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An anatomy of yes and no (2022)

You can listen to this musing here or read it below.

I first wrote this musing in a notebook while visiting Berlin. You know, the paper kind with an ink pen. I taught at two different festivals, the European Riggers and Models Exchange and the Intimate Revolution. Of course, being sex-positive spaces, the topic of consent, or maybe even better said, the evolution of consent, was on the agenda. So this musing is my take-aways from these talks.

First off, consent can be split into before, during and after. “Before” is knowing, guessing and predicting what something will be like. Based on previous experiences of one’s own practice and one’s partner. And it can be seen as an attempt to steer a play session in the right direction. I have written more in detail about it in the text Playing Safer. “After” is the evaluation of what happed. It happens directly after the session ends and continues for weeks, months or years. In the best cases, it leads to learning something about oneself, and in the worst cases, to regrets and broken relationships. However, in this musing, I want to focus on the “Now” and how to evaluate and communicate what’s happening right now.

The trendy word in consent today seems to be enthusiastic consent. And I’m not 100% sure what it actually means. One way of seeing it is to always look for a yes in the play. It could be a physical or a verbal yes, but there needs to be some kind of positive feedback going on. Another way of sessing it is to always be open to a no. So, the background comes from prenegotiated or “Before” consent, sometimes being misused to excuse not being present and attentive to the here and now; or not allowing someone to change their mind. “But you wrote in your dating profile that you wanted to have anal sex….” However, enthusiastic consent kind of makes consensual non-consent impossible. And depending on how strong the focus is on the enthusiasm, it also might limit what emotions are welcome. It might be hard to be enthusiastic and crying simultaneously; I don’t know. To know better, I need to dig into the anatomy of yes and no and how they function in the present. 

I can see a yes in the present, taking three different shapes. 

Encouragement

Validation

Acceptance

Encouragement would be driving your partner on by maybe saying yes, yes, yes, or moaning in pleasure, or constantly humming peacefully. Validation would be answering to inquiry. Are you okay? Do you like this? And acceptance would simply be saying nothing if everything is good—the time and effort for maintaining them apparent scales. And sometimes, one merely wants to float away and enjoy the situation. The same idea applies to both verbal and non-verbal communication. Non-verbal encouragement could be seeking proximity, validation to move along when one is led, and acceptance to simply being still. I think it’s questionable if acceptance is a yes, or maybe it is in the borderland between a yes and a no.

To break down the no, I want to reuse the FFFF-model (Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn) from trauma work, even if a “no” isn’t traumatizing. More on this later, but first, some examples of verbal no’s.

Verbal fight no
Stop it, asshole! I’ll kill you if you continue.

Verbal flight no
Please no, can we maybe do this instead?

Verbal freeze no
Silence, unable to speak.

Verbal fawn no
Trying to please the other by faking a yes.

Verbal freeze and fawn no’s are very similar to accepting yes, which causes a lot of miscommunication. Then there are the non-verbal no’s.

Non-verbal fight no
Being aggressive, reclaiming space.

Non-verbal flight no
Moving away, giving away space.

Non-verbal freeze no
Stop moving, maybe losing tension, being non-responsive.

Non-verbal fawn no
Trying to please by following along.

Again, miscommunication is a risk because the non-verbal flight and fawn no can be seen as a non-verbal validating yes. Fawning can even take the form of encouragement. So the best non-verbal no might be the fighting one because it’s evident. And it often is in direct contrast to submission and surrender.

Before going on, I think I need to define trauma and triggers in relationship to saying no. In short, a traumatic experience is being pushed outside one’s window of tolerance. And the body responds with one of the F’s-Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn. It often happens fast, like in a car accident, or repetitively, like being in an abusive relationship. The nervous system is built to deal with a traumatic experience, but if that process fails, then triggers might remain. So old remaining triggers will instantly push the nervous system outside the window of tolerance into one of the F’s. Some people know about their triggers, and for others, they are more like landmines. You can check out my text about Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery for more information. So saying “no” should not be traumatic as it happens inside the window of tolerance. But if the “no” is not understood or ignored, it might lead to a trauma response (one of the F’s) and a trigger.

But how do I know when to say “No”? One way is feeling my nervous system and recognizing how it feels when I’m getting towards the borders of my window of tolerance. This is a very embodied approach. What if I want to say no before getting close to my edges. I think it depends on why; maybe it’s connected to before and after consent. Like it feels good now, but the aftermath is not worth it. Think the classical hang-over. I believe that one’s self-knowledge builds over time by practising and experiencing life. Like, such as how many glasses of wine I can drink if I want to hit the gym the following day. Or how deeply can I surrender or submit and still take care of myself the next day? Or the no is related to something outside of me, like a promise to someone else. Like I’ll only kiss my primary partner. Or I don’t want to have bruises from someone I don’t play with regularly.

There is an idea from Foucault’s book, the History of Sexuality, that I find interesting. To be guided by pleasure. Or in the European, or maybe Chrisitan, way of defining sex, or sexuality-that it aims to make it into something well-defined, into likes and dislikes. Hot or not. Perverted or sacred. And it is built upon agreements inside relationships, but also towards society, on how to behave. But this brings it outside the realm of our nervous system, outside just mere pleasure. So it becomes harder to trust the window of tolerance. Or maybe, with enough hours, days or years of conscious sexuality workshops, I will embody my entire belief system about my sexuality. Compare this to a less complicated view on sex, that it is simply pleasure or eros. Where real passion comes from listening to the body, by being present. And that the more we try to define yes and no, the harder it becomes to feel it. But then again, there are the intellectual reasons for saying yes and no beyond the feelings.

Finally, I want to end on a slightly strange note—the fetishization of passivity. All these ideas about yes and no, verbal and non-verbal, comes from the idea of wanting something. What if the strive is the complete opposite, to be a perfect doll, a corpse, or simply an object. Then any reaction, muscle tension, or sound would be considered a no. It is hard to achieve, to silence any embodied response—mind over matter. That requires a deep state of submission. I think it can be a great practice to understand the instinctual yes and no’s by only being allowed to feel but not to react.