They Lied To Me About Small Talk, So I Want To Be Honest About Consent.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When I was fourteen, people talked about “breaking the ice” with strangers.  It was an appropriate metaphor.  For most folks, striking up conversations with people they didn’t know was as simple as stepping through the scrim of ice on a puddle.
For me, I was trapped under a foot of thick ice underneath a pond, drowning, hammering uselessly on that barrier with wet mittens.
I would later get a term for that fear: social anxiety.  But as a teenager, I realized that the world punished people who weren’t good at talking to new people – and so I bought several self-help books to try to master the art.
The books lived in some weird parallel world to me.  They were written from a place where every person you talked to lit up with happiness the moment you said “Hello” to them.  When you sat next to someone on a train in this world, they had nothing but spare time for you, as though they were NPCs in a videogame waiting for player input.  They were all seeking friends as badly as you were!
Everyone in this happy small-talk world had two settings: sports and weather.  They were encyclopedic experts on sports and weather in every sample conversation.
And the people who tried to talk to strangers?  They were nothing like me.  Their “Hello” never died as a whisper on their tongue.  They never mouthed their introductory sentence over and over again, trying to work up the courage to speak.  They never cleared their throat, then felt the lighthouse beacon of someone’s attention sweeping across them, then froze in that attention like a deer in the headlights.
All their conversations ended so well.  They walked away with friends.
I never did.
I think they meant it to be encouraging, creating this artificial world.  I think they wanted to show me how easy this all could be, to pluck up my courage.  But what really happened was that it made me feel that everyone else could do this, and that I was uniquely useless.
When you’re alone to begin with, feeling like you’re uniquely alone cuts like a razor.  And so for years I sat alone in my room, seeing decades worth of friendless days ahead of me, having resigned myself to the fact that I was broken.
This was nonsense, of course.  Lots of people don’t want to talk to strangers.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that small talk is rife with missed connections, awkwardnesses, grumpy men and women who’ve got no time to chat – but that’s not personal.  Most conversations fail, at least on the level that I wanted them to succeed, which was to say “Hi, I know no one here, maybe we can be friends.”
But by presenting this shiny happy world as though walking away with friendship was the norm, these cheerful tutorials dug out the quivering remains of my self-esteem and crushed it.
And that’s what I thought of when I read this Erika Moen cartoon on consent.

Oh Joy Sex Toy! Preview Image - click to see the comic!
Click to see the full comic, as you should!

I adore Oh Joy, Sex Toy!, and this is a perfect example why: the first half of this is absolutely wonderful, talking about how consent works and how consent doesn’t, discussing badgering and drunk people in clear, perfect, and very nonjudgmental ways.  I love how Erica creates a universe where there’s no shame about sex, as that is largely the world I live in, and boy is it wonderful.
But then we get to the second half, the one where every sexual act is explicitly negotiated in advance like you’re interviewing for a job, and, well….
…I hear the cheerful voice of my self-help books postulating yet another parallel existence.
What we have here is a world where everyone sits down sanely whenever they discover an attraction, having decided via some meeting that “Yes, sex is about to happen” – and before they move forward to the kissing stage, they have coffee and plot out what will happen in the course of the evening.  I imagine schedules: 8:15 p.m, kissing starts, 8:30 the shirts come off, 8:45 unleash the oral sex.
And that’s a world I’ve certainly visited.  Just this last weekend, I exchanged several emails with a girl I was going to play with, detailing what I would do to her nipples (not much, as she’d just gotten pierced) and what sort of cuddling I’d need afterwards, and it went as planned.
But this world of consent here has nobody who just starts kissing someone and has it go from there.  It has no conflicts, where you were really getting off on doing X, and now he doesn’t want to do X, and while you’re okay with that now the sex is less interesting.  It has no surprises.
And most importantly, it’s a world where everyone knows their desires expressly and is fearless about revealing them.  It’s a world where a tentative “Uh… sure, I guess?” is seen as a lukewarm “No,” because that’s not enthusiastic consent, whereas some of my most fulfilling sexual experiments came from me being hesitant about The Thing, even maybe a couple of minutes into The Thing, but eventually discovering that The Thing was awesome.
I’ve got no problems outlining my kinks.  But I can easily envision that ice, breaking – for me telling you “Sucking my nipples will send me into orbit” is a small frozen puddle, but I know there are people trapped beneath the ice-rimed lake.
There’s power in positing a world without negatives.  I know that.  There’s all kinds of storylines that erase the microaggressions that, say, minorities face in the course of their lives, presenting a world where everyone just gets along, and those narratives often provide power.  Minorities read these worlds where they’re accepted as easily as a hug, and that lets them dream a world that they then work to create.
Unfortunately, lots of other people see that fantasy world and go, “Well, that’s how things are now!” and act as though the war has been won – and furthermore, that anyone who does get shunned or discriminated against must be somehow making that up.
Making worlds where everything Just Works has both the power to inspire, and the power to isolate.  And in this idealized version of Consent Culture, I worry we’re leaving people behind – the folks who aren’t as in touch with their sexuality as we all should be, the folks who are embarrassed to discuss what really turns them on, the folks who are more instinctive than intellectual about their sexuality.
It’s a new culture we’re creating these days, and in most ways I totally support it.  This is the first generation we’ve had where information on sexuality was easily accessible thanks to the Internet, and now we’re creating a new and exciting world where we talk about sex in great and happy and shameless new ways.  The rise of Consent Culture has created great spaces, and it’ll continue to, so I hope this brand of discussion continues.
But the world isn’t perfect, and I think that too many people go “Consent is easy!  You just say yes enthusiastically!” when really, what’s happening here is that they’re mapping their preferred method of interaction across a complex and shifting spectrum of personalities.  And since it’s easy for me to do that, it’d be easy for me to go, “Yeah, this is simple!”
Then I remember the people who were good with small talk.  I remember how the culture I grew up in expected me to be skilled at talking to strangers, and if I couldn’t do that, well, you know how not to be lonely, Ferrett.  Chat up someone at a bar.  It’s that easy!
Except it never was that easy, and it still isn’t.  And somewhere, there’s someone who’s hearing about how easy consent is except their sexual desire is this boiling cauldron of scary feelings that dries up into nothingness whenever they express it, and they’ve tried to negotiate the way that everyone says but it’s so intense that they just walk away.
You don’t deserve loneliness.  What you deserve is a culture flexible enough to accommodate multiple pathways to satisfaction.

6 Comments

  1. Anna
    Nov 11, 2014

    Thank you for this; while I agree with the idea of enthusiastic consent, I’m one of the people you described as being trapped under the ice. I have a LOT of trouble being verbal about things in the sexual realm; this problem gets worse once I’m in the moment (it’s like the language centers of my brain are the first to be shut down by arousal). This has caused problems in the past when my partners have insisted on verbal replies to “Do you like that?” and similar questions.
    Thank you for writing about those of us who are under the ice, those of us who give off plenty of non-verbal clues but are unable to open our mouths and enthusiastically shout “Yes!”

    • Yoshi
      Nov 19, 2014

      This is so similar to my own experience that it’s eerie. And very comforting to know that I am not alone. Talking about sex is physically difficult — I just freeze. Trying to force it has caused panic attacks, and I don’t even think of myself as someone who GETS those.
      Despite this handicap, I have a thriving sex life, and my current partners have no doubts about how happy I am with them, playing and otherwise.

  2. Jericka
    Nov 11, 2014

    I think there’s definitely a place for non verbal communication. I know I stuck with it for years(decades). Non verbal communication is still communication! If I am with a guy and he can’t tell if I am enjoying myself by my body language, then that relationship is so very doomed.
    I have been working on my verbal communication, though. I even made working on communication during sexy times a new year’s resolution one year. The reason I did so was not actually about consent(my guys read my body language fine, or they don’t get another shot), but, about getting more of what I wanted in bed. I had come to realize that if I wasn’t asking for it, I was less likely to get it. So. To get what I wanted I practiced talking, and boy was it hard to start. It still isn’t easy, but, the rewards are nice.

  3. Kelly Ness
    Nov 11, 2014

    As someone who identified as primarily asexual, but who cares about her very sexual monogamous husband, it is impossible for me to give enthusiastic consent. I never feel like having sex, and that in itself makes me unhappy. But he has needs too, and I want to compromise….

  4. NC Narrator
    Nov 12, 2014

    Yep, I’m stuck behind that sheet of ice, too. I do OK with most social situations by simply becoming someone else – someone who is social and doesn’t view the rest of humanity as unexploded ordinance – but it is exhausting. Even more exhausting/demoralizing/dehumanizing is the impenetrable sheet of ice surrounding sexual communication. After 22 years of marriage and two grown boys, I still find it completely impossible to verbalize ANYTHING during sex. I can discuss sex clinically with high school students, I can crack the occasional risque joke, but I can’t communicate on even the most basic level with the man I’ve loved and been married to for over half of my life without dying a thousand stinging deaths salted with humiliation.

  5. cheetah
    Nov 20, 2014

    I learned to talk explicitly about sex when I met a man who enjoyed sharing detailed accounts of his dates. We became lovers and then “just” friends, but he really wanted to hear about my experiences.
    I couldn’t talk at first, literally. I could only write in email. And at first I was general and vague, but he asked me questions and delighted in my fleshing out my stories, even if I was just telling about a first date with barely a goodnight kiss.
    Writing emails to him, made it easier to begin talking in person. The necessity of staying boundaries during first dates also helped a lot. I gradually got comfortable with sex talk.
    Then I fell in love with a man who really enjoyed dirty talk during sex, and that broke the rest of the ice for me. My confidence and self knowledge increased tremendously.
    It’s a process. Just promise yourself that you will take regular baby steps and it gets easier.

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  1. Safety and Consent at the Poly Pool Party (Pt. 2) | Love Outside the Box (formerly: Uncharted Love) - […] you might find this tangentially related conversation about Consent Culture (Original post also here) — and this awesome cartoon…

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