FAIR Consent

Practicing FAIR consent is a powerful tool for reducing unwanted sexual interactions. Practicing consent in everyday life can lead to richer, more rewarding relationships and emotional resilience.

consent only yes is yes
A Tragic She Said/He Said     

The “Why Now?” episode of the podcast Hidden Brain focuses on the social forces that led to the emergence of the #metoo movement. But it also offers a rare glimpse into both sides of a non-consensual sexual encounter that demonstrates the vast gulf between intention and impact.

The “she said” below is an excerpt from a Facebook post. The “he said” is an apology left on the woman’s answering machine when he learned about the post.

She Said

“In the beginning of June I had a meeting with a playwright in my home. He is my senior by several decades. I’ve known him since I was 11, I regarded him as an honorary grandfather. I was going through a tough time, I had just dealt with a couple of deaths and this man offered to help me by gifting me some of his work to produce and act in. I was extremely grateful and excited.

He insisted he come to my apartment for the meeting. The door closed and he held my breasts and said he’s known me since I was so young and can’t believe how large and beautiful they had become. He pulled me onto his lap and licked my lips and tried sticking his tongue in my mouth several times. I felt frozen. I said ‘I have a boyfriend,’ he said ‘So? I have a wife.’ I felt like I was 5 years old. The way I always hoped I’d behave in a situation went right out the window. I needed to get him off me and out of my home, but I also wanted to protect his feelings. I can’t believe to this day that was a concern of mine.”

He Said

“Uh, (Woman’s Name), this is (Playwright’s Name) calling. I’m so upset. I…I don’t know what to say. I had no idea. It’s a terrible, terrible misunderstanding. There’s a terrible missed signal. And I didn’t know you were upset. I love you, (Woman’s Name), and I never, never would hurt you that way. Never, never, never. Please, you’ve gotta believe me. Oh my God, I’m just shaking. Somebody just wrote to me and told me about it. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry. And I love you. And I would never, never, never hurt you that way. That was such a missed signal and such a…oh my God.”

Terrible Missed Signal

I’m younger than the playwright in the situation above, so I probably received a more comprehensive sex education that he did. My school-sanctioned education was limited to the biology of reproduction and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. My workplace sexual harassment training preached abstinence from saying or doing anything even remotely suggestive of sex. Other messages I’ve heard over the years have focused on “no means no.”

In the absence of consent training, the way the woman always hoped she’d behave went right out the window. Instead of the man taking anything short of a yes as a no, he took anything short of no as a yes.

A FAIR Approach to Consent

Samantha Hess began leading Consent Workshops in early 2018 and I’ve attended most of them.

Though adapted from the FRIES sexual consent acronym of Planned Parenthood, the exercises for FAIR consent are all non-sexual. Attendees are often eager to share their takeaways with their children or grandchildren.    

Consent is about learning to receive a no without feeling rejected and give a no without feeling guilty.

In order for there to be consent, it has to be FAIR.

Freely given.

Agreeable.

Informed.

Reversible.

Freely Given

The “No, Thank You Exercise” demonstrates that consent isn’t consent if someone can’t say no.

Partners take turns making requests:

“I know we’ve just met, but can I borrow $100?”

“Can my kids borrow your place for a birthday party? I don’t like to clean up the mess.”

The person receiving the request takes time to seriously consider the offer, then respond with some version of “No, thank you.”

The asker then practices sincerely praising the decision.

“Thank you for taking care of yourself.”

“Thank you for allowing me to ask.”

This gives the asker practice at receiving a no and the responder practice at saying no without feeling obligated for offering a reason.

Agreeable

In the “Ask and Wait” exercise partners take turns making requests of each other that they will actually engage in if both parties agree, they then patiently await a response.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“Would you like to tell me something about your day?”

This gives the asker practice at the risk of receiving a no. It gives the responder practice at checking in with themselves before agreeing to something that they may not want to do. They can then freely give the answer that they choose.

Informed

In the “Negotiation Exercise,” partners take turns making requests of each other, clarifying the terms of the request, and practicing “yes and” or “no but” until they come to a consensual agreement.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“No, but I’ll give you a high five.”

“Yes, and can we use our left hands?”

This gives both parties the opportunity to practice asking for what they want from an agreeable action and declining actions that are disagreeable.

Reversible

For the “Change Your Mind Exercise,” partners begin by engaging in a mutually agreed upon activity.

After a short time, either partner displays a lack of interest in continuing and the other tries to pick up on the body language or facial cues that indicate they’ve changed their mind.

They then share feedback on the cues given and received and change roles.

This gives us practice making others feel safe around us by letting them know that we honor their decision to change their minds.

Practicing Consent

Practicing the principles of FAIR consent in areas other than sex leads to healthier relationships. If we routinely say yes when we mean no, we begin to resent others for asking and ourselves for giving in. Failing to ask for something because we fear rejection may unnecessarily limit our possibilities. If we say yes with the intention of wiggling out later, we become untrustworthy.

FAIR consent isn’t about always getting our way. It’s ultimately about doing what’s best for all parties involved.

Ten Minute Exercise

Two videos (that you can watch in less than ten minutes) help illustrate consent best practices.

When it comes to sex, anything short of a yes is a no. Tea and Consent (2:49).

Outside of sex, overcoming the fear of rejection can lead to an unexpected yes. Ask for Olympic Symbol Doughnuts (5:13).

Digesting Emotional Eating

“One of the most common causes of overeating and weight gain is difficulty regulating our emotions, our moods, our thoughts, and even disruptive impulses and behaviors.” – Julie M. Simon

emotional eating 

The One You Feed

It’s ironic that my first shout-out to Eric Zimmer and Chris Forbes’s The One You Feed podcast is literally about how we feed ourselves.

Mr. Zimmer starts each of his interviews by asking his guests what this parable means in their life and work.

There’s a grandmother talking with her granddaughter, and she says, “In life there are two wolves inside of us that are always at battle. One is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness, and bravery, and love. And the other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, and hatred, and fear.”

And the granddaughter stops and she thinks about it for a second, looks up at her grandmother, and says, “Well, grandmother? Which one wins?”

And the grandmother says, “The one you feed.”

What We Feed Our Wolves

Julie M. Simon, author of When Food is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, answers that every day of our lives we have pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We react with emotions and bodily sensations, including muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, and thoughts.

These reactions can lead to self-defeating thoughts, moods like anxiety and excessive sadness, hopelessness, and despair, which all feed the bad wolf.

Or we can develop habits to respond with self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love that feed the good wolf.

De-Regulation

The underlying cause of emotional eating is our brain’s inability to modulate our nervous system’s response to emotions and moods. This robs us of the ability to think before we act.

In order to self-regulate, we need to have the upstairs part of our brain (the logical, calming, reasoning part, aka the regulator) properly wired to the downstairs part (our emotion center).

Ms. Simon talks about the role our infancy plays in this crucial wiring. If our parents are skillful nurturers, they attune to our needs by interpreting our cries of distress: hunger, indigestion, soiled diaper, fear, pain, worry.

As we acquire language, our parents help us find language to interpret our emotions: like sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness. This allows us to co-regulate our responses by communicating our feelings so that our parents can customize solutions: giving us a hug, teaching us to take a few deep breaths, offering reassurance, or arranging a play date.

This early nurturing forges connections between the brain’s regulator and emotion center, giving us the neuronal pathways and emotional intelligence we need to right our ship after an emotional storm.

The Missing Link of Co-Regulation

What many of us who turn to overeating miss out on is this co-regulation phase.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame our parents for this because the science on co-regulation’s role in early brain development is twenty-first century stuff. If our early role models learned the virtues of comforting themselves with  food, they likely passed them on to us.

Beyond the evolutionary caloric allure of comfort food, we may have learned to associate cake with birthday parties, cookies with Christmas presents, trips to get ice cream with good report cards.   

Disconnection

The good news about emotional eating is that it works! It temporarily makes us feel better.

If I accidentally hit myself with a hammer, eating a bag of potato chips will make me feel better.

Instead of beating ourselves up for our inability to resist comfort food, Ms. Simon suggests that we should congratulate ourselves for our resourcefulness. Not only isn’t it our fault that we missed out on early brain development, we engineered a workaround.     

The Disconnection Problem

The problem with emotional eating, according to Ms. Simon, is that emotions and bodily sensations are like street signs that point us in the direction of our needs. Disconnecting with comfort food shuts down the signal without decoding the message.

Addictions are responses to unmet needs that come with short-term benefits but long term consequences.

To develop more effective coping skills with fewer side effects, and to begin meeting our needs, we must learn to reconnect to our emotions.

How to Re-Connect

Fortunately, the brain never stops rewiring itself in response to our experiences. We can learn to connect our regulating and emotional brain centers even as adults.

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old human.   

A Rewiring Manual

Ms. Simon’s book offers seven steps for learning self-nurturing to develop a supportive inner voice. I’m eager to test drive her exercises to learn her approach to topics I’ve explored on this site.

  1. Pop the Hood: Name and Track Emotions and Bodily Sensations.
  2. Practice Self-Validation
  3. Reinforce the Alliance and Offer Love, Support, and Comfort
  4. Get Clear on Needs
  5. Catch and Reframe Self-Defeating Thoughts
  6. Highlight Resources and Provide Hope
  7. Address Needs and Set Nurturing Limits
Ten Minute Exercise

Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offers an exercise to notice the emotions that trigger over eating. It’s called SiBerian North RailRoad (STOP, BREATHE, NOTICE, REFLECT, RESPOND) .

  1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
  2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
  3. Take three deep breaths to settle the mind.
  4. Let your awareness follow your in and and out breaths.
  5. Bring to mind a recent experience that triggered emotional eating. Try to relive the event and the related sensations as fully as you can.
  6. At the moment you find yourself trying to escape the feeling: STOP.
  7. BREATHE slow, deep breaths with full exhales for at least thirty seconds.
  8. NOTICE any difference of tension or temperature that the emotion creates in your face, neck, shoulders, chest, back, etc. Experience the emotion as a physiological phenomenon, not as a state of being:
    “I’m experiencing anger in my body” instead of “I am angry.”
  9. If this emotion is triggered by another person’s actions, put yourself in the position of that person looking out at you. REFLECT that everybody wants to be happy. This person thinks acting this way will make him/her happy. Don’t judge whether this person is right or wrong in this belief.
  10. Bring to mind the kindest most positive RESPONSE (other than eating) to this situation. Don’t worry about actually doing it. Take a minute to craft a response.
  11. Return to the present moment with awareness of the breath until the timer sounds.
  12. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

To learn more about Julie M. Simon’s approach: here’s a five-minute video on emotional eating.

Human Thought and Animal Emotion

Lizards and mice and monkeys, oh my. When our human thought and animal emotion are at odds, it’s easy to get depressed. But learning techniques to tame the animals in our head can help us achieve greater well-being.

human thought

Monkey Mind

One of the oldest analogies for what goes on in my brain when I’m unable to focus is monkey mind. I swing from one thought to another while my medial prefrontal cortex flails to concentrate and put the critter back in its cage. My human thought may think it’s in charge, but, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the new kid on the block. If I don’t use it to understand what’s going on in my more established, primordial brain regions, my animal emotions will take the driver’s seat.

Taxi Driver

Author Rick Hanson motivated me to take my monkey mind seriously by introducing me to the brain of a London taxi driver. Memorizing how to navigate London’s tangle of streets and landmarks enlarges the spacial memory center of the driver’s brain much like weight training enlarges our muscles.

That metaphor for how changing my thoughts changes my brain was the incentive I needed to incorporate the original mindfulness exercises into my daily routine.

An animal analogy Hanson used in his latest book Resilient is similarly useful for understanding and satisfying the emotion centers in my brain.

Animal Emotion

Abraham Maslow imagined a pyramid to illustrate our hierarchy of needs. But in the twenty-first century, brain scans are revealing that our emotional centers are much more like a zoo than a king’s tomb. And thinking of the brain in animal terms paints a more accurate picture of what’s going on in our skull right now.

Lizard Brain

When things go bump in the night, the first responder is lizard brain, ready to fight, flee or freeze.

Lizard Brain fight, flight or freeze

We sometimes tease our lizard brain by going to horror movies for jump scares or riding roller coasters. In controlled settings, tricking the lizard into releasing adrenaline is a rush. It’s easy under such circumstances for our rational brain to assure this animal emotion that the threat is not real. A sigh of relief or a good laugh will do it.

When we perceive a threat is genuine, whether it’s real or imagined, the adrenaline rush is just as thrilling but not as fun. Our lizard brain takes control.

Mouse Brain

I crave cheese enough to put in on my grocery list when I’m running low. But I don’t crave it nearly as much as a mouse.

mouse brain cravings

We sometimes use our mouse brain to crave things other than cheese. Social media engineers at Facebook constantly retool their interface to entice this animal emotion of craving. Netflix cues up another show as soon as one draws to a close.

To understand how your own mouse brain works, complete these sentences.

I crave __________ like a mouse craves cheese.

When I crave _________, mouse brain’s at the wheel.

Monkey Brain

The brain region that constantly updates our relationship status with all the members of our tribe is something we share with apes (who don’t have tails) and monkeys (who do). It’s the animal emotion of belonging.

monkey brain relationships

Monkey brain is always on the lookout for clues it’s fitting in with friends, connected to family, and has enough status within the tribe to attract a mate.

Monkey brain takes precedence when we fear being shunned by our tribe.

Imaginary Mind

According to social psychologist Dan Gilbert, humans are the only animal that thinks about the future and has the ability to imagine events.

Our imagination of what ifs led to science and western medicine (to patch lizard brain’s body up when we unsuccessfully fight, flee or freeze). We’ve streamlined the production of cheese and refrigeration so that mouse brain can always satisfy its craving. We’ve invented social media and texting so that monkey brain can monitor its relationships 24/7.

Imaginary Stress

But, according to Gilbert, our human brain is notoriously unsuccessful at imagining what will make us happy.

We imagine all the negative, frustrating, or futile things that will happen if we interact with others. This tricks lizard brain with our social anxiety and we remain frozen in our home, our room, or our bed.

We imagine the pleasure promised by the shiny objects we see advertised. But no matter how much we accumulate or how far in debt we go to buy them, mouse brain is never satisfied.

We imagine that staying in touch with friends and family via social media or texting is the best thing since, well, cheese. But somehow when they don’t text back immediately, or like our posts, we feel unloved. And even when they do respond, our monkey brain senses something’s missing.

Over Simulation

“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thought,” British philosopher Alan Watts said, “So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusions.”

We have an advantage over our animal cousins when it comes to the future. But if we skillfully interpret our primordial drives, they can teach us how to live in the now.   

Lizards who aren’t faced with actual peril know how to chill out. Mice may be on the lookout for cheese, but they don’t waste time seeking things that don’t provide real sustenance. Monkeys stay in actual physical touch with their community through grooming, which builds trust, reduces anxiety, and builds self-esteem.

Taming the Animals

To paraphrase Rick Hanson, satisfying our emotional needs involves using our imaginative problem solving skills to:

  • Calm the lizard.
  • Feed the mouse.
  • Hug the monkey.
Ten Minute Exercise

This exercise gives us practice at identifying our present emotional state to determine which critter is running the show. Once we’ve done that, we can employ our human imagination to satisfy our animal emotion.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Note how your mind and body feel right now.

4. Take a few deep breaths to establish where you notice the sensation of breathing.

5. Breathe normally, calmly awaiting any emotion that might arise.

6. When an emotion arises, pay close attention to its animal characteristics.

Calming the Lizard

If there’s a sense of fight, flight, or freeze in the body. Calm the lizard.

The military trains in a box breathing technique to calm the lizard brain in times of actual physical danger.   

Breathe in through the nose while slowly counting to four. Hold the breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Pause for a count of four. Repeat at least three times or until the lizard is calm.

Tip: it’s important to habituate this in a controlled setting because the first thing lizard brain shuts down in the wild is your ability to remember this technique.

Here’s the military strength version for more detail.


Feeding the Mouse

If you experience craving. Feed the mouse.

When a healthy craving arises, such as a craving for food when you’re hungry, exercise, generosity, or friendly social interaction, think of a small, practical step you can take to fulfill it before returning your attention to the breath.

When unhealthy cravings arise for things that merely distract us without satisfying us, like substance abuse, junk food, or the latest, coolest shiniest thing. Instead of feeding it, go SURFing instead.

See what’s happening. Notice how and where your body responds when you imagine the thing you crave.

Understand whether this craving is a skillful means to satisfy your current emotion or a convenient substitute. (Cigarette smoking relieves stress, but so does box breathing. Prescription pain killers can dull emotional pain, but so can group aerobic exercise.)   

Relax around it. Take some slow, deep breaths and be aware of the changing bodily sensations without giving in to them or trying to push them away.

Find a little freedom. Use the knowledge you gain from the above steps to choose the most skillful way to feed your mouse.

Here’s a quick holiday edition of this exercise by Dan Harris of the 10% Happier podcast.


Hugging the Monkey

If you experience social anxiety. Hug the monkey.

Place your flat palm over your heart. This activates the mammalian (monkey brain) care-giving system. People often do this automatically when someone shares news of a personal hardship with them.

Give yourself a hug and slowly stroke your hands on your arms.

For more self-soothing touch, this video has some tips.

And Kristen Neff has other ideas for practicing self-compassion.

7. When the timer sounds, note how your mind and body feel right now before you continue with your day.

Overcoming Resistance

Every day I run into circumstances where my mind’s habitual response is resistance. Last Saturday, one of the things I resisted most vehemently was leading a discussion entitled, “Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.”

overcoming resistance
Resistance

My personal history with the traditional mindfulness teachings is befuddlement. I almost never get the point. Everything I’ve learned has come from doing the exercises. So when my meditation group invited me to lead a discussion on one of the teachings from Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, my inclination was to decline.

I recently wrote about What Death Teaches Us About Life, so I wanted to move on to different material. But listening to the interview the author and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and Metta Institute gave to Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast confronted me with another primal fear that I habitually resist.

Serious as a Heart Attack

Sam Harris asked how Frank Ostaseski’s experience of having a heart attack affected his work.

Frank Ostaseski: Oh, boy. Well, you know. I used to think I knew a lot about dying. I’ve been with a lot of people who died. I thought I knew something about it. And then I realize that the view from the other side of the sheets is really different.

It was humbling actually. Really humbling.

I come out of surgery, and I’m in the cardiac care unit, and I’ve got tubes coming into every possible orifice, including I’m intubated, which means a machine is breathing for me. And I’m in this kind of anesthesia fog. And my son, who’s an adult at that point, about twenty-nine, and my best friend, a meditation teacher, are with me.

And into the room comes this respiratory therapist who says, “Let’s pull out that tube and see if you can breathe.” That’s how he introduced himself.

And I waved my arms back and forth “no, no, no.” I couldn’t speak, of course, because I had this tube in my mouth. And I took a pad of paper and I wrote, “I’m scared.”

The Practice of Acceptance

Mr. Ostaseski’s fellow meditation teacher reminded him to calm himself by focusing on his breath, but he couldn’t find his breath because the machine was breathing for him. He couldn’t tune into his bodily sensations either because he was of the anesthesia. Then he remembered a story about another famous meditation teacher who had faced a similar challenge.

Mr. Ostaseski: I grabbed my friend the meditation teacher, and I pulled him close to me. And I put my ear next to his mouth; and I listened to the rhythm of his breath. And my son, who I love beyond words, he just kind of slipped his hand in on my chest, and it was like a conduit to God. It was just pure love, actually.”

Those two things allowed Mr. Ostaseski to welcome the respiratory therapist’s request to take out the tube.

Resistance to Helplessness

Sam Harris: How long was the whole recovery process?

Mr. Ostaseski: The whole process took roughly about a year for me to sort of heal. And in the early stages of that I was quite disabled. I couldn’t do things like go to the toilet by myself or shower by myself. And so I felt tremendously weak at home. I felt dependent after my heart attack. I was depressed. I just felt helpless.

Welcoming Vulnerability

“In welcoming everything,” he writes, “We don’t have to like what is arising. It’s actually not our job to approve or disapprove. The word welcome confronts us; asks us to temporarily suspend our usual rush to judgment and to simply be open to what is happening. Our task is to give our careful attention to what is showing up at our door.”

Mr. Ostaseski: Gradually, what I noticed as I paid attention to these things and allowed these states is that that helplessness, that dependency, it became something more like vulnerability. It became something more like porousness, or transparency even.

And I began to experience much of the same things that the patients I had worked with had experienced.

Transforming the Experience

Mr. Ostaseski: I was very fortunate. I had great people around me who took care of me. I got really wonderful, supportive letters from people all over the place. And that love that came to me was really helpful. And it was beautiful that people loved me and it was nice to feel that reassurance. But what it really did was introduce me to, more intimately, the love of my own being.

Liberation and Confidence

We tend to protect ourselves from the experiences and situations we don’t like,” he writes. “But there is a sense of liberation and confidence that gets built up within us when we do the opposite, when we push away nothing.”

Mr. Ostaseski: I felt this deep, deep trust, not in something other than me, but in reality itself. And with this trust arose a kind of rest. A deep, deep rest. Body at rest, heart at rest, consciousness at rest.

There’s this great sense of being at peace with the way things are. Not fighting against life. And then there’s this kind of absence of struggle for a period of time. And this went on in my case for several months where there was not so much a sense of Frank there. Not my ordinary personality wasn’t so much in charge, if you will.

It came back. It reasserted itself. It came back one day and said, “Don’t worry. Here I am. I’m back. I’m in charge.” But once you’ve had those experiences and they’re not just some spiritual highlight but actually deeply integrated, you can’t fool yourself anymore that you’re in charge.

Putting Out Fires

Frank Ostaseski’s story reminded me of two important reasons I continue to perform these mental exercises every day.

First, training the brain to find calm within chaos is like a fireman training to put out a fire. They don’t welcome fires, but are confident they can face them.
Second, because every fire is different, the more strategies we have to put them out, the better.

Ten Minute Exercise

To practice welcoming everything and pushing away nothing, try this version of choiceless awareness.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Sit comfortably with back straight to allow for easy flow of the breath.

4. Focus attention on the breath or any other sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling, or thought.

5. As your attention moves from the breath to another sense object, simply allow that to become your focus.

6. When attention moves on from that object, follow it to the next object, etc.

7. If the mind gets caught in the past or the future, gently return to the present.

8. When the timer sounds, take a moment to note that the attention shifts happen without any effort.

9. Take a moment to notice how the mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

Extra Credit: Whenever you find that you don’t have to engage your attention on any particular object (like when you’re waiting in line or in traffic), try staying with it in this way wherever it chooses to go.