Sunday, November 19, 2017

Communicating Consent

What is consent?

I'm sure this will come as a shock to some, but in spite of all my white male privilege, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about this question over the past 20 years.

But ever since the Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo dam broke and Hollywood started eating itself alive with accusations of non-consensual sexual conduct -- and as that spills out into other parts of society -- I've been thinking a lot more about what consent really is and how people give their consent in actual practice.

And look, I know what you're thinking:
"C'mon, that's easy! Consent is when a person consciously approves or gives their permission to whatever actions or situations are going on."
True enough. Gold star.

That's a simple enough definition, and of course, consent is actually the most essential basis to my own ethical philosophy. Although people often don't talk about it this way, consent is baked into libertarian ideas at their absolute core. 

My own philosophical journey literally began by asking myself the question, "Who owns me?" and subsequently, "Is it possible to rightfully own or control other people?" 

These are the kinds of questions that many people sort of flippantly think have obvious answers, but once you really think through what it means to say, "No one can rightfully control another person without their consent", you end up challenging a lot of presumptions about the role of government along the way -- which is how I ended up where I am now. 

But in reality, while everybody quickly rejects the idea of chattel slavery, most people don't actually believe that individuals have rightful ownership over themselves and their property in any principled or meaningful sense. 

At best, most people think that they (typically expressed through politics & government) get quite a bit of say over what individuals can do with their lives. 

This is what the community overpowering
the individual looks like.
Historically, this touches almost everything about a person -- from where they can live, to what they can do with their property, to what careers they're allowed (ie. licensed) to have, and until incredibly recently even who they're allowed to marry and what they're allowed to do in the bedroom. Your choices aren't really you're own to make, regardless of how little real impact they have on anyone else beyond mere aesthetics. 

They're subject to the whim of the committee. 

In today's world, almost everything individuals do is controlled in one way or another by other people -- via the state. And this control is exerted against the consent of individuals all the time. But because it's done through the auspices of government and the political process, most people accept these things as legitimate.

That's what makes libertarian philosophy different from other political philosophies.

The essence of individual liberty as a basis for ethics says that every individual is the rightful owner over their own mind, body, and (legitimately acquired) property, and as such everything that happens with respect to human interaction should be voluntary -- read: consensual.

Anything else is a crime.

Without consent, touching becomes assault; sex becomes rape; property transfer becomes theft... Even murder is distinguished from suicide on the basis of the lack of consent.

Other ethical philosophies see the idea of "harm" as central to whether or not certain certain behaviors are allowed. 

Take John Stuart Mill, for example.

I disagree.

For me, virtually the entire means of assessing whether or not something should be considered a crime depends uniquely on whether the people involved consented to their interactions.

The extent of "harm" as it would be externally defined doesn't even really enter into whether or not something is a crime at all... Though it does play a large role in my understanding of how severe something is once established as a genuine crime.

The reason for this is because "harm", in and of itself, is highly subjective and can take place within a consensual context. It can also be accidental or created in situations where there is no acting moral agent. MMA fighers get harmed participating in the sport; fans of BDSM can get bruised and scratched during sex; anyone in a relationship can come away with painful emotional scars... But all those things happen within the context of consent.

Additionally, plenty of harmful things happen to people every day that don't involve moral agency -- accidents, acts of god, etc. A crime requires a criminal, and the lightning bolt that struck my house this summer can't be arrested and tried for property damage.

Point is, harm alone isn't enough to render something a crime, but human agency coupled with the lack of consent is.

In short... In my political philosophy, consent is everything.

Of course, one odd thing about this for me is that once I came to this conclusion, I started noticing that most people are shockingly inconsistent about what they care about with respect to consent. Consent is seen as vitally, outrageously important in some contexts -- ie. sexuality -- yet it's completely ignored in others. 

For example, imagine someone doesn't consent to paying taxes or sending young people off to die in war...  No one cares.

This intrigues me.

We treat sexual consent as uniquely, almost preternaturally sacrosanct such that even the slightest unwanted sight of a nude body part (even if it's just a representation in a photo or a cartoon) is tantamount to PTSD-inducing assault that should never be experienced by unsuspecting children or adults.

Yet we think of consent in so many other kinds of interactions as optional at best, often depending solely on the whims of the majority. Why?

I have some thoughts on this involving both religious puritanism and evolutionary history, but I'll leave you to ponder that question while we move on to a bigger, more important (yet deceptively difficult) one:

How do you actually know when someone has given you their consent?

Now that we've established how important gaining consent is, let's go deeper. How do we actually get people's consent in the real world?

Don't worry, I already hear your casual dismissals... 
"Well that's easy! They say yes out loud, dummy. And if they don't, then you take it as a no!" 
So many people think this is obvious and the only thing you need to know, that there are hundreds of memes on the internet about it.

But...... Is this really as obvious as you think it is?

In most of your day-to-day interactions, do people verbally tell you when they consent to your interactions with them? Do you tell others when you approve or disapprove of what they're doing?

If someone at work asks you if it's cool if they borrow your stapler, do you say "Yes, you have my permission to borrow the stapler"? Or do you, perhaps, say nothing and offer a nod or even something so subtle as a fleeting glance of approval.

When you're out to the bar with your buddies, and one of them says "Who wants another round!?", do you always say "I do, please provide me with another beer!" or perhaps do you sometimes say nothing and merely hold up your empty glass? Maybe you don't even do any more than make eye contact and smile.

When meeting a new person, do you ask people before you go for a handshake, a hug, or a kiss on the cheek? Or... Are your actions defined by a much more complex interplay between cultural customs, body language, and your ability to recognize facial expressions?

The fact is, a great deal of human communication is non-verbal. 

It's difficult to say precisely how much, of course, but according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian (author of "Silent Messages" and some of the seminal work on the subject in the 1970s), just 7% of human communication is fully verbal, 38% is non-verbal (tone and volume of voice, intonation, etc.) and as much as 55% is purely visual, ie. body language.

Follow-up studies by Michael Argyle (Bodily Communication, 1988) have suggested that non-verbal cues can communicate 4.3 times as much as speech in certain contexts.

I'm not going to get too bogged down in the percentages here, but it's important to understand that interpersonal communication involves a huge amount of non-verbal context. As a film-maker, I rely heavily on my understanding of how tone and body-language (among other things) affect the viewer's perception of a message.

But here's the thing... Like everything else we communicate with each other, consent is frequently given or refused non-verbally, especially in informal or personal situations.

Businesses overcome the nebulous nature of non-verbal consent by drafting explicit contracts and hiring lawyers to write up complex documents outlining the terms of various agreements as well as the costs for violating those terms. Formalized rules of decorum and courtship that apply in certain high society settings (see also: anything by Jane Austen) can also help overcome uncertainty in these situations... But if we're being honest with ourselves, this simply doesn't make sense in most situations.

A perfect example of this phenomenon happened this week.

I was standing outside a venue of an event talking to a friend about non-verbal communication and some of the other thoughts that led to this blog-post while he was smoking a cigarette. And as if solely to give me a perfect example of how people actually communicate with each other, his girlfriend -- standing next to us, but engaged in a totally separate conversation with another person -- silently reached out her hand towards the cigarette that was in his.

Without even breaking eye-contact with me, my friend handed her the cigarette. She took a drag and passed it back to him just as quickly.

She made a non-verbal request (ie. "Can I have the cigarette?") and he replied ("Yes"). She made her intentions known and he gave his consent. Not a single word was spoken, nor did either of them turn to actually look at each other in the process.

Yet........... It could not have been clearer in context. That kind of context is really what matters here, and it's the biggest part of the conversation that's completely tossed aside when we act like people will just verbally express themselves all the time. They won't, and we shouldn't expect them to. 

And therein lies the rub.

Sexual consent and non-verbal communication

Here's where this conversation is going to take a challenging turn. Prepare yourself.

I know I'm going to be radically (and I suspect deliberately) misunderstood by an awful lot of people on this part, but I'm wading in to these shark-infested waters anyway.

For a litany of unavoidable, good, and a few puritanically stupid reasons, people care way more about sexual consent than they do about consent in virtually any other situation. The recent explosion of accusations against powerful figures in Hollywood and elsewhere is a pretty good example of this. 

And as someone who sees ethics almost entirely through the lens of consent, many of the allegations that have come out in the last several weeks have been seriously horrifying.

I've read a ton of thoroughly disgusting stories about Harvey Weinstein and his interactions with women which are crystal clear in their moral depravity. Lupita Nyong'o's description of her experiences were particularly terrible, but there have been dozens of such accounts at this point.

There's little room for confusion in most of them and so it's incredible to see a lot of these crimes coming to light (albeit often way too late to do anything about them legally). However, I wanted to highlight Lupita's story because for the purpose of this essay on the nature of communication, I think her example is also highly instructive.

Unlike many of the other victims of these sexual assaults and rapes, Lupita repeatedly and pointedly told Harvey Weinstein "no" at several stages throughout their interactions. She didn't leave it up to non-verbal cues to convey what she wanted and thus eliminated much of the potential for miscommunication. 

She says:
"Before long, he said he wanted to take off his pants. I told him not to do that and informed him that it would make me extremely uncomfortable. He got up anyway to do so and I headed for the door, saying that I was not at all comfortable with that."

We'll sort of come back to all this at the end, but I seriously applaud Lupita for doing this. Most women, it seems, are not nearly so direct or clear with men in these situations.

But here's the part where you'll hate me...

Contrast Lupita's actions with some of the accounts of comedian Louis CK's exhibitionist masturbation fixation. 

The first story in the NY Times article about his multiple sexual assaults of various women is about Julia Wolov and Dana Goodman, a comedy duo who accepted Louis CK's invitation to his hotel room after their show at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2002.

The report describes the invitation as one with the stated intention of "hanging out" late at night for a "nightcap" after all the bars had closed (let's say after 1:00am). This isn't exactly uncommon in the world of entertainment and the NY Times claims that at least to Goodman & Wolov, CK's "intentions seemed collegial". 

And look... I obviously wasn't there, so it's hard to say... But a late-night drinking session in a hotel room with a successful/famous comedian who's made his living making references to his own sexual proclivities and masturbation habits should provide at least some context as to what Louis' real intentions likely were, shouldn't it?

What's more, the account of the situation goes on to say that when Louis CK asked (also important) to take out his penis, the women laughed and gave him a thumbs-up (apparently assuming that it wasn't a serious question) instead of saying "No".

And then, Louis CK proceeded to get naked and masturbate in front of them... Which I don't really feel like anyone who's seen his shows should be that surprised by.

I mean.................. Have you seen his stand-up?

Apologies to my comedian friends, but in general, they're just not normal people.

I provide all this as an example because, according to the reports I've read, it seems like there were a LOT of non-verbal/contextual miscommunications on both sides and I think that perhaps instead of (or perhaps in addition to) making Louis CK our momentary whipping boy, we could take a moment to reflect on this stuff a bit more thoughtfully.

Again, I understand that I'm supposed to think of everything as if there's only ever a victim and an oppressor and there's a big bold line in between and all this stuff is always super obvious. But a lot of life really doesn't fit into that small a box. 

It seems that Louis CK wasn't totally clear about his intentions for inviting the women to his room, I assume because he at least is socially aware enough to know that most women would unequivocally say no if he was that direct or asked out of any other context and would refuse to join him in a private space if they knew he just wanted to get naked and jerk off in front of them.

But simultaneously, by accepting a late night invitation to "hang out" and party with alcohol (and, I'd be willing to bet, stronger substances) in Louis' room, and by laughing and continuing to keep things light instead of expressing their disgust at the question Louis asked, the women may have miscommunicated their desires as well.

And please... Before you cry "victim blaming!", I am not making this point to say that these women were "at fault". They weren't.

The onus is fundamentally on the Louis CK as the initiator to get permission to move forward, and it's fair to think that the weirder or more complicated the request, the more explicit that permission should be. That is, again, why business people sign contracts. Implicit consent and trust in those relationships is not enough to confirm that all parties are on the same page. BDSM people often write contracts with each other as well, to solve the same kinds of problems.

But I do think we should actually consider how everyone involved in a situation like this communicated their preferences, and not just assume that the miscommunication is intrinsically the fault of the man or that there aren't multiple potentially valid viewpoints in play.

Louis wasn't as big a name as he is today, but he was still pretty successful at the time, and if I had to, I'd bet that he's also tried this trick with many, many women over the years. I'd also bet that most of the time, it's worked.

And reading between the lines a bit in his public "apology", it's not even clear that Louis knows what he really did wrong. He accepts that he made people uncomfortable in his apology, but he mainly chalked it up to taking advantage of his success and fame:
"...what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn't a question. It's a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly."
His assertion here is that simply because he was "admired", he had power over these people.

But man... That line bothers me a lot. I'm really not convinced that we should be so quick to take that line of reasoning at face value.

Firstly, it's smug as hell... But it's also a bit disconcerting, considering that for men not blessed to be in roughly the top 1% of physical attractiveness, the primary means we all have of attracting sexual and romantic partners is through demonstrating our fitness in other ways -- ie. attaining wealth or social status, demonstrating skill and charisma through creativity or humor, etc.

If using your social status to gain access to sexual opportunities is tantamount to sexual misconduct or assault, the vast majority of humanity is metaphorically -- and very much not literally -- screwed.

Permit me at this moment a brief tangent on...

The reality of human sexual selection

Consider this super-fun bit of data from OK Cupid:

This graph depicts a near 1:1 correlation between OK Cupid users' ratings of other members' looks and their personalities.

What's that mean, you ask?

It means that most of us are totally lying to ourselves when we say that looks don't matter, and that we are able to detach our views of a person's ideas and behavior from how hot they are. It's not exactly a mind-blowing observation, but in addition to better pay; more friends; and higher levels of personal happiness it's one more area where physically attractive people gain an automatic advantage in life.

Attractiveness drives our beliefs about a person's non-physical attributes like personality.

The hotter someone is, the more people will also believe that they're beautiful on the inside. Some of you will scream "Correlation isn't causation!" at this point, but given all the other evidence surrounding this kind of stuff, I'm pretty comfortable saying that in this case it absolutely is. 

If you're hot, people like you more, they trust you more, and they rate everything about you more positively. Sorry, less-attractive people... Beauty-privilege is real.

But that's not all... Here's something else to wrap your brain around. 

According to data from Tinder:
"...a man of average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females (0.87%). This equates to 1 “like” for every 115 females. The good news is that if you are only getting liked by a few girls on Tinder you shouldn’t take it personally. You aren’t necessarily unattractive. You can be of above average attractiveness and still only get liked by a few percent of women on Tinder. The bad news is that if you aren’t in the very upper echelons of Tinder wealth (i.e. attractiveness) you aren’t likely to have much success using Tinder. You would probably be better off just going to a bar or joining some coed recreational sports team."
The accompanying chart is a little disheartening.

Really stop and think about this for a moment... Unless you're one of the most physically attractive people alive (particularly as a man, but this is also true to a lesser degree for women), you are competing with an immense number of people for excruciatingly few potential sexual partners. As per the chart above, men are at an incredible disadvantage in this regard.

And as a result, men have developed various coping mechanisms to deal with this inequity -- some considerably more successful than others.

Generally speaking, men tend to differentiate themselves by becoming useful -- they struggle to get ahead in their careers and earn larger salaries than other men or do more meaningful/important work. But some also employ strategies of making themselves more attractive through more creative pursuits like humor (ie. making women laugh) and other showcasing other demonstrable skills such as playing music. Other men may differentiate themselves by demonstrating physical skills through sports, dancing, or perhaps hunting and fishing.

There's a fairly clear evolutionary basis for all of this.

And it's in line with the one idea that that I think Men's Rights people get exactly right: male objectification.

While women are indeed often seen as "sex objects", men are just as frequently seen as "success objects". That is, if women's purpose is to be sexy and have babies, men's purpose is to work hard and provide for those babies (see also: "Men as Success Objects and Women as Sex Objects: A Study of Personal Advertisements" by Simon Davis)

Both forms of objectification come with costs and benefits, but for some reason we're only really allowed to talk about the one that affects women.

Anyway... The bigger problem here is that for some men, becoming successful or demonstrating flashy, creative attributes is just not a viable option. Thus, we have a percentage of men incapable of presenting their value to women in more constructive ways who instead adopt strategies of simply being more aggressive, cat-calling, and chasing women down on the street, etc. 

These are (some of) the men to watch out for, and it goes without saying that most women are turned off and often even scared or intimidated by that approach.

Personally, as someone who's nowhere near the top 1% of male attractiveness, I have had to rely on my intelligence, sense of humor, and a number of creative skills -- all of which I eventually turned into a relatively successful career -- in order to attract women. And even with that, things were still really difficult when I was in the dating pool. 

Unsurprisingly, my success with dating apps like OK Cupid was negligible at best.

If, like me, you need to rely on your wit and intellect to attract women, and women only "swipe right" on the most attractive men, there's just no way to make that system work to your advantage unless you simply lie about what you look like and post fake pictures of yourself -- which of course, some women & men absolutely do.

The point of all this is that developing and demonstrating quality personality traits and other skills is quite literally the only thing most men can do to overcome the desperate disadvantage of not being physically attractive.

That is to say... I really think Louis CK is wrong.

The problem is not that he had "power" over these women simply because he was successful and was therefore "admired" by them. Yes, it gives him an advantage that other men don't have in attracting sexual partners, but it doesn't rob them of their ability to consent.

To say that is giving CK an out he doesn't deserve. Plus it infantilizes the women involved and it turns a positive aspect of sexual competition into a negative.

And going back to the beginning of this section, think about this:

(Pratt, Hemsworth, Pine, Evans... take your pick!) 
If being attractive were all it takes to create a power imbalance capable of rendering genuine consent impossible -- and thus create a criminal sexual situation -- then we should be looking a lot more closely at physical attractiveness. We'd have to look at the sexy Chris's of the world and say that every time they've hooked up with anyone should be considered sexual assault or rape because their incredible good looks give them a far more significant "power" over women than Louis CK could ever dream of possessing.

But it gets worse.

If we're going to do that, then we would also be forced to start asking questions about the nature of consent as it applied to men in the face of exceptionally attractive women... And you really don't want to go down that rabbit hole.

Women have vastly more power in the sexual selection process than men (see also: Tinder data...  and blatantly obvious reality).

Given that fact, surely someone like Scarlett Johansson would be constantly "abusing her power" by sleeping with men less attractive than she was (say, anyone below Ryan Reynolds), because under the same exact logic, her sheer beauty would easily influence their decision to say yes to whatever she wanted sexually, no matter how blissfully weird it might be. Hell, she'd be abusing men by even asking them for platonic favors given how few would have the fortitude to resist in exchange for even a shot at getting to be around her.

Ironically, nobody will ever do this because as a species we struggle to even imagine that good looking people could do anything wrong, but I hope everyone can see why the whole idea is ridiculous.

Genuine power imbalances that are built into a relationship (ie. teacher/student; adult/child; employer/employee; etc.) absolutely can and should be understood to distort the nature of consent and in many cases these imbalances can even make legitimate consent impossible. 

But if we start considering the mere fact of being incredibly successful (or incredibly beautiful) as a consent-destroying problem of power dynamics, then we're' building a philosophical house of cards that will quickly lead to the conclusion that every interaction between people is involuntary and can never be anything else.

That said... This does seem to be an actual goal of a lot of the SJW crowd, which sees every aspect of humanity through the lens of oppressor and oppressed, but this line of thinking is lunacy. It is, in part, how some 3rd-Wave "Radical" Feminists have come to the bizarre conclusion that all heterosexual intercourse is "rape" (warning: don't click that link if you value your sanity).

Anyway... Intelligent definitions are really important here. 

If you want the idea of a power imbalances to be a meaningful barrier to legitimate consent -- and you should -- then it can't refer to all differences of social status or attractiveness. 

So... No........ 

Louis CK's relative success is not why was wrong to pull out his penis and masturbate in front of various women. The problem isn't that because of his fame and hilarious jokes, he was just sooooo damn irresistible to women that they couldn't say no. That's just arrogant garbage. If he had genuine power over those women -- if he was their boss, or if there was some evidence that he used his success to threaten or punish them, then maybe. But I don't think that was really at issue here.

Consent was possible in Louis CK's case(s). He just didn't really bother to make sure he had it with anybody before getting naked. 

THAT is what he did wrong. 

However... Returning to the issue of miscommunications, I'm about to dig deeper on an even more difficult and controversial question:

What if Louis CK genuinely thought he did have Goodman & Wolov's consent?

Yeah, I know. You're already cracking your knuckles, ready to fire off a killer comment or Tweet letting everyone know how terrible I am and that "you're literally shaking" with rage at the idea that I'd even consider the question at all.

Do what you gotta do, but I'm going to ask the question anyway, and here's why.

My reading of CK's apology letter suggests that at the time, he thought that by asking for their permission to masturbate in front of them and through the women's reactions to that question (laughing, staying in the room), he believed he had gotten their consent.

Quote (with emphasis):
"These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true."
But of course, he didn't have their consent and acknowledges (or comes close to acknowledging) that later on. 

I'm speculating a bit here, but I suspect that the way Goodman & Wolov describe the situation is very different from what was going on in CK's head at the time. To them, their laughter and inaction came from a place of shock, confusion, awkwardness, and dismay.

That makes sense, of course. It's a perfectly common reaction to such a bizarre and awkward situation.

But what if that reaction -- in the context of already having accepted CK's invitation to a private party with him in his hotel room -- inadvertently miscommunicated their consent? 

Seriously... Is that really so impossible?

For shame, yo.
One thing I've observed from several recent conversations is that a lot of people simply see Louis CK's sexual proclivities themselves as highly taboo. Masturbating in front of women is, by its own nature, disgusting. And for a lot of people I've talked to, that's all they really need to know. Anybody who would want to do that is clearly a sex-pervert who should be considered a criminal.

But what if we try to take our own judgments out of the equation?

Here's what I come up with. You ready?

The ugly truth is, I think it's actually fairly plausible that CK never intended to hurt anyone, but rather simply (but very seriously) misread the situation he was in. 

Furthermore, I think it's quite possible that this may have happened in part due to intoxication (lower inhibitions and deadened ability to read non-verbal cues), and also because he had may have been in many similar (perhaps more clearly consensual) versions of that situation before. Perhaps dozens of times over several years.

I don't think I'm going out on a particularly flimsy limb to suggest that Louis CK has asked many other women to participate in his masturbatory exhibitionism.

Beyond all that, consider that he asked Goodman & Wolov if he could do it, and (according to their own statements) they laughed and allowed him to proceed without stopping him until he'd concluded on his own. To that end, I think that the women did themselves a tremendous disservice by not immediately and clearly expressing their discomfort and disgust the way Lupita Nyong'o did with Weinstein.

So yeah, my bet is that Louis CK probably did think he had their consent. 

However... I also don't get the impression that Louis CK actually cared that much about whether or not the women were uncomfortable or what they wanted in that situation. Especially if it's true that he immediately started disrobing after asking the question and nothing else took place in between. 

That alone would put him far into the wrong in this situation, regardless of any avoidable miscommunication caused by the women.

But for the sake of argument, ask yourself this: 

What if Louis CK genuinely thought he had attained the women's consent? Does that matter? Would it make you think differently about the situation? Does the idea of Louis' guilt become more complicated if that's true?

Is there any room for confusion or nuance in these situations or is the end result all that matters?

A lot of people I'm seeing out there seem to think that the answer to this question is a resounding, unequivocal "no"... It doesn't matter that Louis CK (or any of the long list of other men accused of sexual misconduct) may have believed he had gotten consent for his actions.

As long as there are women saying they didn't consent after the fact, there is just no room for gray.

And that brings me to why I'm using Louis CK as an example right now. We all want to believe that we'd never make the same mistakes he made, but I think that's pretty damn easy to say when it's not your private failings being publicly flogged.

Social media outrage is as easy to participate in as it is disingenuous... But the brutal truth is....

Sex & relationships are confusing!

This is probably going to be the least popular thing I'm going to say on a post filled with highly unpopular thoughts... But I think that the reality of human relationships is that they're messy as hell and social and sexual situations are positively filled with major opportunities for miscommunication and confusion.

And these things are not the exclusive fault of men. Or women.

None of us are any good at this at all, and sometimes when we get it wrong, we can really hurt people.

Going back through what I've written here so far, I hope you see a method to my madness. Most of human communication is non-verbal. Consent or rejection of consent is conveyed in tons of different ways and context matters a great deal. Men also face tremendously bad odds at finding sexual partners.

A smile and a gentle touch, or a person just moving a little closer to you can indicate consent, even when nobody says the word "yes"... Just as a grimace and folded arms or a bit of distancing body language can indicate a lack of consent even if no one says the word "no".

We all send mixed signals all the time for conscious and subconscious reasons, and what somebody thinks you're communicating may not be what you really mean and vice versa. Communication experts often talk about how important it is to align your verbal statements with the non-verbal ones -- ie. making sure that your body language and your facial expressions line up with what you want someone to hear you saying. 

One of my favorite examples of body language hangs in massive scale at the NY Times bureau office in Washington, DC.

"The Johnson Treatment", George Tames (NY Times)

I'm sure Lyndon Johnson had a lot to say to Sen. Theodore F. Greene out loud in this moment... But if he had said nothing at all, his intent to intimidate could not be more clear. 

Anyone who thinks that every interpersonal interaction must be accompanied by a verbal yes or no simply doesn't have a realistic view of how human beings actually communicate with each other. And as such, anyone who says that the only instance where someone should proceed with a sexual advance is where they get a direct statement of consent (or a written contract as some universities are attempting to institute), is at best supremely naive, or worse, a charlatan looking for someone to sue.

We're not going to suddenly and radically alter the way people convey their intent to one another. And we shouldn't want to.

It might be true that universal verbal consent would make things more direct and clear (but this isn't obvious given how much tone, inflection and body language play into people's understanding of verbal cues), but apart from being an unrealistic expectation that will never actually happen in the majority of human interactions, it would also introduce an element of formality to relationships that can make things considerably more awkward and inorganic during the most tentative and critical stages of any new relationship.

How many of you have been involved with people who refused to even say the word "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" out loud for months, worried that just the words themselves would convey too much baggage even though they'll date and sleep with you exclusively anyway?

Formalizing relationships... Talking about them consciously and directly... Makes them real. And in my experience, that's even more uncomfortable for people than saying nothing and letting things run their course more naturally. I think a really difficult truth that some folks are going to have to come to terms with here is that most people aren't actually that comfortable being totally verbal or direct all the time.

Among other things, it exposes their insecurities.

But all this inevitable non-verbal communication comes with a cost, and that cost is potential misunderstandings and confusion.

Speaking for myself, I've never remotely considered exposing myself to someone the way that Louis CK or Weinstein have done, but I've certainly radically misread situations with romantic prospects plenty of times in the past. 

Here's a partial accounting:
  • I've leaned in for a kiss or gone for a hug that wasn't reciprocated or wanted. 
  • I've been in several situations where I believed that women were interested in me romantically based on their actions (or my perception of their actions) when in fact, they were just trying to be nice or get something from me. 
  • I've taken women out on incredibly expensive dates thinking they were interested, only to find out that they were never interested to begin with and my efforts just came off as trying too hard.
  • I've been deliberately tricked into believing that a girl I had a crush on liked me, because her friends thought it would be funny. High school was so great.
  • I've been in highly intimate situations where it seemed like things were leading to sex, then with no warning or reason they weren't (exceptionally frustrating), then after a while they were again. Awkward and mystifying.
  • I've been in situations where I've spent all night flirting with women thinking of them as potential longer-term partners, and that flirtation has even led to something physical, but then as quickly as a day later they were gone from my life -- disinterested in anything more. 
  • I've even dated people for weeks or months at a time who all but disappeared the minute something more emotionally serious materialized between us.
  • I've been devastated by breakups and deeply hurt by people who didn't reciprocate my feelings the way I expected them to, and I've been totally crushed by women who left me to wonder why things fell apart. 
  • I had the supreme misfortune of confessing my love for someone who, minutes later on the very same night, told me me that she was moving out of the country with a boyfriend who I didn't think was as serious. Big news all around!
  • And.... Ya know... I've been cheated on by someone I genuinely thought I was going to marry. That hurt... A lot.
And while I've handled most of those moments in my life pretty well, I handled a few of the others really poorly. Embarrassingly so in a few cases.

Those who know me, or who have read to this point in this book-length blogpost should understand that I'm someone who is often compelled to keep digging and trying to understand things long after the point I should have stopped -- and that has definitely carried over into dealing with the pain and confusion of a broken heart after a break-up.

The bigger point is that in those cases where my actions hurt someone else, that was never my intent nor even on my radar at the time... Just as I give most of the women who have hurt me by miscommunicating their interests the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't do it deliberately (unless I know for a fact they did... which has happened).

Some of these problems were my fault. Some of them were the woman's fault. But the vast majority were just a complicated mixture of bad communication, lack of clarity, misunderstandings and irrational action borne of insecurity, desire, pain, or fear.

Looking back on my dating life, it's mostly a goddamn mess with the occasional bright spot and continued to be so right up until the point where my best girl friend finally took the initiative to express her romantic interest in me and became my best girlfriend

But the thing is, I don't know anyone who can't say the same thing... And that's because...........

ALL of this is confusing as hell.

I know for a fact that I'm not alone in all of this.

Signals get crossed all the time, and the result is a blur of intentions and desires that are sometimes highly contradictory or rapidly shift from moment to moment. It's easy to think that these situations are easy and that consent is binary and obvious -- yes or no -- but in truth, most romantic situations are way more complex than that. 

And by the way... OF COURSE THEY ARE!

We all totally suck at knowing what we actually want, and sexual situations are tremendously difficult because they're imbued with all kinds of social implications and greater meaning that can't be fully known in advance by anybody involved. All this stuff is built on quicksand -- a constantly shifting foundation that lives and breathes and can come together or fall apart with the slightest breeze. 

This all brings me to...

What we should be "teaching men" (and women):

I repeatedly hear women claim that sexual assault and rapes would be ended if only we "taught men not to rape". This is, to put it bluntly, one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.

We already teach men not to rape!

I've been a male in the United States for over 34 years. I've never been anything else. I grew up with men. I have deep personal friendships with other men from all walks of life. Not a single person I have ever met in my life has been confused about the idea that rape is wrong. I can promise you this. 

And as a society we treat rapists and accused rapists incredibly severely, in spite of all the claims to the contrary. 

Men convicted of rape face some of the harshest prison sentences, and in prison, the only people other prisoners treat worse than adult rapists are child rapists -- who are routinely beaten and even killed in jail.

Rape and sexual assault is also the go-to crime for (lazy) dramatists looking to generate immediate hatred for a villain in a story. 

There's a screenwriting principle from Blake Snyder called "Save the Cat", which is basically a story-teller's way of showcasing a protagonist's good qualities in a simple, easy-to-understand way. The guy who saves a cat stuck in a tree (or any comparable benevolent act) is immediately seen as the hero. A good guy. I think a corollary for villains could just as easily be called "rape the girl"... There are tons of examples of this in films.

And that works because most people see rape as worse and more viscerally evil even than murder.

So this idea that we live in a society where men think it's ok to rape women because they were taught the wrong things is... frankly... complete bullshit.

Sorry, feminists. No.

Most men already know that rape and sexual assault is wrong. And the ones that don't aren't going to get the memo from a guidance counselor's pamphlet. Nor are the prime targets for what I am about to say next. If you think sexual assault and rape is cool, the rest of this post is not going to be useful to you because you're simply not interested in consent in any form.

But that still leaves us with a mess of confusion and issues that still need to be unpacked. What is it that we do need to teach men to reduce situations where people fail to gain consent in their social interactions?

The biggest thing we need to teach people is...

How to communicate with each other.

After many conversations, I've come to realize that the majority of men have no clue what women experience, and yet the vast majority of women also have absolutely no clue how difficult it actually is to be an average male vying for female attention. I'm going to be generalizing a lot here, so note that if aspects don't apply to you or there are extraneous circumstances that don't seem to apply... They probably don't.

Men -- including me -- don't usually appreciate or understand the way their advances come across.

At the same time, many of the things women are frequently annoyed by -- being constantly hit on, catcalled, and whatnot -- are, in my view, a nearly direct result of the incredible imbalance in sexual selection.

Again, go revisit that OK Cupid and Tinder data.

Men of average attractiveness on Tinder are getting 1 like for every 115 women they approach. The odds are wildly out of their favor and it's not even close. So they experiment and take as many chances as they can. For a lot of people, this means hitting on a lot of women in the hopes that just one will like them back.

Or................. It means resigning oneself to a life without sex or love. The stakes really are that high.

But they have no idea how to talk to women effectively, and to make maters even worse, some of the attempts at attracting sexual partners that work with one woman may not work with anyone else. So it's hard to even learn how to approach dating and sexual situations more successfully in general even when you have some successes. It's not like the lessons you learn with one person will necessarily even translate to the next relationship.

Add to all this the issue of non-verbal communication and miscommunication and you have a situation positively primed for men and women to misread situations and hurt each other unintentionally... and even without malicious intent (which is a different conversation) a percentage of these mistakes still end up being very serious. 

So... What do we do?

One man's opinion and all, but... I really think we need to teach EVERYONE how to read social cues and get better at understanding body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

I thought about adding links to more resources on understanding body language,
tone of voice, and other aspects of this issue, but it's not something I think you can
actually learn by reading. Get off the computer, look up from your phone, and
talk to people.

We all need to get vastly better at communicating with each other, and to do that, we need to be honest about how that communication takes place. Signing "consent contracts" and stopping in the middle of a passionate moment to have a rational, fully informed conversation about what's ok and what's not, are not likely.

It just isn't.

Men need to learn how to bypass the awkward, off-putting trial and error in dating and get actionable, quality advice on how to approach women early on in their lives so that the inevitable miscommunications don't turn into crimes. I'm not a proponent of PUAs or "The Game", but I've come to sort of appreciate that what Neil Strauss was trying to do with that book was help men understand some of these things and stop flailing about like idiots.

If we could get something like that that didn't also end up being a guide-book for sleazebags, that would be great.

But women also need to understand that most men are not very good at this and quite a lot of the time things they perceive of as intense or threatening really aren't. They need to understand and try to empathize with the fact that this stuff is enormously challenging for most men, and the odds are fantastically against them... Especially if they aren't extremely physically attractive -- which, by the way, we all should also note affects the way we interpret the same actions from different people.

Also... What women may perceive as intentional or malicious behavior by men is sometimes men desperately trying anything they can to procreate (even if the end result isn't babies) and not to end up alone.

As a result, just as men need to learn to be considerably better at reading signals, listening to what women are saying, and slowing down/stopping when they start picking up on discomfort... Women need to align their words and non-verbal messages to communicate their interests, desires, and their consent or dissent far more clearly than they often do. If something makes you uncomfortable, express that in the moment.

Don't wait until later and don't just ghost the men in your life when they do something weird.

Situational awareness is also critical, and that's a common thread with a lot of these stories as well. When a man invites a woman to his home or hotel room in the middle of the night instead of a mid-day lunch at a crowded restaurant, that's usually a signal that you should pay attention to.
But in the end, this all comes down to genuine empathy.

As much as possible, we all need to be a hell of a lot better at not only communicating with each other... We ALSO have to try to see the situation from other people's perspectives, and not rush to anger or accusation when something happens that we don't like.

No matter who initiates the encounter, we all have to listen more, assume less, be more patient, and more cautious... But the we also have to have the guts to talk to people when they do stuff we don't like instead of saying nothing in the moment and Tweeting about them later.

Far from enabling more non-consensual interactions, these two things in conjunction -- more communication plus more leniency & empathy --  will help us establish a clearer, brighter line between serious cases of malicious, intentional sexual assault, harassment, and rape and awkward or hurtful interactions borne of misunderstanding.

That's the only way most of us idiots are going to learn how to be better, and until this happens, a lot of people are going to hurt each other unintentionally.

Consent is critically important to every aspect of life... But if you don't actually communicate it clearly, we're going to be stuck with more shitty situations like we've seen in the news for the last several weeks.