Compliance, Consent, and Sexual Empowerment
Do you want to know the key to sexual empowerment? It’s learning to step out of compliance and into consent.
The Roots of Sexual Compliance
The reason that sexual compliance is such a challenge for almost everyone is that compliance is woven into us from our very beginnings. When we’re infants, people need to do things to take care of us that we don’t like. That means that when our nervous systems are wide open and learning to adapt to the world around us, we’re getting the message that there are times when our desire to not be touched will be set aside. We learn to expect and tolerate unwanted touch, and we learn that this is simply how things will sometimes happen.
Of course, many of us have plenty of other experiences that reinforce this. Some of us go through sexual intrusion, assault, and trauma. Some of us are explicitly taught that we don’t get to say no. Some of us are shamed into not even being aware of where our no is. There are trends that relate to gender, to race, to social class, to physical ability, and other aspects of our lives that impact this. And even without those added factors, every single one of us has learned that there are times when we don’t get to say no to unwanted touch. We learn that we have to comply with it. This is simply a part of the human experience, and it shapes everything we do as sexual beings as we get older. I’m indebted to Betty Martin for her teachings and her wisdom around this because once I understood this, my personal life and my coaching practice suddenly made a lot more sense.
Sexual Compliance in Adulthood
Have you ever been having sex with someone and had a conversation like this happen?
A: What do you like?
B: That feels good.
A: Is there something you’d enjoy more?
B: It all feels good.
A: What would turn you on?
B: Everything you’re doing feels good.
A conversation like that is often because person B is coming from compliance. They’re going along with whatever is happening. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to tune into their own desires. Maybe they believe that they don’t get to put them into words. Maybe they don’t know how to use their words. Maybe they think that they should put up with whatever they get, even if that means enduring unpleasant touch.
Naturally, compliance isn’t the only factor that could be at play. There could also be fear or shame or past trauma reinforcing this pattern. But as a somatic sex educator, I find that sexual compliance is usually an element, alongside those other factors. The big challenge here is that compliance can look like consent when you don’t understand the difference. In the situation above, it might look like person B is consenting because they’re saying the “right” things. And as long as we take consent to mean nothing more than that someone says yes, we’ll keep getting stuck.
This is one reason that some folks advocate for “enthusiastic consent.” According to that model, if someone asks if you want to have sex and your response is anything other than “fuck yes!” then you should make it a “no.” While I see a lot of value in that, I don’t think it’s nuanced enough. It doesn’t leave room for doing something that might not be your cup of tea because it makes your partner happy. It doesn’t always work for people whose sexual desire is responsive rather than spontaneous. For those folks, arousal doesn’t kick in until after sexual activity starts, so they aren’t a “fuck yes” until things get going. That doesn’t take away their ability to give real consent. (This pattern is more common among cisgender women than cis men, and it can happen for people of any gender. Check out Emily Nagoski‘s amazing book Come As You Are for an excellent description of how this plays out for cis women and suggestions for how to work with it.) And the enthusiastic consent model doesn’t always work for sex workers, in the same way that you might not be enthusiastic about working in a coffee shop or a bank, but you can still give meaningful consent.
The irony of sexual compliance is that while you avoid the friction that might arise when you and your partner have conflicting desires and needs or the challenge of being turned down, you’ll almost never get what you actually want. Your partner can’t read your mind, so no matter how skilled they are at reading your body and guessing what you like, they won’t always be on target. That doesn’t make them a bad lover. It means that they aren’t telepathic.
That’s especially important when you consider how your sexual pleasures and desires change over time. You’ll be in different moods, or you’ll discover new fantasies, or you’ll be somewhere different in your menstrual cycle, or you’ll take a medication that affects your body’s sensitivity, or you’ll simply feel like trying something you’ve never done before. If you’re in a place of compliance, you’ll have hard time telling your partner any of that and it’s simply unreasonable to expect them to always be able to know. I can’t even guess what to order for Chinese takeout for my partner of 24 years without asking. How in the world can I expect to always know what kinds of sex they’re in the mood for?
Unfortunately, when someone is coming from a place of compliance, it can leave them feeling raw, wounded, or traumatized after sex. That can happen, even if their partner has done everything they know to do in order to make sure that they aren’t crossing any lines. I’ve been on both sides of that, and I know how compliance can leave one person feeling violated even when the other person thought they were doing all the consent stuff right. It isn’t any fun, no matter which part you’re playing. Compliance is one of the factors that leads to consent accidents.
Moving From Compliance Through Consent Into Empowerment
In my somatic sex coaching practice, a lot of my work is helping people move from compliance through consent and into empowerment. Some of these tools are woven into everything I do. Others are exercises I do with my clients. I find that while talking about these topics can be helpful, there’s a limit to what it can accomplish. The embodied, somatic experience can convey far more than words. I think that’s part of why all of the dialogue, discussions, writing, and arguing about consent haven’t done as much as many of us would like.
I’m going to describe three different exercises, and I suggest that you find a friend or partner to try them with. I’ll to refer to person A and person B, along with directions for each exercise. You can simply follow the steps together, which is a little different than when I guide a client through them. Try taking turns with who goes first, if you like. And I’m not suggesting that this is how to talk with a partner about your desires and boundaries. These are some ways we can develop the skills we need to be able to have those conversations.
Exercise 1: Tell me when you’re ready for me to start
A little background for this one is in order. If you go to a spa for a massage, it’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say something like, “May I start?” or “May I put my hands on you?” Clearly, that’s better than touching a client without saying anything at all. But it still creates a situation of compliance because the massage therapist is coming from a place of assuming that touch is going to happen.
Of course, you might argue that paying for bodywork is consenting to be touched. But there’s an opportunity in these situations to create empowerment. And all it takes is for the practitioner to say, “Tell me when you’re ready for me to begin.” By doing that, they make room for the client to step forward into choice and empowerment, rather than having the bodyworker step forward into the experience. So here’s the exercise:
A: Make eye contact with B and ask: “May I touch your hand?”
Both: Take a breath together and check out how that question feels to you. Don’t actually touch each other yet.
A: When you’re both ready, tell B: “Please let me know when you’re ready for me to touch your hand.”
B: Pause and check to see if you’re truly ready for it. If you are, let A know, in whatever way you choose.
A: If B says that they’re ready, take their hand in yours. If B doesn’t say that they’re ready, sit and give them some space. Give them as much time as they need.
Both: Take a moment to breathe together and see how that feels. If A has taken B’s hand, release it.
What came up for each of you? What did you notice?
Exercise 2: Take your hands off
A: Take one of B’s hands in both of yours.
B: When you’re ready, use whatever words feel natural to you to tell A to take their hands away.
A: Remove your hands.
Both: Pause for a moment and check out how that feels.
B: When you’re ready, tell A to put their hands back.
A: Take their hand again.
Both: Pause for a moment and check out how that feels.
A: Remove your hands
That’s the whole exercise. But there’s a lot of valuable information there. For example, how did it feel for B to tell A to take their hands off and have it happen? What was that like for each of you? And what words came out? Here are some of the phrases I often hear:
- Take your hands off.
- Please take your hands off.
- Would you please take your hands off?
- I’d like you to take your hands off.
- I’m ready to take your hands off.
- Would you mind taking your hands off?
Do you see how some of those have more compliance woven into them? You can get a lot of insight into your patterns from this exploration. You might also find that you respond differently if you do this with a partner, a friend, a family member, or (in one of my workshops) with a stranger.
Exercise 3: How do you want me to touch you?
Set a timer for three minutes. During this exercise, A will touch B anywhere from the elbow down to the fingertips, but only in the ways that B says and only on the parts of the arm and hand that B says. The goal isn’t to find something that feels good and stick with it for three minutes. The goal is for B to practice making a direct ask:
- Make little circles with your fingertips on my palm.
- Do long gliding strokes down my arm.
- Squeeze my forearm.
- Tickle the back of my hand.
- Gently tug on my fingers.
B can offer further information, such as “firmer scratches” or “do that softer.” If B has trouble describing what they want, they can use their other hand to make a gesture. B’s job is to give clarifying directions until A does it in the way B wants. A’s job is to be in service to B’s exploration, so follow the directions as best you can.
Some things to notice: how did B phrase the directions? Were they requests rather than statements? Was B worrying about how A was feeling as the giver? Did A feel resistance to following directions? Were there any moments of difficulty?
Why These Are So Powerful
These kinds of practices are so much more important than most people realize. I use them with almost all of my somatic coaching clients because they create the foundation for better sex. If you can’t tell me how you want me to touch your arm, it seems unlikely that you can tell a partner, “a little softer on my clit” or “make circles with your tongue around the head of my cock.” And if you feel hesitant to tell me to take my hands off of yours, there’s a good chance that you have difficultly telling a partner when you want them to stop touching you.
It doesn’t matter how many blowjob or G-spot tricks you know. If you don’t have a solid basis of consent and empowered communication, your sex isn’t going to be as connected, intimate, and pleasurable as it could be. If there’s a part of you that’s worrying about whether your partner will do something you don’t like, or if there’s a part of you that thinks that you should just deal with having them touch you in ways that you don’t want, your arousal and sexual response will evaporate. The way we can change that is by exploring embodied sexual consent and move into empowerment.
Exploring these and related exercises can help you see the places where you slip into compliance. They might show you areas in which you’re more likely to have a consent accident, or be more vulnerable to a consent violation. And they can offer you some valuable information about the skills you can develop in order to become more sexually empowered. That’s because empowerment, sexual and otherwise, comes from knowing where you have choices, how to make them, and how to communicate about them. The more clear you are about your habits and patterns around compliance, the more you can do to develop your capacity to step into choice and consent.
What About Sexual Healing Practitioners?
These practices are even more important for hands-on practitioners such as dakas and dakinis (tantra practitioners), sex coaches, sexological bodyworkers, sacred intimates, sex workers who include sexual healing in their work, sexual surrogates, and other sexual healing professionals. No matter how good your intentions and no matter how skilled you are, if you aren’t helping your client move out of compliance into consent, you aren’t helping them become more empowered. You might be helping them learn valuable stuff about sexuality, relationships, and embodiment. That’s all important work. And it’s different from helping them to become more empowered.
I’ve seen this play out in a variety of ways. At its worst, I’ve heard of practitioners who are convinced that they know what a client needs and they’re going to heal them, no matter what. That’s a form of arrogance and it can lead to some deeply traumatic experiences for clients whose boundaries and safety aren’t respected. And even in situations in which boundaries aren’t crossed, it can lead to a client becoming dependent on the practitioner because they never learn how to ask for what they want and need.
That’s why I won’t ever engage in a somatic session with a client who can’t ask for what they want. If they don’t have the words, then my first job is to help them find their voice. That doesn’t mean that they have to know exactly what kind of session we’ll do. After all, they don’t usually know what the options are. So I can give them a range of possibilities, and then I ask them to tell me what feels like the right one for that session. I leave it up to them to decide how much they want to lean into their edges. Otherwise, I’d set them up to not be able to integrate their experience and their skills into their sex lives.
I can’t recommend Betty Martin’s Like A Pro workshop enough. It’ll make your professional work safer and much more effective. She offers tools that you can use right away, either by giving your clients and students a chance to explore them with you or by guiding a couple through them. And I’ve created a new workshop, Somatic Sexual Healing, in which I’ve adapted some of Betty’s teachings and some of my own exercises to make them accessible to therapists and other professionals who work within a different scope of practice than hands-on practitioners.
Paths to Empowerment
The difficulty in talking about sexual empowerment is that it’s never about the actual act. It’s about shifting out of compliance and into choice and consent. In fact, it doesn’t actually matter what the sexual activity is. For some people, never having sex is about compliance and for others it’s about choice. For some people, monogamy is about compliance and for others, it’s about choice. For some people, anal sex is about compliance and for others, it’s about choice. It isn’t the act that makes it empowering. It’s about whether you’re in compliance or choice.
This isn’t something that can be learned by talking about it. This is something that needs to be experienced, that needs to be felt into. Talking about empowerment is like talking about working out. You can do it all day long, but you still won’t get into shape.
One of the most effective ways to do that is to start small. Try the exercises I described above. If you’d prefer to be guided through them, I’m available for somatic coaching sessions in Seattle or while I’m on the road. And if you have someone to practice with, I can lead you through the exercises over Skype. If you’re interested in knowing more, I’d be happy to schedule a free 30 minute Get Acquainted Skype call to talk about what you’re looking for and how I can support you. Get in touch with me and let’s chat.