When No Means Maybe
Enthusiastic consent. I love it. But what if it's not always that simple? Now let me preface this by saying that I in no way condone sexual assault of any kind. This topic can be triggering so please stop reading if you need to. If not, bear with me. I'll explain what I mean by 'not that simple'. We are being taught more and more that 'no' needs to be respected. (and hallelujah to that because damn it's been a long time coming!) but the memes and the general internet dialogue around this comes up short, as far as I'm concerned. People speak about, write about and teach consent all over the place. And they often do an amazing job. I know many people who are far more comfortable having a dialogue about boundaries now and that's awesome. I hear things like 'no means no' and 'it's not just saying yes, it's about an enthusiastic yes!' And yeah, when I ask someone if I can eat them out and they give me a hesitant yes and can't make eye contact then maybe their body language is telling me they feel uncomfortable saying no. I get it. Women in particular are so often raised to be polite and sacrifice their own desires for someone else's pleasure. So checking someone's enthusiasm is useful.
But what about the maybe? What about when you don't *know* what you want? What about when you do something with someone who doesn't fully know what they want? What if you or your lover indicate yes when you mean maybe which doesn't mean no, so hey, might as well indicate yes, especially if the other person's yes makes it closer to yes than no? You all know what I mean. There's not a soul on this earth who hasn't been unsure. Even if you've never had sex in your life you know what it's like to be invited to something and be on the fence about it and go anyway because there's only one way to find out, right? And generally, if you have a bad time, you know your answer will probably be no next time. Or you have more information as to why it was a no. Take for example a football game. If you've never been, but everyone seems so excited about it, you think well sure.. I'm not enthusiastic about this but I'll give it a go. Turns out you hate football but you love being in a cheering crowd and you now know to try a different live sport. Or maybe you'll go to a concert instead. It seems so much more simple with non-sexual examples. I think there's a few reasons for this. One is that often with sexual acts there's a higher risk. Both emotional and physical. Emotionally, sex is such an intimate and personal act, that people get hurt. If you find out your partner wasn't as into anal as you were, then it can feel like rejection of you as a lover or a judgement of your sexual tastes. We take this stuff personally. If you're the one not so into it, there can be the fear of upsetting the other or growing apart because something that is supposed to connect you, doesn't. In terms of physical risks, they are varied and depend on what activity you are doing. But if we use the example of anal sex, if you're not that into it, things get painful pretty quickly. The same goes for being on the receiving end of many sexual acts. If you go to the footie and realise you're not into it, your friends might be disappointed but they'll probably have enough fun without you that it's not a big deal. Maybe you have a bad day but it's unlikely anyone gets seriously hurt. Especially given that if you're monogamous, you can probably find other footie buddies, but unless you cheat on your partner, it's unlikely you'd be able to have all your sexual desires met, if your tastes clash. Hence, there's more at stake and more risk. (And more on non-monogamy here).
Secondly, we are taught that ambiguity means no. And to proceed despite a no means assault. It can be scary to sit in ambiguity because there is the fear that not knowing what you want but consenting anyway, means the other person isn't getting an enthusiastic yes, proceeding anyway and therefore assaulting you. Or, if you're on the other end, there's fear of being the perpetrator. Both those places are awful to be in and certainly not going to help anyone have a sexy time. In fact stressing is likely to make a maybe into an actual no. And then we miss out on that sweet spot where we expand our comfort zone enough to learn new things about ourselves, in a safe space. I think as a society, we want people to have the freedom to try things they are unsure about, to take informed risks, with the potential of getting hurt, to learn desires, preferences and basically to truly know their sexual selves. Which is to say to have a relationship with their ever-evolving sexuality. Trying things doesn't have to be a phase in adolescence. We are always learning. Sitting in ambiguity is to dive into mystery and embrace possibility. And so, how do we balance leaning into the mystery of our 'maybes' while still having strong boundaries and not traumatizing ourselves or others? How can we get the benefit of learning, while minimizing the hurt and disappointment? It seems like such a frustrating conundrum. So here are my tips for maximizing the goodness in a maybe, and avoiding the ouch.
Firstly, lets get clear. If someone says 'no', do NOT try to talk them out of it or change their mind. That's not 'exploratory' or sexy. It's manipulative and gross. Take their word for it, that their no means no, and not maybe. You could ask them why they don't want to do certain things and yes, there's a chance their idea of what you're proposing is not what you meant. Maybe they will change their own mind with more information. But it's not your job to do that for them. Give them more information about your proposal if they want it, but don't proselytize.
Secondly, I highly recommend expanding your consent binary to be more of a spectrum. Put a maybe between your yes and no. And make sure you have enough personal awareness to know what each of those feel like. Think about it simply first. What's a food you have always loved and can't get enough of? Ice cream, say. And then maybe salami is your hard no. Perhaps sushi or lasagna are maybes. Sushi becomes a yes when it's vegetarian. Lasagna depending on who makes it. Whats your sexual equivalent of ice cream? Maybe your sexual equivalent of lasagna is cunnilingus. Depends who is offering.
So the opportunity knocks and you're somewhere between your yes and no. Before doing anything else, assess the risk factors. If you're about to go into 'maybe' territory, it's good to know how many unknown quantities you're dealing with. For example, I would advise to proceed with more caution if you're playing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if you're with a new person or people, aren't feeling 100% emotionally or physically, or have anything else going on that might make things trickier. This seems like common sense. But it's easy to overlook the bigger picture when you're in the midst of loads of stimuli. And it's better to do this first, before you're letting someone bruise your neck and remember you've got a job interview tomorrow. So now I invite you to take that initial list you came up with and throw it in the bin. You've proved to yourself that you have a bunch of things you're ambiguous about and there's probably more you haven't listed. Now give yourself room to follow your deep knowing, in the moment. Because chances are you're not going to know if your lasagna is flavoured the right way when it shows up in your bedroom until you taste it. This is where the next piece of advice comes in. If your intuition, your logic and your body are not signalling a 'no' to something, but you're finding yourself genuinely not knowing, then go slow. (more on this holistic approach to fucking, here). Maybe don't swallow an entire plate of sushi before you know you like it. You're likely to vomit or not even take in the flavour enough to discern how you actually feel. Sniff it, lick it, take a nibble. Be curious and get a damn good sense of it. You're more likely to enjoy it, and if you don't enjoy it, you're more likely to realize and be able to put the brakes on. And if you're sitting in an enthusiastic yes and your partner seems unsure? Give them room to be unsure. Go slow with them. It's okay to use your words to check in. 'How does this feel?' Help them feel safe to say no. The key here is to make sure the other person knows they have all the space and permission in the world to say no when/if they decide to. This way you can be sure that any 'yes' is coming purely from them and not any codependent tendency or emotional sacrifice on your behalf. Words. Current culture around consent often puts emphasis on words. More sophisticated methods of teaching consent include body language in an effort to address the fact that words don't always come easy for people. Some types of play literally make speaking impossible yet knowing if everything is still a-ok is no less important (and often MORE important) in these moments. But even during the most vanilla sex, our brains are not in their most logical, thinking and speaking place. So try and read the other person's body language, and be responsive to it. For some people It can be easier to shake their head or give a quick 'mhmm' than it is to interrupt someone with a whole sentence.
However, when words *can* come, use them. If you're not in a speaking mood during play and you instead fall back onto body language, check in afterwards. Make sure you're both in the same place and perhaps debrief while having some aftercare. That way, no one walks away feeling unsure and you know where to go next. This builds trust and intimacy and can even be sexy, if you're describing all the things you enjoyed in detail. Lastly, please remember to be gentle with your tender hearts. Sex can be emotional. Human, intimate interaction can be emotional. If mistakes happen, practice accountability and forgiveness. Use hindsight to see where you could have done better, admit it to yourself and your partner(s) and tell them how you plan to do it differently next time. Forgive yourself for not being perfect and let go of the past. Playing in ambiguity means things might turn from a 'maybe' into a 'no'. That's great! Not because you or your partner(s) didn't like something but because you've learnt where your edges and desires are.
I hope this article has gathered the often tangled threads of vagueness in consent-land and laid them out as useful tools for getting more from the mystery that is a maybe. Consent isn't always simple. Desire and communication isn't always easy. But we're all learning and growing and each day deepens our connection to our bodies and the earth that birthed and holds them. If you're after more personalized work around topics such as this, feel free to get in touch and book a one on one session or come to an upcoming course or workshop. With Love, Bianca Image Credits: Image 1 copyright Bianca Wolff, Image 2 'The 3 of Swords' copyright Bianca Wolff, Image 3 copyright Bianca Wolff and Ellen Hitchon, Image 4 'Witches' copyright Bianca Wolff, Image 5 artist unknown.