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Examining the Swinging Pendulum from Consent to Sexual Assault through the Lens of “Being Leaned On”
Over the last few weeks, my girlfriends and I have engaged in DEEP conversation about the #MeToo movement and it’s juxtaposition to sexual assault in dating. It has beautifully evolved into a self-examining discovery about the swinging pendulum of extremes between consent and sexual assault. We, of course, used our own personal experiences to define what merits the label of assault, but more importantly, gain understanding around that tricky, muddy area in between the extremes. Interesting, albeit unsurprising, fact: we’ve ALL experienced a date that led to the proposition of sex and felt pressure to acquiesce to the unspoken, pressure-filled invitation. Even more interesting: if we ALL recognize the subtle, nonverbal pressure to have sex, why is it seemingly so hard for men to equally pick up on the subtle, nonverbal cues women give when not interested in “going all the way”? We realized that much of the confusion can be cleared if we could first get to the bottom of how we feel about “being leaned on” (shout out to my big sis T and big bro C for coining that phrase). It’s the only way we could begin to cut through our own confusion in defining sexual assault versus a bad date. And, let’s be honest: we live in the 21st century. The age of information. A time when men and women are more empowered and informed than ever before. The fact that we are still confounded about how to have healthy, casual sexual experiences with each other is just f*cking ridiculous. Perhaps this is why God meant for sex to be reserved only for husband and wife … but, that’s another conversation for another day, Chile.
So, what IS “being leaned on”? We’ve all been there. You go out with a guy and have a great date. You decide to take things back to his or your place to hang out in private. He proceeds to non-verbally petition for “the cookie” by taking each allowance of touch one step further than the last and placing assumed, non-threatening pressure on you to have sex. If you really like him, you like the lean. You appreciate the pursuit because what woman doesn’t want to feel like she’s being chased? Even if you tell him “No” and he leaves in defeat to rise and try another day, you both know that the ultimate act is a foregone conclusion as long as he doesn’t do anything in the meantime in between time to f*ck it up. The lean is a real part of the dance. Its intent is not to remove your choice, but it sends a clear message that if you give even an inch, he’s going to ride you for a mile. It’s that exciting cat and mouse game that’s played in the pursuit of sex.
But what happens when you’re not THAT into the guy? I mean, you like him. He’s nice. Cute even (like the last puppy at the pound). He’s educated and got a little money (yep, it matters #sorrynotsorry). He showed you a good time. Conversation was good. You don’t mind a kiss or nonsexual touch here and there. You even feel comfortable enough to take the date back to his or your place because you DID have fun. The attraction is there albeit not intensely physical. When THAT guy starts to lean on you and you respond with subtle, nonverbal cues of discomfort, and the night ends in sex or any type of sexual act, were you assaulted? I mean, you made it clear (in your mind) that you didn’t really want to go “all the way”, but you never said “No”. You only vaguely and imperceptibly demonstrated your discomfort and you did not make it crystal clear that you didn’t want sex. And, to complicate matters even further, you did acquiesce to participate in some overtly sexual acts along the way. You leave not feeling the best about him, yourself or how things went down. But, the question remains: were you assaulted?
Admittedly, my girlfriends and I have all solicited and positioned sex as an option during a date with a guy that we didn’t know that well via flirting, nonverbal cues of implied intimacy (e.g. being alone in his car, his home, etc.) and willingly participating in that heavy “lean on” session that invites the unasked question, “So … we gonna?” In each of our experiences, there were times when we felt quite comfortable saying “nah”; but, there were others when we felt that based on the intimacy of the moment, how far things had progressed, the lack of established relationship trust with our partner, our own guilt about letting things slide too far, the fear of being labeled a tease, the fear of in-the-moment retaliation, and all of the other fifty-leven things that goes through a woman’s head when she’s deciding to share the cookie, that it was best to acquiesce to minimize unforeseen aggression or avoid the potential undesired act of having the cookie taken after having served it up in the first place.
If a woman makes the choice to acquiesce because she was being leaned on, but the experience is absent of any tangible threat to her person (though perceived threats from nonverbal cues are something to consider), absent of feeling unsafe and absent of verbalizing discomfort or refusal to participate, has she been sexually assaulted? Is the man singularly wrong for failing to sense and/or respect her discomfort? Even if the cues are all over the place? Do men carry greater responsibility and culpability because they are the physically stronger thereby automatically perceived as a threat? Is the implicit pressure of “being leaned on” inherently assault, but ONLY when you’re not into each other? Or, is it always assault? Can a woman “lean on” a man? Has HE been assaulted if he acquiesces for fear of having his manhood questioned? What is the process for facilitating a healthy, non-threatening, consensual sexual experience? Add in the thousands of other situational nuances and you can begin to see why we are all so confused.
Let’s think about it this way: “being leaned on” IS in fact pressure and the term “pressure” doesn’t have positive association. From peer pressure to blood pressure, I think it’s fair to say that “pressure” doesn’t get good PR. It conjures feelings of tension, burden and stress. Can you identify any healthy, consensual sexual experience that’s initiated with pressure? Yeaaaaaah … see what I mean? This sh*t is layered. But I digress …
I have thoughts about each of the questions posed above based on my own experiences, but I’m more interested in what you think. I also want to be sensitive to the women and men who have experienced the “lean gone wrong”. Here are a few thought/conversation starters that I believe that could begin to clear the way to personal resolve:
- USE YOUR WORDS, PEOPLE. We say it to toddlers all the time. A child could be standing in front of you completely wildling out and pointing directly at the toy they so desperately want, and still we make them verbalize the request. If you don’t want to have sex, nonverbal cues aren’t enough. Conversely, why not ask for the cookie versus leaning on a chick to get it? Wouldn’t you rather be clear that the act is consensual? Besides, if preferences and/or decisions to STOP are verbalized and it’s refused, you’ve just answered your sexual assault question. One of my old tricks: when going over to his place and only wanting to fool around a little with NO sex, I confirmed if he would respect that. Ten times out of 10, his answer told me ALL I needed to know about whether I’d be safe with him because there is absolutely no ambiguity to that question. AND, if he lies about being cool to fool around a little just to get you over there, and refuses to respect your boundaries after things get going, you’ve again just passed “GO” and went straight to sexual assault.
- BEWARE OF PASSIVE NONVERBAL CUES. If you go on a date with a guy and you let him pick you up, drive you to the location of your date and bring you home, you’ve just sent a LOT of nonverbal messages of trust to this person. He now knows where you live. You trusted your body / being to be safe in his care as he drives. You allowed him to return you home with “the lean” likely starting on the drive back. If there’s making out, under clothes touching and kissing, etc., those are also pretty clear nonverbal cues that you’re into the scene. Seems like it’s no big deal, but it’s a message nonetheless. It certainly shouldn’t imply to either person that sex is a foregone conclusion, but if we’re honest, those cues can confuse. Just a realization from my own personal experience. I was taught to never be alone with a man, enter into his personal space (his car, his home) or allow him into mine unless I was certain about the passive agreement those subtle, but real cues solicit. Safety first. Always. Earning and discerning trust starts from date one.
- MEN MUST BE PRESENT IN THE ROOM. As I analyzed my dating experiences and shared them with my husband, he shared wisdom that hit me as brilliance. He told me that a man’s ultimate responsibility when initiating, pursuing and/or participating in sex is to create an environment of safety for his partner. Be present in the room. That means, at all times she should know that she absolutely has a choice to leave or stop at any moment. She should feel and sense that her pleasure and her comfort are paramount to an equally enjoyable experience. She should know that he isn’t just chasing ejaculation, but rather experiencing something incredible WITH her. Sex isn’t something you do TO someone. It’s an act you experience WITH someone. No matter how casual, respect your partner. He shared that too many guys are chasing the end result which removes the heightened sense of awareness they should activate in order to ensure their partner is comfortable. As the physically stronger sex, setting that tone is critical if a man’s intention is that you both share the desire to engage in the experience. Cause “ain’t no real man tryna have sex with a woman who don’t want it!” He even shared that frequent, soft-spoken check-ins are the responsible thing to do ESPECIALLY when the experience is casual and your relationship isn’t deep enough to make any assumptions. Strategically placed “feel good, you cool and keep going?” were some of my faves from him in the early days ;-).
In the end, my hope as this #MeToo moment of accountability takes shape and births a new era of sexual responsibility, is that we, women, don’t use this as an opportunity to unnecessarily victimize ourselves, vilify our men or appropriate the issue thereby maligning the bravery of real victims. That we don’t use this conversation to move farther apart. My hope is that this moment opens the door to conversation and revelation by taking a long, hard look at the personal and cultural nuances that exist in defining the extremes and bringing clarity to all that lies between. The clear cut assaults are open and shut cases that are easy to identify and morally convict. It’s those experiences smack dab in the middle that are harder to figure out (#IMHO). I think we owe it to each other to talk it about. Let’s figure it out. I have a daughter and son who will sooner than I care to admit venture into this arena. I need to be prepared in order to prepare them and I can’t get to a level of understanding, awareness and resolve alone.
So, can we talk about it? Can we talk about the ambiguity of “being leaned on” and where it skews in the swinging pendulum of defining consent? No shaming. No blaming. No accusations. No anger. No guilt. Let’s leverage our personal experiences and core beliefs to draw us closer to understanding. Hell, we’re already in bed. We might as well talk about it.
Love you. Mean it.
Shout out to T, N and E for being incredible midwives as this topic was birth from my spirit. Thank you for encouraging me as I struggled to articulate my thoughts. Thank you for sharing your truth and helping me to see beyond myself. I love you.
And to my Husband – Thank you for being you, for listening to experiences with “other dudes” and providing level-headed, unbiased wisdom from a man’s POV.
And to my Mama – Thank you for the rules. They weren’t given to you when you were coming of age, but somehow you were able to give them to me. That guidance led me to smarter choices.