In this episode we explore how to go about having a hook up consensually, given that this has been in the headlines recently with the story about Aziz Ansari.
We don’t go into a lot of detail about that particularly case, but we do refer to some thoughtful pieces by other writers if you want to find out more: Going Medieval, Cyndi Darnell, Girl on the Net, Laurie Penny.
We feel that it’s helpful that – like the Cat Person story which we spoke about here before – this story is moving the #metoo conversation on to cover consent, power and sex in dating and relationships, as well as the kind of explicit sexual exploitation and harassment in the workplace that it began with. We also acknowledge that this often makes for a much more uncomfortable and challenging conversation because it invites us all to look at our capacity for non-consent, for objectifying others, and for using our power to get what we want. It makes us recognise that this conversation can’t just be about figuring out who are the individual ‘bad guys’ or monsters, but that we need to talk about about how the culture we’re all steeped is part of the problem, and how we can do the difficult work of shifting it to something better.
Here we thought we’d pull out seven points about how we might do this work when it comes to hook ups.
1. The hook up cultural script
As with pretty much everything we talk about, we feel that the most useful starting point is to recognise that there’s a cultural script in play when it comes to hook ups. This is an idea about how they should play out, for example the script that it should involve two people going out, having some drinks, going back to one person’s apartment, having more drinks, and then having sex. Within this script, of course, there’s often another embedded script about what sex should involve (e.g. kissing, touching, oral sex, penis-in-vagina sex, orgasm). There are also often assumptions about what roles different people should take in what happens, such a gendered roles about men initiating sex, for example.
There can be a lot of pleasure and excitement in following these kinds of scripts. However they can also leave us with the sense that a hook up – or whatever – has only been successful if it follows that script, and hits every point on it in the right way at the right time. The danger, in terms of consent, is that we may assume that we’re both following the same script when actually the other person has a different script (for example if they were seeing this more as a first date than a hook up, or more of a potential friends-with-benefits thing than a one night stand). Or we may be on the same script but assuming we’re both on the same page when actually the other person is several pages behind us or in front of us.
There are a couple of different ways of approaching hook ups in ways that acknowledge this script, and avoid following it in ways that could be non-consensual. These map onto the second and third handshake approaches to consent that we cover in this video. The first handshake approach is just following the cultural script (whether that is the script around how to have a handshake, how to have sex, how to have a hook up, or whatever). The second handshake approach is to explicitly talk about the scripts and negotiate another way of doing things. The third handshake approach is to really tune into yourself and the other person throughout the exchange. We cover various second and third handshake options in the rest of this post (and in the podcast).
2. Default to no sex
Before we get onto these options though, we need to shift the common cultural ideas about what a good and bad outcome of a hook up is. In the current cultural script a ‘successful’ hook up is one where sex happens, and an ‘unsuccessful’ hook up is one where it doesn’t. This easily gives us the sense that the worst thing that could happen on a hook up is not having sex. Actually – as Cat Person and the Aziz Ansari story highlight – there is a far worst possible outcome which is that non-consensual sex of some kind happens.
Given this it’s useful to change the default setting of a hook up from ‘endeavouring to have sex if at all possible’ to ‘not having sex unless it feels 100% right’. So if there’s any question in your mind about whether the other person – or yourself – is completely into it, default to not having sex. This is particularly important as so many commentators have pointed out that often people who feel that they have the have sex but no longer want to tend to freeze up or go quiet. We’ll say more about how you might tune into this kind of thing in a moment, and there’s more about this too in our video about being present during sex.
3. Be clear about the hook up beforehand
The second handshake approach to hook ups would involve a lot more openness upfront about the script that you’re interested in following, instead of just taking this for granted. For example, some people are very clear on their hook up app profiles exactly what they are looking for (and also check that the other person had actually read their profile in detail). Some people arrange a pre hook up meet up first to check that they are into each other and what their scripts are for a hook up, and what it means to them. Another options is messaging each other fantasies about how the hook up might go to get a sense of what each other’s scripts might be, or how they might play out.
It’s important to acknowledge thought that wider culture discourages this kind of honesty when it comes to hook ups and dating. Slut shaming means that women often feel unable to say this is what they’re looking for, even when they are. Also the cultural script of seduction has generally taught men to play a game where they pretend they might be interested in something else even when they’re looking for sex.
4. Recognise the power dynamics
Whether we take a more second or third handshake approach, one thing that we absolutely need to do is to recognise the power dynamics in play which impact people’s capacity to consent. Again the #metoo campaign has usefully highlighted how incredibly hard it can be to turn down somebody’s sexual advances if they have a higher social status and/or power over our lives in some way.
When thinking about power it’s worth considering where we, and our potential hook up partner, are at on various intersecting power dynamics (gender, race, age, disability, etc.) and how that might impact how pressured someone feels to have sex, and how able they feel to say what they want or don’t want. It’s also worth thinking about the less obvious aspects that might be present, such as somebody’s survivor status or previous experiences of non-consensual sex, or invisible disabilities, or class. There’s more on all this on our power and consent podcast.
It can be difficult to acknowledge the places where we have more power, particularly in the areas of life where we’ve gone from being less powerful to being more so, or where we don’t actually feel particularly powerful. It’s a useful ongoing conversation to be having with yourself, and relates to the next point…
5. Ensure that the other person always has the capacity to pause, to stop things, and to leave if they want to
The idea with power is that we need to use what power we have to maximise the agency of the other person – in other words their capacity to make choices during the encounter. So, for example, if you know they are likely to feel like they should go along with your suggestions – because you’re a man and there’s a cultural script that men initiate the encounter and/or because you’re older and have more experience, how can you really make sure that they know it’s fine to say they’re not keen or suggest something else? How can you make any suggestions in a way that gives them options?
One important thing here it to ensure that both people always feel able to leave the situation at any point. This might involve thinking about whose place you go back to and how easy it is for the other person to get home from that place, ideally without being reliant on you to take them.
It can be really helpful to practise this kind of consent in everyday situations – where we also have a pretty non-consensual culture. Practise means it can become more second nature to operate in this way. How can you practice giving people an out and checking where somebody else is at when you meet up with a friend socially, or when you’re working with a colleague?
6. Open up the script for hook up sex
Related to this, it’s also very useful to open up the script for sex, rather than assuming that having sex in a hook up will look a certain way. For example, snogging, frotting, mutual masturbation, or having a sexy conversation could all be hot ends to a hook up, and many of these don’t rely on going back to one person’s place but could happen in more of a mutual or public space.
7. Make sure consent is ongoing
The vital point through all of this is that consent needs to be ongoing throughout the encounter rather than a one-off thing that happens at a certain point (such as assuming that because somebody has come on the hook up they are up for sex, or asking if they want to have sex when you get back to your place with them and then assuming their ‘yes’ means that you don’t have to check in again).
The third handshake approach involves continually noticing where you’re at and where their at and – if there’s any doubt in your mind – checking in whether or not you both want to continue. If you find yourself in a more initiating role in the hook up, then it can be good to give the other person several options about what could happen next, always including the options to pause or just stop there.
This continual paying attention to the other person and ourself can also make us more present, which may also help us to enjoy hook ups more because we’re in the moment of what’s happening instead of focusing on some goal based on the script of how we think they should go.
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2018