Antiracism activist Tim Wise has said that he thinks one of the most significant barriers to white people acknowledging that racism exists is, paradoxically, the fact that most of us are good people. The problem is that once you acknowledge that a problem exists, if you’re a good person, you feel responsible for helping fix it. Most of us, on some level, know this, and so one of the best ways to avoid that feeling of being obligated to help is to not admit that there is a problem in the first place.
In the same vein, one of the problems that crops up when guys become aware of rape culture is an occasionally paralyzing fear of being an accessory to rape culture in all their interactions with women. When you realize the breadth and depth of rape culture, you become afraid of unintentionally invoking it in your interactions. One of the most common areas where this plays out is in situations where a guy wants to talk to or date or have sex with a woman. Interacting with someone in a way that doesn’t cast the shadow of rape culture is not always easy, especially if you’re still learning about it (which most of us are). It is, however, always important.
So I’m going to take a stab at offering some advice that has helped me walk the line between being forward about being interested in people and making those people feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: the first rule of not creeping people out is don’t have creepy intentions. Just as all the rules of etiquette won’t help you look like a class act if you don’t respect people, all the anticreep advice in the world won’t help you if your intentions are creepy. In practice, not being creepy means you respect the wants and needs of people you’re interested in. You realize that they may not want to fuck you, or hold a conversation with you, or even give you the time of day, and you respect that. You recognize that no amount of interest on your part creates the slightest obligation on their part. If you say you recognize that, but you don’t, you’re a creeper and an asshole.
Now that’s out of the way, from here on out I’m operating under the assumption that I’m addressing people with noncreepy intentions.
The second rule of not creeping people out is to be aware of your surroundings and make sure that whatever interaction you’re interested in with that person is appropriate for your circumstances. What is acceptable is different in different social contexts: at a meeting vs at dinner vs. in a bar vs. at a sex party. It’s also different in different physical contexts: in particular, enclosed spaces, or places where the other person would not be in a position to call for help if you turned out to be dangerous cast the shadow of the implication (even if it isn’t your intention to invoke it). Those contexts are generally not okay for any sort of conversation that could be construed as propositioning. Some aren’t okay for any sort of conversation at all.
What’s acceptable also differs based on how well you know the person in question. If you’re confident that you’re familiar enough with someone to talk openly about wanting to do X, Y, or Z with them without raising red flags, you have more leeway (assuming you’re right, and it’s your responsibility to be sure you’re right). Note that this also means that sometimes you will get a red light where another person gets a green light. The green-lit person may be more familiar or comfortable to the person you’re interested in than you are. Respect that. I can’t tell you how many times it happens at BDSM parties that someone crosses a line by, say, spanking someone they thought it was okay to spank because it looked like “everybody was doing it”, when the reality was that a spontaneous-looking scene had actually been meticulously planned between close friends. Don’t be that guy. Don’t assume things that are okay for other people are necessarily okay for you.
Okay, rule 2 down. We’re now operating under the assumption that whatever you want to do with the object of your interest is something that it is context-appropriate to propose.
Rule 3: the thing to focus on, in general, when trying to remove the specter of rape culture is be aware of the shadows that rape culture casts and to cast some shadows the other way*.
In particular, in the context of rape culture, rejecting someone can be an incredibly complex endeavor for women. I’ve been to a fair number of kinky sexy parties. I’ve done a fair amount of kinky sexy things at said parties. In propositioning people, I try to be aware of the effects of rape culture. I know that if I proposition someone for something, and they’re not interested, they have to try to intuit how I’ll respond to rejection. Will I take it gracefully? Will I be an asshole? Will I become belligerent? Not knowing can be scary. What I try to do, insofar as it is possible, is to remove that ambiguity. I try to make it as obvious as I can that I can and will take no for an answer, and to make it as easy as I possibly can for someone to say no.
It’s not uncommon that you’ll hear me say things like these:
“I think you’re really cute, could I kiss you? No is an acceptable answer.”
“No pressure, but if you’d be into it, I’d really like to cuddle with you.”
“If your dance card isn’t full tonight, would you be willing to do some of that fancy ropework on me?”
I emphasize that I’m giving people the option to say no, and I volunteer excuses (“full dance card”), so if they’re uncomfortable directly saying, “I just don’t want to do this with you”, I’ve given them an easy out.
Similar patterns work just as well with people you’re getting more intimate with. I’ve grown very fond of variations on the construction, “What are you comfortable with? Because I’d really like to fuck you if you were up for it.” It lays out what I want in a non-pressure-y way, and it has the added advantage of a clear segue into a more general conversation about what everyone’s comfortable with. Maybe my friend doesn’t want to fuck but would love to trade sexy massages or some such. “What are you comfortable with” is an easy way to get to that; it’s an easy way to have the “I want this but not that” conversation.
Also, particularly when it comes to things getting more intimate, I’m a big fan of clarifying that I’m entirely cognizant of the fact that a “yes” now does not necessarily mean a “yes” later. Especially when trying out new or intimidating things, emphasizing that a partner is free to change their mind later is helpful.
Rule 4: Ask permission, ask permission, ask permission. I have never had asking permission in a sexual or romantic moment derail doing sexy or romantic things. In my experience, move-making is completely and totally unnecessary in dating. In a culture that celebrates the idea of “just knowing when to go for it”, asking permission can feel very awkward. It gets easier with practice, and, for the record, a relationship built on establishing consent is almost certain to have better sex than one that isn’t.
There are a lot more things I think I could say with respect to this, but a lot of those deserve posts of their own. I hope the above serves as a decent basic set of principles by which to avoid making people feel unsafe or creeped out. Following my own advice has often worked out pretty well for me. If I were to write a rule 5, it would be to remember that being mindful of this stuff isn’t just helpful for the people you’re interested in, it can cause some pretty awesome things to happen for you as well. Happy snogging!
Disclaimer: I’ve written this post in a binarist frame because that is the most common manifestation of this dynamic I’m familiar with, and because I couldn’t think of a concise, easily readable way to make it about all genders without making it significantly longer and more ungainly. I would really like to hear anyone’s suggestions for terms, phrases, etc, to use that are less binary, but still specific enough to different sides of rape culture power dynamics that they’re useful in context. I may do some rewriting once I’m better equipped to write this readably in a non-binarist way.
* Dear Self, the Shitty Metaphor Store called…