JA: Jad Abumrad
BB: Becca Bressler
JF: Julie Fennell
BH: Bethel Habte
JoF: Joe Fischel
SO: Shima Oliaee
JA: A quick note before we start: This episode contains graphic language and descriptions of sexual situations, may not be suitable for all listeners.
JA: I’m Jad Abumrad, this is Radiolab. And this is the third and final part of our series In the No, about sex and consent. We started a couple weeks ago with some excerpts from a podcast called the Heart produced by Kaitlin Prest. And last week we had a long, at times difficult conversation with education consultant Hanna Stotland. Heard a bit from some college aged men in that episode. Today
XX: Yes, can I take off my shoes?
SO: Yes. If anyone wants to take off their shoes, get comfortable.
JA: We’re gonna start with some college age women
SO: If you need to stretch you can be like hey, it’s been too long like we can do yoga,
JA: Because what we ended up doing sort of midway through the process was gathering together a whole bunch of different groups of men and women, college age men and women, in three different cities. And just asking them general questions about how they were thinking about this stuff.
SO: Are you excited? No [laughter]
JA: I ended up interviewing the men so I’ll turn this part over to Becca Bressler and Shima Oliaee who were with the women
BB: OK, so I’m just gonna like dive right in.
BB: Yeah so the average group that we talked with was maybe a dozen women. We tried to make it as diverse as possible.
BB: You saw it? You saw it coming? Why did you--how did you see it coming?
BB: And the first thing that really struck us, I think, Shima tell me if you agree. Is that there was a kind of a disconnect. Like on the one hand it seemed like affirmative consent for almost everyone we talked to seemed like second nature
XX: Yeah so I actually teach a workshop on consent for high schoolers.
SO: Some of them were even teaching classes on it.
XX: Yeah PHE. Yeah OK so you know too, yeah. So like a clear and concise yes at
every step of sexual activity. I think that’s like amazing that we’re teaching kids that now and like I do feel like it’s my generation’s problem to change it, and to change the narrative about it.
BB: So a lot of them were really like committed to changing the way that consent looks, the way that these sexual experiences go, and how they’re navigated
SO: But then when we would you know, focus in on what they were actually experiencing in their lives, what we saw was much different.
XX: My friend and I ended up at a bar and like the bartender was really cute and like we
were like flirting and like--I don’t want to give any identifying information, but we were just like vibing and I like hooked up with him and like immediately after I started hooking up with him I was like oh this is not what I want. But like at that point it’s kind of like saying no would be much more of an uncomfortable situation than just like going through with this and like understanding that I already regret it kind of.
XX: I don’t know why I didn’t leave, but eventually I was just like OK, fine like whatever.
XX: They’d be like please come on, please. Like you you know you’re turned on a little bit. And I’d be like fine, whatever, let’s fuck.
XX: I think he was going down on me and had asked if I wanted to have sex and I said
no. And eventually like I just kind of wanted to be like over with like the entire interaction and I was just uncomfortably and I was just like OK let’s have sex just because I thought like that was the easier way to make him happy, make-- like get done with it, and it be over.
BB: We just heard a lot of stories of people having sex that they didn’t want to have, you know, where maybe affirmative consent was in effect. They did say yes, but it was either because the guy wore them down or they were way too concerned with how he was feeling
XX: Like it would make him feel really really bad. I know that if he would have
known that I felt that way he wouldn’t have gone through with it. And like I just didn’t wanna like hurt his feelings and be like--and make him feel like he took advantage of me or whatever when I knew that there would be no possible way that he would know that I was feeling that way
SO: Some women told us that they say yes sometimes when they don’t want to because they’re scared
XX: Part of the fear in saying a hard no is that that hard no can then be violated, and
that’s like a terrifying thought to say like a hard no, like that’s more traumatizing to me in my head almost than having like a soft no sort of like slid past
XX: It’s like having fear of future trauma
SO: Wait say it again
XX: It’s likw having a fear of future trauma.
SO: I take that to mean if your aim is to stay in control and you feel like you might be out of control, then the best way to still be in control is to convince yourself that you are cool with what’s happening.
BB:I walked away feeling like many of the young women felt frustrated both with their world but also with themselves
XX: Yeah afterwards I would feel like very disappointed in myself because I feel like I
dad compromised my own needs for other people
BB: That they would walk away from a situation and they would have regretted how it went. They maybe didn’t actually want to do it but didn’t stick up for themselves
XX: And then I--and then you fight like a battle with yourself because it’s like wait a
minute, I’m like strong like I know I can like just stop it but like--but it’s so hard like in that moment to find--I don’t know, like the words just to say it you know because then sometimes you’re just like yeah it is just easier just to be--let it like just like let him finish, that’s it
SO: Like it was clear for many of these women that in the moment of these encounters, there was some conversation that needed to happen that wasn’t happening.
BB: But then there actually was this one young woman that we spoke to--
XX: Some people, I think a lot of people talk about consent as if it's like awkward and weird and like a
BB: She just said
XX: Con, consent has really become popularized and is really well-advocated for by the
BB: BDSM is an abbreviation, so it abbreviates bondage, discipline, or domination, sadism, and masochism.
XX: Because you constantly have to make sure that somebody’s okay be like, is this
rope too tight--
BB: She told us-- I mean the BDSM community has this figured out. And then she started talking about her own experience. So we’re sort of like hmmm. Uh what does that mean that the BDSM community has figured that out?
XX: You got a buzz there?
JA: Oh yeah it’s like the B-52 bomber buzz.
JA: Oh that sounds better.
JA: Ok, hi.
JF: Yay. Hi.
JA: We did it.
JF: We did it!
JA: Don’t you feel like, I always feel like after these technical snafus there’s like a
bonding that happens. Well--do I feel bonded to you guys?
BH: I feel it
JF: Well it’s actually a statistically true thing that people suffering together feel bonded to
JA: Well there you go. Who are you by the way? What do you do?
JF: My name is Julie Fennell. I’m an associate professor of sociology at Gallaudet
University. And I have been studying the BDSM community since about 2012.
JA: We called up Julie because she is one of the I think it’s safe to say leading academics when it comes to the BDSM community and all of its subcultures. She has written papers, she has done surveys and she has done it from the inside.
JF: A lot of kinksters like me pretty much feel like we were sort of born this way. And it’s really common to talk to a lot of kinky people who will tell you the same thing like I was five and fantasizing about tying up people’s genitalia.
BH and JA: WHOAAAA
JF: It’s deep stuff, right. I didn’t know what genitals were
JA: Anyhow. One of the things that we heard from Julie, and we subsequently heard this also from a lot of academics that we talked to after her, is that the whole consent conversation, in many ways grew out of BDSM
BB: A lot of people will trace like the history of BDSM in the United States to the Leatherman community.
CLIP: Have a have a have a, haven’t you heard
JA: This is World War II era, by the way
BB: These gay men would hang out in biker clubs, at bars, they would socialize, they were a really tight-knit brotherhood.
JA: Over the decades the brotherhood grew into this much bigger community and then it really exploded in the 80s, but there’s a problem.
BB: At the time, no one had ever really formally distinguished between BDSM, a practice between willing participants, and violence.
JoF: BDSM I think had to make the case to the vanilla community to the non-kink
community that they were not insane, that people were not getting off on hurting people, that it was about roles and role playing and power.
JA: This is Joe Fischel. He’s an associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Yale
JoF: Consent was a slogan to convince non kink people that what they were doing was
not violence or a problem.
JA: The slogan they came up with, this was in the 80s, was safe, sane and consensual. And it really stuck
BB: To this day you can find it on tee shirts, at any, at any BDSM community event or play party.
JF: Parties that are organized at formal spaces. They’re called dungeons right.
JA: So getting back to Julie we asked her, OK, if it’s true as that one woman said that the BDSM community, if it’s true that they have figured something out about how to do it better, well, what is it? And she told us a couple of things. First, drinking.
JF: To my way of thinking that’s incredibly risky.
JA: Very frowned upon in the BDSM world.
JF: At the BDSM scene in my mind that’s what we’d call edge play, which is like kind of
the things that people do where you’re like, ahh it seems like a bad idea. Negotiating sex when both people are really really drunk with somebody that you’ve never met before qualifies as really really risky.
JA: And speaking of that negotiation, another thing that was an interesting contrast between the, quote, vanilla world and BDSM is that when two people are negotiating, they’re trying to figure out if they’re gonna get down, in BDSM that conversation is formalized and it’s often public.
JF: Generally speaking, most of what’s happening is out in the open.
JA: These days you have people called consent monitors that sometimes roam around these parties.
JF: It’s also not uncommon to be standing there negotiating with someone where your
friend or their friend is right next to them.
JA: The idea is that that kind of social monitoring makes things safer. Anyhow, I asked her to zoom in on a specific consent conversation. How does it usually go?
JF: People with different experience levels are better and worse at this typically. Like let’s
say I was going to play with you, alright, like you’re telling me you've never done anything like this before, right?
JA: Yeah zero.
JF: Zero. So I like to knife top which is a way of describing the fact that I like to do things
with knives onto people.
JA: Actually cutting of people or or threatening of cut or no?
JF: Not this is just dragging knives along people and sort of threatening with them like playing with knives and in truth the thing that I do to make it more interesting is I like to cut people’s clothes off of them.
JF: I teach a whole class on how to cut people’s clothes off of them with knives.
JA: Are they like serrated?
JF: Uh they can be. So some of them have rough edges and some of them don’t, and that’s actually one of the questions that I would ask you so um I would ask you if you, maybe you would be more interested in sort of a poking type sensation or more of a scraping type sensation based on just hearing that.
JA: Ok, I’m going to go with dragging.
JF: I would select my knives accordingly at that point. Because I have separate knives for these purposes. And then I would-- if I was going to cut your clothes off for example, I would let you know that there’s-- I’m pretty good at what I do but there’s no way that I can guarantee that I won’t cut something that you don’t want me to so if possible it would be great if you can take off the thing that you wouldn’t want me to cut right like a necklace or your socks or whatever
JF: And I also like warn people going into it, I am pretty experienced at this but I definitely have accidentally have cut people before so I just need to let you know that this is not a 100 percent guarantee if that’s something that you absolutely cannot tolerate then we probably can’t go forward with this. Or if you say well I mean I’m fine with it as long as it isn’t on my arms because I don’t want to show up for work then I say great well I just restrict what I do to not your arms.
JA: She says sometimes she’ll even get a pen and make a tiny little dot on all of the places the person says are off limits, just so she can be super duper sure she’s respecting their wishes.
JF: There are actual classes on it.
DA: Hello everyone
JF: Most well organized BDSM scenes in the country
DA: You guys are allowed to talk here believe me. I know we have mics around.
JF: Have weekly or at least monthly classes
JA: And we actually went to one
DA: how many people here have taken any of my events before? Raise of hands. There
we go so everyone else is new.
JA: It was in Manhattan, small studio space. About 15 people were there. And the instructor, a guy named Dominus Aros was sort of at the front of the room in a leather kilt with these two leather straps across his chest.
DA: Now is everyone here familiar with consent? Please? [laughs] Alright good. Does
everyone know the difference between consent and enthusiastic consent?
JA: One guy in the back raised his hand
DA: That’s sort of a new thing that’s coming up in a lot of clubs. If there’s a moment of
hesitation in that person’s brain you should automatically be picking that up and be like
do you actually want to do this thing with me. And generally within the first ten seconds
someone can tell if they want to have sex with you. You’re not going to convince
someone otherwise. You’re not going to be like I’m going to wear them down. The
wearing down technique, it pisses me off. At a party nobody owes you anything. Everyone on board so far?
JA: Lot of nods
JA: And then he sort of demonstrated how all of this works in action. First
DA: Look at the table
JA: He took everyone over to this table, showed them the toys, different kinds of whips, floggers, a little stick with a feather on the end
DA: Let me grad what is going to be my little tool to play around with.
JA: He grabbed one of the floggers. And then he and a woman named Bella, who was in black lingerie, they walk over to this giant cross looking thing in the corner of the room. She then leans against it.
DA: Good. So I currently have Bella with her arms spread on the St. Andrews cross. Her
legs need to be a little bit wider. Bella is not that tall. Now we’ve already had our talk, hey what’s cool. I just met you. Am I allowed to put my hand on your ass, shoulders, your skin, do you want to keep your clothes as is or do you want to sort of slowly undress as we play? Get all your things because you don’t know where they’re at. They could totally just want to be like this. Bella has told me she does not want to take any more clothes off. Correct, Bella? Bella also doesn’t like a huge amount of pain. So then we go with that. You feeling alright? Looks like your shoulders are a little funky. You want to warm them up. You don’t go to the gym and do your heaviest set right away. Correct. You’re going to sort of warm up the muscles. I do light touching, light hitting.
JA: He starts slowly whipping her shoulders
DA: Get some nice movement down here [whipping sound] I’m sort of just observing.
Waiting for their body to sort of tell me some notes. When I do impact their body’s
going to tell me something. If I go a little heavy there’s a little bit of a turtling in, see the hips crawl in. If the ass comes right back out right away that’s saying daddy hit me again, right? If this stays turtle in, I’ve went a little hard. I can come in and stay and again your talking can be sexy. Is that a little too much for you baby? Does daddy need to go lighter?
B: Yes please daddy.
DA: Keep it sexy you don’t have to say “hey was that too hard?” You can totally keep in
very sexy and see how it goes. Staying engaged is very important. If you’re in a
space that’s loud you can’t fucking hear anything, so I can’t hear if she’s moaning or if
she’s like “ow” you know, so I want to be able to get my ears in close see how they do. Then I create this sort of cadence [whipping sounds] play around a little bit more [whipping sounds] and then from there I’m combining between using impact play and sense play. We’ll go a little more in depth once you guys start playing around a little bit. And I’ll go around the room because I want to get to the workshop aspect--
JA: Dominus spent the next hour sort of moving around the move, helping people as they paired off with their whips and their floggers, learn how to better read each other. And for a moment it felt like, oh. We should all be doing this. I mean maybe not using whips and having sex in public unless that’s you thing, but finding ways to help each other be explicit and communicative and to have a code for what words mean. When we talked to college age men and women a lot of them were like, we need a script. We need something written down. Because one of the things that’s been found in surveys is that there’s very little agreed upon language. For example a phrase like slow down. When surveyed, many college aged women will tell you that means stop. Many men will say, no it just means go slower. Well in the BDSM world, they seem to have sorted some of this out.
JF: So like I was at a play party last weekend and it said on the thing house rules say yellow means you should check in or pause, red means stop, and if somebody says safe word that means that you’re calling for help from one of the people that’s around.
JA: It all seemed so clear. And sensible and dare I say uncomplicated, but Julie was like yeah no.
JF: Not really.
JA: When we come back, Julie rains on the parade that we were throwing her.
JA: Hey I’m Jad, we’re back. Third installment of In the No. And Julie was about to tell us, Julie Fennell, that even in the BDSM world with its very clear rules and safe words, like red and yellow, things to wrong.
JF: The actual real problem with that yellow red situation is that in public people almost
never end up using red. Like there’s--one of the huge problems that the BDSM subculture basically has is that there’s massive [laughs] massive social repercussions to calling red in a public place basically
JA: And as we talked about this more it started to sound a lot like what we heard from the college aged women. That saying no, even when it’s buttressed by all of these rules and norms can still be really hard. There’s a cost.
JF: One of the worst situations that I ever personally found myself in was I was tied up and suspended and ah so all of my feet are off the ground and I’m having a great time. I had negotiated ahead of time that there was to be nothing genital happening. I was very clear about that. I was like nope this is, this is not a thing.
JA: Then she says the person who she was playing with, who tied her up, decided to try some genital stuff
JF: And I was really caught in that moment because we were in a very public place. Uh I could yell red but in that place, yelling red means the whole scene has to stop. And I didn’t want the scene to stop. I liked being tied up and I’m also cognizant of the fact that this guy is my friend. I really like him. And I don’t want him to get in a ton of trouble. But if I yell “red” really loudly in this public place, there’s a pretty decent chance he’s going to get banned from the event. And a pretty decent chance he’s going to get banned from a lot of events.
JA: What did you do?
JF: I kicked him in the face. And he stopped.
JA: Cause I was going to say you’re tied up. That’s very -- The whole point is you’re in a compromised situation.
JF: I am in a compromised situation, but it turns out it puts my feet a lot closer to his face.
JA: Even though she navigated that one fine in the end, she says generally speaking the BDSM community is, in terms of the consent negotiation, not a utopia. In fact, what she experienced in that moment was for a long time not uncommon
JF: So I should explain that the scene actually got its own Me Too movement about
about three months before the Me Too movement hit like it didn’t have that hashtag but exactly the same thing happened where a bunch of high status people got outed as consent violators in the scene.
JA: These are a bunch of dudes or?
JF: Yeah they’re all men. There’s definitely a lot of consent violations that happen with women but people don’t pay attention to it and I have a whole other rant about that. But people who got a lot of attention on them were men and pretty much that everyone they had hurt was women.
JA: And that’s part of the reason that Julie is, in the end, a little suspicious of all of the rules that we were just enamored of. Or I should say she’s a little suspicious of placing too much faith in those rules.
JF: It’s not, it’s not foolproof right. Like so I mean I definitely know people who they don’t
want to tell you anymore that they’re not having fun. So there’s a real sense of like I don’t
want to disappoint this other person. So one of the things that I also will ask in these types of negotiations--my version of negotiations is like, do you feel reasonably certain that you will be able to tell me if you don’t like what’s happening?
JA: The more I thought about that question, like after we’d done the interview and more, I was sort of noodling on that. It occurred to me what--that’s a key question. Can you say no when you need to? Some of us just are people pleasers. I am one of those people. It hurts to say no if you know it’s gonna bum someone out. Others have no problem with that. So she asks, which kind of person are you right now? It is situational. Who are you at this moment if they say yeah right now I’m not a good with a no then she goes one direction. If they say no no I can tell you.
JF: Then I’m like alright, then can we both agree that we are adults
JA: That we don’t have to get into all the stuff we don’t want to have happen
JF: And that we will take responsibility for actually communicating how we’re feeling in
this situation. And if we fail to communicate that, that we will also take responsibility for that. So are you OK with kind of whatever, and you’re gonna tell me if you’re not and the other person goes yes. That’s how I want that to go. At that point our conversation changes from what am I not allowed to do to what do you find hot?
JA: One of the things we kept running into again and again was this sentiment that was maybe best captured by a guy that Becca and Shima spoke to.
ML: I’m Michael Lisack. I’m the director of Empowering Victims, and I’m one of the
people who came up with the concept for the We Consent app.
JA: That app was actually the one that a guy last episode sort of jokingly referred to
XX: Hello, would you be--like can I record you on my cell phone of you saying you’re
down to make out right now?
JA: Turns out it’s actually a real app that this guy made
ML: There’s no really good-- the problem is that we’ve got a meme and the meme is already well established and the meme is consent. Unfortunately, that meme frames the entire question the wrong way. Consent means that you’re giving someone permission to do something to you. We don’t do sex to someone else. We have sex with someone else.
BB: So are you saying that that’s the like dictionary definition of consent? It’s interesting
because I’m curious if this is just like a semantic issue.
ML: The dictionary definition of consent is giving someone permission to do something to
you or on your behalf.
SO: Yeah I just looked it up and you’re so right [laughter]. Compliance or approval of
what is done or proposed by another.
ML: It’s the wrong word
JA: And Joe Fischel, the academic that we heard from earlier
JoF: It doesn’t capture--
JoF: What I think is probably the biggest problem for young people and for sex on
college campuses, which is all of your sex is consensual but unhappy and unpleasant and unwanted, and people typically women endure. The core issue may not be non consent and it may not be sexual discrimination. It might be the fact that men are leveraging their positions of power to extract sex from women that don’t want to be there. And I think it’s hard to target that problem if you call it non consent.
XX: It was the second date. I went home with him. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to
sleep with him and I was kind of going through the motions. And at one point he pulled away because he could tell I was like not entirely there. And he was like do you want to have sex? And I kind of said like, uhh. Like I didn’t even say yes or no and he just stopped entirely. And we just like--and that was it. And I remember like being relieved first and like really surprised. Because he read my body--like second date like read my body language, respected me, and like didn’t push.
XX: I was at a bar a couple of weeks ago, and I was with this girl and you know she
was--we were both pretty drunk and she was you know, hey you want to go back to my place, and I was like yeah--I can’t do that. Like I’m drunk, you’re drunk like--. She’s like you’re right. And just kind of like moved on. And we continued to like dance and it was fine. We had a fun night and then I woke up the next morning and she had texted me and was like, hey thank you like so much for like not taking advantage of me. Like that means a lot. I was like, that was really easy
XX: I’ve been lucky in the regard that like if I’m uncomfortable having sex with like my
partner like, like right when I’m about to be like I can’t, I don’t want to do this right now, he always catches like my eye and is like--like and he’ll stop immediately. And you know I’ve had like my own sex trauma stuff and like--I’m gonna cry. But like he will stop. It’s so nice to have a partner that can read your body language and be like, this doesn’t feel like--feel right, are you OK?