Blurred lines: Navigating consent by listening to body language

Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act. – Roland Barthes

Not all language is verbal: a look someone gives you that’s enough to make you cross a dancefloor; a shrug that compels you to wait until someone’s alone before you ask if they’re okay; a grip on your forearm that tells you they need you to hold their hand. So much of our communication with each other is through body language, especially when it comes to sex.

When I learned about consent in some extremely awkward high school sex education, the key message was “no means no”. If someone says “no”, that means that they don’t want to have sex. You stop whatever you’re doing, and everyone goes along their merry way.

In January, an article dropped that set the internet on fire with an account of a sexual encounter between hugely successful actor and comedian Aziz Ansari and a much younger aspiring photographer. In painstaking and explicit detail, the article chronicles a date the woman had with Ansari and the events that happened in his apartment afterwards. The woman, who is only referred to as Grace, recounts Ansari’s persistent attempts to have sex with her despite her many physical, and later verbal, cues that she wasn’t into it.

There were a lot of arguments about this article. I had a lot of arguments about this article.

Some people have described Ansari’s actions as sexual assault. Others have dismissed it as bad sex. While bad sex is not against the law, and while the article itself has plenty of problems, such as overanalysing minor details and failing to provide any kind of conclusion, I think many people who read it would agree that the whole situation is a bit of a grey area.

Ansari responded to the allegations with a statement, in which he wrote: “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”

Ansari was surprised, and I was surprised. The article said that the woman involved used lots of non-verbal cues to show him she wasn’t interested, like freezing, not reciprocating physical contact and moving away from him. She might not have said “no” with her words straight away, but plenty of other things should have said “no” just as clearly. How could he not have noticed that she wasn’t into it?

I think there are two possible answers.

The first is that Ansari was too ignorant and/or oblivious to notice. Some people may not be as fluent in body language as others. Many people might see their partner not moving, turning away from them, pushing them away, staying quiet or not reciprocating touch and know it’s a clear indication that it’s time to check in and make sure they’re okay. Some people, like my partner, are so good at this they can tell with their eyes closed.

Other people might be Troys.

When it comes to sex, unless someone is filming or it’s a ménage à trois situation, you don’t often get the opportunity to assess a sexual encounter from an observer’s perspective. However, thanks to a certain reality TV star named Troy, we have a safe-for-work case study showing what it looks like when one person completely misreads consent.

Troy recently became the poster boy for awkward obliviousness after his unwanted physical intimacy was broadcast on national television on the TV show Married at First Sight. Sitting on the beach next to his new ‘wife’ Ashley, Troy encircles her with his arms while Ashley fiddles with the lid of a discarded food container. Troy leans in, staring intently at Ashley, while Ashley stares at the ground, saying that there is still a lot to get to know about him.

The scene ramps up as Troy tells Ashley he’s falling in love with her, and Ashley looks like she’s trying to catch the eye of the camera crew for help. While she’s looking away, Troy grabs her chin, pulls her face towards him and kisses her. Ashley leans back and back until eventually she can’t stand it anymore. Pulling away, she tells him outright that he’s coming on too strong.

Now, it was obvious to most people watching that Ashley is not into it. However, it is clear from Troy’s incredulous expression that it was not obvious to him. “Coming on too strong?” he says. In his to-camera commentary, Troy says he felt like it was a “strong rebuke” and that Ashley “overreacted”.

I don’t think Troy is necessarily a bad guy, but he is an ignorant guy. He wasn’t able to pick up on Ashley’s physical cues, even if he did listen to her verbal cues in the end. Maybe he didn’t respect them as much as he should have, but he listened to them eventually.

If you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Aziz Ansari was just a Troy. What was a blurred line to him might have been a very clear line to anyone with 20-20 consent vision.

The idea that he was simply bumbling and bad at sex is certainly an easier pill to swallow than the other explanation: that Ansari is a cartoonish Pepé le Pew type, chasing his unwilling and terrified partner around his apartment no matter how many times she tries to push him off and move away.

However, if you’re a Troy-sympathiser, you might be asking why someone wouldn’t just say no outright. We aren’t all mind-readers (or body language savvy), so why not avoid confusion and simply say the word no aloud?

The first reason is that sometimes people simply don’t listen to no. In the immortal cringe-worthy words of Mr Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,

it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged …

The idea that someone saying “no, thank you” to a romantic or sexual advance really means “try harder” is a ubiquitous one in film and literature, and a recognised one in sociology. “No” is often presented as a negotiation; if someone just keeps pushing, eventually that no will become a yes. This kind of attitude is outdated, condescending and sometimes even dangerous. People with this attitude believe that they know better than the other person what that other person wants.

In fact, sometimes it can actually be unsafe to say no to people like this. When I was in university, someone not unlike the hapless Mr Collins unilaterally decided, because he had left gifts outside my residential college room door unasked, that we were dating. I tried to let him down gently, but he persisted (gifts turned to poems), and the more I said no, the less he listened and the angrier he got. Eventually, I had to move out of college for a week and change my phone number because the angry six-page 3am text messages were just getting a bit too much.

Even an outright no from me was still a blurred line for him. As much as he insisted that he cared about me, his sense of entitlement to a relationship with me was greater than his concern for my welfare. He saw my “no” as something that could be negotiated down, and even though he professed all these feelings for me, he didn’t respect me enough to listen to me.

Sex is no different. Robin Thicke’s controversial song Blurred Lines is all about Thicke knowing better than a girl what that girl wants. Studies have shown there is often a psychological disconnect between men acknowledging their partner didn’t consent and being willing or able to recognise that sexual intercourse without consent is actually rape. The pervasive myth that a person really wanted sex, even though they said no, continues to undermine the “no means no” approach to consent.

The second reason why someone wouldn’t just say no is that sometimes, things happen so fast that you don’t have time to clear your throat and say in your most assertive voice, “No!”

A long time ago I’d been out drinking with a colleague on his going-away party, and we’d been kissing over the course of the night. However, walking me home suddenly turned into pulling me into an alleyway and trying to take off my clothes. Things escalated so quickly that all I could do in the moment was push him off and run away. Kind of a half flight, half fight response, but certainly barely any time for talking.

Having someone touch you when you don’t want them to can be terrifying. Having someone touch you who is bigger, stronger, older or more influential than you, like Aziz Ansari was to Grace, is even more so. The risk of saying no, bruising an ego, incurring violence can be really hard to gauge, especially if you don’t know the person very well. Some people even freeze.

This is exactly what happened to Saxon Mullins.

I won’t go into the detail because it’s been covered thoroughly, but essentially Saxon was eighteen years old on her first night out in a club in Kings Cross, Sydney, and the perpetrator was bigger, older and the son of the owner of the nightclub. After telling her he was taking her to a VIP area, he instead led her into the club’s back-alley, began undressing her and told her to put her hands on the wall. Lazarus had ignored her earlier requests to go back to her friend, so when Saxon realised what was about to happen, she froze.

Fighting, fleeing and freezing are three responses to fear, and when someone freezes, it’s often because they can see that fighting and fleeing aren’t options. Professor Annie Cossins says that when someone freezes, their conscious control over their body disappears and they do what they are told to do.

A jury and two judges found that Saxon had not consented, despite not having said no, and the final appeal found that the perpetrator Luke Lazarus should have known that Saxon did not consent. Even though Lazarus was not required to attend any further hearings, this case has led the New South Wales Attorney-General to refer the laws around consent to the NSW Law Reform Commission for review.

Consent laws differ from state to state, but essentially, assuming someone has consented just because they didn’t say the word no simply doesn’t cut it any more. You cannot assume that someone lying there doing nothing and saying nothing is enough to go on.

While some people might think that the blurred line is between whether someone wants sex or not, I think that the real blurred line is somewhere else. I think it’s between the people who don’t care about whether their partner is consenting because they don’t know how to listen, and the people who don’t listen to their partners because they are too selfish and entitled to care.

Wherever Ansari was mentally that night, he was not thinking enough about what Grace wanted. The blurred line wasn’t how good Grace’s communication was; the blurred line is whether we decide he was too ignorant to notice that Grace didn’t consent or too indifferent to care. Even though the blurriness of Ansari’s moral culpability has been convenient for him to hide behind, ultimately neither of these versions of Ansari is good enough. Pushing for sex when the other person doesn’t consent, no matter how they expressed that non-consent, is sexual assault. Ignorance isn’t and never was good enough. The only thing that is good enough is enthusiastic consent.

The Troys out there may read articles like this and realise what they have done in the past is wrong. They might realise that unlike the “no means no” standard we all learned in high school, enthusiastic consent isn’t the absence of a no; it’s ensuring your partner is giving you a free and fervent yes. Troys might google enthusiastic consent and learn to look out for that “yes, yes, yes” and respectfully accept the signs that it’s a no.

But what do we do about the others like Lazarus (and Ansari, if we don’t give him the benefit of the doubt) who simply don’t care? The people who see sex as a commodity that they deserve, and who don’t have the empathy to see the humanity in their partner. With the rise of people identifying as incels (involuntary celibates who believe they are being denied sex to which they are entitled) clashing against the multitude of women speaking out against sexual assault via the #MeToo movement, it’s clear that this isn’t just a problem with individuals: it’s a problem with culture.

There are some undeniable statistics about sexual assault. The most common perpetrators are men, the most frequent victims are women, and the vast majority of perpetrators are friends, acquaintances or family. Sexual assault isn’t a problem that belongs to someone else, it’s a problem that belongs to all of us. It’s not just strangers taking advantage of strangers. It’s a problem steeped into the very bones of our society and it is going to take a paradigm shift to change.

However, I saw something on my social media recently that made me believe that we can change the culture around consent and hold these people accountable. In a heated debate about enthusiastic consent, someone responded to claims that consent was muddied by people “playing hard to get” by candidly sharing that they had previously used coercion to obtain sex, and acknowledging the pain and hurt they had caused. Few things are more courageous than acknowledging your own wrongdoing, trying to rectify it and trying to stop people from making the same mistakes as you. We need to call out our friends and family, and we need to call out ourselves.

We all need to speak out against toxic ideas around sex and consent, but before we speak, we need to learn how to listen. We can start by doing a better job of listening to our sexual partners. Like listening, sex is not just a physical act, it is a psychological act. Great sex requires that both partners are mentally present, and great sex requires good communication. The only way to ensure that there are no blurred lines is to choose to actively listen to what your partner is saying: both with their words and with their body.

Header photo by Erik Lucatero

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