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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).