How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every week, the crew will answer one bonus question in chat form. This week, asking first.
Dear How to Do It,
Recently, I went on a date with a woman I met on a dating app. It was pretty normal—we saw an exhibit and had a couple drinks. As we were leaving, I leaned to kiss her. She pulled away and was visibly distressed. I apologized and said I misread the situation, and she quickly made an excuse to leave. It was embarrassing and a little deflating, but it happens. I figured that was that. I didn’t hear from her for a few days, when she suddenly texted me a long and detailed message saying, among other things, that I had nearly assaulted her and it was never OK to go in for a kiss without asking first. She requested a phone conversation to talk through what happened, and I agreed. It was fine; she basically repeated what she had texted and I apologized and told her that I meant no disrespect. She said I should look hard at my understanding of consent. I was tempted to tell her she was being over the top, but she was upset so I rode it out. Am I right to think she was being over the top? We were not drunk, and I was not aggressive—I literally leaned in to kiss her, she pulled away, and that was it. It’s fine if she wants men to ask her before they kiss her, but I do not think that is standard practice. Is it?
Rich: I’m really curious if you’ve observed this as standard practice as a woman who’s been dating men in this climate, as they say.
Stoya: I think our writer jumped the gun and the woman is more sensitive than average. BUT, you never know someone’s inner world, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. You can really hurt a person by crossing their boundaries.
Rich: Has anyone ever asked before kissing you?
Stoya: One guy specifically told me he wasn’t going to kiss me until our professional relationship was finished, and then I kissed him without asking as soon as the thing was over (actively unspecified thing). I don’t think anyone has asked recently, though, which is a shame, because that’s a really great way of finding out where people’s boundaries are. And isn’t it nice to hear affirmation?
Rich: For sure. I don’t think my experiences will be particularly useful here—I don’t have a history with trauma and anecdotally, these issues seem less fraught among gay men than they do mixed-gender pairings. But I find it wholly irritating—and not traumatizing—when people want to start making out at a bar. And what’s worse is when they seem bothered when I’m like, “I don’t want to do this here.” “Why?” “Because I don’t feel like being the guy making out at the bar … again!!!”
But that’s optics. Regarding this particular situation, I’m not sure I’m OK with putting all the communicative responsibility on one party. If your boundary is no unsolicited kissing, wouldn’t it be useful to state that when you’re in a situation where someone might unknowingly, ignorantly, or flagrantly cross that boundary, just based on our culture and socialization? The idea that everyone is up to speed with the rules as they are laid out in your head is detrimentally egocentric.
Stoya: I’d have more of an opinion if I knew how old these people were. Age doesn’t necessarily stand in for maturity or self-awareness, but it can take a while to figure these things out.
Rich: I talked to my friend who dates a lot and is not very sensitive about these matters. She said that this is a common practice for guys under 27, and that when guys do ask, she laughs. But she’s not mad about it. You know, if the world is tilting in the direction of making sure a woman is comfortable in even the mildest physical encounter, that sounds like a good thing to me. But! There is an aesthetic matter here to contend with. And that’s why a sweeping generalization coming from the most sensitive person in the room may do a disservice to others. Which is to say that such a question might strike someone as corny and kill the mood.
Stoya: If “Can I kiss you?” feels too cheesy, try a direct expression: “I’d like to kiss you.” That still leaves a chance for the person to say no. If that’s still too much, you can test the waters by halving the distance between you. But, like, there’s a risk there. You might overstep or offend or even upset. You could also bring it up way early: “How comfortable are you with physical contact?” “How do you like to discuss and give consent?”
Rich: I think these are great suggestions—though then there’s a risk of seeming presumptuous. It seems like there’s no perfect solution here. And obviously what’s missing from the letter is what else went on during the date. Maybe the attempted kiss was the final straw for her after numerous attempts on his part to elicit affection or other miscellaneous tomfoolery. Perhaps she’d been giving signals all night and thus is justified in her frustration. As someone who literally has no problem shutting down sex when it’s evident there’s no chemistry, I tend to be extremely blunt and upfront, and if we’re walking toward a second location or even someone’s apartment, I like to state upfront exactly what I’m comfortable with/prepared for going forward.
Stoya: I’m similar. It makes things simpler and easier for everyone.
Rich: I don’t really love postmortem lectures as a medium, especially when it doesn’t seem to give the other person the benefit of the doubt or at least attempt to contend with their thought process. And in this case, that lecture didn’t really work. The guy left just as confused and unconvinced as he was going into it. The tone of his letter was, “I’m right, right?”
Stoya: I have no idea how to guide this man with regard to discussing sex without seeming presumptive. I’m in an exceptional position that kind of lays the groundwork for open and forthright conversation inherently. “Sex advice columnist” invites a certain level of transparency and discussion.
Rich: Same!!! I think he was wise to not tell her she was being over the top. If she was, that’s her problem. It’s obviously not a match, and you’re not going to change her. Let her be over the top over there.
Rich: If you had to make the call, should verbal consent before the first kiss be a rule?
Stoya: There’s wiggle room. I think a discussion of consent, if the person expresses wanting to be more casual about it, suffices, as does significant physical contact. But you want to wait for some clear sign before you go putting your mouth on someone, and “Yes, I’d like to be kissed by you” is about as clear as it gets.
Rich: As a gay man, I don’t tend to come up against this issue either way, but ya know what? I don’t mind double standards and stricter measures for straight dudes. They’ve been taking what they want for long enough!
Stoya: Personally, I just don’t like it when men dart in to kiss me without getting verbal or nonverbal consent. It doesn’t trigger or upset me, it just turns me off. So that’s an angle they might want to think about as well. Some people are specifically into active communication. And maybe that means these two just have vastly different styles of flirtation.
Rich: Yes. He made it sound like some unnecessary drama was involved, which I would tend to agree with if it all went down as innocently as he portrayed, but ultimately they discovered a lack of compatibility, which is one of the reasons to go on a date in the first place. A fine use of their time, I’d say.
Stoya: Maybe in the future we’ll have single, short words to describe consent styles that we’ll list on our online dating profiles and apps, and share with each other as shorthand when we meet by chance.
Rich: Maybe we’ll have emoji floating over our heads like Sims.
Stoya: Until then, we can try our best to be gentle with each other.
More How to Do It
In the past six months, I’ve recently reconnected with a guy I knew in college. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s all great. But sexually? Not great. It’s hard to get me wet unless my partner goes down on me. But he doesn’t like my taste! Which is a him-problem—I’ve had plenty of partners who have enthusiastically eaten me out, so I know it’s not me. But I can’t help but feel terrible about it? Because when he doesn’t go down on me, I don’t get turned on, so then I’m dry, and penetrative sex is uncomfortable.
The last time we were together we tried again in the shower, he couldn’t do it, and I started bawling. It just made me feel so frustrated and unwanted. Should I be straight eating pineapples in the weeks leading up to his visits? Why is my body chemistry not matching up with his? I don’t want him to force himself to go down on me, but I also don’t want to be too dry for sex.