The lines dictating sexual boundaries and consent can be blurred when substance is involved and privilege is assumed.
In this excerpt from Consensuality (Microcosm Publishing, 2015), author Helen Wildfell offers up one of her personal experiences involving a relationship with a male friend, alcohol and underlying sexual pressure. The book as a whole details the process for creating or finding a healthy, successful relationship as well as common pitfalls and how to avoid them, like gender identity, sexual boundaries, power struggles and emotional dysfunction.
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I was often invited to get drinks and sushi with my friend, we’ll call him Trevor. Without asking what I wanted or even if I wanted anything, he usually ordered our first round of drink specials, which meant a small sake and a Sapporo for each of us. I wanted that first round, though after round one, it became harder to say yes or no.
One of these times out, it dawned on me that something was wrong. I had actually met with him to show him an essay I had written on gender inequalities, yet he completely ignored my ability to order my own drinks. It irked me that he took it upon himself to make the decision for me. When another round of drinks was ordered without my consent, I told him that I didn’t want any more. I said no, but the next round of drinks came anyway. I was completely ignored. The server never questioned his request. I felt incredibly uncomfortable refusing the drinks.
At the end of the night, I said no when he invited me back to his house. I ignored his last attempts to change my mind as I got on the bus to my house. I realized from prior experiences with Trevor that there was a possibility of him coercing me into sex if I crashed at his place. The times that I had stayed at his house in the past, the times that I didn’t say no, I also wasn’t able to say yes. Consent was not possible after I was intoxicated. He took the limbo of drunkenness as consent, but it was nowhere close to a consensual interaction. I wish that I hadn’t had to be hyper-vigilant when going out for drinks. I also wish that I could have continued my friendship with Trevor without fear of sexual assault. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to achieve a respectful relationship with him.
Alcohol holds an ambiguous role in our society. It can be a social activity, a destructive force, and a fun pastime all at once. It can impair our judgment and change our views temporarily. As far as Trevor goes, he was a close friend with an alcohol problem that destroyed many of his relationships.
These men aren’t the only people who assume consent. We all must work to understand when a situation is non-consensual and recognize the personhood of those we hurt. Nothing, whether alcohol, privilege, or another corrupted tool of power, should be used to blur consent. Nothing should keep a person from making their own decisions about their body and life. Consent can only truly be given when someone is in a safe environment and sober state of mind. If a person’s judgment is impaired or if you haven’t respectfully asked what they want, you can’t ensure their consensual participation in the activity. Assuming or ignoring consent is an abuse of power.
When discussing these issues as a community, begin broadly. Discover how your friends, family, or co-adventurers view gender and sexual orientation. Stretch the boundaries of each other’s knowledge. Learn new terms like cisgender—a person whose gender expression matches the sex assigned to them at birth. Explore how the answers to these questions can change your understanding of sex and life. Don’t try to logically separate the sexual components; you’ll ignore the related issues of boundaries and gender. If you state how you feel honestly and are open to these discussions, you’ll begin diving into the many layers of healthy relationships.
In specific situations, the first place to go to with questions about sex is the person/people involved in the interaction. The communal conversation, however, should have begun long before that. Community education on sex needs to allow for discussion. If students/community members can’t ask questions, sex-ed becomes stagnant and limited to the current authority’s view of sex.
I often find that gender is the missing component in general sex-ed. When we talk about female anatomy and male anatomy in high school classrooms, there is rarely a discussion about the different types of people connected to these sexual organs. The result is an assumption that a male-bodied person will act like a “man” and a female-bodied person will act like a “woman.” Gender studies departments at universities and counter-culture publications often attempt to change the misconception of universal sex-gender correspondence (cisgender), but information on alternative genders is not distributed to most people.
One of my college professors encouraged us to create our own gender spectrum. She drew a line with the female symbol on the right side and the male symbol on the left side, and asked us to write actions on the board in the correct location of the spectrum. Our actions ranged from “brushing teeth,” placed in the middle of the spectrum, to “painting nails” and “playing football” on opposite sides of the board. None of the actions had to do with a person’s biological sex, rather they matched our cultural perceptions of the genders: women and men.
After we had written our actions on the board, she asked us to place ourselves on the spectrum. A clump of women marked their spots just to the right of the male-female boundary. One male and a few females placed themselves in the center of the spectrum. The other men lingered close to the border on the male side. A few females joined them, crossing the gender divide despite their biological sex. Only a small percentage of the class was scattered at the ends of the spectrum. Most of us clung to gender neutrality, preferring to disconnect our identities from being just a woman or just a man. My professor pointed out how it was less likely for men to recognize their feminine traits on the spectrum, but also recognized that each year more students of all genders migrated to the middle of the spectrum.
Even a gender spectrum that places “feminine” and “masculine” on opposite ends is becoming increasingly outdated, as the characteristics given to these categories are often based on traditional values. In other courses, I discovered how people could incorporate systems outside of our traditional gender binary into their community. In many cultures, there is a third gender. Research Tombois in West Sumatra and Fa’afafine in Samoa to discover just two of the many other genders existing in the world. You’ll be amazed by the variety of gender expressions that go beyond a person’s biological sex.
Additional culturally acceptable gender categories can sometimes create safer environments for those who do not categorize themselves as a man or a woman.
In addition, emotions or lack of emotions surrounding sex should be considered. We often tell women that they will become attached to their partner after sex and will desire exclusive relationships, while men are viewed as being prone to polygamy and able to have sex without emotional ties. The myth of an emotional gender divide perpetuates itself in conservative environments where there are less open discussions about sex; however, it is not the primary narrative in people’s sexual experiences. There is no primary narrative for any category of person. The important part in allowing feelings to become a part of the discussion is that it shows how sexual experiences have different emotional effects per individual.
Reprinted with permission from Consensuality by Helen Wildfell and published by Microcosm Publishing, 2015.