Compliance, Consent, and Sexual Empowerment

By Charlie Glickman

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.

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