Content notice: This post discusses a variety of types of non-consensual touch.
One day, in a friend’s large living room that was filled with burners (as in, people who go to Burning Man regularly), a friend of mine and I held a tickle war. It is important to note here that I have an unfair advantage in tickle wars: I am not ticklish. As the room egged me on, my friend became debilitated by laughter and my fingertips. All of a sudden, the words “no” and “stop” mixed in with my friend’s laughter. I immediately stopped tickling.
“No, you’re supposed to keep going,” one of the onlookers said. The rest of the room took that as their queue to cheer me on, some adding the flavor of shame for stopping.
“No,” I said firmly. “He said ‘no.’ That means I stop.”
The room went totally silent for several long moments while everyone pondered what I had just said.
“I never thought of it that way before,” someone finally said aloud. Others nodded quietly.
When I reflect on that story, it always reminds me about how tickling children can be a fun game, but it can quickly turn into child abuse when adults don’t stop. Yet here we were as adults, and everyone but me was still willing to keep going right past my friend’s very clear “no” and “stop” statements. Perhaps if today’s adults had experienced respect for our boundaries as children, we would not be doing things like this to each other as adults.
Consent is about making sure that what we do fits within other people’s boundaries. Boundaries vary from person to person, moment to moment, and context to context. The only way to know what someone’s boundaries are is to communicate about them. Using society’s idea of what’s okay to do to another person’s body in lieu of discovering what someone’s boundaries are and following them often results in stories like the one above – at best. I stopped. Many people don’t. The rest of the people in that room wouldn’t have, although some of them changed their tunes after that incident.
The friend from that story was one of many male friends of mine who have thanked me for respecting their consent over the years. Women, agender, and nonbinary people tend to simply expect it of me. If they feel grateful, they do not say it. It’s the men I know who get surprised and thankful when I do things like immediately stop, or refrain from making a big deal out of it if they say no to kissing or sex. It’s the men in my life who aren’t accustomed to thinking of respect for consent as a minimum standard.
One of the friends I share a bed with in the literal sense is extremely attractive to me. He knows I would make out with him at the drop of a hat if he wanted to. He also knows that I know he doesn’t want to. We have had the same conversation about it several times, and it goes something like this each time:
“I know you want to kiss me and I just want to say thank you for not pushing it.”
“Of course. It’s your body, your rules.”
“Would you please tell that to all the femmes out there? None of them seem to get it.”
Cue: his venting rant about past experiences with women and femme enbies pushing his boundaries, berating him for not kissing them, and other related traumas. (“Enby” is a word for a person with a nonbinary gender.)
This friend is not alone, and is not the only man who has thanked me for respecting his sexual boundaries without qualms. Many men have also confided similar and related stories in me, encompassing a wide range of sexual abuse and coercion from people who aren’t men. In fact, just about all of the people who have personally confided in me about having been roofied or otherwise drugged are men. The kicker, though, is how many of the men who confide in me do not recognize that the stories they are telling me are about consent violations. Sometimes my man friends don’t even recognize rape for what it is when they are the victims.
“If this had happened to a woman, what would you say it was?” I asked one friend after he confided in me with a haunted look on his face and confusion in his voice and words. He froze for a long moment before responding.
“I…I would say, ‘that was rape.’ But…” my friend’s voice trailed off and he stared at me. After he cried for a while, I got him connected with resources for where he could go for help healing from the trauma. He is not alone.
One of my partners who is a man once laughingly told me about a locker room game he played with other boys in high school. It was called “ball check” and involved yelling “ball check” and then slapping other kids in the balls with rolled up towels. Participation was mandatory as stepping out of the game was met with instant social punishment, sometimes verbal and sometimes physical. When I pointed out that this was literally a game based on sexual assault, my partner paused. He had never realized this before our conversation.
My partner is not alone in his experience of childhood “games” that strip away the ability of boys and men to recognize their own boundaries from a very young age. Transgender men are often horrified by what they discover about this upon entering men’s spaces for the first time. Many have told me that it appears from their point of view that by the time cisgender men are all grown up, they have lost any sense of their own boundaries and it thus makes horrifying sense that they violate others without even recognizing what they are doing for what it is.
I have heard it said, “Don’t teach women how to avoid getting raped, teach men how to stop raping.” I think that’s very good advice, and I also think that starts by making sure men know what consent and boundaries look like. After all, consent is about understanding other people’s boundaries in order to operate within them. Teaching men not to rape therefore relies on a prerequisite: Teach men what boundaries are. This starts with helping men understand their own boundaries and teaching them to maintain them. This skill set is difficult to learn for many people, but with men, our culture actively deprives them of the tools they would need to learn it, and replaces these lessons with opposite content. If we want to give men the chance to discover their own boundaries and learn how to maintain them, then we need to respect men’s boundaries and consent.
We must begin to respect men’s personal body boundaries and teach our boys that their consent matters, or we will continue to live in a world with excess trauma caused by men – especially cisgender men – continuing to violate each other’s and everyone else’s boundary lines in ways that extend way beyond sexual boundaries.
So, here is my challenge for you, dear reader. If you aren’t a man, think carefully about how you interact with men moving forward. Is your defense game so strong that you forget that their consent matters too? Pay attention to how you treat men and afford them the same courtesy of basic consent respect that you expect as a minimum standard from them. And if you are a man? Unfortunately, the work to figure out what your boundaries are and how to enforce them falls on you, as does the work to figure out how to recognize and respect other people’s boundaries. Therapy is a great way to make that go a lot faster. Think of it like using an expert’s degree and experience as a tool to make your self-growth flourish faster. Good luck, and make sure you pick someone with a relevant specialization if you choose to utilize therapy.
I’ll leave you with this glorious video about consent and how it works. The video was made with regards to sex, but it’s also applicable to all other forms of touch or intimacy:
“Tea Consent” Video Copyright ©2015 Emmeline May and Blue Seat Studios
Update: This post was updated on January 31, 2020 to include mention of roofied men, and to adjust some language to be more specific about personal observations being personal observations rather than objective truth.