The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

A Scene

Me, and a friend sit on a couch:

Him: I can’t make you do anything without your consent.

Me (grinning): I think we both know that’s not true.

Him (raising an eyebrow): And I think we both know that’s consensual.

One of the things we talk about a lot, being feminists, is consent. What it means, how to get and give it, how important it is. It is discussed at length here, and elsewhere. I often go back to this post of Julie”s as a way of explaining what consent means.

But one thing I don’t think we talk about enough, is that consent doesn’t just apply to sex. It applies to anything you might ‘do’ to another person.

A conversation Emma and I have had a lot of times, is about how difficult it can be to share things here. Because if we want to talk about our experiences, and our lives, and our various kinks, we’re often talking about someone else. And it’s not up to us to tell the world what they want to do behind closed doors. That’s not our right. And so we try to tell our stories, without making reference to someone else, knowing they’re reading, and we invite them to come and fill the gaps in, if they want.

Um, as it were.

We’re lucky enough that a handful of people do feel comfortable coming and sharing their stories here. Otherwise, those discussions would just devolve into me and Emma talking about handcuffs. Which would be a different kind of website. (Also, if you want to see that, you just need to come to the pub with us.)

I was watching something on the internet recently, in which someone was talking to Nathan Fillion, and mentioned he was on his wife’s ‘celebrity list’. And it struck me how creepy that is. Sure, you can have fantasies about someone…but do you have to actively involve them in your fantasy – without their consent? Because isn’t that what telling people about it does – when they’ve never met you, never talked to you? Isn’t saying ‘I have sexual thoughts about you, and I don’t care if you return them, or how you feel about that’, kind of douchey, aside from anything else?

On a recent episode of Glee (full disclosure, I haven’t seen it, I don’t really watch the show) one of the characters was forcibly outed:

One of the various sub-plots involves cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester running for Congress. In a campaign smear ad against Sue, an opponent outs Santana by questioning the coach’s morals for promoting a lesbian to team captain. The source of the information: a student who overheard Finn’s comment in the hallway. When Santana is informed, she runs out of the room crying, stating that she hadn’t told her parents yet, who will surely see the ad.

After Allen says the outing was “wrong“. I’d go further than that. I’d say it’s fucking disgusting. And yes, I am aware that I am speaking from a platform of immense privilege here (not actually having to face coming out), and about, you know, a fictional show. Perhaps someone with more experience of this can talk about it.

But the thing is? Someone else’s sexuality, be it who they want to sleep with, how they want to do it, or how many times they have – that’s their secret. It’s not anyone else’s to tell.

And something akin to this has happened to me, more than once. I used to think it was the price I paid for being a slut. That that meant people could feel free to share my stories, to tell the world who I’ve fucked. And you know what? No one is free to do that. It’s gossipy, and it’s childish, and it is profoundly, deeply, disrespectful. Turning someone into a notch on your bedpost is reducing them to a sexual object. And taking away their right to tell those stories on their own terms, in their own way, is emotional violence.

I do think that we’d all be better off if we were more open. I wish that coming out as not hetero or cis or vanilla or any combination thereof wasn’t fraught with pressures. But that’s simply not the world we live in. And it _really_ isn’t the world we live in, in a country as small as New Zealand.

Getting enthusiastic consent isn’t just about asking someone before you kiss them. It doesn’t just extend to the bedroom. It isn’t just listening to what someone says about how they like to be touched, and whether they do. It also doesn’t end when the relationship or encounter ends. You don’t have to be touching someone to do something to them they didn’t consent to. And if you don’t know how they might react to something you might do? Well, that’s where that really handy “asking” thing comes in. Because some people are private, and some people are public, and it’s not your right to make that decision for them.

30 responses to “A Scene

  1. andie December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Looking from this kind of idea of consent (not just before and during, but after) I think the concept of ‘not kissing and telling’ isn’t such an old-fashioned idea.

    • tallulahspankhead December 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm

      Well, it’s slightly more than that, because I think we can, and should talk about our own experiences.

      But like I say, that’s fraught, because how do you do that, and still honour the trust of anyone else involved?

  2. Emma December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Heh, I have Lots to Say. I won’t get through it all in one comment. But let me start with the Taboo Outing Story.

    We were playing Taboo with friends. One friend, K, was trying to make his team guess the word “divorcee”. He said, “Emma is this.” Another friend, in the heat of the game, yelled, “Bisexual!” And a third friend looked at me with an expression of blank incomprehension. Because yeah, he didn’t know. Now as it turned out I didn’t mind him knowing, and in that context it was okay, but with different people? It really wouldn’t have been.

    I also have an ex, whom I won’t name despite his utter fuckedness, who told his next girlfriend a whole bunch of stories about me, in the sure knowledge that she would tell all our friends. Now as it turned out these stories weren’t actually true, but thinking about it now, I’m not sure that matters. I hadn’t asked him not to talk about me after we broke up, no, but nor had I given him permission to. My consent to have sex with him, to have a relationship with him, contained an implicit trust, and he violated that.

    Doing what I do on the internet is sometimes really hard. That’s why I talk in general terms so much. But I know people still make assumptions. And like I said, none of my lovers signed up to sleep with a Sex Columnist. Including my current partner.

    It’s different, too, when you’re making a judgement call to tell a story to a small group of friends you trust – which we’ve all done – and when you tell that story on the internet, which is “in public”.

    • Isabel December 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm

      I’ve apologised for that, right? If I recall correctly one of the reasons I wasn’t more guarded was that I assumed everyone in the room was closer to you than I was and, therefore, there was no way I could possess privileged information.


      • Max Rose December 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm

        I’d have thought that when “playing Taboo with friends,” one should brace oneself for an outing 🙂

        At one party we improvised a game using “7 deadly sin” postcards (every home should have them) and a die, with each player having to tell about a past event, fantasise about a future event, or commit then and there something related to the sin in question. One person ended up using this to confront another participant about a recent messy sexual encounter between them, and while in the end it probably helped reslove some issues between then, at the time it was massively awkward.

        We still played the game at later parties, but took to calling it The Parlour Game of Uncomfortable Revelations.

      • Emma December 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm

        Wait, wait, that was YOU? In my memory, that was Neil. Huh.

        But yes. It would be logical in that situation to assume everyone in that room knew.

    • tallulahspankhead December 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      It’s also very different when you _know_ the person you’re writing about is reading. And then when they write back? It’s a whole new mindfuck.

      I had an encounter once with a man, who it turned out, went running to his friends to tell them he’d shagged me. Their response ‘yeah, who hasn’t? But STFU, or she’ll stop putting out.’

      I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that.

      • Max Rose December 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm

        “STFU, or she’ll stop putting out”

        Darling, I don’t think there’s any danger of that. Or at least I hope not.

      • andie December 21, 2011 at 1:55 am

        Heh. I got double-exposed once after a one-night stand. First, the guy who it was blabbed to his room-mate (and my good friend) right after I had gone to bed. Then a few days later, my friend was discussing this guy’s skeeviness – in that he basically ran out and bragged – but had mentioned me by name. Well two of the people in this conversation, unbeknownst to her, were friends of mine as well, so they ended up hearing all about my night as well.

  3. Max Rose December 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Lots of good points here. Breaking confidence is always a breach of trust, and when it’s about something physically intimate it can feel like a violation. It all depends upon circumstances, though, and there are several grey areas.

    As one example, an unexpected first night with someone often occurs without discussion about boundaries. That can sometimes be about relationship status (e.g. are we now going out, or was that a one-off?), and sometimes it can be about the degree of discretion. Of course, one should always assume discretion by default, but that can depend, too. What happens in the privacy of someone’s home is one thing, but if you’re obviously getting acquainted with one another’s tonsils and then leave the party together, one should expect the bush telegraph to start ringing. And one should never forget the first rule of having a discreet office romance: it helps not to snog on a revolving stage in front of your other colleagues. Not that I’d, erm, know anyone who’d do that.

    Beyond that, it depends upon who you tell and how. I’m not so likely to be hurt or offended if someone quietly tells their best friend, but if I ran around shouting “Guess who I scored last night?!”, it’s likely to be taken as disrespectful and vile. Which, for a born gossip such as me, makes things tricky. But I try to be discreet and respectful, even if part of me is bursting with happiness and pride about a delightful encounter. And I’m certainly not going to start posting my conquests on Facebook. Because I’m not a dick.

    • Emma December 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm

      one should expect the bush telegraph to start ringing

      I think there’s a difference between suspecting and knowing, though. I mean, you and I both come from social groups where a certain degree of tonsil exploration does not by any means necessarily connote later doinking.

      So, yeah, I have very little problem with people speculating that Megan and I are sleeping together. I’d be really fucked off if someone was telling people we had.

      • Max Rose December 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

        “I mean, you and I both come from social groups where a certain degree of tonsil exploration does not by any means necessarily connote later doinking.”

        That’s true. Though it’s likely to provoke not just speculation but direct questions, at least from close friends or the shameless. In which case, unless there’s a really good reason to lie, some people are either ethically inclined to honesty or just really, really bad at keeping things quiet. You know the sort of thing: “I refuse to confirm or deny that X and I went home together last night and had spectacularly dirty sex”.

        And that’s still a breach of trust, though maybe not as egregious as proactively telling the world.

        • Emma December 20, 2011 at 7:12 pm

          Huh. Interesting. I’ve just realised that nobody has ever straight-out asked me that question. Because while I’m pretty good at the indirect deflection that sounds like I answered when I dodged, I’m really terrible at outright lying. So if someone actually said to me, “Hey, did you have sex with X last night?” I’d probably actually say, “Um. Well… yeah. Yeah, I did. And it was awesome, let me tell you about it in graphic detail until you beg me to stop, which, coincidentally…”

          I dislike requiring other people to actually lie as well, and if they were cornered like that over me, I think most times I’d be pretty understanding about them answering within their own comfort zone.

          • Isabel December 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm

            Someone once caught me out by, when I was searching for a missing drink, asking “did you put it down before or after you [redacted] [redacted] in the [redacted]?”

      • Max Rose December 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm

        Also, you and Megan? Good luck trying to deny _that_!

        • Emma December 20, 2011 at 7:07 pm

          Yeah, you know what happens the more I deny Megan and I are Secret Lovers? Yes, yes you do.

          • meganwegan December 21, 2011 at 6:13 am


            Ah, Emma, love, it’s probably safer to just ignore them, and let them think what they want. At this point, we’re just playing into their fantasies.

            (Also, can you pick up some milk on the way home, please?)

          • Emma December 21, 2011 at 11:14 am

            Milk, check. Look, why don’t I just pick you up from work and take you out for a drink?

    • meganwegan December 21, 2011 at 6:34 am

      And I’m certainly not going to start posting my conquests on Facebook. Because I’m not a dick.

      And herein lies part of the problem. I’m pretty open about my stuff, as a general rule. In person, and to some degree on the internet. (Mostly Twitter.) But I’m open on _my_ terms, not anyone else’s. It bothers me when my friends ‘out’ me, let alone someone else doing that.

      And once you add in the interface of social media, it gets so much bigger, because then you have even less control over it. And as much as we’d like to think that it does, that shit doesn’t go away.

      • Deborah December 21, 2011 at 8:48 am

        I seem to recall telling you and some other ladies about my first date with my (now) husband over a few drinks last week. That’s a story that I would never put on the internet, but I’m quite happy to tell it in person.

  4. Gossipy Moz December 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Heh. Most of the queer[1] groups I’ve been involved with have a clear talking-to they give new members that what happens in the group stays in the group. Can make things a little interesting when you meet people you know from outside the group (seeing other engineering students at gay and bi events… exciting).

    I do admire you lot for your ability to tell stories without really implicating specific people around you. Especially Emma since I know so many of the people she may or may not be talking about. I really struggle, especially with people who I’m quite open with. It’s really hard to say “I supported someone through a compulsory committal” without it being really obvious that I’m talking about the mutual friend who’s bipolar.

    Fortunately many of my friends are open, almost as open as Emma (to name names, you know). I treasure some of you for that, because it really makes life easier. But it’s important to let people reveal things themselves. I struggle more with sex-change friends than anything else because I move in fairly liberal circles. But it’s still tricky working out whether someone knows when the subject comes up, and erring on the side of feigned incomprehension can be hard.

    [1] in the very broad sense of the term, not just les-bi-gay. Polyamorous, flavours of BDSM, genderfreaks, anything. Also activists in general.

  5. Isabel December 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    That line where a story moves from “mine”, to “ours” and the to “theirs” is difficult to pinpoint. I know I’ve more than once had the mouse poised over the ‘post’ button before deciding that a story reveals too much about the other protagonists.

    The flipside is how much of a burden of secrecy is it OK to put on someone else? I’ve been in situations where keeping someone’s confidences has put unmanageable strain on my own mental health and that’s not really OK either.

    • Emma December 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      Well, I managed to tell that story about that ex without using his name or giving any identifying details. But you know who I’m talking about, because you were “there”. So I’ve told it as a story about him, that’s mine. It’s a delicate act when it comes to identifying details like time period or physical environment, but it’s one I’m happy to do. As you’ve seen, I’m waaaaay less careful about this stuff when I’m sitting in a bar and I’ve had a few beers.

      The burden of secrecy is an interesting one – I’ve been on both the giving and receiving side of that, with friends. I’d like to think that if I was doing something myself that had to be kept secret and it was affecting my mental health, I’d be smart enough to stop. But none of my affairs have been crushing for that reason. And being someone people seem naturally to tell this kind of stuff to, the inside of my brain can be quite the interesting place at times. I just seem to naturally compartmentalise things. I do know what it’s like, though, to be dreadfully worried about a friend and not be able to talk about it.

      • Isabel December 20, 2011 at 5:43 pm

        Yeah, the examples I’m thinking of were times when people were telling me stuff in lieu of seeking desperately needed professional help which, I guess, is at the far extreme of what we are talking about here.

  6. Deborah December 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

    I’ve worried about exactly this problem in the context of blogging about my children. If I want to write about various parenting issues, then necessarily I involve my children, but I really don’t want to have embarrassing stories about them on the internet. So I’ve always used pseudonyms for them, and I’ve tried very hard to write only positive accounts of them.

    But when it comes to writing about sexuality and / or my sex life, mostly I don’t. This would be because I have been in a monogamous relationship for over 22 years now, so no matter what, anything that I write about my sexual experiences necessarily is a story about my husband too. And although he is hidden behind a blog name, and we don’t use the same family name, he can be traced through me, for the delight of the prurient.

  7. john December 21, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    sounds to me like some of you are playing the “guess what i got you for christmas game”,then getting pissed off because the other person figured out what the gift was.
    as for those people who kiss and tell theres nothing one
    can do about them unless you forgo all spontenaeity and
    both sign a confidentiallity agreement before you start diving into each others pants.

    • Deborah December 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Oh right. So we should just lie back and think of England, then.

      Seriously, John, either you’re trolling, or you’ve just missed the point entirely. The whole damn post is about being responsible for what we say and do, and how much we say about what we have done with other people, because it’s THE OTHER PERSON’S / PERSONS’ story too. It’s all in the first person, not the third.

    • Max Rose December 21, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      “as for those people who kiss and tell theres nothing one
      can do about them unless you forgo all spontenaeity and
      both sign a confidentiallity agreement before you start diving into each others pants.”

      It’s nothing about forgoing spontaneity; it’s about not being a dick.

  8. john December 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    sorry i’m cooking dinner at the moment so you’ll have to forgive me if i’m slow responding.
    “trolling” do mean i’m fishing for a bite? probably, as i thought blogs were all about stimulaing debate and getting your point across, not some sort of mutual admiration society.
    as for speaking in the first person on sex, i can do that, given i have probably had sex more times than you have had hot dinners. as for lying back and thinking of england, what a quaint notion but from what i know we men prefer our partners to be more into the act than that. my point i was
    trying to make was that as the old saying goes if you are
    going to go “TRAWLING” you had better be prepared to catch things you may not like.thats not being judgemental
    merely giving what i hope is a bit of advice based on my years.for what it is worth i too have crossed swords with garth george my most recent being just prior to he election pointing out that his arguement against abortion
    was flawed in that he had to use his male “mates” to bolster his point.

    • tallulahspankhead December 21, 2011 at 6:21 pm

      Oh, darling. I’ve likely had more hot sex than you’ve had dinners.

      What we try to foster here at TLG is a conversation. Not just getting your point across. Though some of the men who write here are welcome to get their points across me.

      As for your casual ‘trawling’ slut shaming, um, no. ‘catching’ something isn’t the consequence of sleeping with something. Why the hell can discretion not be the default position? And I don’t think it matter how casual your encounter is, respect for the other person should be paramount.

      I’ve already warned you about your comments here. I am not going to do it again.

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