who complains about being explicitly propositioned early on.)

    On a related note, since I've heard a lot of stories about girls who didn't feel that they could speak up when pushed past their comfort zone, is there any discussion aywhere for little white lies to the same effect. For someone who doesn't feel comfortable saying "this is past my comfort zone", breaking the moment with something like "I have to go to the bathroom" might be a handy tool.

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  33. I very unfortuneately tried to answer "Are you ready?" with "Not at all, I"m recently recovering from a suicide attempt due to depression triggered by a plummeting thyroid which is only now becoming stable but I am still on antidepressants that fuck with my brain and make me insane, and I'm just barely 16 and you aren't wearing a condom and we've only been a couple for 2 weeks and you're my first real boyfriend and I am not actually sure how sex works and I've never even masturbated so I don't know what I want, but I am so desperate to keep receiving attention and affection and feeling like a human being worth desiring that I will let you do this anyways" as a reluctant "Y-yeah"

    So while the appropriate answer was "Fuck off no, grow a brain and think about the ramifications of this!" I did answer "Yeah", so while I didn't want it at all, I don't think it was rape. It's not his fault he wasn't psychic.

    But I do hope I can mange to drive it through my daughter's head in ~15 years or so that you have sex when *you* want to have sex, not when somebody else does, and if it is not on agreeable terms you don't have it.

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  34. Teazombie - which is why the golden rule of consent shouldn't be just consent, but enthusiastic consent. One can actually expect a partner to read basic body language - and a distressed "yeah, okay, I guess" isn't really the same as "yes!.

    Personally, as a guy I have only positive experiences with asking explicitly rather than relying on body language - I've never gotten a "no" from someone where I believed that it would have been a enthusiastic yes if I didn't ask.

    But then, as has been mentioned, there's good and bad ways to ask. Requiring your partner to fill out forms in three duplicates probably does kill the mood - but short "want me to X?" isn't going to kill the mood.

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  35. @Mr. Monster:

    Wow that situation sounds stressful. Do other areas of communication function well in your relationship with her?

    Anyway, I think all of us, at some point, encounter a sexual partner who helps us break through the stupid programming we've received about sex. A guy might eventually end up with a girl who informs him in clear terms that he has to touch her clit for her to get off during sex. Or, as one of my gay friends recently admitted to me, he had to meet his ex to realize that it was OK and not some personal deficit of his to not have a hands free orgasm during bottoming. Or whatever.

    The only perspective I can see for your relationship, is if you decide you're going to make an effort to be the partner who tells her that her pleasure and enthusiastic consent are DAMNED important, that you want to be able to hear from her about the sex you're having. And crucially, that you're ok with it if she admits that maybe she hasn't enjoyed sex too much in her life up to now.

    But dude. If things continue the way they are now... I don't know, is that the kind of sex you really want to have in the long term? :(

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  36. Anon at 12:36: Yes, you can blame people for preferring what's been rewarded. If behaving like an asshole gets you what you want, well, you were still being an asshole. And yes, it is assholish to assume consent if consent hasn't been given. You'll want to only have sex with people who want to have sex with you. That's the only decent thing to do. And if the price for that is that someone will be scared of your asking and leave, then you must (1) practice your asking skills so that you don't seem crude or insensitive and (2) say to yourself, tough luck, but I couldn't just bloody well go ahead with it without knowing whether they're into it.

    So your problem is that you feel that you must establish it with a woman early on that your relationship will be sexual, or else the woman will never want a sexual relationship at all? That is not my experience, but I can't speak for you. Anyhow, as everyone has already said, asking doesn't have to be a big conversation, just a gentle "Mm-hmm, is this okay?" whenever you want to do something you're not already doing. Leave them an out; otherwise, it's not sex, it's a hostage situation.

    Personally, I can't imagine anything sweeter than someone asking "can I kiss you?", and I wouldn't even want to have sex with anyone who responds badly to that. But then, hey, I'm the kind of crazy person who gets off on knowing my partner is into whatever we're doing. And I'd much rather have an enthusiastic conversation than a non-enthusiastic sex session.

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  37. For someone who doesn't feel comfortable saying "this is past my comfort zone", breaking the moment with something like "I have to go to the bathroom" might be a handy tool.

    I'm not gonna say this never works, but the last time I tried it, I came back into the room to find my friend had put his futon from couch-mode into bed-mode. :(

    It's weird that he didn't pick up on my reluctance, since when we'd had sex in the past I'd jump on top, pin him down, bite him, etc., whereas on this occasion I was barely responding to anything he did. But at least when I finally managed to tell him (after the fact, via text message) that I hadn't wanted it that night, he apologized. And from then on the rule became that he would wait for me to initiate physical stuff and never be the one to escalate it, which worked wonderfully.

    For some reason it's really hard for me to stop a sexual situation cold with someone I like. If my partner gives me an "out" by asking if I'm okay, though, sometimes I can manage to express that I'd like to cool things off. The "askers" have often turned into ongoing fuckbuddies because I knew I could trust them; the non-askers have often gone ahead and fucked me even though I was just "going along with it" and afterward I felt all skeeved out and didn't want to see them again.

    So I have to disagree with those who think they'll get more sex by borderline raping people. You might be able to have sex with more people (one time each, and afterward they'll avoid you) but you'll have more actual instances of sex if you show that you give a shit about how your partner feels.

    Plus, I have the kind of social circle where people give sexual referrals ("You should sleep with my friend Bob! He does that thing with his tongue that you like, plus he's really really sweet"), so a reputation as a considerate lover will really get you laid more.

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  38. Hershele OstropolerAugust 22, 2011 at 12:04 PM

    9:23 anon, that's ... well, I don't know how to not see that as rape. I mean, pretty unambiguously rape.

    So while the appropriate answer was "Fuck off no, grow a brain and think about the ramifications of this!" I did answer "Yeah", so while I didn't want it at all, I don't think it was rape. It's not his fault he wasn't psychic.

    But it wasn't enthusiastic.

    While I, too, have trouble classifying that as rape, I'm not fully able, going by your description, to classify it as not-rape except insofar as you classify it as not-rape.

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  39. Even though I tended to deal with a lot of women who adhered pretty strictly to the "Asking Means the Answer is No" paradigm, this hasn't really been an issue for me recently, because I can read basic body language and do a check-in by asking explicitly. But, yeah, what Bruno said.

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  40. I have to admit, I'm seeing a bit of the "men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them" in the comments here.

    Because I find myself unsympathetic to the guys saying they might get laid less if they start asking. I honestly don't care. I mean, yeah, sucks to not get laid, but doesn't getting raped suck, you know?

    I am totally okay with people getting laid a little less if they can ensure that they make people feel violated a lot less.

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  41. The thing is, I don't the the women who reject you when you ask are thinking Well, I was totally going to sleep with him, but he asked, so no. I think it's more along the lines of the I don't want to sleep with you but I'm afraid to reject you but now I have a way to that I can

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  42. @Holly "I honestly don't care."

    Well maybe you should. Some people will always do the 'right' thing, some people will always do the 'wrong' thing, and some people will be more likely to do the right thing if there's an incentive to do so, or at least no incentive not to do so. And I'm not talking about rape; I'm talking about establishing explicit consent in a non-rape situation.

    An analogous situation might be picking up and returning a wallet that you've noticed someone has dropped. If they respond unpleasantly and give you a hard time about it then you'll be less likely to do it again next time. It's not that you'll become dishonest, but you'll be less incentivised to expend additional effort on being honest.

    If the incentives are not aligned with what you want to happen -- as seems the case -- then you can say "tough", as you have done, which doesn't seem to get us much further, or we can start to talk about how to get the right incentives in place...

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  43. Anon - The problem is, I can't promise that anything good will happen if you insist upon affirmative consent. I think it'll improve your sex life, but I can't promise it.

    And I feel kind of oogy promising it--I don't want to offer pussy as an incentive for not raping people.

    It may be that your only reward is "not being a rapist," and if that isn't its own compensation I'm not really sure what to offer.

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  44. Hershele OstropolerAugust 22, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    Well maybe you should. Some people will always do the 'right' thing, some people will always do the 'wrong' thing, and some people will be more likely to do the right thing if there's an incentive to do so, or at least no incentive not to do so. And I'm not talking about rape; I'm talking about establishing explicit consent in a non-rape situation

    What makes it Holly's job to incent you not to rape people, I mean, not to have non-consensual sex with people?

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  45. @Holly In your story, were you to re-write it, how could you have motivated him to establish explicit consent instead of doing what he did? (Which was not rape, from what you've said.)

    This maybe straying from the subject a little, but I rarely see disincentives for acting like a jerk. For example, on FetLife I saw a story of an actual rape within the bdsm community. Kudos to her for speaking out, but (unless I've missed it) there is no actual mention of his name. How the hell are newbies to that scene to find out that this guy is to be avoided?

    I'd like to see some kind of 'Alert' feature for negative feedback in FetLife so that this kind of info can be directly and indelibly linked to the profiles of predators. Maybe you're allowed to anonymously post an Alert when you de-friend someone, which will then stay on their profile, and people who notice it can correspond anonymously with you to discuss further. And obviously people can comment on the writing, as can you, again anonymously.

    Is that something worth pushing for?

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  46. @Hershele Ostropoler: What makes it society's job to incentivise you not to drive recklessly in your 4WD tank, apart from the penalty for manslaughter? Because no-one thinks they're a killer (well, they certainly don't intend to be) and by the time the accident happens it's too late.

    Where are the speed cameras of the dating world? And what can we do to build 'em?

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  47. An analogous situation might be picking up and returning a wallet that you've noticed someone has dropped. If they respond unpleasantly and give you a hard time about it then you'll be less likely to do it again next time.

    No, Other Anon, an accurate analogy would be closer to be the following:

    Person A: Sometimes I steal people's wallets! Maybe I'd even steal yours if I had the chance.
    Person B: That's awful! Also, if you stole my wallet I'd be totally screwed - I keep all my rent and grocery money in there!
    Person A (whining): But if I didn't steal from people, I'd never have any money to go the movies or eat dinner in restaurants!
    Person B: ...and your movie budget is more important than my entire livelihood why, exactly?
    YOU: PERSON B YOU ARE BEING MEAN. Also, trying to teach hir empathy and priorities is silly and you're not allowed to feel angry or defensive at the thought of someone taking your rent money and spending it all at TGI Friday's. Instead, you should be giving Person A a cookie every time zie doesn't steal a wallet!

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  48. @Anon 9:17-- While a good theory, that would be seriously sketchy and open to all sorts of abuse in practice. What if A and B had an argument, and A alerted B's profile as revenge? What if C alerted D's, but D was the actual victim in whatever occurred between them? Plus there's the slanderous element of it, which is most likely why the rapist's name was omitted from the girl's post.

    While I agree that there are very few public disincentives for acting like a jerk, I do think that there are plenty of private (as in, within a social circle) disincentives. For example, if one of your friends always gets a bit sketchy (not as in 'CREEP', more as in 'too blind drunk to realise the guy she's all over isn't into her'), it's not difficult to pull her off him at the time, and embarrass her with it the morning after (or any other gender combination)-- I'd say that's a pretty strong disincentive, especially when we're talking about selfish (and not criminal) behaviour.

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  49. @Anonymous 9.41 -- Your analogy would be correct only if when Holly said "He didn't rape me," actually he did. You would impose your idea of rape on her.

    What we're talking about here is not people who deliberately rape, but people who don't put enough care into making sure that their partner is 100% fully enthusiastic about what they're doing.

    How can you incentivise people to be more careful? Well, it doesn't help if it appears that the incentive is to be more 'confident' (bodice-ripper style) and less careful...

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  50. The first few times I fooled around with guys I was astonished at my own inability to speak up about what I wanted. When I was 21 (and a virgin, incidentally) I brought a stranger back to my room from a party with every intention of sleeping with him, only to realize I wasn't enjoying it and if I wasn't going to feel pleasure what was the point? Only I couldn't verbalize that feeling at all. Like I literally could not speak.

    I remember looking up at the ceiling as this guy sucked on my breasts and stuck his fingers in my pants and thinking, "What kind of strong woman are you? What kind of feminist? Why don't you just say something? What's *wrong* with you?"

    Luckily for me he got a phone call and in the 1-2 minutes it took him to answer I rehearsed the words "I'm sorry I don't want to do this please go" over and over and when he hung up the phone and reached for me I managed to force them out. And luckily for me he was like, "Yeah, sure thing," and left really fast and I was able to go downstairs to my friends and freak out with them while they hugged me.

    I was still in this inability-to-speak mode when I met my first serious boyfriend a few years later. The first night we hooked up I again thought I wanted sex, but when it came down to it, I wasn't ready and it wasn't doing anything for me pleasure-wise. And so I became a little less enthusiastic and hands on and he noticed that really fast. He looked in my eyes and asked, "Are you all right? Do you want to keep doing this?" And when I didn't say anything, because of course I had gone nonverbal again, he just laid down next to me and put his arm around me and said, "That's fine, let's just cuddle."

    The first few months of my relationship with him, I worked through my difficulty with speaking during sex, and by the time we broke up over a year later I'd become a very, very good communicator. And with the sexual experiences I've had since I've had no problem talking about what I want and don't want and asking my partners what they want to do. But it was definitely a skill I had to learn, and I was really, really surprised as I became sexually active that it was a skill I needed to acquire at all.

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  51. Anon 9:41: I think far too much of this hinges on the people who mention enthusiastic nonverbal consent. Asking for explicit permission before any escalation has a horrible success rate in the real world. Paying attention to your partner and realizing when they're uncomfortable is part of being a decent human being.

    Essie: Come to think of it, it'd be nice to have a post where people shared their stories of what happened after they said that they weren't comfortable. Or what happened after a partner asked for a cooldown. Just so that for one place on the internet, there's a place that normalizes that sort of communication, and shows that it's really not a big deal. Something to help reinforce that it's okay to have second thoughts, it's okay to communicate them, and to undermine the horror stories by pointing out how often no is actually respected. As something to keep in mind the next time someone feels disempowered to speak up.

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  52. (On a re-read, my first paragraph came off poorly. To reiterate, you're allowed to test another person's comfort zone when you're feeling them out. If you put your hand down their pants, you can tell the difference between someone who pulls you in closer and someone who freezes up. Paying attention to those signals and reacting properly is what's important, not whether you make the other person momentarily uncomfortable because you have to test things before you know how they'll go over.)

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  53. @Essie - it's amazing how hard that is to teach yourself. I was pretty much the same way with my first sexual partner. I had no idea how to speak up about what I wanted or didn't want. Now, many years later, I think I actually surprise people with how comfortable I can be...but it was a long road of intentional effort to get there.


    @Anon(s) - No, seriously, you do not get a pat on the head for not raping someone. I realize there are probably some girls out there who like to play coy and all that. I do not think it is worth the risk of sleeping with those girls, because if they don't tell you than howthefuck do you know they aren't actually frozen with terror? Is that really worth the risk to you?

    I have a hard time believing asking makes it more likely for you to get a "no," but if it does...does that not indicate that maybe she didn't really want to have sex with you in the first place, but didn't know HOW to say "no"?

    Here is an analogy that may fit better than the wallet one:

    There is a plate of cookies on the table. In the past, your mother has made cookies and given some to you. So there's a reasonable chance that it's okay for you to take them. However, if your mother is not there to explicitly tell you those cookies are for you, you have no way of knowing if it's actually okay for you to take them, or if she baked them for someone else. So if you take a cookie, there's a chance that it will be okay, and a chance that it won't. But if you just find your mother and ask her, you can know for sure--problem solved, no potential guilt.



    Also. Do a significant number of girls actually do the whole playing-coy-pretending-not-to-want-it thing? If so, society makes me sad :(

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  54. In all fairness, he asked and actually waited for a positive (if yes, hesitant and unenthusiastic) answer before proceeding. Most of society wouldn't have blamed him for just carrying on, given that there was no clear dissent.

    As much as I'd like to say he was a horrible person, he was a horny 17 year old boy with a 16 year old girl with her pants undone in his bed, and he did actually ASK, which is more than my next 3 partners ever did.

    While I remember him with zero fondness, he wasn't a bad person. He wasn't even really a bad boyfriend. I was a horrible girlfriend, actually.

    But if I could go back in time, I'd communicate that one answer much better.

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  55. Hershele OstropolerAugust 23, 2011 at 12:07 AM

    @Hershele Ostropoler: What makes it society's job to incentivise you not to drive recklessly in your 4WD tank, apart from the penalty for manslaughter? Because no-one thinks they're a killer (well, they certainly don't intend to be) and by the time the accident happens it's too late.

    And people do intend to be rapists? Decent people? As Holly said, isn't not raping someone incentive enough?

    Also. Do a significant number of girls actually do the whole playing-coy-pretending-not-to-want-it thing? If so, society makes me sad

    Not nearly as many as you'd think from reading the comments of a feminist's blog post about rape and consent.

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  56. Several people have asked how we could incentivise people to ask for consent, or to, you know, not rape. Well, aren't we doing that right now? We're having a conversation together, on the internet, about what is right and what is wrong, and why, and how to do the right thing. And doubtless many more people are reading this than participating, and maybe some of them wil be inspired to fix their own bedrooms, as well.

    Anon at 10:42: That would call for a Tumblr! A place where people could submit sucessful relationship communication stories! Or why not a blog post, yeah.

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  57. Some people will always do the 'right' thing, some people will always do the 'wrong' thing, and some people will be more likely to do the right thing if there's an incentive to do so, or at least no incentive not to do so.

    ...

    If the incentives are not aligned with what you want to happen -- as seems the case -- then you can say "tough", as you have done, which doesn't seem to get us much further, or we can start to talk about how to get the right incentives in place...


    Ok...but there is an incentive to do the right thing: the fact that it's the right thing to do. And coincidentally, this is also the right incentive. If you don't care about doing the right thing, then extra incentives aren't going to make you care. And if you really do care, extra incentives aren't necessary.

    Holly's posted an article that shows how to avoid traumatizing/violating your sexual partners. She shouldn't need to explain why to avoid violating your sexual partners, because the reason should be obvious to anyone with a conscience, and impossible to appreciate for anyone without a conscience.

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  58. Actually, there's another incentive in play here--repeat business.

    If you accidentally terrorize your sexual partner, they may not stop you, but they're not coming back.

    Being a jerk might get you laid once, but waiting for affirmative consent is a lot more likely to get you a on a regular laying schedule.

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  59. Holly: I would also add that the "repeat business" will be with people who initiate and make eye contact and moan and stuff. So it's better sex than the sex you'd have with someone who's frozen up or grudgingly "going along with it."

    It really seems like giving a shit about one's partner's well-being is the clear way to go here...but obviously other people's mileage may vary. :P

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  60. I'm a lot more likely to get physical with somebody who asks me than somebody who touches me without permission or attempts to do so. Not asking is decidedly unsexy to me. :)

    It also makes me feel happier if I'm asked how I feel during the act. A partner who is willing and able to stop and check whether I'm still comfortable and actually enjoying the experience is one I'd be going back to for sure. Checking on your partner applies to vanilla sex as well as BDSM and acrobatic sex.

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  61. I'd add that if someone has a sexual abuse history, particularly if it's childhood abuse, zie often has trouble defending zir own boundaries. This is part of how revictimization happens. Predators look for those with weak boundaries in hopes of pushing them with as little trouble as possible. Someone who's already been taught that zie is "not allowed" to say no may well have trouble speaking out.

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  62. I actually very rarely say an outright verbal 'yes' to sex, even when I want to, and it's for a truly twisted reason:

    Because once I say yes, I feel like I HAVE TO HAVE IT. I feel like if I say no, or unsure, I'm allowed to later change my answer to yes. But if I say yes, then there is no longer any choice: I'm getting fucked, and I may not change my mind. I have officially verbally consented, and now I must fulfill my contract.

    This was how I was sexually abused: as long as a 'yes' got gouged out of me, no matter how reluctant, no matter how unenthusiastic, no matter if I was rigid or curled up in a ball or even fucking CRYING, I was obviously consenting to sex, and if I backed out, then I was a cheat and a liar. (This also was how I was able to walk around for years thinking this was normal--after all, I said yes, I just curled up and cried afterward while he cleaned himself up and told me I'd feel better next time. How could he have KNOWN?)

    I'm still skittish enough that I need the reassurance that I can always say no, always stop everything at the drop of a hat.

    --Rogan

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  63. Reminds me of my first time, and I'm a guy. It makes it hard to trust guys, it makes it hard to date (what if something happens that I'm uncomfortable with? will I say no this time? will he be okay with that?), and it makes communication with partners hard.

    Seriously, it's not that hard. Say (breathily, if you'd like), "I want to you right now," and then your partner may say "Yesss," or they may say "What about instead?" or "Another time, maybe". I fail to see how you lose out.

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  64. I'm a woman, but I've NEVER have problems with asking for consent (with either male or female partners). I honestly have trouble understanding why it is so hard to ask someone how the feel. I'm trying to be sympathetic, but asking is something I NEED to do. I can't stay turned on at all if I have any doubt that my partner is enjoying him/herself. I think part of the problem might be that some people don't have a lot of experience asking, so I'm going to provide some examples of good communication techniques, okay?
    It is AWLAYS good idea to make eye contact and act slowly, waiting for your partner to indicate consent by moving their body to align with what you want to do. This includes head tilting, hip lifting, leg spreading, etc. It should also include a lot of smiling.
    Some ideas for verbal checks (all of these can be done in a sexy whisper):
    "I really want to X now, can I?"
    "Do you like this?"
    "Is this too fast?"
    "Do you want to move to your room?"
    "Should I grab a condom/do you have a condom?"
    "Do you want to X?"
    "Can I X?"

    Sexual communication is a skill, the more you do it the easier it is. And it's IMPORTANT. When in doubt, ask. It's not optional.

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  65. Hershele OstropolerAugust 25, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    I can think of an incentive for asking rather than assuming that have nothing to do with staying out of jail or even not being evil, but I don't want to bring it up because you shouldn't rape people even if you're not getting a cookie for it.

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  66. I lost my virginity to a man who didn't obtain consent either. He was just overpowering, and I was frightened. However, I wouldn't call it rape because I did not object. It didn't traumatize me; it was, unfortunately, in line with my previous experiences. Almost all of them had involved men pushing me beyond my boundaries. At the time, I didn't expect anything better.

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  67. @perversecowgirl: maybe some people are manipulative douchebags who want to feel "taken by force" or who think being asked for consent "ruins the spontaneity" or some shit...but I believe those people are in the minority.

    Just thought I'd point out that not all people who want to feel taken by force are 'manipulative douchebags'. Some just like being dominated in that way, or have rape fantasies. I know quite a lot of people whose kink is 'rapeplay', or 'consensual non-consent'.

    I'm in a D/s relationship, and it really gets my adrenaline going when we engage in this type of play. Obviously this is all pre-negotiated, my partners know this is what I want and still check before things happen what kind of sex I want. And just in case a signal is misread, we have the traffic-light code (because 'no' in a play-rape scenario really isn't helpful). Green=go, everything's ok, please do more of this, Amber/Orange=Slow down, no further please, Red=stop this immediately, something's gone wrong, something needs renegotiating etc.

    In this kind of play, asking for consent would chane the whole dynamic of the scene. We negotiate things beforehand (sometimes earlier in the day) so that when we start playing later we both know what kind of play's on the cards and we don't have to change the mood of the scene.

    Sorry to drag it off-topic slightly.

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