No More “Bad Hook-Ups”:
The Consent Communication Continuum

Some Background:

We use language to differentiate between things that we agree are things. A baby experiences a stream of sensations that it cannot make sense of, but by the time they are an adult, they are constantly making sense of everything around them, more or less flawlessly. And we mostly agree about how to make sense of things; except for edge cases, we can all talk about “cars” or “wood” or “birds”, and know that we are referring to roughly the same thing. There are other things, like “love”, “dread”, and “tact”, that are harder to come to agreement about because they can’t be pointed at, and yet we have roughly come to agreement on them.

I would like to argue that the main confusion happening around consent is based on a difference of granularity in viewing sex, communication, and responsibility.

No one would blame someone for reporting actual rape (doubts of the validity aside for now), and everyone would be confused why anyone reported awesome consensual sex that wasn’t explicitly based on verbal “yes-es” at every step of the way. It is of course the grey area that we are worried about. Here is a rough sketch of the spectrum of quality of sexual acts as it relates to communication:

Let’s look at the recent Aziz Ansari case, which has been the most in-the-grey example so far.

There is overall agreement that this is bad and also that this happens all the time: one party (usually the guy probably) doesn’t realize the need for communication. In his not-very-granular view, this is consensual because he isn’t physically forcing her to do anything. In this view, she’s free to leave, and everything she chose to do was her own decision. In the granular view, he failed to hear her attempts at communication, and failed to read between the lines because he wasn’t looking between the lines. He forced himself on her despite her communicating that she didn’t want it.

Let’s get rid of the plausible deniability of a “bad hook-up”.

Bad is not just bad in this case, it’s unacceptable. In the new paradigm, the expectation is mutual communication. If communication isn’t happening, it’s either because there is no need because everything is going perfectly (in which case there is definitely still non-verbal communication), or it is a sign to communicate more. The responsibility falls to both parties. And if it’s unclear, that means it isn’t going perfectly.

We have to be able talk about the woman’s responsibility without victim blaming.

If you’re hooking up with someone and the communication isn’t happening, you’ve tried and it’s not working, it is on you to leave. You’ve gotten your information; you’re not on the same page and not capable of getting on the same page, at least at this time. Now you know for a fact that this person is going to process the kind of communication you want as “reading minds”, because according to his level of granularity, it does not register as perceptible.

But there is a lot more responsibility men have to take on too.

In this new paradigm, they will no longer have the plausible deniability of “not knowing they need to/how to communicate”. You can no longer label everything you’ve never paid attention to as impossible to see. Start paying attention or you won’t get any unless you take it by force, and then you will have no plausible deniability.

Counterintuitively, by making consent less binary, we actually allow more clear lines to be drawn.

Here we are going to define the grey area, and detail how to get out of it, so that ignorance will no longer be a viable excuse, for men or for women. Women will be expected to be forthcoming and remove themselves from situations they are not comfortable in, and men will be expected to err on the side of more communication and less sexual advances when the situation is ambiguous.

Complications: Power and Severity:

Power:

A power differential makes this even more complicated. If you perceive yourself as having less power, it is harder to speak up and affect the situation by force. This means that rather than being split equally, the responsibility falls more to the person with more power. With great power comes great responsibility. I just made that up just now but I think it’s pretty catchy, I think society can probably learn to remember that little phrase.

Severity:

Dancing is not the same as kissing, which is not the same as groping, which is not the same as sex. This point is often brought up by those who are worried that too much is being lumped into the “problematic” bucket. This is true and it should be acknowledged. Again, by delving into the grey, we can actually make it more clearly black and white.

Note: the behaviors in the image refer to the person with less power in the situation, and the curve is not drawn exactly.

Help! Now I know I have to, but I still don’t know how to communicate or how much I am communicating!

True, this will take some time to learn. But here’s a rough idea so you can’t just continue to get away with ignorance:

Case Studies:

This framework helps explain our different reactions to different recent cases, and why public opinion sometimes doesn’t match the legal rulings. First, let’s see where each of the following men fall on our graph:

Aziz Ansari:

  • Communication was nowhere near high enough but not crazy low.
  • Power differential was high.
  • Severity of encounter was very high.
  • Quality of the encounter was low.

Louis CK:

  • Communication: got verbal consent but that’s it
  • Power differential was very high.
  • Severity of encounter was not super high,
    he didn’t touch them.
  • Quality of the encounter was very low.

Brock Turner:

  • Communication was at 0, since she was unconscious
  • Power differential was at max, since she was unconscious.
  • Severity of encounter was very high, as they had sex.
  • Quality of the encounter was very very low, since she was unconscious.
Note: the exact position of where each man falls will likely be impossible to pin down, and they should probably be conceptualized as general areas rather than a single dot. Also, here I’m collapsing them all to one graph, even though the severity of the acts was not the same.

The point is, none of these are anywhere near the acceptable range.

Heck, the average random hook-up is likely nowhere near the acceptable range. But the only way we’ll get to a point at which they are, is to be explicit about what we mean by acceptable.

It’s time that we all develop discernment in sexual interactions by creating a shared language and shared understanding of the range of possibilities, how we relate to them, and how they relate to the law.

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Maya Bialik

Maya Bialik

Teacher, author, and speaker making learning meaningful through curriculum strategy & creative experience design.