No Means No: A Feminist Fantasy.

In the fight against rape culture, many feminists feel we need to work beyond the “no means no” catchphrase toward a more cooperative, positive view of consent, where consent means “yes” instead of just “not no.” I agree with that idea, but I don’t think it’s time to leave behind “no means no,” yet.

Many folks, on an intellectual level, acknowledge that “no means no,” but there are certain parts of our minds that say “well, but maybe it doesn’t this time.” The incredibly sad reason for that is that sometimes that part of the mind is right. There are still people out there who use “no” as a tool for manipulation, for whom “no” is a tease that means “maybe” or means “work harder.” It sucks, but they’re out there. And as long as “no” is used to mean anything other than “I don’t want this to happen, please stop,” we can’t abandon “no means no” for greener, more enlightened pastures.

So, here’s my fantasy. Let’s imagine a scenario, where one person is attempting to use “no” to sexually manipulate their partner. Heck, let’s roleplay it out.

Person A: Hey, do you want to come upstairs?

Person B: (blushing, using engaging body language) No, I don’t know if I should.

Person A: Ok, well, have a good night. (Exits)

Here’s what just happened: person A, the sexual initiator, can tell that person B is being manipulative and deceptive, but has accepted the “no” answer and terminated the encounter. B is probably going to be really annoyed by this. S/he’s going to try to chew out A later, and A is going to say  “but you said no, and I took you at your word.” Thus B will learn not to do that any more.

This is my fantasy, and I say fantasy because I know that for most people instilling a lesson about consent and rape culture is less important than the immediate opportunity for a sexual encounter. But when “no” sometimes really does mean “keep going,” how are we supposed to teach people the universal statement that “no means no?” The lesson becomes disingenuous. So, in addition to teaching people that as the sexual initiators “no means no,” we need to also teach clear communication of consent, and to never use “no” unless you really mean it.

I Am Not An Erotic Writer

I don’t write erotic fiction. I used to, a long time ago – well, I started a long time ago, then wrote in fits and starts for a few years. I don’t any more, though sometimes I want to.

I have thought about writing new erotic fiction. I’ve thought about it while I’m fantasizing, thinking maybe someone else might enjoy this as much as I do. Sometimes I will send a fantasy to its object, and usually that person enjoys reading it. But it never makes it into solid narrative form.

Today I was thinking about why that is. I am generally of the opinion that a strong narrative needs a compelling visual element, and my sexual arousal is usually not very visual. That is, when I’m imagining pleasure, I’m not thinking of the cut abs, angular cheekbones, and throbbing manhoods that represent sexually appealing masculinity (ok, so maybe I’m thinking about throbbing manhoods sometimes). What I’m thinking of is a person who makes me feel good. I’m thinking of the feel of their lips brushing my neck, the weight of their body on top of me, or the sounds they make when they’re about to orgasm.

Much as they make me drool, I’m not thinking of Sean Maher, January Jones, or John Barrowman. I’m not imagining a beautiful body, I’m imagining the beautiful things that a person can do to me, and the ways that I can make someone feel.

I think about the powerful, direct jolt from the nape of my neck straight into the depths of my pussy whenever someone buries their fingers in my hair and pulls, hard. I think about the way their tongue feels on my nipples, or their fingernails digging into my hips when I’m getting fucked from behind.

Photo by Molly Algernon

Photo by Molly Algernon

I don’t really think about the look of a body. I don’t dream of perky breasts or long legs. I am conscious of such things, and even somewhat adept at describing them. My old fictions can attest to that. But those descriptions always read as disingenuous, because the way a body looks is never what draws my interest or fuels my desire. I will admit that looking into someone’s eyes and seeing lust in them certainly does move me, but that look, no matter the writer, is one that can’t be truly shared in print. Words never really capture that flame that hides behind the iris and says “I want you, you take my breath away.”

Something seems to be missing from my story when I share the touch of a hand, the grip of teeth, the strength of a thrust, but my reader can’t see us. If I’m sharing with a person while I’m fantasizing, it’s easy. I am me, and you are you, and the image is ready-made. But for a wider readership, I want to be able to offer something real, something tangible, not the passionate affair of ghosts.

So I don’t write erotic fiction, though I still want to. I find myself inspired by another writer, who intersperses his sexual interludes with bits of internal monologue, sometimes wandering along tangents for several paragraphs, before reminding me that he’s got a woman’s mouth on his cock. That kind of narrative makes me feel like I’m inside his convoluted mind while he’s fucking, rather than being an observer. I love that. Perhaps, if I can capture that feeling within the context of my own experience, it won’t matter if my actors have no visages. We’ll see.

The Objectification Spectrum, and Where Flattering Meets Rude

This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.

Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.

So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.

The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.

But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:

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Comic by Barry Deutsch – click through to read.

I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.

The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.

I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.

While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.

Cheating Confessions, Part 2: His Best Friend’s Penis

Cis-men – especially heterosexual cis-men – are widely assumed to be fiercely competitive, and in my experience this assumption has frequently proven true. In my poly lifestyle I find my male partners often take a long time becoming accustomed to one another and realizing they don’t have to fight for dominance. Mostly, though, this competition is subtle: scrutinizing each other’s behavior, being possessive of me, that sort of thing. I have only once, in my lifetime sexual history (which, I admit, is less than a decade), had a man directly ask me to compare his sexual performance, and specifically the size of his cock, to that of another man. True story.

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I’m really enjoying posting photos corresponding to the phases of my life I write about. This is from fall 2006, at a friend’s birthday party.

The fall of my sophomore year of college, I came back to campus (after a very eventful summer which is a subject for another story) and to my boyfriend Alex who was at this time unaware of my sexual indiscretions. We only stayed together about two weeks into the school year; just enough time for one more cheat before the break-up. When I say this is “part 2” I’m really not speaking chronologically: there were two other men in the interim, but this story is related to part 1 so I’m telling it first. Yes, I hear you, get on with it. Right, so where was I. Just got back to campus for sophomore year of college, Fall 2006.

Scott had gone back to his parents’ house in north Florida to go to another college, and I found myself becoming closer with his best friend, Tyler. I had gotten to know Tyler pretty well the previous year, and our friendship was quite similar to the one I had with Scott. Tyler, though, was more fickle in his affections, and the year before I often found myself ignored by him for a month or more at a time. When he was interested, however, we spent a lot of time together, and I spent quite a few nights in his bed (which was, conveniently, across the hall in the dorms). Like Scott, we didn’t have sex at first; unlike Scott, I didn’t have sex with Tyler until sophomore year, and we then had the opportunity for repeat performances.

Only the first time he and I had sex was while I was still with Alex, so I suppose this is only partly a cheating story, and mostly just a bad-fucking story.

Tyler knew throughout our friendship that I was involved with Scott, and sometimes looking back on it I think they might have talked about me quite a lot, possibly even turned the whole thing into a game between them. I find myself wondering about that because the first time I saw Tyler’s cock he outright asked me if it was bigger/better than Scott’s. I figure he was hoping for an answer he could rub in his best friend’s face. Well, to be perfectly honest, I only ever interacted with Scott’s penis one time, the room was dark, and I didn’t get a very good look. That was my answer, and it was the truth.

Tyler, though, was damned proud of his equipment and wanted it flattered: not without reason, as it was sizable and very interesting looking when it was hard. That sounds like a left-handed compliment, but I generally don’t have a lot of comments to offer about the aesthetics of a penis. Interesting means I liked to look at it, and that’s about the best compliment I’ve got in that department. I was nonetheless a bit flabbergasted by his directness in asking about his best friend’s package in opposition with his own.

Unfortunately for Tyler, his cockiness (see what I did there?) got the better of him, and he failed to actually figure out how a woman’s body works. Apparently someone informed him that big dicks gave women orgasms, and he stopped reading the manual after that. Obviously he wasn’t completely hopeless or I wouldn’t have spent so many nights in bed with him before getting formally introduced to the aforementioned penis. Tyler was extremely seductive and arousing before he got into my pants – hell, with the amount of time and effort he put into being with me at that time, he was practically my boyfriend. And he was a good one, then. We spent loads of time together, often in his car (a Tiburon, which at the time I thought was bitchin’ but now I realize is the staple vehicle of douchebags…though he and Scott both had absolutely beautiful sound systems in their cars, and we would often just drive around with the windows open listening to music. I sometimes think that their cars seduced me as much as they did. Beautiful music and vibrating engines will do that to a girl. Aaaaanyway, this was the longest parenthetical ever.) since we were college students with no money for real dates. In public, he was affectionate – in private, he was very physically attentive. He could get me panting and desperately wet with his touch.

This part of the story is depressing for me - allow me to soften it with this funny picture of me climbing a dead tree. Also from fall 2006.

This part of the story is depressing for me – allow me to soften it with this funny picture of me climbing a dead tree. Also from fall 2006.

All that completely turned around when our relationship became directly – which is to say penetratively – sexual. His idea of sex was to kiss me long enough to get me naked, then the condom went on and it was time for penetration. I often wasn’t wet at all, because, well, why would I be? This was yet another reason I grew to hate condoms over the years – if I’m not moderately lubricated already, the condom will effectively parch me completely. And then, bad friction. Bad friction while he pumped away on top of me, in missionary position, on a squeaky dorm bed. I did my best to tighten my muscles around him to get some deeper sensation, but with no warm-up my vagina would have none of it. I have never in my life faked an orgasm, but I admit I played up my enjoyment with him quite a lot.

After we had sex a few times, our relationship changed drastically. No longer courting me, he didn’t go out of his way to see me or be kind to me. And apparently dissatisfied with my sexual performance, he would openly mock me in front of our mutual friends, saying that I would “just lie there.” I’m pretty sure the phrase “dead fish” came up once or twice (which, for anyone other than him who has ever had sex with me, is obviously laughable). Generally he was a complete jerk, and then would ask if I was coming up to his room at night – though he often sent me back to my own room afterwards, which this semester wasn’t even in the same building as his. I admit, I went up to that room more than once after this behavior started. It took some time for it to sink in that he really was going to go ahead and treat me like crap now.

Tyler also asked me about his sexual abilities compared with Scott’s, and I don’t remember what I told him, but in hindsight comparing the experiences is amusing to me. When Scott left our college, he told me that he regretted not being around to pursue a real romantic relationship with me. After I started having sex with Tyler, our relationship became significantly less intimate than it was before. Funny things.

The only overall positive experience of having sex with Tyler that I can remember was a threesome that we had with my best girlfriend at the time. She and I had a sexually active friendship, and on several occasions had threesomes with guys that I was involved with. We had a lovely sexual chemistry, so the experiences were universally pretty awesome, and this was no exception. I think we managed to get Tyler caught up enough in our pheromones that the encounter was a satisfying one for everyone. She later theorized that he was using me to get into bed with her, but I don’t necessarily buy that. I briefly considered posting one of the many photos I have of her and me together, but unlike the men in these stories I still care about her enough to be interested in preserving her privacy.

As usual, with these little stories and glimpses, there’s no moral or nice little tie-in to end the story. Though I think I will end that story with this one: not long after Tyler and I stopped having sex (which was less a direct break-up and more a tapering off of contact), Scott came to visit us on campus. We were sitting outside smoking, and I headed inside to go to bed. Scott got up, and gave me a hug, and we were generally happy to see each other and catch up that night. Tyler got up to hug me, and I blew him off. He said something about why didn’t he get a hug, he thought he was my friend, something meant to be comical but also was a little petulant. I told him of course we’re not friends, you’re not even nice to me. BA-ZING! Yeah, no, not a great burn, but I almost never say anything mean to anyone, so being honest like that felt really good. It was really nice to place being honest about my feelings over not being rude.

Cheating Confessions, Part 1

I have a long standing issue with impulse control. By that I don’t mean that I find myself unable to control my desires. I mean that I understand exactly what I’m doing, I know that I can stop at any moment, I know there are consequences to my actions. But, frequently, I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway. This trait frightened me when I was going through my sexual exploration phase.

When I say sexual exploration, what I mean is cheating on Alex. I was a fairly attractive girl, and guys did pay attention. Teenage guys, who have the mental capacity of a grub and the sex drive of one of those little test rats with the pleasure buttons.

The first one was named Scott. We met my freshman year of college – I don’t have a good story about how we met, just a fairly cliched mental image. There were concrete benches in the courtyard of our dorms. It was night-time, we were under a street lamp on a bench. He was in the seat, I was perched on the back because I am incapable of sitting properly in a chair. It’s not especially telling, I know, though I suppose I could make that scene into a metaphor for how I dangled the carrot of sexual possibility in front of him for the rest of that year.

Our “friendship” consisted of spending a lot of time together, casually, like real friends, in public venues. We’d eat lunch together in the cafeteria, had mutual friends, went to parties, you know, college friend stuff. But then in the evenings he would ask me to come hang out alone in the room with him. Inevitably, we’d wind up cuddling in his bed, where he would systematically attempt to fuck me, and I would attempt to get as much gratification out of the experience as I could without doing so.

Early on, I was not only resistant but a tad spiteful. Once, he told me he wanted to get me drunk, so that I would lower my inhibitions and sleep with him. A short time later, I went to my first college party, and got drunk for the first time. After three Parrot Bay Coconut-and-Diet Cokes, I picked up the phone and called him. My first and only drunk dial. It consisted of the following witty dialogue:

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There’s me, at the party where I made my first (and last) drunk dial. Did I mention it was pirate themed?

Scott: Hello?

Me: Hey, guess what? I’m drunk right now!! And guess who I’m not fooling around with? You!!

Scott: What?

Click

Yep. That was it. The epitome of wit, and class, I know. The problem was, the desire between us really was mutual. I wanted him as much as he wanted me, and we both knew it. But I was still in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and imposed nonsensical letter-of-the-law boundaries on myself to assuage my guilt in getting involved with Scott. Sure, I sometimes spent the night in his bed, where we would never sleep, but tease and grope each other all night. But I never kissed him, and I never let him take my clothes off. So, obviously I wasn’t cheating. Right.

When I’m feeling particularly uncharitable, I often look back on that experience as a seduction – that Scott was slowly coercing me, and I was resistant. But I think that’s mostly to keep myself from feeling like a terrible person. I encouraged his advances, even while rebuffing when he tried to push the lines. Though, I will say, he was a person with a track record for assaulting girls, so though he never forced anything on me, my view of him is colored by something he did to a friend of mine. I’m not here to share her story, as it’s not mine to tell, but suffice it to say that though our desires were mutual, he wasn’t always as equitable in his interactions with girls.

Anyway, the end of the story is utterly predictable. The day before move-out, spring of my freshman year. Scott was transferring to another school, so our teasing and seduction games had to end one way or another. I figured what the hell, we’re never going to see each other again. So, that night I spent the night in his room, and we had sex. It was…lackluster. Not tragic, but I remember very little of it (and no, I wasn’t drunk), which tells me it couldn’t have been great. He was a pretty good kisser, I remember that part. The next day he moved back to Jacksonville. We exchanged a few instant messages after that – when I told him I’d broken up with Alex he said he regretted not staying in town to pursue a relationship with me. I saw him once more after that, the next year when he came to visit some friends that stayed at my college. So, there’s another of my sex stories with an anticlimactic ending.

Rings and Conversation – Polyamory, Flirting, & Wedding Rings

This blog was originally posted on Life on the Swingset on January 17, 2012.

Allow me to preface by saying that I am terrible at flirting. I am almost always oblivious to the fact that I am being flirted with, and my idea of showing that I am interested in someone is hiding from them and failing to make eye contact. So any ideas about flirting and sparking conversation that I present should be taken with that in mind.

It occurred to me today – well, many times, but I only dwelled enough on the subject to write about it today – that the wedding ring, which once was the universal sign for, “Don’t even try to flirt with me.” has lost that aspect of its meaning in my life. How many people do we know who are happily married and also romantically available? I am on that list.

The wedding ring used to tell me that a person was off-limits – though, truly, even before I entered into a poly lifestyle that meaning was one I imposed. The fact that I was not poly at the time didn’t say anything about the person wearing the ring. The strange thing is, I still do the glance for a ring when I see someone attractive, even though I am both married and available. It’s an odd impulse. Even though I am not monogamous myself, I seem to subconsciously anticipate monogamy in others.

Also, as a poly person, I find the transition from small-talk to, “I think you’re hot and we should totally do stuff.” to be more difficult to maneuver, even in the absence of a ring. Monogamous folks have a whole stash of easy lines, like, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” I would feel more than a little forward (and ridiculous) with a line like, “Are you in a monogamous relationship?” Or, “Oh, you do have a girlfriend/boyfriend? Are you set on having just one?” Doesn’t really work so well. I’m downright awful at flirting to begin with. This just compounds the issue. Especially if someone goes for the, “So, are you married?” line and I have to counter with “Yes, but that’s no reason you should give up,” or try to fit a mention of my husband’s girlfriend into the conversation as a hint. Not easy.

For instance, I had been recently crushing on a regular customer at my job. I was certain that he was married, as he often comes in with his wife. I work at a sex-positive cafe, so expectations of monogamy are lower in my workplace than they are in the outside world, but I didn’t know how to find out. It took me several months of small talk from behind the counter to discern that yes, in fact, they are monogamous, so I should drop my interest and move on. That left me in a long-term emotional limbo that I didn’t especially enjoy.

I wish I could say I learned something through this experience, and that next time I will know just what to do differently to avoid that discomfort. I can’t say that. Next time I meet someone attractive, I will go through this exact same process all over again. Maybe eventually I will uncover the secret to learning whether someone is monogamous without making myself look like a creeper. When I do, I promise I’ll write it on a big banner and show it to everyone I know.