Consent could be split into before, during and after doing things to each other. ‘Before’ is knowing, guessing and predicting what something will be like, based on previous experiences of one’s own practice and one’s partners. It can be seen as an attempt to steer the interaction in the right direction. ‘After’ is the evaluation of what transpired. It happens directly after the play ends and can continue 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. I want here to focus on the ‘during’ and on how to evaluate and communicate what’s happening in the now.
How to navigate consent in the thick of things, as it were, is tricky. Few come pre-programmed with the ability to artfully and respectfully navigate these emotionally fraught waters. In modern consent circles, it is popular to emphasise that not only is stated consent needed but, enthusiastic consent. I’ve never been 100% certain of what that exactly means. Possibly it means to always look for a clear and full-bodied ‘Yes’ during play, physical or verbal.
It could also mean being ready to accept at any moment a ‘no’, even in places where there was a previous ‘yes’. It is always possible, after all, to misuse prenegotiated consent as an excuse to not be present and attentive in the here and now, or to signal displeasure with someone for changing their mind.
But you wrote in your profile that you liked anal!
However, depending on how enthusiastic we expect our enthusiastic ‘yes’ to be, we might also limit what emotions are welcome in what space. It might be hard to be enthusiastically positive and cry simultaneously, for example. To better understand these conundrums, I need to dig deeper into the anatomy of a yes and no and how they function in an ever-shifting present moment.
I can see a yes in the present taking three possible shapes: encouragement, validation, and acceptance.
Encouragement would be driving your partner on by maybe saying yes, yes, yes, moaning in pleasure, or humming peacefully. Validation would be answering inquiries. Are you okay? Do you like this? And acceptance would simply be saying nothing if everything is good. 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 be still. It’s questionable if acceptance is a yes, or maybe in some grey zone.
How Trauma Impacts Our Ability To Say Yes and No
Before going on, I think I must define trauma and triggers concerning saying no. This time briefly because I’ll return to the subject many times, each time more in-depth. In short, a traumatic experience is being pushed outside one’s window of tolerance. This can be defined as the range and intensity of experiences that we can at any given moment tolerate. This range may be narrowed or expanded by any number of factors, be they internal (how well rested one is, how effective a person is at self regulating stressors, etc) or external (such as work/relationship/financial stressors, etc). When a person finds themself outside of their window of tolerance, the body tends to respond with one of the F’s-Fight, Flight, and Freeze. While these responses are common knowledge, the social adaptation isn’t as discussed. To give it another F-name, this is sometimes referred to as the Fawn response. This is putting one’s personal needs aside to please or adapt to another.
Trauma responses can occur either quickly, like in a car accident or repetitively, like being in an abusive relationship. The nervous system is built to deal with and resolve a traumatic experience, but if that process fails, then triggers may remain. Old remnants can instantly push the nervous system outside the window of tolerance into one of the F’s.
Some people know their triggers well, and others encounter them more like unexpected landmines. These ideas come from the work of Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery (2015). Saying ‘no’ should not be traumatic if 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 possibly a lingering trigger.
To break down the verbal no’s, I want to remix the FFFF model.
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.
You can see that verbal freeze and fawn responses are very similar to an accepting yes, and this can cause 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 bodily tension, being unresponsive.
Non-verbal fawn no: Trying to please by following along.’
Then there are the non-verbal no’s.
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 in obvious contrast to submission and surrender.
How Do I Know When To Say ‘No’?
Even I have dozens of ways to say ‘No’. The trickiest question is to know when to say no. One way is by sensing my nervous system and recognising how it feels to near the borders of my window of tolerance (if I even know the limits of that window). This is the embodied approach. If I wish to say no before getting too close to those edges, I would need to balance my assessment of the before conversation and anticipated consequences of consent. This would be to avoid the classic hangover phenomenon: it feels great right now but the aftermath is not worth it. One’s self-knowledge evolves gradually over time through practice and life experience. For example, knowing how many glasses of wine can I have without sacrificing the gym the next day. Or knowing how deeply I can surrender and submit while still feeling that I am taking care of myself. Sometimes too, a no might be related to a principle or person outside the current situation, like only wanting to kiss my primary partner, or having bruises from someone I play with regularly.
The idea from Michel Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality (1976) that I find intriguing is the concept of being guided by pleasure. In European or Christian societies, sex and sexuality are often defined and categorised into likes and dislikes, good or bad, hot or not, sacred or perverted. These definitions are based on societal agreements and relationships, but they take us away from the essence of sexuality as mere pleasure and into a realm where it is difficult to trust our instincts about our windows of tolerance. In contrast, a simpler view of sex is that it is only about pleasure or eros, and the best way to experience it is to listen to our bodies and be present.
But in contrast to all this active communication, there is the fetishization of passivity. All these ideas about yes and no, verbal and non-verbal, comes from wanting something. What if the strive is the complete opposite, to be a perfect doll, a corpse, or simply an object? Then any present reaction, muscle tension, or sound would be considered a no. The only enthusiastic consent would be negotiated in advance. It is hard to achieve, to silence any embodied response—mind over matter. That requires a deep state of submission. Nevertheless, I think it can be a great practice to understand the instinctual yes and no by only being allowed to feel but not to react, to stay in the feeling, so to say, and not get carried away with the chain of reactions.