Expressway to Your Heart: The Express Model of Sexual Consent

Chapter 1: It Leaves You Guessing

I would be completely turned off by that. But I’m one of those girls that there’d be no question I was into you if I was.

-Reddit user thehalflingcooks

A classic scene in heterosexual romance movies and television shows (and actually, in “reality” shows as well: I’m looking at you, Bachelor/ette) is the awkward end of the date when our dashing male lead walks his lady to her door, they both pause at the threshhold, and, finally, he leans in for a kiss. No words are exchanged. She is supposed to have signalled her desire at various points throughout the evening, and he is supposed to have read those signals and known that consent for a kiss was given.

So powerful is this trope that the very thought of asking someone if you can kiss them is met with disbelief by most Americans. This reddit thread shows that opinions vary, but a substantial number of respondents said that asking for a kiss is a turnoff, that one should just be able to tell if a kiss is wanted, and/or that they would signal non-verbally that they wanted to be kissed.

One way to think about the issue of sexual consent is through the lenses of ask vs guess culture. This Atlantic article describes the difference between guessers and askers. Guessers communicate indirectly, relying on social cues, intuition, and context. Askers communicate directly and assume that it’s essentially okay to ask for anything, so long as you’re comfortable hearing the other person’s “no.”

Our classic movie/television scene, and the one preferred by so many redditors, is an example of guess culture. Often in dating and sexual situations, people rely upon social scripts to model appropriate behavior. They do not engage in explicit conversations about their desires, and they do not wait for verbal permission to “progress” a date or sexual encounter. Because everyone understands an accepted, and expected, sequence of activities, they feel it is not necessary to discuss it.

Over the past decade, sex educators have increasingly moved toward affirmative consent models. These models more closely fit the ask culture paradigm. If we assume that everyone involved in a dating/sex encounter feels empowered to ask for what they want, and to say no if a boundary is reached, we can be sure that our encounters are affirmative and that consent is enthusiastically given.

Chapter 2: A New Hope

Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result.

-Kevin Michel

Recent theorists have challenged the ask/guess culture paradigm, introducing a third component. This is variably called tell culture, reveal culture, or, as I propose here, express culture. I have chosen “express” consent, rather than tell, reveal, etc. to emphasize the importance of emotional expression. The point isn’t just to tell the other person what you want: that would be no different than ask culture consent (the ask is simply inverted into a tell). The point is something slightly, but crucially, different.

The central idea of these models is that speakers should feel free to express what’s on their minds, and listeners can then respond in whatever way suits them. Express-based communications solve several problems of ask/guess models.

  1. They don’t rely on assumptions or mind-reading, as guess culture often does. Misunderstandings are fairly common in guess-based communications, and in sexual consent situations, misunderstandings can have disastrous consequences.
  2. A direct ask can seem threatening to the listener, especially if they are more socioculturally marginalized than the asker. In the “classic,” heteronormative end-of-date kiss example, a man is more likely to be in a position of power; thus, his “ask” is not neutral. Saying “no” does not always seem like a viable option for women, who might fear a violent response if they hold a boundary.
  3. Even if an ask doesn’t seem threatening, it essentially demands an immediate response. Proponents of ask culture can sometimes (subtly or more forcefully) intimidate listeners, even if they don’t mean to.

Express-based communication addresses some of these fears in two key ways:

  1. It starts with introspection on the part of the expressive person. Expressers are charged with sussing out what they really desire, and of being aware of the needs of their listener(s), before expressing the desire(s).
  2. The goal of the interaction, for the expresser, must simply be to share what they’re feeling. They must be indifferent to the outcome. Expression for its own sake must be the key source of satisfaction. The person listening might reciprocate the expresser’s desire, might respond negatively, might completely change the subject, or might do anything in between. This has to be okay for the expresser.

Chapter 3: Can You Give Me an Example?

Imagine for yourself a character, a model personality, whose example you determine to follow, in private as well as in public.

-Epictetus

How does this play out in terms of sexual consent? Let’s look at hypothetical examples of guess, ask, and express communication and see how they compare:

Guess Consent

Derek and Fatima are on a third date. Derek walks Fatima home. Along the way, they talk about each person’s favorite movies. When the couple finally arrives at Fatima’s apartment, they exchange these words:

Fatima: I can’t believe you haven’t seen Get Out! We should really remedy that.
Derek: Well, I don’t have anything else to do tonight.
Fatima: Let’s watch it, then.

Derek: Okay!

They go upstairs. Fatima puts on the movie, offers Derek some wine, and sits on the couch next to him. A few minutes into the film, Derek puts his arm around Fatima. She responds neither positively nor negatively to this gesture. A few minutes later, he places his hand on her thigh. She gently pushes it away. After a while, he again places his hand on her thigh. This time, she does nothing, so he leans in for a kiss…

We can imagine a number of ways this interaction can go, some of them quite horrific. This seems, to many of us, like a recipe for a consent violation. Nonetheless, this is the way many people do consent, and if this is a shared communication preference, it can even work for the participants. The concern is that this model leaves too much opportunity for subtle and not-so-subtle forms of coercion, or downright boundary violation, and seems to rely on the recipient of amorous attention to be the gatekeeper of the encounter.

Ask Culture

Derek and Fatima are on a third date. Derek walks Fatima home. Along the way, they talk about each person’s favorite movies. When the couple finally arrives at Fatima’s apartment, they exchange these words:

Fatima: I can’t believe you haven’t seen Get Out! We should really remedy that.

Derek: What are you doing right now? Would you like to watch it together?

Fatima: Okay, but I have a pretty early day tomorrow. Are you okay just watching the movie and then calling it a night?

Derek: Sure!

They go upstairs. Fatima puts on the movie, offers Derek some wine, and sits on the couch next to him. Before the film starts, Derek leans over and asks, “Can I kiss you?” Fatima says, “Yes, just a kiss.” They kiss. They watch the movie, after which Derek says, “Great movie! I’m not as tired as I expected to be. Wanna make out?” Fatima reminds Derek of her need to get up early in the morning, says no to the makeout offer, and shows Derek to the door.

Here, we can perhaps see a bit less possibility of someone (primarily Derek) crossing a consent boundary, or of either person misunderstanding the other. Many sex educators and affirmative consent activists might see this encounter as a fairly good example of ask culture’s effectiveness.

Nonetheless, one wonders what would happen if Fatima felt that a “hard” no might not be heard, or respected, or if she felt pressured by Derek’s second attempt at escalating the encounter, after she’d indicated a desire for a movie and an early night. In addition, many people feel obligated to provide an immediate answer to a direct question, especially one like, “Can I kiss you?” Perhaps the person isn’t entirely sure how they feel. Perhaps they need a minute to process what they’re being asked, but consent to the activity out of a sense of obligation to answer quickly (an understandable desire, since leaving another person hanging can feel rude, or even hurtful).

Express Culture

Derek and Fatima are on a third date. Derek walks Fatima home. Along the way, Derek comments that he’s really enjoyed their dates so far and is glad to have the chance to walk Fatima home. Fatima says she enjoys Derek’s company and is having a good time. They discuss each other’s favorite movies. When the couple finally arrives at Fatima’s apartment, they exchange these words:

Fatima: I can’t believe you haven’t seen Get Out! We should really remedy that.

Derek: I’d love to watch it with you some time.

Fatima: I’ve got time now.

Derek: Great!

They go upstairs. Fatima puts on the movie, offers Derek some wine, and sits on the couch next to him. Derek says, “I’m usually a cuddle-while-watching-movies person. How about you?” Fatima says that she prefers to have a bit of space, but that she likes the idea of some physical touch, to build intimacy. They agree that she will lay her legs across his lap, so they will be touching but not too close. After the movie ends, Derek says, “This was a great date. I’d really like to see you again. And I’ve been thinking all night about how much I want to kiss you.” Fatima says she’d also love to get together again, and she had also been hoping for a kiss goodnight. They kiss goodnight, and Derek goes home.

On the surface, this scenario looks a lot like the ask model. In both cases, the participants check in with each other before taking actions. In both cases, they ask for what they want (though in the express scenario, direct questions are less frequently employed). But the express scenario is much less susceptible to coercion, as both participants are content with expressing desires without focusing on the outcome. When Derek said he wanted to kiss Fatima, she could have said, “Yes, please, I’ve been waiting all night!” or “I’m not interested in that right now (or with you, etc.)” or “I’d like to do that too, some time” or “Thanks for sharing that with me. Would you like a bowl of ice cream?”

The model assumes that whatever the outcome, both people will be happy for having expressed what they want. In addition, desires can change over time, and the express model not only assumes this but encourages it. Consent is dynamic and emergent. Expressing what you want, and allowing space, acknowledges this dynamism.

Can misunderstandings still occur in the express model? Of course. Can one person’s expression be more forceful than the other’s, creating pressure to reciprocate? Yes. Can one person express themselves in manipulative, or dishonest ways? Absolutely. This is not a perfect model. But if the expresser is genuinely satisfied simply to let the other person know how they’re feeling, and the listener receives the expression that way (and, ideally, is able to reciprocally express their own desires), this model succeeds in creating space for the interaction to evolve in response to each person’s needs. This encourages collaboration where the guess and ask models encourage gatekeeping. The difference is subtle but incredibly important.

Chapter 4: You’ve Got to Make Him…Express Himself

Feminist masculinity would have as its chief constituents integrity, self-love, emotional awareness, assertiveness, and relational skill, including the capacity to be empathic, autonomous, and connected.

-bell hooks

So what does all of this have to do with gender, and particularly with masculinity? Glad you asked!

In heteronormative situations, men are expected to be the active consent seekers and women are expected to be the gatekeepers of sex. This doesn’t apply only to straight sex. Queer people are raised in a heteronormative culture, with many of the same socio-cultural reference points as straight people. The notion that one person, usually the man, or someone assuming a masculine role, ought to be the initiator of sex, is a dominant social script in American society.

The express model discourages several aspects of hegemonic masculinity that can also lead to violations of consent, and encourages positive, emotionally expansive behaviors:

  1. In order to practice express consent, you must first have a good sense of your own desires. Traditional masculinity encourages its adherents (usually men) to act quickly and be decisive, even impulsive. It does not encourage them to think deeply about their desires before taking action.
  2. Hegemonic masculinity centers around accomplishments, and performance of one’s masculinity. The express model finds joy in relating with another person, and in telling them how you feel. That’s the only outcome that matters in this model. Whatever the other person’s response is–including no response at all–you will have deepened intimacy with that person merely by expressing yourself.
  3. The express model encourages active listening, because it depends upon correctly interpreting the other person’s response to your expression of desire. In addition, because the model is about creating space, it encourages the expresser to be mindful of what occurs in the space they have created. These are not traits usually associated with masculinity.
  4. This model relies on the expresser to lead with vulnerability. It can be risky to express your desires, and to be contented with any outcome that occurs after that expression. Hegemonic masculinity tends to frame vulnerability as a weakness, while the express consent model frames it as a strength.

The express model is emotionally vulnerable, expressive, and relationally-centered. It is designed to build and sustain intimacy. These are qualities I think most of us want to see reflected in masculinity but which have not traditionally been gendered as masculine (and thus have not been the norm for men, who often see masculinity as a key part of their self-identities).

By practicing this consent model, not just in sexual contexts, but in their daily lives (“I’m really glad we decided to get lunch together, Tony: I enjoy spending time with you!” or “You’re a terrific guitar player, and I’d love to jam with your band some time” or “It’s flattering when you flirt with me, Sonia, but I’m not interested in going on a date with you”), men especially can practice an expansive masculinity that will deepen not only their emotional self-efficacy but also the interactions with the people around them. Although the change I advocate here is subtle, it has enormous implications. It may take some time for this idea to catch on, but as has been said already, being less attached to the outcome of one’s expressions is the whole point. Hopefully you will agree.

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