Asking for it

If you’re looking for love, or sex, or romance, or connection, how do you go about it?

That initial connection can be elusive.  We can’t all just stand around on steam train platforms like Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the film Brief Encounter, hoping that a little bit of coal smut will land in someone’s eye and an attractive stranger will have the medical skills to whip it out, eyes meeting, hearts thrown together by fate.  Nowadays, there are a plethora of online platforms and dating apps, and great relationships have started with a swipe on Tinder.  But whether in virtual space or in person, someone has to make a leap of faith and kickstart the communication… a look, a smile, a question, and a decision whether or how to answer…

A friend posted about a brief encounter on Facebook:

“After a lovely afternoon… I was walking up to the train station.

Bloke: Scuse me love, scuse me, I’ve got a quick question.
Me: OK, what?
Bloke: You got a husband?

What did I say? What would you say?”

Well, what would you say?  A bunch of us piled in with witty responses:
“Oh gawd, now where did I leave him?”
“No but my wife is a total babe”
“Have you?”
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’d have had a witty comeback on the tip of my tongue in the moment.
Then another response from a woman:
“I’ve nearly always answered yes to that. When I was young and travelling overseas I would wear a fake wedding ring as well. Fucked up innit.”
This is the culture of entitlement we live in – where we’re all colluding in the paradigm, the belief system, that men are natural predators and women are their prey.  I’ve written before about how wrong that is and new evidence keeps emerging to illustrate that people of all genders may like and want lots of sex, despite the social pressure for some of us not to.  In this context, regarding this Facebook story, it’s normal for us to assume:
– that the bloke in question is being somewhat predatory, but it’s pretty harmless and of course a bloke will want to chat her up and chance his arm
– that if the woman answers “yes” the bloke will step back, giving way to the husband who has claimed her as his own
– that it’s OK for a woman to pretend she is married/taken/owned as a means to protect herself from unwanted advances from men
– that if someone is in a romantic or sexual relationship then they should not be open to forming another romantic or sexual connection.
And it is in this context that a man commented on my friend’s encounter:
It is fundamentally different when the genders are switched in this scenario- because a woman ‘complimenting’ a man challenges the paradigm, whereas a man approaching a woman stranger is acting exactly like the predatory stereotype.  This wasn’t a flirty line in a social space, with eye contact and body language to convey consent – where yes an approach might be welcome.  It was shouted across an empty street.
Any woman approached like this feels more than ‘uneasy’ – whether or not she feels fear of threat, she also feels the weight of that false paradigm crushing her freedom.  She can’t even walk down the street without someone asking intrusive personal questions.  Surrounded by people who will use their entitlement to interrupt her, how is she to get on with her  day-to-day life, or move through space freely, or start a conversation with someone, or explore and express her sexuality?

Instead of dismissing this kind of thing – “was he cute?” – it’s important we all call it out whenever we can. When we accept or excuse this kind of predatory approach as normal, we allow the social conditions for these beliefs and behaviours to flourish – a culture of entitlement that leads to sexual harassment, abuse and rape, which we all condemn. 
Yet we still collude in it and contribute to it, playing along with the game of predator and prey.  Laughing it off, dismissing it as a compliment, or hiding behind a wedding ring to stay safe – none of these things challenge the paradigm.
So what does?  Consent.
Exploring sex, love and relationships is a human right – love and connection is something all of us want, and need in our lives.  But nobody is EVER entitled to contact or connection with anyone else. That requires consent.  You know what though? Calling out entitlement is easy compared to asking for consent.

The dictionary definition of consent is that it is ‘agreement to do something’ or ‘permission for something to happen’.  But entitlement culture provides a context in which we make assumptions, and don’t always seek that permission or agreement.

“Scuse me love, I’ve got a quick question.”  It’s really hard to say ‘No’ to that.  It’s difficult to reject someone who might need help, or empathy.  It’s uncomfortable, putting your own needs first, running for the train and ignoring the human being travelling beside you, reaching out for a little connection.  We should be able to ask and respond with kindness to that stranger reaching out.  But our belief that men are predators and women are prey means that most women would already be on their guard, poised to expect the predatory line that follows.  I’ve lost count of the number of men who’ve pointed out how difficult it is for them to make the first move and repeatedly be knocked back, or accused of harrassment and abuse, when their intention was just to reach out and connect.  So entitlement culture leads to isolation, loneliness, and frustration.

It also leads to unhappy relationships, beyond that initial point of connection, as partners, long or short term, will start to make assumptions about each other’s wants and needs, not asking, not agreeing, not choosing.  Polyamory has made me more aware of those choices and negotiations – navigating multiple connections requires a lot of communication and negotiation around people’s boundaries, wants and needs, not least their agreement to be non-monogamous, to let go of that sense of ownership, possessiveness or belonging that comes with traditions around monogamy.  Of course it is possible to be polyamorous and maintain structures and beliefs that infer possessiveness/belonging – just as it is to be monogamous without inferring any entitlement or limit on your partner’s autonomy – but ethical non-monogamy requires consent and so at least it raises the issue.

Of course, the context we’re most likely to be thinking about consent is sex.  If we fully reject entitlement culture’s message that men are predators and women are prey, then the everything we think about sexual consent starts to look different.  Imagine a world where people of any gender are able to talk about the kind of sex they want, without anyone assuming that means they want to have it with them, now.  Imagine if we could talk over coffee with friends or colleagues about how hot the sex we had last night was, without it seeming lascivious, boastful or shameful.

Imagine if we could invite someone to have sex, just like we can now invite someone to have dinner together.  Just like that, in fact.

We’d ask if they had any favourite foods, likes, dislikes, allergies, religious or ethical restrictions… and at that point we might find that, in fact, we have no tastes in common at all and having a meal together is a really bad idea… or we might find common ground or compromise… we might ask ask the host if we could bring some wine or pudding… we’d agree a time and a place and make that comfortable for each other… we’d talk and check in and ask each other if we were enjoying it… we’d say if we thought it was delicious… we might try something new… we might enjoy a classic favourite dish… nobody will get so drunk they can’t enjoy it, or pass out mid meal and can’t remember it (though if someone does, you would stop eating and make sure they’re safe)… we are both free to cancel or leave at any point, even if it feels a bit awkward leaving after the starters when someone has prepared a 7-course banquet… there is no expectation that we will have dinner together again and again (although we might – that’s up for discussion)… and NOBODY will be force fed.

And deciding when and how to ask someone for dinner isn’t straightforward, but you certainly don’t go up to a stranger on the street and say “Scuse me love, you got a permanent arrangement to eat dinner with one person every day for the rest of your life?”  That would just be weird.

Context matters. Of course if nobody ever asks anyone if they’d like to have dinner with them, then people would only be eating alone.  So it’s worth asking – but it’s best to ask people you have established a rapport with, and who you know are interested in food.  If you’re in a restaurant, it might not be that odd to ask another person if you can join them, or if they’d like to join you.  But most of the time, you wouldn’t ask a stranger to go for a meal with you.  Perhaps if you’d been chatting in a bar you might ask if they’d like to go on for dinner.  Or you might start a conversation about the weather, or a common interest – and pay attention to whether they seemed to want to carry on talking or not, and whether they enjoy your company. If you agree to exchange numbers, you wouldn’t randomly text them a picture of your lunchbox – you’d be having a conversation about food and you’d ask if they’d like to see it.  Whatever the context, though, nobody is ever entitled to have dinner with anyone else.  When the context is appropriate, ask, but be willing and able to hear ‘no’.  Rejection takes practice.

When sex is on the menu, we’re in the restaurant of assumptions – people get stuck with the same old recipes, or eat in awkward silence, or taste something they dislike but say nothing out of politeness, or get scared to ask if they can try something because they might seem strange for liking that, or get full up but finish the plate because it would seem rude not to (or worse, they’re afraid that the other person might be aggressive about it).  And because some of us are expected to want to eat an all day buffet, and some of us are expected to resist these tasty treats, we make it more difficult for any of us to eat what we want or to share a meal together.

It’s comparatively easy to navigate consent when it comes to sharing a meal.  But when it comes to sex, it’s not that easy – the weight of cultural expectations about what (and when, and how much and with who) we are supposed to want, enjoy, like and dislike limits our ability to explore our sexualities and express our desires to each other.

Asking for consent – directly and indirectly, checking in, not assuming, being able to say and hear and respond to ‘no’, verbally, non-verbally – finding ways to explore and express desires, wants, needs, hopes, likes, dislikes, being able to say and hear and respond to ‘yes’ – asking for all of that would challenge the cultural paradigm fundamentally.

When you’re looking for love, or sex, or romance, or connection, you’re looking for consent.

© JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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