For The Last Time That’s Not What a Trigger Warning Is

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I really love Brittany Cooper over at Salon. She’s challenged me to think about race and gender politics in new ways, and I almost always find myself informed in new ways when reading her work. So I was extremely disappointed to find this (admittedly slightly outdated) article in which she argues against the use of trigger warnings in the classroom.

Cooper says of difficult topics like violence and race “But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. And trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can.” But just a few paragraphs before she mentions “Those of us who teach about traumatic material – say, war, or the history of lynching, or rape and sexual assault, or domestic violence – usually alert students if they are going to encounter violent material.”

Perhaps I have drastically misunderstood what trigger warnings are (which seems weird because I spend a lot of time reading about them, thinking about them, and also getting triggered by stuff that doesn’t have a warning), but it sounds to me as if Cooper actually does give verbal trigger warnings to her students but is simply against labeling them “trigger warnings”. As I’ve said before (many, many times), a trigger warning is simply a heads up to a reader to let them know that there is potentially triggering content. By triggering, I don’t mean upsetting, new, uncomfortable, or difficult content. I mean content that causes someone to have an intense and uncontrollable emotional reaction, often with flashbacks, physical symptoms (sometimes exclusively physical such as a seizure for someone whose epilepsy is triggered), or impairment of their functioning. It usually involves a mental illness and the symptoms and difficulties associated with that mental illness taking center stage for the individual who is triggered.

A trigger warning is NOT censorship. It is not saying that the content is bad. It is very similar to a content note in that it alerts readers to what’s coming up. Generally it does so to allow someone who might be triggered to take care of themselves. Online that might mean choosing not to read the piece. But I know of almost no teachers who believe that trigger warnings exist to allow students to opt out of certain conversations. Instead, it’s there to allow the student to choose how they’re going to read the piece. Maybe they won’t do this piece of homework in a coffee shop, maybe they’ll give themselves extra time so they can engage in self care, maybe they’ll ask a friend to be around while they read it. If a particular trigger is especially bad, it opens the door for them to discuss with their teacher if there is another way for them to cover the same material. But in no way does telling someone “hey, take care of yourself” mean the same thing as “you don’t have to grapple with this issue.”

Cooper suggests that the way to handle these sensitive topics is to have a well trained teacher who can help students deal openly with their feelings. Hear hear! I absolutely agree that educators should be well schooled in how to address topics that might provoke intense emotions from students. But what that doesn’t deal with is the fact that students generally do the reading that contains these topics on their own, outside of class with no one to support them or walk them through a nuanced discussion.

I have yet to see a clear articulation of how a trigger warning impedes honest discussion and engagement with a variety of ideas. I have yet to see anyone point out how a trigger warning might keep a student from being exposed to new viewpoints or from dealing with difficult subjects and new concepts. Some have suggested that a trigger warning will give a student a preconceived notion of what the text will be like, or will label the content as “bad”, but again, this seems to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be triggered. Yes, I suppose giving someone a heads up on the content in material will give them some preconceived ideas of what will be in the text because someone has just told them what will be in the text. This seems no different from a teacher giving a short overview of what to look for or guided reading or discussion questions. And if the wording of “trigger warning” seems to imply something negative about the reading, a content notice would perform the same function nicely without any baggage.

I’m worried that the vitriol against trigger warnings is just another case of neurotypical needs being prioritized over those of people with different brains. Students should be given accommodations that facilitate their ability to learn, whether that means presenting material in a variety of different forms, getting extra time on tests, or helping them engage with material without sending them into a panic attack or flashback. If teachers really want to facilitate strong engagement with new ideas, having students who are absolutely flooded with emotions is not conducive to that goal. Speaking from experience, those are the times I am least likely to be able to process new information or calmly test out new ideas and viewpoints. While Cooper says that without trigger warnings she has been able to take her class through a variety of difficult pieces of media, I do wonder how many students felt they had to stay quiet or simply weren’t capable of speaking up because they were overwhelmed with emotions.

Again, from personal experience, when a triggering topic comes up unexpectedly, I am not able to speak up or participate in discussion. Ignoring the realities of triggers actively bars students from being able to participate in class when they are suddenly exposed to things that send them spiraling. It does a disservice to the vulnerable students in class.

So again, probably not for the last time: trigger warnings are not the same as censorship. They do not require anyone to change what they’re saying. They do not give students a free pass to opt out of difficult discussions. They simply let students take care of themselves while engaging with difficult material. And sometimes knowing that a topic is coming up is enough to keep it from causing serious distress and setbacks in someone’s recovery.

Transhumanism, Gender, and Definitions

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In the process of talking about things like transhumanism, I’ve started to hit a wall in my questions when it comes to identities, most particularly gender identities. It makes perfect sense why people should get to define their identities for themselves. It makes complete sense that there are more identities than male and female, that we need new words and new perspectives about how people can act and dress and talk. This is all new and exciting and I love the conversations about how we can make gender identities reflect the ways that people actually feel and identify.

But there’s been something hanging around at the back of my head that just came to light while reading this article about cyborg as gender (content note: the author has a really rudimentary understanding of trans issues that really detracts from the rest of what he’s saying). And then I realized: I no longer know what the heck gender is.

So the traditional definition of gender is the outward, cultural expression of your biological sex. Gender activists have pretty much blown that to smithereens, and the existence of intersex, trans, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and all sorts of other gendered people really complicates the idea that there is a one to one connection between sex and gender such that gender is an expression of sex. Really the fact that there are people who express the same sex differently (even people in the same culture or family) calls into question the idea that gender is the culture version of sex. The idea that gender is just an outward expression of the body parts you have is pretty outdated.

So what about other definitions? Some newer definitions include the idea that gender is how you feel or identify personally. If you feel like a woman you are a woman. That makes sense, but what does it mean to feel like a woman? Does it mean you’re more comfortable in the body typically assigned to women? No, because there are absolutely trans* or genderqueer people who prefer feminine pronouns and identify as femme but who don’t physically transition to a body assigned female. Does it mean to act stereotypically “feminine” or want people to treat you like a woman? No, there are butch trans women, and cis women who behave outside the norm, and tons of women of all stripes who are active feminists who want to change the way they’re treated.

Is it just about what feels comfortable? Does it feel comfortable to use certain pronouns or a certain name? That seems so far removed from the original definitions of gender that I’m not sure it makes sense to call them the same thing anymore. Perhaps it has to do with comfort in certain clothes or behaviors, but again, the labels that we give to gender seem to have little to no correlation to the outward expressions of gender. There are men who cross dress and women who buzz their hair, but we still recognize that if they identify as a certain thing they get to be that thing.

So when I say “I identify as a woman”, I’m not even sure what I’m saying anymore. When someone says that their gender is cyborg (which seems to make about as much sense as a lot of other gender identities: it’s a particular way of relating to your body and presenting your body to the world), what are they saying? I saw someone once write that they felt autism took the slot in their brain that people typically reserve for gender. They believed their gender was autistic. I’m starting to wonder if “gender” might not simply be a word for “first or basic identity”. Perhaps it’s the thing that we most strongly see ourselves as, and as we begin to create new gender categories, the old ones are becoming less and less helpful since they don’t actually point to a coherent category anymore (as anyone can fit into the categories of male and female. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need better categories that actually describe the ways people act and dress and speak without all the stupid baggage of the gender binary).

If that’s not the case, then it might be more helpful to break down the concept of gender into slightly smaller categories. There are already words for how you present (femme, butch, etc) that could be fleshed out to simply describe someone’s aesthetic. We might also need better words for the variety of things that “sex” encompasses (chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics) to allow people to identify if they so choose based on their bodies. Maybe we also need more words for passive/assertive distinctions, or other personality differences separate from gender. But none of these seem to get at the question of core identity that many people view gender as. The problem seems to be that there are so many components to what a gender identity can look like that we’d need more words than anyone could possibly keep track of to label all the combinations that could exist.

None of this is to criticize anyone’s current gender identity. None of this is to invalidate the way people feel in relation to their bodies. It’s simply to question whether the words that we’ve inherited are the most useful in labeling the ways that we feel, or if we need to explore what we mean when we say them. It’s entirely possible that someone has already clarified a newer definition of gender that I was simply unable to find (if so, please link me), but I don’t think relying on words that imply a connection between sex and gender or between gender and the body is very useful when the ways that we understand gender today don’t rely on those connections.

I would love it if we could start to expand core identities beyond gender (which is the first category most people try to ascribe to people), so that people would allowed to identify as autistic or black or disabled first if they felt it was the most pertinent element of their identity. In order to do that, I think we need to start questioning what we mean when we say gender.

 

Link Round Up!

Hello friends! I don’t do link round ups on a regular basis, but I’ve been reading like a fiend lately so I’ve got lots o stuff that has been really good. So I’m giving it all to you in the form of some handy dandy links.

1. My Mental Illness Is Not About Your Boner by Ozy Frantz

I kind of forgot to read Ozy for a while, partially because they were switching blogs and partially because I actually just suck at life. While I basically recommend everything they have posted at their new blog, this particular piece really felt important to me as a fellow BPD person. There’s nothing sexy about it, thanks very much.

2. Who is Delusional? The Answer is We All Are by Noel Hunter

I’ve recently started reading Mad in America, a pro-madness site that highlights voices counter to the typical narratives around mental health, drugs, and psychotherapy. I don’t agree with everything they post, but if you want to have your views on mental illness challenged, spend some time here. This piece does a good job of reframing how we conceive of reality, and in particular I appreciated the elements about emotional abuse in childhood.

3. For Fat Patients and Their Doctors by Ragen

A slightly older post, but a really good resource for anyone who’s interested in educating themselves about health at every size and body acceptance, this is a round up of resources about whether weight loss is effective and the health benefits of losing weight. Highly recommended.

4. I Do Not Care About Your Baby by Jonathan Naymark

Ok, this is totally self indulgent but seriously. Not everyone has to coo and love babies all the time. It’s great you have one and like it. I’m going to be over here doing something else.

5. This utterly fantastic graphic of collective nouns for mystical and fantastic creatures.

What have you been reading?

Emotions, Validity, Actions

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Providing emotional support to someone else is hard. Most people aren’t quite sure how to do it, and like most other hard things in life it is a concrete skill that requires practice. Most of us learn some of this through emulation. We see other people giving hugs, suggesting solutions, or telling us that things will be ok, and we learn that this is how to provide support when life is hard.

There’s one particular piece of useful knowledge that I learned in DBT that evidence seems to indicate is pretty universally helpful when someone needs support, but that very few people naturally pick up on. Validation. I’m about to say something that for some people sounds utterly ridiculous. It did to me at first. All emotions are valid.

This is a statement that is easy to misinterpret, so let me be specific. What I mean when I say all emotions are valid is not that all emotions make sense, all emotions deserve the exact same kind of consideration, or that we should act on all of our emotions. It simply means that there’s no wrong way to feel. It is telling someone “yes, I see your emotions. They are real and they are acceptable.” You can’t control your emotions, you can’t will your emotions away, which means that you feel what you feel. That’s valid. Being told that your emotions are ok and accepting that your emotions are allowed to happen regardless of what you then choose to do is a really big part of a healthy emotional life.

Validating someone’s emotions lets them know that it’s ok to feel. It lets them know that someone else gets it and can empathize. And it doesn’t diminish the scale of whatever they’re feeling by trying to talk about solutions or the bigger picture. There’s research that invalidation is a quick way to trigger emotional and mental problems in someone. I see it as a very subtle form of gaslighting, saying “no you don’t feel that way” or simply denying that you should feel that way, putting pressure on an individual to control their very thoughts rather than their behaviors.

So practically speaking what does validation look like in comparison with something like problem solving or comforting?

Validation at its core involves recognizing the emotion that someone else is having and then letting them know that it’s ok. Sometimes that can be explicit. “You seem really sad right now.” Sometimes it might be simply by expressing a similar sentiment, like agreeing when someone says they dislike someone, or hearing about their situation and opining “Yeah, that really sucks.” These are extremely little things, but fitting them in before you begin saying things like “what can I do?” or “it will be ok” tells the other person that you’re actually listening.

Sometimes it helps when you need emotional support to let another person know that you don’t want anything but validation. “I just need you to listen to me vent for a while.” Not every form of support needs to come in the form of concrete action. Sometimes it’s simply being with someone while they feel something, a form of reminding them that their emotions won’t drive other people away or make people think they’re crazy or bad.

But wait! Isn’t this just giving people permission to behave irrationally and hold other people hostage to their emotions? Sometimes people do get upset over nothing. Yes young padawans, it is true that not all emotions make sense, nor do they always fit the facts present. Most emotions exist for a few particular purposes, which means that if someone is all balanced and so on, those emotions will show up in pretty predictable circumstances. In a perfect world, people would feel angry when someone violated a boundary, sad when they lost something, and guilty when they did something that violated their own moral code. But that doesn’t always happen. So how can we actually validate emotions that are out of place, like being angry because your friend got sick and had to miss your birthday party?

Here’s the secret: emotions are not the same as behaviors. Even telling someone about an emotion is not the same as acting on that emotion or asking someone else to act on that emotion. It takes a lot of time to learn how to do this without adding in some subtle pressure that the emotion needs to get fixed, but it is absolutely possible to let someone know “Hey, I’m feeling upset in x way. I realize that your action y is related to it, but that it doesn’t really make sense for me to feel this way. I’m going to feel it for a little bit, and at some point when I’m less feely can we talk?”

After you’ve validated someone’s emotions they may then decide that their emotions make sense and they want to act on them, they may decide that their emotions make sense but there’s no good way to act on them, or they may decide that it’s more helpful to try to get past the emotion by distracting themselves, doing something soothing and enjoyable, or through some other emotion regulation technique. But none of that is because the emotion is wrong. It’s because an associated action might be bad or ineffective, and the emotion is causing pain or distress.

In no way is validating someone else going to cure all their problems. But it’s an incredibly small way to take real steps towards better community mental health. And even if it’s as simple as validating yourself and the people you surround yourself with, it helps smooth relationships and strong emotions. Validation: try it!

 

What It’s Like: Major Depressive Disorder

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Hello and welcome to the final installment of the What It’s Like series! Previous posts 1, 2, 3, and 4. Today I’ll be trying to talk about the most amorphous of my diagnoses, Major Depressive Disorder. Once again, the disclaimer that these are my experiences. I am not a mental health professional, I don’t speak for all people with depression, and depression can look vastly different for different people. If you know someone who has depression and want to know what it’s like for them or how to help, I strongly suggest talking to them.

Onwards, to depression!

I cry a lot. I mean a lot a lot. I cry more than any other human being I’ve ever met. Sometimes out of absolutely nowhere a wall of just straight out pain hits me and my eyes get all watery and even if I hate it I can’t stop myself from crying. Depression is like having enough sad/bad/scared/aaah feelings that they start leaking out of your face at random times.

I can always tell when my brain is falling into depression or anxiety based on my sleep patterns. Anxiety means insomnia, which in turn comes with day after exhaustion. Depression means just being tired all the time, sleeping for 12 or 13 hours at a time, never feeling rested, never having energy. It’s the times when it’s sheer struggle just to stay awake through the day and my eyes start going out of focus every few minutes. Depression is down, anxiety is up.

Depression for me also tends to be whole world focused. Anxiety usually revolves around me and how horrible I am and what I’ve done wrong. It’s all the nasty little voices at the back of your head that tear you down. Depression is more along the lines of despairing hopelessness. I’m pretty far into nihilist territory in terms of my philosophical beliefs, and it’s also easy for me to fall into solipsism. These are the kinds of things that will trigger a deep depression for me. There’s a lot of evidence that the world is fairly purposeless, that most of our lives will be spent doing basically the same things, and that if you’re not satisfied with that you’re going to be miserable. Those are the sorts of thoughts that are quick to send me into a depressive spiral.

So what does it actually look like when I’m depressed? I get quiet. The whole world starts to feel overwhelming, too loud, too big, too bright. Basic tasks feel insurmountable, possibly because I just don’t care. Things feel heavy or thick, and it takes too much effort to remember or focus or smile. I feel tender and broken, and I curl into myself, physically and emotionally, to try to keep myself safe. My appetite goes wonky: sometimes I feel empty inside and just want to eat all the time, sometimes food sounds terrifying. More often than not depression is a feeling of having no idea what your emotions and your body are going to do next (but a strong conviction that it won’t be good).

The thing that I dislike the most about depression is anhedonia. I get anhedonia like nobody’s business. For those who don’t know, anhedonia is a loss of interest or enjoyment of things that used to be fun or engaging. I’m typically someone who enjoys a lot of things. I’m a joiner, and most of the time I’m trying new hobbies or filling every second of every day with things that make my brain feel engaged. So when those things stop holding any interest, it impacts me in a big way. I’ll try to go do something fun to pull up my mood, but it will feel pointless and joyless, which pushes my mood down even further. There is nothing that will make me smile, never ever ever again, everything will always feel like a struggle, and I’ve become utterly broken because the things that used to be awesome aren’t anymore.

It’s really easy for my brain to turn everything into the worst thing in the world when I’m in a down period. Something goes wrong and I’m inconsolable for days. It’s not a plea for attention or an attempt at drama. My feelings just won’t turn off, they won’t stop hurting. It feels like someone’s ripping my throat out through my stomach. I’ll cry so hard my whole body starts spasming. I feel it in my body. I get aches and pains, I can’t make it through a work out. I get sick.

And I get mean. When I’m depressed the whole world revolves around me. I want to make some allowances to myself and others for the fact that you get to be a little self absorbed when everything hurts, but it’s true that I ask for a lot and can’t give much back when I’m down. Being alone feels impossible because my brain won’t stop telling me bad things, but I don’t know how to do anything but complain since my brain also won’t let me see anything interesting or happy. So I end up compulsively texting and chatting, going on and on about how much I hate myself and my life and the world. I can see myself doing it and I can’t stop myself. It hurts to feel so dependent.

Depression for me also tends to come in long, ridiculous bouts. The worst was probably during my sophomore year of college, fall semester. I spent the entire semester so hopeless, lonely, and bored that I had to talk myself through each hour, promise myself that I could get to the next one. I spent a lot of time trying to numb myself to everything through starvation, mindless games, or any form of escapism I could use. Most seconds were spent wondering why I was still alive, what it was doing for me or for anyone, why it had to hurt so much. Sometimes it felt like nothing and sometimes it felt like everything packed into me all at once.

It’s hard to make any sense of depression or put it into a neat narrative. That’s probably why this description seems so disjointed: depression doesn’t make sense. It’s a lot of really unpleasant feelings and horrible thoughts mashed together in no discernible order. It’s assuming the worst, losing the good, and feeling like no one cares. And unfortunately, since my depression is chronic, it’s always lurking, waiting for a bad day that it can take advantage of.

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Last night I was listening to an episode of Radio Lab that focused on nihilism, particularly nihilism as part of pop culture and why the current moment seems to view nihilism as cool in some fashion. A number of the people on the show mentioned that this moment in time is on a pendulum swing towards nihilism. Some moments in history are more despairing (The Great Depression, immediately post WWII), and we seem to be in one of those moments now.

There’s no real way to measure the cultural milieu of any given point in time, but I don’t think these postulates are saying anything too outlandish. A lot of people are feeling frustrated, hopeless, and angry. One of the guests on the podcast was a philosophy professor, and he told the story of teaching a class about mystics in ancient Rome, people who left the city because it was too corrupt, went out into the desert, and practiced an ascetic lifestyle in order to give themselves over to God. They denied their bodies as a way to escape the sense of nihilism.

Today, we’ve tended to use a kind of irony or sense of coolness to bypass the nihilism. Apocalyptic stories abound, dystopias are the new favorite plot device, and yet somehow we’re all a little blase about it: the hipster mentality is still strong in our desire to not appear too worried about everything. We’ll wear the garb of despair and smile while we do so, convincing ourselves and others that it doesn’t really bother us. I think it’s a cop out though: we’re not really facing what it means that we’ll die, that things suck. It’s a cheat code.

So what does this have to do with anything else that I talk about ever? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty serious nihilist, and I love me some depressing philosophy, but there’s a little something more I want to talk about.

Eating disorders. Surprise, I know.

Lots of people have made connections between saints who fasted and eating disorders, questioning whether there is a connection between the two. But asceticism has a long history, and I think ancient mystics can give us some insight into why and perhaps why eating disorders appear to be so common today. One theory of how to move through nihilism (not simply ignore or bypass it) is through an extreme form of love, as the mystics had for their god. They showed how little they cared for this world by dedicating themselves entirely to devotion of god instead.

There’s also simple scientific evidence that ascetic practices like self harm and restriction of food can result in brain chemistry changes that often feel addicting and rewarding. There is clearly some connection between a society wide feeling of nihilism and despair and the choice to repudiate the body. I suspect that many people with eating disorders have the same sorts of feelings. The particulars might be slightly different, especially since selfishness and materialism are often pointed to as the source of the suffering in the current moment (it doesn’t seem a leap to think that the way out of that suffering would then be to utterly repudiate the self).

The impulse to find something more lasting and more meaningful when things feel utterly pointless is a strong one, and it isn’t a new one either. Many people see their bodies as a symbol of their temporal selves, and it can easily become the enemy. Perhaps the current explosion of diagnoses says more about the purposelessness many people are feeling than it does about the media or body image.

I suspect that like wearing your nihilism as a patch of coolness, destroying the body also doesn’t actually help you face the reality of pointlessness. It numbs out the feelings, certainly, it gives the illusion that you’re doing something and moving forward, and perhaps eventually it puts you face to face with death in such a way that you have to face it, but far too often it’s just a way to hide from the things we fear.

I have no idea if there’s evidence for these claims. This is simply drawing connections between things that appear parallel or similar. If anyone has further thoughts, I’d love to hear them as I’m just fleshing out these ideas.

 

Maps on the Body: Further Thoughts on Gray Consent

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The conversation in the ace and gray ace community about the nitty gritty confusing areas of consent has been robust since Queenie first proposed that we begin discussing it last week. I contributed my own minor thoughts here, and I’ve really appreciated the ways that others have built off or challenged those thoughts. Mostly, these thoughts have circulated around the experience of ace or gray ace people (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that since this is a question that overwhelmingly affects that community), but today I want to touch on an element of it that’s probably more likely to affect allosexual folks. It’s not only ace people who sometimes deal with muddy, confusing, halfway consent, and I think addressing all the different ways this happens is going to be helpful for everyone as it will make conversations about consent more nuanced and help us create new models that can benefit anyone.

The last time I saw my therapist we were talking about asexuality. I’m still trying to figure out where on the spectrum I am, although at this moment I feel closer to allo than ace. I mentioned this to her and she said “Sometimes your body knows before you do. It might have been a sign those other relationships were over.”

Now if I were still actively identifying as ace this would have been a horrible thing to say, but since I’m in a fuzzy place it was incredibly helpful as a template to make sense of my experiences. I filed it away and didn’t think about it until a few days later when my partner tried to initiate sexytimes and I turned him down. I wasn’t really sure why and I felt guilty and weird about it (see: all the conversations from previous posts about compulsory sexuality and conflict aversion). He pushed me a little bit on why I was so quiet, and after some thinking I realized that we had left a previous conversation unfinished and I was still feeling uncomfortable about some of the requests I had made that he hadn’t quite answered. It was hardly a big deal or a fight, but I simply felt uncertain and off, and needed to talk out some relationship things.

I don’t know that I would have realized this if I hadn’t stopped and listened to the gut feeling that I wasn’t interested in intimacy at the moment. This is one of those times that a lot of advice blogs would have told me to just try to get in the mood because there was nothing in particular that was deterring me, I just wasn’t really feeling it. My partner and I would have lost out on some insight into ourselves and making our relationship stronger by figuring out some things that were stressing me out. My body knew before I did.

Here’s where I want to get real specific about what I mean. The purpose of emotions, in general, is to provide us with information. Fear tells us we’re in danger, sadness tells us we’ve lost something. Oftentimes we react emotionally to something before we can rationally sort out what an appropriate response would be: emotions are the immediate information (which means that sometimes they’re very, very off but that oftentimes they’re very helpful). Sometimes they put things together in ways we consciously don’t notice until we stop and pick at the emotion. It’s not completely off to suggest that sometimes we figure something out emotionally before we do rationally.

Bodies tend to be emotionally driven. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that emotions are often physical. Our bodies often express our emotions before we even really know what we’re feeling. It’s important to pay attention to what our bodies are doing because it can provide us with information about how we’re feeling, which in turn gives us information about our surroundings, our boundaries, and our safety. I’ve noticed this happen quite often when it comes to sexual situations because they require a lot of trust and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that there might be a reason that you don’t want to be vulnerable with someone, but your emotions and your body tell you by just not being interested.

I’m concerned about many of the narratives that suggest we should compromise around sex and just try to have it if there’s no real reason not to. We don’t always know our reasons not to. We’re not always fully informed about ourselves, and this seems to be one more instance of ignoring the very important things about our bodies, like the ways that they’re intimately tied to our cognition and our emotions. Sometimes consent is clear and easy and we know what we want or don’t want. But sometimes consent requires time. I’ve almost never heard a script for “going slow” except in the sense of not having sex immediately in a relationship. What about one partner initiating some kissing and foreplay, and the other saying “hey, I’m not sure how I’m feeling, can we just kiss for a while?” and so that happens for a while. Maybe hands get involved, maybe partner two asks to back up a little, or maybe partner two says that they’re just not feeling it and they don’t know why. This opens the door for some conversation about how to make everyone feel more comfortable.

Now maybe some of you are thinking this is just basic consent. But it isn’t an on/off switch, as many people tend to think (even when they recognize that you can take away that consent at any point). It’s the process of figuring out together where everyone is and where their boundaries are at that moment, and maybe even why their boundaries have moved around. I don’t think it’s fair to either partner to expect each person to figure out exactly what they want on their own. It works a lot better if you talk it out a little bit. Maybe this is something like open consent, consent that you sort out together, consent when things aren’t clear but you don’t want to leave your partner with no clue about what’s going on in your head. To some extent the concept of negotiation covers this, but sometimes it’s not just about negotiating with the other person, but an internal negotiation as well.

Consent is often touted as a way to improve communication in sexual situations, and I’m all for that. What seems to be a potential problem is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want or need, it might scare you away from speaking up, as there isn’t good consent language for “I don’t know.” I’ve noticed that many people feel as if they need to have a clear answer yes or no before they say anything. I’m not entirely sure how many other people have this experience of embodied emotions, but it might be a nice way to talk about ambivalence: “my body isn’t really on board” or “I’m not sure why, but I’m just not getting turned on. Can we stop and talk for a minute?” It makes it less about whether you’re mad at the person, or what you’re thinking, and more about a simple fact that your body isn’t reacting.