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December 6, 2010 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Back during orientation, the (US Midwest) university told us to be explicitly ask permission during sexual encounters (e.g., "may I kiss you?"). This is not how I was given to understand things worked among young Americans. Have people actually done this? How did it work out? And, for the women: would you feel less comfortable answering the question than, say, letting the guy go for it and turning your cheek?

For a while, I actually did ask people, "May I hug you?" because it was an unfamiliar greeting and I wasn't sure when it was used. I've noticed that, while nobody ever refuses, sometimes women will put one arm around my neck and turn their bodies a bit sideways so as to minimize body contact. Those women give two-armed frontal hugs to other people, so I'm guessing it's not a global preference the way some men like to hug with a handshake squished between their bellies.

I think, had I just walked forward and spread my arms a little bit, these women would have found a way to go for a wave or a handshake instead, but didn't want to say "No" when confronted with the explicit question. And now I'm wondering whether the same effect might be at work elsewhere.

This is framed for heterosexual, cis-gendered, vanilla &c, but I'd also be interested (albeit only academically) in other responses.
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (46 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

I would think a guy/girl was really, really strange if he asked to kiss me before s/he, you know, just kissed me. I'm a grown woman (and was when I was in college, too), and am capable of responding appropriately.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:58 AM on December 6, 2010

I've had men ask if they can kiss me, it doesn't make me feel uncomfortable to say either yes, or no. When I say "no" I generally say, "I'd prefer you didn't." Now, if you followed with, "Why not?" then we might be going into the realm of uncomfortableness.

If someone comes at me with their arms open it's the same as them asking, "May I hug you." I'd probably give you the same one-armed, body turned hug the other women gave you. Same with leaning forward and turning the cheek. I don't think that putting things into words makes the gesture any more or less uncomfortable.
posted by patheral at 10:01 AM on December 6, 2010

I used to love it when people asked if they could kiss me. It's sweet.

As for the "side hug", it's very common between people who don't know each other very well. Since you're asking the other person if they'd like to hug, clearly you don't know each other all that well.

Since you're just asking for random feedback, I would say that "May I hug you?" would seem like an odd and possibly creepy way of framing the question. When people share a social hug, it's not unilateral, after all. "Hug?" is really the only way I've heard this.

Among my circle of friends, men (straight and gay and bi) generally leave it to women (straight and gay and bi) to initiate cross-gender hugs. This might be more widespread as a norm?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:02 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

We had the same kind of orientation when I was a first year at a college in the Midwest. Even as someone who explicitly did not engage in physical contact with members of the opposite sex, I found the whole permission asking thing kind of strange. Strange enough that I discussed it with a lot of my peers. Among my peers there was a wide range of opinions about whether this could and did work or not. Enough of a range that I can't say we came to any kind of conclusion. But just as a data point, there were people who did want the other person to explicitly ask permission, and others who thought, like roomthreeseventeen, that this would be weird.

Another factor is that the people who felt most strongly about needing to ask for permission explicitly were either survivors of sexual assault or worked with survivors.

This was all very interesting to me, coming from a very sheltered existence in Pakistan.
posted by bardophile at 10:05 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

May I kiss you - fine, widespread, done it, had it, seen it said by others.

May I hug you - strange. I think a cutesy "Hey do you need a hug/you look like you could use a hug" would be the only way.
posted by fire&wings at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2010

Sexual encounters are usually engaged in without any kind of explicit understanding between the two people, i.e. stuff happens and things go as they go. For a whole lot of people, getting carried away in the moment is a huge part of the point. Hell, so's the I-don't-know-if-they'll-let-me-do-this/I-don't-know-if-I'll-let-them-do-that vibe. Sex is mysterious and messy.

So what we've got here is the university doing CYA so they avoid liability when someone winds up in an encounter they either didn't want or changed their mind about. I'm sure they've also got the well-being of their students in mind and are trying to create a culture of caution. But if they actually think that college students are seriously going to do this, I want to know who their supplier is, because they're obviously smoking some pretty good shit. Asking explicit permission every step of the way is not how normal people do things.
posted by valkyryn at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

You can always negotiate boundaries before hand if there's gonna be nookie ensuing.

I'm with rm 317, I find the step by step asking weird. But then I'm not vanilla. Lol
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:09 AM on December 6, 2010

I like it when someone asks "may I kiss you," and I've asked it myself. I think it's sweet and respectful, and there's no chance of a surprise. That's for the first time, mind you, maybe the second. There's certainly a point at which consent to further kissing is implied. So to speak.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:11 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

"may I kiss you?" Have people actually done this? How did it work out?

When a guy asks me this, and it's someone I want to kiss me, it's kind of thrilling. Delivery probably makes a difference. If you ask like a rigid, ultra-polite robot, I could see that being slightly awkward. But if you're a sexy Brazilian guy and you ask it in kind of a whisper after we've been alone together all night in your dorm (on the pretense of my needing study help on a big exam), it's not awkward at all. Ahem.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:12 AM on December 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

For a whole lot of people, getting carried away in the moment is a huge part of the point.

But not for everyone, which in my mind is sort of the point of asking.

I'm a huge proponent of the Enthusiastic Yes - communicative sex, even between relative strangers, can be sexy and fun as well.
posted by muddgirl at 10:13 AM on December 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

This very thing was parodied in 1993 on Saturday Night Live, apparently in response to the policy of Antioch College. The sketch unfortunately is not available on Netflix, though. It happened during the Shannon Doherty/Cypress Hill episode and, I just checked, and apparently it was cut, likely due to music issues.
posted by inturnaround at 10:15 AM on December 6, 2010

Asking something like "May I kiss you?" doesn't have to be done in a robotic way. It doesn't have to be, "At this conjuncture, it would be appropriate for us to enter into a contract whereby I will lean in and, at my doing so, you will also lean in such that our skin comes into contact, preferably around the area of our mouths. Is this acceptable for you?" That's not the spirit of the advice. Instead, as others have said, it can be sweet, endearing, and very romantic.

For my part, I'd much rather be put in the awkward and uncomfortable situation of turning a guy down than the distressing and intimidating situation of having to move away from someone actively entering my personal space when I don't want them to.

Hugs, given their different social significance, are a bit different. (Hugs aren't that commonly a sexual activity, and are often seen as far less intimate.)
posted by meese at 10:21 AM on December 6, 2010

If they want you to kiss them, it probably won't be weird enough to put them off when you ask.

If they don't want you to kiss them, then a direct question won't be more awkward then the other methods of turning you down. And may be less awkward for some.
posted by anti social order at 10:22 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

IMO, "May I Kiss You" can be done via body language. Similarly, it should be very obvious to see the Yes/No response from the other person.
posted by schmod at 10:26 AM on December 6, 2010

It's not weird to ask, and it's not necessarily unsexy either. My SO still sometimes asks whether he can kiss me, or I ask him, and it is hot as hell.

Hell, so's the I-don't-know-if-they'll-let-me-do-this/I-don't-know-if-I'll-let-them-do-that vibe. Sex is mysterious and messy.

I would never in a million years want to have sex with anyone who thought part of the thrill was not knowing if I wanted to. I am a survivor of sexual assault, though, and YMMV.
posted by bewilderbeast at 10:26 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been asked, "May I kiss you?" - those exact words, actually. I was a college freshman; the guy was a junior, and we'd been talking/flirting for a while and he knew I'd never been kissed. I thought it was sweet and didn't find it awkward at all to tell him yes.

I think I'd still be okay with that approach from someone new right now. I tend to second-guess myself a LOT in romantic situations, and it's really a relief to have a partner who's direct. Best-case/smoothest scenario would probably involve someone who could read the situation well and figure out that I was receptive (or conversely, give me a clear green light to kiss them). But I think I still might prefer direct asking to awkward maneuvering, coded signals, etc., or especially to having to dodge someone I really DIDN'T want to kiss.

If it's an established relationship, though, asking my consent every single time would be very strange. But I'd still expect my partner to honor a "no" from me, if I wanted to decline for whatever reason. And I'd use the same principles for my moves on them.

(on preview, what a lot of other people have said)
posted by sigmagalator at 10:30 AM on December 6, 2010

The college orientation program explanation of how to engage in sexual encounters was probably a response to the notion of "No means Yes," and the idea that women were playing "hard to get" when they turned down sexual advances.

Asking permission to kiss someone can be pleasant, as mentioned above. It might also be a good idea, if one or both people are intoxicated at all.

But hugging is generally not a lead-up to anything sexual. It's a show of a comfortable friendship, or a way to console someone. Asking "Can I give you a hug?" is suitable when someone is sad but you're not sure if it's appropriate to hug without asking first. But when you're greeting people, or saying goodbye, hugs are generally given without asking. Sometimes there is the awkward dance of one person going for a hug with arms outstretched, while the other person might fend off the move with a shake of the hand.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:32 AM on December 6, 2010

This custom sounds sensible in the case of socially awkward folks who don't understand the usual complex dance by which people decide to kiss one another.

An awkward moment, "May I kiss you?" "No thanks" is preferable to a badly misplaced kissing attempt, especially in cases where that could be seen as an assault, or where the other party may not have the social ability to extricate themselves easily.

Asking first might also be a useful way of avoiding sex with people who are ambivalent and might regret it later. For example: Pat is married, and also has a crush on Charlie. Pat and Charlie get drunk and flirty. Pat's actions and body language says Sex Please. If Charlie asks outright whether they should have sex, Pat has the opportunity to say "No, I'm married, let's not", instead of somehow ending up in bed with Charlie and complaining later that it "just happened".
posted by emilyw at 10:35 AM on December 6, 2010

For a whole lot of people, getting carried away in the moment is a huge part of the point.

But not for everyone...

I think for the vast majority of people, it is.

I've never asked permission to kiss someone, and I've never found this to be a problem. My personal policy is: go for the first kiss if I have a strong impression it will be well-received. (The internal monologue will run along the lines of: "Hey, we sure seem to like each other, and we're notably physically closer to each other than would be normal for platonic friends...") If I'm not sure, it's too early for the kiss. Also, approach slowly enough that if it turns out I'm wrong and she doesn't want it, she can fairly easily indicate this (verbally or by leaning away, etc.).

A fortiori, hug if you think it's appropriate. Preemptively asking for permission to hug someone strikes me as silly.

Sex is different. My policy is to get explicit, straightforward, verbal confirmation before having sex. Obviously, there are many steps along the way from the first kiss to having sex, and most of those steps need not be preceded by express verbal consent.

Note that none of this implies that "part of the thrill was not knowing if [she] want[s] to." This is all a system of consensual, mutual, communicative activity. At every step of the way, either party is free to indicate their lack of interest, at which point it's impermissible to go further. But not all communication is verbal. It's fine for people to have their own policies of always asking for express verbal consent to kiss, but people are also allowed to wordlessly engage in kissing/sexual activity.

Using these policies, I've never gotten a negative response. I see no reason to change just to satisfy the rules of some self-proclaimed authority such as a university.
posted by John Cohen at 10:40 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think for the vast majority of people, it is.

I'm not trying to kiss a vast majority of people - I'm trying to kiss one person.

It's sort of a probability matrix:

              | I ask | I don't ask
want to       | Yay!  | Yay!
don't want to | Yay!  | I get slapped
I see no reason to change just to satisfy the rules of some self-proclaimed authority such as a university.

Dude, it was just a suggestion, not a rule. Really and seriously.
posted by muddgirl at 10:48 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

My college had the same policy. Most people, in my experience, don't actually ask verbally. But, I do think this kind of policy encourages people to make sure that their partner is enthusiastically participating, and to ask if anything seems off.

Not only does a verbal "no" mean no, the lack of active participation implies a nonverbal no to me. If someone seems distant for even a couple seconds, I will check in and ask if she's okay. I think the policy of explicitly asking helps people start to think about what consent really is - and it's more than a lack of the word "no."
posted by insectosaurus at 10:52 AM on December 6, 2010

              | I ask | I don't ask
want to       | Yay!  | Yay!
don't want to | Yay!  | I get slapped

No, "don't ask" + "don't want to" does not automatically lead to "get slapped." These kinds of encounters are usually not nearly so hard-and-fast as your matrix suggests. Verbally asking is one way to make extra-sure that everything is mutual before going forward. (As you said, it's a "suggestion.") But there are also nonverbal ways to achieve the same goal. And there are ways to indicate not wanting to kiss someone other than using violence (or getting angry at all). We're not robots; these are subtle, complex human interactions we're talking about.

Dude, it was just a suggestion, not a rule. Really and seriously.

First of all, the fact that I quoted your comment at the beginning of mine doesn't mean my whole comment was a rebuttal to yours. I was trying to respond to the OP's question about how authoritative his university's rules are. My answer is: not very authoritative. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my opinion, and the OP can take it or leave it. (Also, when you present "get slapped" as a likely consequence of not getting express verbal consent, that does rather make it sound like you're giving more of a "rule" than a "suggestion.")
posted by John Cohen at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2010

I figured that my comic overstatement of the consequences of an unwanted kiss did not need to be pointed out. My apologies for my error.

Of course there are other ways to determine consent than verbal acquiescence, but "just asking" is the clear Relationships 101 approach for any person who's not confident at reading body language. I can't believe this is even a controversial opinion.
posted by muddgirl at 11:05 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm an asker, and I've been asked. It's clear and it sets the right tone, and it's really fucking exciting.

What's better than explicitly hearing "Yes I want you to do that"?
posted by entropone at 11:16 AM on December 6, 2010

I don't like being hugged by people I don't know well. Actually, I mostly don't like it even with people I do know well. This means that I genuinely appreciate it when someone asks if it's ok to hug me and I can then turn the hug down. But then, I'm skulking at the back trying to avoid eye contact when others are hugging, so my body language suggests that I might not like it.

This is all with platonic relationships.

In non-platonic encounters, I don't usually expect to be asked out loud. It can be endearing if someone asks if they can kiss me, but it's something I find awkward to turn down (although I have).
posted by plonkee at 11:22 AM on December 6, 2010

explicitly ask permission during sexual encounters (e.g., "may I kiss you?")

I personally don't think this is necessary for minor non-sexual contact like kissing or hugging. That said, I'm pretty sure the university lays it on thick to encourage people to speak up, in general. Also to spell it out to potential date rapists that consent needs to be ascertained.

In my own life, I have really appreciated it when men have asked permission before engaging in more sexual behavior. But for a hug or a kiss it's really not necessary.

For a while, I actually did ask people, "May I hug you?" because it was an unfamiliar greeting and I wasn't sure when it was used.

This seems totally fair to me and doesn't have much to do with what you mentioned above - you're asking out of cultural unfamiliarity, not because you're attempting to have sex. There is nothing at all wrong with asking questions about social etiquette if you're not sure.

I've noticed that, while nobody ever refuses, sometimes women will put one arm around my neck and turn their bodies a bit sideways so as to minimize body contact.

I've heard that the "side hug" is a favorite tactic of Fundamentalist Christians, who are taught that it's sinful to hug someone of the opposite sex with your body facing their body.

That said, if these girls are hugging you that way but other people the "normal" way, it might mean any of a number of vaguely awkward things. You might be right - you asked to hug them and they don't want to be rude by turning you down, so they compromise with a side hug. Or maybe they think you're making some kind of sexual advance they don't reciprocate*, and they want to make it clear that they don't feel that way towards you. Or maybe you're mistiming your hugs because of cultural differences**. Or maybe it's nothing at all and they're just mixing it up - maybe they go 50/50 with side hugs vs. "normal" hugs and it has nothing to do with the social ramifications.

Sometimes life is awkward. That's OK. Being a freshman in college is super awkward, if memory serves (I also had a lot of culture shock!). Certainly there's enough awkward behavior in the first semester or so that most people probably don't let a misunderstanding about social cues inform what they think of you as a person. I wouldn't worry too much about any of this.

*One thing I remember from my teen years (and possibly into college?) was that some guys would take advantage of almost any situation to hug a girl, because OMG CONTACT WITH BEWBS!1!!11!!! If you are erring on the side of too much hugging, they might be filing you under that category. Or at least they may be wary of hugging guys for that reason.

**There is absolutely nothing wrong with being awkward because of culture unfamiliarity - I have quite a few French friends who do the double-kiss greeting, and even though I've known French people for years and don't find being kissed on each cheek to be all that strange, I can still sometimes be awkward about it. It takes a long time to assimilate into the unspoken expectations of a new culture.
posted by Sara C. at 11:51 AM on December 6, 2010

Cisgender woman here. I love being straightforward and people who are straightforward with me. I prefer that straightforwardness to be verbal -- much clearer. And I have asked whether I could kiss someone (sometimes I've been rejected) and guys have asked whether they could kiss or put their arms around me (and I've accepted and nicely rejected those requests).

I often ask whether I can hug when it's my first time hugging the other person. Or, for example, if someone's sitting next to me and it seems like it would be more comfortable if I could put my arm on the back of the sofa or their chair and thereby I'd probably end up touching them, I might say something like "you'll let me know if I'm breaking your touch boundaries, right?"

I have experienced unwanted hugs as an adult; perhaps my perception was too slow and I saw only too late the intended bi-limbed embrace. Of course I also got unwanted hugs a lot when I was a kid, and so now when I am hanging out with friends who have kids, I basically let the children initiate any embraces (I have none of my own).

By the way, did you really mean that you're most interested in responses from vanilla folk (that is, not sexually kinky)? Presumably because kinky folk are so into, like, Gantt charts and deliverable-tagged milestones and stakeholder signoffs?
posted by brainwane at 12:02 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can say "Ummm, can I um, well, could I err kiss you?"
"You are irresistible; I really want to kiss you. May I?"

I'd love somebody to ask me the 2nd way.
posted by theora55 at 12:13 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

The point of these orientations at universities --- particularly for international students from incredibly different places than the US with limited experience with cultures similar to the US --- is so no one gets into trouble.

Holding this orientation and putting those questions out there is a way for the university to say, "We told them to do this," in the event something untoward goes down.

Regardless, there is a myth, as was stated above, among many US men and non-US men that is still perpetuated which is: No means Yes. This is completely and radically untrue. If someone says no, then they mean no. End of story.

The university teaching people to ask for kisses and hugs is there way to get students to understand that it is necessary to communicate about physical contact with people you both do and do not know to avoid the possibility of a misunderstanding as much as possible. And I don't mean a, "Oh, no. I only want to be friends," misunderstanding, but a misunderstanding of, "He went further than I wanted and didn't get the signals I was sending." By asking in clear terms if you may hug or kiss someone, the latter situation is avoided.

I agree that it is awkward to ask if you can give someone a hug, but sometimes in some contexts it is necessary --- and it may be that for people not familiar with the hugging culture of the US and similar places that doing so until someone better understands the hugging culture could save that person a small amount of embarrassment. But in instances where, "No means yes" still exists as a myth, it could save a heck of a lot more for a lot of people.

That said, I don't normally ask to give someone a hug, but then being a member of my own culture, I know when it is okay to outright hug someone (my husband and son whenever I feel like it) and when it's not (a student who works for me). But, and this is the part that is most important, I also better understand the nuances of when it is typically advisable not to hug someone but when our relationship is such that it's okay (my boss at the time giving me a huge hug of congratulations when I told him I was pregnant --- it is usually not okay to give a hug to or receive a hug from your boss, but for our relationship, it was under that particular set of circumstances). It's those nuances that people in your situation may find difficult to navigate and may make a larger blunder than you intended without realizing it.

I am sure, too, were I to go somewhere where the culture was radically different from my own --- Japan, India, China, even many South American cultures, and heck, even some areas of the US --- I'd probably make some pretty big blunders, either, and I'd want someone to tel me to do things like you're being told initially until I better understood how to navigate my way through the culture.
posted by zizzle at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I prefer not to be asked. I like being hugged and kissed by people I'm comfortable hugging and kissing. If someone I don't want to hug or kiss tries to hug or kiss me, I'm capable of gracefully extricating myself. Asking adds a weird layer I don't immediately know how to process.

True story: I once had someone I wasn't sure I wanted to get involved with say "I've been wanting to kiss you all night". It wasn't a question and wasn't followed by any immediate action, and I felt really awkward. To my enduring embarrassment, the best response I could come up with was "Thanks for the update". He then gave me a pack on the lips and I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out a socially appropriate way to get rid of him. The whole experience was a real turnoff.

My point: if you're going to ask, ask clearly and carefully observe how the other person reacts. And don't ask unless you're pretty sure what answer you're going to get.
posted by cranberry_nut at 12:26 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please ask. The downside for people who don't want to be asked before hugs/kisses is maybe they think you're a bit odd. The downside for people who want to be asked and aren't is often pretty bad, depending on their personal experiences/triggers/boundaries. I don't think you need to ask everyone, every time, but the first time for a new activity, definitely.

I'd also try to ensure that it's as comfortable as possible for your intended to say no (e.g., don't ask loudly in front of others, don't ask right after doing them a favor...).

I think asking is hot, both to ask and being asked. I am a cis-, mostly hetero- woman.
posted by momus_window at 12:36 PM on December 6, 2010

I went to Antioch College, which is semi-famous for crafting this particular policy. In 1991, Womyn of Antioch, a student group, decided to create a campus that challenged the culture of sexual violence and they came up with the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). Each year, there is a special orientation for the SOPP, and every guest on campus has to sign an agreement that they will abide by the SOPP while they are on campus. While it does elicit some snickers and disbelief among freshman (and, in 1993, a terrible SNL skit), it was a very highly valued part of the culture on campus.

Honestly, I was one of the people who thought it was ridiculous when I first heard about it, but after a month, I was used to it. After half a year, I loved it. After I left Antioch, and I was working as a waitress getting my ass grabbed constantly by the kitchen staff, I missed it. A lot.

There is something amazing about being in a place where the culture tells you that consent is necessary, and you get to be excited about saying yes or comfortable saying no. It's much easier to maintain a boundary you're comfortable with if you're telling someone "don't start" rather than "stop." It may seem like a small difference, but for students on campus it was huge. It allows people to discover their own boundaries in a way that is non-threatening. It lays out clearly that no consent = not okay (because, for some people, that doesn't seem to compute).

So, no, I don't think it's weird to ask consent. I think it's awesome.

It can be sexy. It doesn't have to be "Can I do this?" It can be "I want you to touch me right here" or "Where do you want me to kiss you?" One fun side effect of it is that you take a minute to enjoy each step of the way, if you want to.

It's not realistic to expect this everywhere in life, but personally I'd much rather be with the person who respects boundaries, is a good sexual communicator, and wants enthusiastic consent and to consent enthusiastically.

PS: There was more sexin' happening at Antioch than anywhere else I have ever been, including Unitarian Universalist cons, and while I was there, there wasn't one (reported) rape. That should tell you something.
posted by SugarAndSass at 12:36 PM on December 6, 2010 [13 favorites]

Ah, yes, university in the US in the early 90's. There was a lot of litigation going around, coupled with an unpleasant and counterproductive flavor of 'empowerment' that considered all males to be date-rapists while not giving women credit for being able to speak up for themselves when they were made physically/sexually uncomfortable, or to actually have any sexual aggressiveness of their own. Sigh.

So all incoming students were given a manual that directed students to get direct verbal consent for all contact as a physical encounter escalated. "Can I kiss you?" Stop. Get a clear Yes. "Can I touch your breast?" Stop. Get a clear Yes. "Can I touch you below the waist?" Stop. Get a clear Yes. And so on.

This constant asking for permission with the assumption that the default answer was No made a lot of guys I knew feel like sex criminals - and got a lot of women who were hot and bothered pretty damn frustrated! If it prevented any unwanted sexual contact, that's definitely a good thing. But it also may have been overkill, designed mostly to protect the university from lawsuits.

I agree with SugarAndSass that the best way to approach this is to make a game of it, and/or for the female to take charge and say what she wants: "Kiss me like this", "Touch me here", "Put that there". Safe and fun for everyone!
posted by bartleby at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2010

I've experienced both (explicit asking and non-asking, or "guessing" I suppose) and in my opinion there is not much functional difference.

Most people will probably acquiesce to a hug, even if a bit uncomfortable, because that's in the realm of "plausible deniability" when it comes to whether or not a hug is sexualized. These same women, were you to then ask, "Can I kiss you?" would very likely say, "What? No." or "Why would you ask?" or just be taken aback enough to say no. It's not the asking or the guessing, it's just that hugs are a grey area.

I will say though, I have done the stiff awkward hug with a guy who asked me for a hug, and then he commented that it wasn't a "real hug" and asked me for another - that DID squick me out. Don't do that!

But if someone really, really does not want to do something, they won't. This guy, I hugged him again and laughed it off because I didn't have to see him that often and we had friends in common and the drama was not worth getting into. But I remembered it, you bet I did. And I'm always on my guard around him, and I am very aware that if he presses too far, you bet I will make a scene, right then and there, and be rude, and tough for him. There's a line there, and hugs aren't that line for me personally.

Another anecdote, I had a guy I really, really wanted to kiss me come over one time. Sitting on the couch. Tried to come up with some shoulder-brush, arm-around, footsie move or SOMETHING. Finally dude asks, "Can I kiss you?" and I said, "I've been waiting for it all night!" It was sort of cute and sort of awkward, but not so awkward that it made me not want to kiss him, which is the salient point here. :)

Tl, dr: Don't worry about it. If you're really worried about consent, then you can ask. If she's really just sitting there like a cold lump and you feel weird about her non-responsiveness, it's okay to ask. Sometimes it's obvious you don't need to. There are no hard and fast rules.
posted by Nixy at 2:01 PM on December 6, 2010

I think that explicitly asking "May I kiss you" is not only thoroughly bizarre but also puts the recipient of the question in a hell of a spot, because it is actually a refusal to take responsibility for your actions. It is a transfer of that responsibility to the other. Because you don't want to face up to it. I mean, what is she supposed to say if she doesn't want to kiss you? "No"? Just flat out, like that? Or maybe "Well, I'd rather you didn't, actually?" Is that better for her? No. What it is, is embarrassing.

What this behaviour is, is passive aggressive and cowardly. Because it's putting the responsibility for handling *your* social and sexual awkwardness on *her*, and that is not good, my friend. Please take responsibility for learning basic people and body language skills. Learn how to spot when she wants to kiss you, and learn how to retreat gracefully if you make a misjudgement.
posted by Decani at 2:11 PM on December 6, 2010

This is not how I was given to understand things worked among young Americans. Have people actually done this? How did it work out?

Yeah, a few of the people I've dated, I asked before going in for a kiss for the first time, just because it felt like the right thing to do under the circumstances. I've never been anywhere where it was required, it's just something I've sometimes done.

Each time, I got a "yes," and it's never seemed to put a damper on subsequent activities. So, I mean, I don't think it's the most common thing to do, but it's worked out fine for me, and I'm always a little confused that some people are so firmly convinced it CAN'T HAPPEN and WON'T WORK.

I mean, put it this way. Nobody's gonna be thinking "Gee, I really really hope that So-and-So wants to kiss me" and then hear the question and be like "Sorry, now that you asked out loud I'm no longer interested."
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:18 PM on December 6, 2010

Decani wrote:

"I think that explicitly asking "May I kiss you" is not only thoroughly bizarre but also puts the recipient of the question in a hell of a spot, because it is actually a refusal to take responsibility for your actions. It is a transfer of that responsibility to the other. Because you don't want to face up to it. I mean, what is she supposed to say if she doesn't want to kiss you? "No"? Just flat out, like that? Or maybe "Well, I'd rather you didn't, actually?" Is that better for her? No. What it is, is embarrassing. What this behaviour is, is passive aggressive and cowardly. Because it's putting the responsibility for handling *your* social and sexual awkwardness on *her*, and that is not good, my friend. Please take responsibility for learning basic people and body language skills. Learn how to spot when she wants to kiss you, and learn how to retreat gracefully if you make a misjudgement."

I think that's all wrong. If you plaster your lips onto someone who doesn't want them, that's a kind of assault. On the other hand, asking permission to kiss can be part of the lovemaking process. Don't say primly "May I kiss you": lean forward a bit, look into his/her eyes and say something like "You know something, you're so lovely, I really want to kiss you." That's not "passive aggressive and cowardly", it's a verbal upping of the erotic ante which includes a tacit acknowledgement of the other person's right not to be physically assaulted if they ain't interested.
posted by londongeezer at 2:31 PM on December 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

Honestly the only time I've asked a girl if I can kiss her is after I've gone down on her...
posted by Redmond Cooper at 3:33 PM on December 6, 2010

I appreciate being asked about kissing.

Being kissed without expecting it/initiating it/wanting it is hugely upsetting to me because of things that have happened to me in the past.

I've had people ask, I said no, but we can do x. Or I've said "I need more time to get comfortable with that".

Sure, I could just dodge a kiss, but what if I can't? What if we're hugging or in a tight space or something? I don't want to risk a concussion or have to physically push someone away just to avoid being kissed. And, at that point, it's a lot harder to have a conversation about it because now I have to play keep-away with my mouth instead of just having a basic conversation.

On a related note, I would think that getting active consent from a partner would make someone feel LESS like a sex criminal, but that's just me.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:39 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

As far as reading body language--my body language can say "oh my god you're so hot, wow, this is great, you're super sexy and cute, oh my god, this is awesome" but I can still not want to be kissed.

I think this is the case for a lot of people when it comes to various physical/sexual boundaries.

Especially as someone from a different culture--it's probably better not to rely on those kinds of cues when basic verbal communication is so easy.

And hell, if someone DOES think that asking is weird, you have a great excuse--you're from another country!
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:42 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

This custom sounds sensible in the case of socially awkward folks who don't understand the usual complex dance by which people decide to kiss one another.

"Socially awkward" seems to be putting it in an unfairly negative light. We're talking about college students -- mostly college freshmen, since these things seem to come up during orientations -- plenty of whom may not have a ton of experience in the bedroom department. Or worse than inexperience, might have really warped ideas about dealing with the opposite sex.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to have a somewhat more rigid set of rules when you're in an environment that's full of people learning the ropes -- heck, an environment that exists, in the case of small residential colleges, in large part explicitly so that those people can learn those rules. That could be true almost regardless of what the activity is.

We're talking about skills (reading a lot of nonverbal cues, knowing what's appropriate in various situations) that you really can't learn, or at least most people don't learn, any way besides experience. But that experience can itself be pretty negative and damaging depending on how it's attained. So many colleges choose to err on the side of 'bumper cars' rather than 'demolition derby'. Seems reasonable to me.

Yeah, it's definitely paternalistic, but a lot of colleges (and some college students) realize that a certain amount of hand-holding is necessary when you're dumping 17-19 year olds from what may be very highly-supervised, low-freedom environments into low-supervision, high-freedom ones.

And I think there's definitely an assumption / understanding that students aren't going to keep doing the asking thing when they're in a relationship, or even when they're not in a relationship but have a better understanding of what someone they're with wants, based on context and nonverbal cues. But if the ask-before-you-touch rules/guidelines prevent some really bad or even just awkward sexual encounters by inexperienced people? Isn't hard to see why they're popular.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:23 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a former orientation assistant and resident adviser at an American university, to "explicitly ask permission during sexual encounters", I can tell you that yes, it is important and not weird at all.


Because consent is something that must be mutually given, and because consent can be taken away at any time by either partner during a sexual encounter. Rapes occur when one person in an interaction ignores the need for consent. Sexual harassment occurs when one person in an interaction ignores the need for consent. Thus, individuals are advised to not assume consent -- you must ask for it.

The primary reason this piece of information is stated during orientation is because for many, many people, the four years they spend at university are the first four years they have real access to sexual encounters. Many people are not aware that they have the power and the right to refuse or stop a sexual encounter if they feel uncomfortable. School officials want to empower their students to a) know that they can say no, and b) know that it is okay to respect another person when consent is revoked.

The example of asking "May I kiss you?" is an extreme one. The concept of asking is usually reserved for initiating sex. However, for many people, asking about kissing, hugging, and other forms of physical contact is very important, because it indicates respect for personal space and respect for a person's body and mind.

I cannot tell you how many of my residents came to me after drunken encounters at a frat party, only to begin crying and saying that they did not know they could say no when someone began groping or having sex with them. This was equally distributed among all the genders -- and it was so, so upsetting to everyone involved. I was sexually assaulted by someone who did not ask, and who did not respect the fact that I kept saying NO NO NO. It started with him forcing me to kiss him. It ended badly.

Don't underestimate how important it is to ask. It's not rude, and it's not weird. It's being respectful.
posted by patronuscharms at 5:26 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is kind of a specific example, but I think it illustrates a point, so I'm going to offer it:

I am a ballroom dancer. Often while dancing I am doing very intimate things with my partner -- and those intimate things may or may not be related to my actual attraction to my partner. Regardless of my feelings about my partner off the dance floor (and this can range from them being a total stranger, to my best friend, to someone I hate, to my current sexual partner), on the dance floor we can create a serious amount of very strong chemistry.

The number one creepy mistake that guys make is to assume that this dance chemistry reflects my intense sexual desire for them. So -- on the dance floor! -- I have had guys kiss me, grab body parts that a Dancing With The Stars dancer memorably described as "trashy" (in the context of dancing) rather than "sexy," slide their hand up my skirt, etc. Nine times out of ten this happens too soon for me to protest -- and of course they don't ask, because it was "obvious" that we were "into each other."

What did (and do) I prefer? My current partner and I met dancing -- and we danced together for a year or so before we started dating. The first night we spent together, we actually crashed in a friend's living room (rather than drive for 2 hours at 2am) -- and although we were both in our 30s and aware of each others' (kinky in my case -- sorry!) sexual histories, we just sat together and talked until after about an hour he said, "I'd really like to put my arm around you, would that be okay?"

What was amazing (and incredibly seductive, although that's as far as it went that night) to me about that was that he demonstrated an incredible sensitivity to context. And in a sexual/romantic context, we were at square zero -- so he started at the beginning, even though an hour earlier he'd had his hands all over me on the dance floor.

I guess what I'm trying to say is what everyone else is saying: ask! It mostly won't hurt, and sometimes it is incredibly, wonderfully romantic and sweet. As you get to know someone, you can use your judgment about when to ask questions -- as a general rule, I ask once for each new behavior, and then pay attention to body language and move slowly rather than ask in the future (assuming the answer the first time was yes!).
posted by obliquicity at 5:27 PM on December 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

You went to college in Yellow Springs, OH, didn't you?

This policy was a nationwide joke when it was announced. Seriously. Late-night talk show hosts ridiculed it.

Nope, it's not normal. Asking a little bit: cool, ok, even romantic. Asking every step (hug, kiss, first base, second, third, can we penisate?): creepy and weird. No one does that.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:52 PM on December 6, 2010

For all the people who are talking about asking to hug being silly: I can't count the number of times I had to deal with awkward moments where a male friend tried to hug me because he had no clue that I was conservative enough religiously that I didn't hug non-mehram men (My own views on this have loosened up considerably since college). So, while I would tend to agree that the norm in the parts of the US that I'm familiar with is that people hug easily, this is not by any means universal, and it would be nice if you could remember that when dealing with someone from an ethnic/religious background that you are unfamiliar with.

And Antioch is not the only college with this kind of policy.
posted by bardophile at 9:09 PM on December 6, 2010

To IAmBroom: Perhaps you're unfamiliar with your state's rape laws, but verbal consent must be acquired and maintained over the course of a sexual encounter in order for it not to be considered rape.

It may not be normal for you, but if you think that it's wrong to insist that someone be asked if it's absolutely okay to go ahead and go forward with sex, you may be surprised to know how many young women in my friends group were able to successfully deter assault and rape when this movement became mainstream in California.
posted by patronuscharms at 9:47 PM on December 6, 2010

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