Maps on the Body: Further Thoughts on Gray Consent

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.