Consent and Red Flags By L.M. Zoller
First, if you haven't read part one, find it here: Part 1 here.
A yes-no-maybe list isn’t just to catalogue sex acts that interest you and your partner/s, but to establish boundaries and discuss consent. In this section, we’ll discussion how to use the list to discuss consent and on recognizing red flags, or warning signs that your (potential) partner is not someone with whom you want to share these activities. (Depending on the response, you may want to have a discussion with them, seek counseling, or break up with them.)
In order to be able to discuss these items while avoiding potential triggers for explicit sex acts, I’ve kept my examples either somewhat vague or not very graphic.
When do you need permission?
This list is absolutely not a sex contract a la Fifty Shades of Grey. You can revoke consent for any act at any time, even acts you’ve said you’re generally okay with your partner doing without explicit permission. Sometimes you just don’t want to do something that particular time, sometimes something that you used to like doesn’t interest you anymore.
A couple basic guidelines before the next section:
1. If you haven’t specifically discussed if/when permission is needed for a certain act, you need to ask permission.
2. If an act falls under “sexual” instead of “affectionate,” you need permission.
The Scarleteen yes-no-maybe list starts with a section on body boundaries that asks some questions about touching without explicit permission: “A partner touching me/touching a partner affectionately without asking first” and “A partner touching me/touching a partner sexually without asking first.” What you define as affectionate and sexual may vary, so it’s good to discuss that.
For example, you feel it’s okay for a to partner kiss you on the cheek or mouth without asking first, but you don’t your partner to kiss you on the neck or chest without asking or in public. Your partner has a boundary about not wanting to kiss right after waking up without asking first because of morning breath.
Your partner may feel that a “playful slap on the butt” while clothed is not sexual and that you don’t need permission to touch them like that, but you might disagree. You might have reasons why you don’t like that: you just don’t like to be touched/touch others like that; or it feels degrading to you (especially if it’s associated with gender, etc.); or, maybe it reminds you of an ex; or, maybe it triggers a panic response due to trauma. Which brings me to our next topic:
Unknowns, Dislikes, Squicks, Triggers
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss why you do or don’t like something with a partner. Discussing what you like and why can help you and your partner/s pinpoint other ways to make you feel safe and happy and to feel pleasure. Discussing why you have certain boundaries or don’t feel comfortable trying something right away, yet, or never can also be useful.
It’s important to keep in mind that when you and your partner have areas of power imbalance (having privilege or being marginalized because of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, history of abuse) to respect your partner’s boundaries regarding their identities. Sometimes people fetishize power imbalances, but your partner is a person, not just an object for you to use for sexual gratification. Don’t ever assume that a partner who is marginalized in a way you are not is into identity-based kink play unless they specifically tell you.
I would describe the levels of “no” boundaries as follows:
1. Unknown: you haven’t tried it and it doesn’t interest you at the moment. It may interest you later, or you may never have interest in it.
1. Dislikes: you (possibly) have tried it and didn’t particularly like it or don’t have interest in participating in this activity; you don’t like using this word or term to describe something.
2. Squicks: this activity or word makes you have a strong visceral reaction (like “bleh!” or “gross!”) and takes you out of the moment.
3. Triggers: this activity, word, or phrase triggers a trauma response such as dissociation or a panic attack.
For example, you are in a new relationship. You and your partner are discussing pet names.
1. Unknown: No one has ever called them a nickname or pet names before; they aren’t really interested at the moment but may or may not be later.
2. Dislikes: They do not want to be called a pet name.
3. Squicks: Calling them “babe/baby” feels gross to them and they do not want to be called this
4. Triggers: An abuser or toxic ex called them “baby”; calling them this triggers a strong emotional response, which may include dissociating during sex.
You might not know all of your squicks or triggers when going into a relationship. Sometimes trauma triggers we compartmentalize or just don’t experience regularly resurface. Trauma and trauma responses certainly happen around sex acts, especially if there’s an element of violence or control involved, but there are other things that may not seem sexual or abusive that can trigger people. For me, certain food odors on clothing or skin, being affectionately touched in specific ways without my permission, disrespecting my personal belongings, and certain pet names remind me of my abusive ex. I was able to tell new partners that in advance, so I can mostly avoid it.
However, if the memory is repressed, or if you just don’t encounter a situation often, you may honestly not know when something will trigger you. With their permission, I’m sharing a story about me and my partner, who also has had toxic and abusive partners. During the first year we dated, we stayed in a bed and breakfast with a fireplace in the living room. The smell of the fireplace and the smoke on their clothes reminded them of a toxic ex-boyfriend’s home; they had a trauma reaction and had trouble remembering where we were. Since we were traveling, we did the best we could to get them away from the smell: leaving the room with the fireplace, both taking showers, changing clothes, and avoiding building a fire again there. We continued to talk through their feelings until they were able to calm down and sleep. After we got back to the city, they talked to their therapist about the experience and identified actions that they could take when having a panic response or dissociative episode. Then they talked to me about what I could do to help: bringing them a smooth stone to touch or a lavender product to smell, making herbal tea, asking them to name five red objects in a room, etc.
While I think processing your feelings about why you don’t like certain gestures, sex acts/positions, words/phrases is always good, you still have the choice to either avoid triggers or try to work through them. In this case, since we cannot avoid wood fires when we travel to the countryside or camp, my partner has been able to prepare for situations with fireplaces and firepits, use techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy, and articulate what scenarios trigger panic responses. However, not all cases have to be worked through with the desired outcome of being able to interact with your trigger. In my case, I have triggers about a variety of words my abusive ex-husband used for my body parts and for sex acts. They don’t usually bother me unless they’re directed at me during sex. I feel no need to reclaim them and have used these lists to help my partner know what words and phrases I do like and which squick me out or trigger me. We just don’t use those words.
Is it preference or is it problematic?
If you’re unsure if your preferences surrounding items on the yes-no-maybe list are not based on bad/abusive personal experiences but rather on internalized phobias (fatphobia, bi/homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc.), you can read more about that here.
Consent is mandatory AND sexy
One thing I’ve never understood as the cultural conversation about consent has shifted is people—typically cis straight men, but not always—who complain that asking consent isn’t sexy. I think this is because they imagine the interaction to be robotic, like :Dalek voice: “Hello, human, may I touch your clitoris?” But that hasn’t been my experience at all with partners who are good communicators and who have respected my boundaries about terminology.
First, discuss what terms you use for sex acts and your own/your partners body parts. You should also discuss how you’d like to be asked to do something to or with your partner/s or have something done to you.
For example, some people (myself included) have aversions to having their body, certain body parts, or certain sex acts referred to using either gendered slang, euphemisms, or medical terminology. You obviously need to convey what you want to do and where you want to touch and be touched, but you don’t have to use words you don’t like. Here are some examples:
-“Can I touch you here?” (gesturing to or lightly touching a place on their body without squeezing, grabbing, or penetrating until/unless you have permission)
-“What would you like?” “What would you like me to do to you?” - this lets your partner use words they like for their body and for activities
-“Can I use my hands/mouth/etc on you [here/on your_____]?”
I love asking and being asked these questions, and it’s 100% better than being touched in a way I’m not interested in or ready for because “asking isn’t sexy.” If my partners asks to do something to me that I don’t want, I can easily redirect them.
While you’re discussing your yes-no-maybe list or just in the course of your relationship, be sure to look for the following warning signs that your partner is not respecting you or your boundaries. For some of these, reminders and discussion may help, but if you feel disrespected or unsafe, seek professional help.
1. They don’t respect your pronouns or the words you use for yourself or for your body.
2. They view sex as something they do to you or you do to them for their own pleasure, not with you for mutual pleasure.*
3. They view your sexual orientation or gender identity as a threat to theirs.
a. This includes misgendering you, using the wrong label or word to describe you, undermining your orientation/gender in front of others, claiming your orientation or gender isn’t real, saying your gender identity undermines their sexual orientation, etc.
b. Even people who claim to be feminists and allies may be abusive anyway. If they mock, dismiss, or panic about your sexual orientation or gender at home where no one can see or if they engage in gaslighting or crazymaking to undermine you in front of others, seek help.
3. They have double standards about your health and safety, such as STI testing, use of birth control and barrier protection, allergens, mental health needs, etc.
4. They objectify or sexualize some or all of a disability, identity or difference you have, especially one that marginalizes you (Scarleteen).
It is possible for someone to interrogate their own feelings about double standards, flexibility, and identity. In the Scarleteen list, the authors have listed some talking points on this subject:
“Do I have any double-standards with safer sex, testing or other safety? What makes me feel some risk is worth it, while another isn't?”
“Are certain words okay in some settings or situations but not in others? How flexible am I with what a partner might want to call something I like calling something else? Why do I use the words for my parts that I do?”
A few related points on accountability and respect:
-A true ally will be able to interrogate why they hold problematic beliefs, what problematic thinking or behaviors they may have engaged in or be engaging in, and actively work on fixing them.
-A real ally--and partner--has accountability for their actions and reactions.
-A person who apologizes over and over for hurting your feelings or breaking their promises but does not change their behavior is not sorry, will not change, and does not care about you.
-It is NOT your job to “fix” people. You do not owe a partner unpaid emotional labor to get them to act with basic human decency. If they don’t treat you or others with humanity, you do not have to be in that relationship.
If you are experiencing or are a survivor of abuse, you may find the following resources useful:
*There may be situations where one partner may perform a sex act on their partner for their partner’s pleasure without reciprocation. This could be because one partner is on the asexual spectrum, or doesn’t want to have anything done to them at that moment, etc., and that’s okay! However, if one partner constantly demands sex acts without reciprocation and their partner wants reciprocation, especially if there’s a gender power imbalance, that’s a problem. In heteronormative popular culture, there’s a lot of pressure for young women to perform oral sex on (cisgender) men, but there is not the same pressure for men to reciprocate or learn to reciprocate, as well as a lot of misogyny, transphobia, and queerphobia about reciprocating.