Consent Beyond the Bedroom

Dear Millicent,

While navigating the new world of enthusiastic consent, I’m finding a lot of places outside of the bedroom where the same patterns exist. A quick list:

  • If Mr. CF and I are in the car, he always drives
  • If Mr. CF and I are in the grocery store, he pushes the cart
  • Mr. CF handles the majority of our bill paying
  • Mr. CF also purchases and prepares the majority of our food, therefore making the majority of our food decisions
  • I go to bed when Mr. CF is tired
  • When choosing restaurants or meeting places with friends, I usually say “what sounds good to you?” Most of us do, creating widespread exasperation.
  • When a female friend is aggressively particular about what she wants us to do, I am taken aback. When a male friend makes specific plans, I am relieved.
  • I rarely invite friends out, but will often respond to their invitations
  • If somebody requests something, I usually do it, then only later process it and either agree or grumble about it

The first 5 with Mr. CF  have evolved partly from the same long term relationship pattern of assumptive consent that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Sometimes assumptive consent exists because it is practical. I have worse night-vision, so he always drives at night, and that slowly shifted to him driving whenever we are both in the car.  Since he plans most of the food, he drives the grocery cart because he knows what we need to buy. He’s a grand cook who enjoys making food, and I enjoy eating his cooking more than my own.  He is more meticulous about accounting and cares about it in a way that I don’t, so his taking care of the bills is a win win. We both know that I can drive the car, that I can drive the cart, that I can take care of the bills. But we both also know that I assumptively defer to his choices he assumptively makes (yes, assumptively). These household chores bring up the territory of consent in a long-term relationship that is the opposite of pronouncing desire, kinda. It’s about pronouncing responsibility, and pronouncing that very hard thing that consent protects: balance.

I really love that I don’t have to do these chores. I don’t want to verbally ask to participate in them.  Besides Mr. CF, who really enjoys paying bills? However, the answer here is the hard one. I wish it could just be a case of enthusiastic consent, with the answer being a hearty “no! I don’t want to cook! Please a go ahead!” but, of course it’s not that simple. When I look at all the items of the above list, I get a little frightened. They add up to a big pile of passive.  A person who can’t cook for herself, who doesn’t have a clear sense of when her bills are due, who has luxuriously let go of the some of the reins, is not doing herself (let alone her relationship) a solid.

The detriments of our arrangements are minor, but telling. I don’t know the city as well as Mr. CF because he does more of the driving (as a passenger, I never absorb orientation). My cooking skills have atrophied. When he travels and I am home alone, I am always astounded that I used to feed myself three meals a day on a regular basis when I lived alone, and it was more than turkey sandwiches and Trader Joe salads. We have even got to the point where he, like a 1950s housewife, prepares meals ahead and leaves them in the fridge or freezer with notes on how to reheat. I have a very fuzzy general sense of what we have in the bank, and often guess if it’s okay to use the debit card or not. If I make a big purchase, I will call him first to make sure it’s okay (something he doesn’t like, because we both feel the ridiculous daddy structure of it). In short, I have kind of infantilized myself.  That is, I am half baby, half Don Draper.

Since consent has recently climbed into the spotlight of our marital relations, we’ve talked about all of the above. It’s hard to tackle, because we have made all of these choices for a reason, I take on other chores, and the pattern does work well. I’m noticing I’m resistant because, just like with enthusiastic consent in sex, it means more work for me. I have to do more, and I love lazy. There’s also a lot of effort that doesn’t exactly give rewards: if I cook dinner, it doesn’t taste as good as if he did it and I forget about bills until the day they are due.

So, I have taken on making breakfast. It turns out that oatmeal is basically foolproof, something we both like, and feels like real cooking because I have to boil water first. I also offer to make dinner on days where I have more time, or if there is a recipe I specifically want. I haven’t even looked at recipes in years, but it’s good now because it forces me out to grocery shop, and to re-learn the kitchen. These are both minor things, but they force me to pronounce that I am part of the kitchen, that I can easily cook something I want when I am hungry, and that I want specific things.

Driving has been the most interesting because it hasn’t really changed. When we both get in the car to go somewhere, Mr. CF now asks “do you want to drive?” which is new, but my answer isn’t.  I say no–I really love looking out the window.  The change is he doesn’t ask out of routine, but instead out of genuine inquiry. I could say yes and it wouldn’t be a surprise.  While our actions are the same, they’ve shifted from assumptive decision making to conscious consent.

I’m still working on navigating the bills and on resisting going to bed because he is tired.  A lot of it is about not going on auto-pilot, and again realizing that my auto-pilot captain is quieter and more passive than I ever dreamed. Redefining consent in the bedroom, getting all baboon, announcing the freedom of no assumption or expectation in what comes next (except of course, love and respect) has been about work and liberation.  I imagine it works the same way in the kitchen and checkbook as well.

Am very much still learning, still confused.

I’m interested in how consent works in friendships, too. What passive approaches continue because we don’t want to offend? When nobody says where they want to go to lunch, does anybody end up eating what they want? Are dudes more likely to make the call with female friends? Where there is less intimacy, are we assumptively bound to less consent for the sake of polite interaction?

I’ve been reading the collected works of Miss Manners, who deserves a post of her own. As a great defender of personal boundaries, she often advises against the immense acrobatics of polite society.  Overall, she suggests that saying exactly what you mean is one of the most elegant existences. Pronunciation is key.

More soon,



He’s Just Not That Into You And The Incidental Female Friend

Dear CF,

So glad to have you back, and just plain relieved to get your take on films du jour. I’ve almost stopped going to the movies (partly poverty, partly inertia) so I’m hopelessly behind. To give you a sense of where I stand re: our cultural capital: I haven’t seen Inception yet, but last night I finally got around to seeing He’s Just Not That Into You.

Re: the sad-sack zeitgeist of which Scott Pilgrim seems to be yet another instance, I wondered, watching HJNTIY yesterday, whether it was doing something with the female equivalent.

He’s Just Not That Into You tries pretty hard to be our generation’s When Harry Met Sally. It wants to articulate the sexual mores of our age—Drew Barrymore’s monologues are straight-up exposition on what the internet hath wrought, and though much of the movie leaves me agape, some of Barrymore’s stuff is actually entertaining. If back in Rob Reiner’s day the guiding question was whether or not men and women could be friends, now the question is whether men and women can rise above the pervasive insincerity of the flirtation—a basic dishonesty that infects every relationship, every marriage, every nonmarriage.

I’m not awfully interested in HJNTIY‘s framing of that question (and, one devastating Home Depot scene notwithstanding, I don’t think the movie handles it with much success), but I do think the film is hitting—tangentially, maybe even by accident—on something zeitgeisty about Filmic Female Friendships in America Today: namely, the extent to which that insincerity infects woman-woman relationships too. The movie spends some expository time on the tendency to lie charitably and to spin the story so that the friend is never forced to occupy that terrible unspoken category: The Undesired.

If the sad-sack Apatovian bromance consists of comfortably joking about each other’s undesirability until the glimmerings of homosocial mutual esteem erupt (as in I Love You, Man), the sororomance (ugh—seriously, we need a word for this) wallows and sometimes drowns in expressions of mutual esteem that must, eventually, turn fake. There comes a point when the friend assuring Gigi “don’t worry, he’ll call,” no longer believes it. She says it anyway. At that point, the female friend becomes an untrustworthy source of comfort. When Gigi says to Janine, quite seriously, that her husband’s infidelity isn’t her fault, Janine can’t hear her. She’s too used to the vocabulary of sugary consolation.

I wouldn’t argue that HJNTIY is about that—the insufficiency of female advice is what gets Gigi dependent on Alex for “truthful” masculine counsel, so it’s probably just a plot device—but it’s one of the few parts of the movie I find interesting. And while I don’t know to what extent it captures a *truth* about modern friendships, it’s definitely theorizing a different modern myth of lady-homosociality than, say, the easy bluntness, the comfortably skeptical chemistry Rosie O’Donnell has with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Or Meg Ryan’s candor to Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally (“he’s never going to leave her”).

Again, while the dilemma of masculine friendship remains at the fore these days, I’m panning for intelligent glimmers of the other. As I think of other films with multiple female protagonists—Mean Girls, Vicky Cristina Barcelona come to mind—I notice that none of them really take the problem by the horns. Whip It has other narrative agendas it puts first, although I have to say that friendship strikes me as more “real.”

I don’t begrudge the boys their time. Friendship is worth thinking about on both ends of the gendered spectrum. But I doubt Beaches and Thelma and Louise are really the best we can do. Until the existential isolation that frequently attends couplehood gets coded something other than exclusively male*, we might have to consign our female friendships to bit parts, and think of them as consolation prizes.


*Though actually, Janine’s existence in that half-built house in HJNTIY captures the feminine version of this surprisingly well.

PS: [SPOILER ALERT] That last scene, when Affleck proposes to Aniston after spending seven years on his principled unbelief in marriage! Intensely disappointing. Harriet Vane would have dropped him on the spot.

Letter From a Sterling Institute Ex-Friend

Thanks to Hank for writing in about how his friendship with a longtime family friend changed as a result of the Sterling Men’s Institute (Hank’s comment originally appeared here):

I’m a veteran of men’s gatherings ala Robert Bly’s “Ironman” and was invited by a longtime family friend to participate in The Sterling Men’s Weekend (for $900.00). My friend cautioned me NOT to look at anything on the web about Sterling…which only lead me to do just that: research the “Weekend”. Frankly, I was totally turned off that Arnie Rabinowitz (or whatever) changed his name to “Justin Sterling” and that he got plastic surgery to improve his appearance. LOL! Arnie has been through one or two nasty divorces, too, and relies heavily on volunteers to do the Institute work while he takes in the dough and reportedly lives a million-dollar lifestyle. Yeah. This is just the kind of group I want to get involved with…NOT!

So I told my friend what I’d found out about Sterling and he quickly ceased to encourage me to do the Weekend. In fact, he doesn’t say much of anything about it to me anymore although he’s been involved with Sterling and subsequent Sterling-esque splinter groups for several years now. I’ve met a few of his Sterling buddies (or as HE refers to them: “his men”) at bonfires he has in his backyard and I can’t seem to shake the impression they give off as being “losers” of a sort. My friend’s marriage has been shaky for many years (he’s a gay man in a heterosexual marriage but his wife knew that when she wed him…) and the Sterling men I’ve met at his bonfires seem to either be divorced or on the verge of it.

Another particularly annoying characteristic that my friend has taken on since getting involved with Sterling is answering his cellphone IMMEDIATELY at all times. This means during dinners (where he and Mrs. are our guests), in the middle of concerts (and talking loudly to the dismay of those around him) and while supposedly spending time with me/us. His cell phone trumps everything else. It’s weird.

Last summer he had planned to go camping/hiking with “his men” to a large mountain in the northeast. It just so happened that a once-in-thirty-years reunion with his old friends (me included) was also happening that same weekend. When the forecast predicted high winds and driving rain on the mountain, he opted to change his plans and attend the reunion. From what he told me “his men” berated him repeatedly for failing to live up to his commitment even though extremely poor weather was forecast and actually happened. I’m sure they had a lousy time up on that mountain and they managed to prove the old adage “Misery loves company.” LOL!

Lemme see, what else. I know he has a 5AM conference call with his men every Sunday. Five-friggin-A-M on a Sunday. I’ve certainly noticed that he helps out with domestic house chores WAY more than he ever did and, I get the feeling, that he’s learned to do that so that he can go away on his Sterling jaunts and not have to answer to his wife. He’s been unemployed for quite some time and there doesn’t seem to be any job on the horizon YET he seems to invest plenty of time in Sterling stuff. Yep! He’s always there for His Men!

He’s invited and cajoled a number of other men in our circle of friends to do the Weekend. Most have declined but one did take the bait and I’ve noticed that he’s not around much either because HE now has commitments doing things with HIS men.

Whatever!!!! Whatever floats your boat, I guess. IMO, steer clear of scam artists like “Justin Sterling”. Unless, of course, you want to help ol’ Arnie Rabinowitz keep up the masquerade AND support his comfortable lifestyle.

Quick Note

I finally just finished my grading that I was supposedly doing earlier in the week.  One of my students wrote a fascinating essay on friendship.  She argued that if people took her for granted as a friend, that was fine, because her goal was to be the best friend possible (this was after years of treating friends as disposables, or as she says “like fashion trends”), and that she especially felt this way because people have intensely different perceptions of the world.  She felt that she had no way of knowing what they were actually thinking or feeling, so as long as she was doing her part, so be it. This was half astounding revelation to me, and half “wait, aren’t you on the verge of doormat-ism.” Perhaps, nine foot tall doormat-ism.  Is she brilliant, setting herself up for heartbreak, or a buddha?