Recognizing Non-Verbal Consent: It’s Not That Hard

Let’s play a little game:

I’ve got some pictures here of nonverbal cues and actions. You look at them and categorize them under “Is open to having a conversation right now” or “Is closed to having a conversation right now.”

I think it’s fitting to say that none of these people want to have a conversation. The signs in the first image that they don’t want to talk include the furrowed brow, bitten lip, and the fact that they’re looking away from the person taking the photo. The second is someone whose arms are crossed with their head turned down. The third shows someone turned away and actually putting their hand out to push away or stop someone.

Let’s do this exercise again: categorize these images under “enjoys what they’re doing” or “doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing.”

Again, I think it’s safe to say that none of those people were enjoying what they were doing. The first image shows a person who disliked whatever they were drinking, made clear by their scrunched eyes and pursed lips. The second shows someone physically in pain, as indicated by being hunched over and grasping at their chest. The third shows people clearly disinterested and tired, as indicated by their hanging heads.

We’re expected to, and capable of, picking up on nonverbal indicators every day. A presenter is expected to survey a room to determine if the audience is engaged, and if they are not, the presenter is expected to modify their presentation. When our significant others come home and slump onto the couch with a haggard expression, we get the sense that they’ve had a long and hard day. We can usually identify physical signs of intoxication, like slurred speech and stumbling, without having seen someone consume alcohol.

Of course, we cannot be sure without asking. Someone may look angry and we might assume it is directed towards us for something we did but upon further conversation, we may come to understand that they were actually feeling frightened or defensive. Or they may be angry, but with somebody else. Or they may be angry with us, but for a reason we knew nothing about. There tends to be more than meets the eye, so asking questions and having an open dialogue with someone is critical to getting a complete picture of how they’re thinking and feeling.

Last month the world was briefly abuzz on the heels of Babe.net’s story about Aziz Ansari. I won’t be doing a full summary now, but here are some basics: Babe.net approached the anonymous Grace about a night she had with Aziz Ansari and Grace recounted their date and subsequent sexual interactions. Grace detailed the many times she expressed her lack of consent through non-verbal means; removing her hand from his groin after he repeatedly moved it there, pulling away, and ceasing movement altogether, including not moving her lips when being kissed. She also talked about the numerous ways she showed her lack of consent verbally: asking him to slow down and chill, responding with “next time” when asked repeatedly “how do you want me to f**k you”, and flat out saying “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”

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Grace eventually left, feeling hurt and violated, and informed Ansari via text that he made her feel extremely uncomfortable and ignored her verbal and non-verbal indications. Ansari apologized via text, saying he “clearly misread things in the moment” and was “truly sorry”.

In a public statement, he said:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

With this article came a flood of commentary, from news stories to op-ed pieces to Facebook posts. But I remember the first response I saw. It was an opinion piece from the New York Times titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

As the title alludes, the author believes that because Grace didn’t explicitly say “no”, Aziz could not have been expected to know that she didn’t want to engage in any sexual activities. The author goes on to say the simple fact that she was naked with him in his apartment was enough to assume that Ansari was going to try and have sex with her. It is arduous, problematic work, on par with mind-reading, for Ansari (or people in general) to figure out what these complex gestures and expressions mean. And a lot of people seemed to agree with the author’s assertion.

Let’s revisit our first three photos: viewing these images, I want you to contemplate a different question: Does it look like any of the people in these images want to engage in sexual activity?

How about this second set of photos: if the surroundings of these images had been changed to intimate settings, would it seem like any of these people were enjoying the sexual interactions they were having?

While these are stock Google images, the point remains: the same nonverbal cues we recognize in everyday situations are present in sexual situations.

If I go in to kiss someone and they physically respond like this:

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I know I shouldn’t continue trying to kiss them.

If I’m having sexual intercourse with someone and they make this face:

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I can safely assume they’re uncomfortable or hurting and I should stop.

The next step after recognizing these cues and ceasing activity is to ask your partner if they are okay. We need to take steps to determine what those nonverbal cues mean. Are they in pain? Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel pressured? Do they need to take a break? Do you need to stop altogether?

Equally important to asking is not demanding an answer that makes you happy. Just because you want to continue does not mean your partner wants to, and they should not feel pressured to put their feelings aside because you’re going to be upset if you stop.

Here’s the thing: I would love to live in a world where people express all their thoughts and feelings directly. I want to empower people to say when they’re comfortable and when they’re not, whether that’s in the workplace, at home, or in sexual situations. But it’s not a one-sided job. We need to ask our partners what they want and how they are. We need to recognize that there’s more than one way to say “no” and express discomfort.  We need to listen to our partners’ wants and needs and respect when they need things to change.

And to begin fostering a culture of affirmative consent and sexual pleasure, we need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Ongoing, enthusiastic consent requires you to ask, listen, and respect.

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Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.