Are you Taking, Giving, Allowing, or Receiving?
Knowing what we want in terms of touch is a powerful tool for our pleasure. When we don’t know what we want and things turn out well during sex, we ascribe the success of the interaction to the other person’s technique, according to Betty Martin, creator of the Wheel of Consent and one of the authors of the book The Art of Receiving and Giving. This means, she continues, we are therefore handing over the responsibility and power of our arousal and pleasure to someone else. After a while of relying on someone else to fulfill our sexual needs, we are generally not as satisfied anymore (and often, interestingly, neither is our partner.) It's hardly surprising then, when we lose interest in sex and either blame ourselves or the other person as a result. In addition, we expect that we should get turned on based on what porn, movies, erotica and our past tells us works. We often try to mould ourselves to that narrow script which is mostly uninspiring. We often also endure sex even if we don’t enjoy it. As a result, all parties involved are left similarly unsatisfied which is a detriment to our emotional and sexual health. We've already explored why it can be hard to say no, so let's delve deeper into consent.
Two Important Questions
Martin proposes that partners ask each other the following two simple questions in order to revolutionize the ways that we experience touch—sexually or otherwise:
- How do you want me to touch you for three minutes?
- How do you want to touch me for three minutes?
I encourage you to take the challenge by setting the timer and doing this with a lover or platonic, curious co-explorer, no matter how many times you have touched each other before. Listen to yourself and see what arises for you. Then switch and let your partner do the asking, again listening to yourself in the process.
Martin claims that this simple exercise is a radical (to the root of experience) inquiry into the nature of our experience of receiving and giving, of consent, and of discerning what we want. Often, we don’t know the answer to one or both of the two questions above. If you don’t have an answer when doing the exercise, then Martin recommends taking the time to check in with yourself about what that answer might be for you. And when you ask yourself what you want, it is critical to consider what you really want rather than what you think you “should” want, have done before, or what your partner wants. Considering what you want also extends to what you want to do within your partner’s requests for touch. Consent must always be present.
Martin has noticed that creativity, authenticity, clarity, sensuality, confidence, and presence often arise out of this simple process of inquiry, touch, and reflection. With an open mind and curiosity, you might be surprised to notice big shifts in what you thought you wanted, knew, or expected. People find new depths of their experience the more often that they ask themselves and a co-explorer those two questions.
It can be scary to ask for what we want because it is a vulnerable request, given that our partner might not want to give it, or might judge us for asking for a kind of touch that is not sexy enough or too sexy or somehow not what they were expecting. Being honest with ourselves and a partner is key to going deeper into ourselves as an individual and into the relationship which are important to our emotional and sexual health. It is the emotional honesty and vulnerability behind touch that generates excitement or passion, not the touch itself. This approach runs counter to all we have been taught about the necessary “magic” of another person’s touch.
You can see Martin’s elaboration on each of the four experiences linked to the two questions answered by both partners in the diagram above. It is helpful to notice what arises in you in each situation during the exercise and in life when you find yourself in each quadrant, whether it be from a hug with a sibling or during naked sex with a lover. Each quadrant depicted depends on who is doing the touch and whom the touch is for, always within boundaries of consent for both partners. Each is described below with their implications both from a healthy consensual place as well as from a less healthy place.
In the top left quadrant, you touch in the way that your partner requests, for their benefit. This is when you serve them, selflessly doing what they want. In the absence of self-reflection on your boundaries and consent, you are the “do-gooder” or martyr, casting your needs aside and “giving” to others potentially in an unhealthy and unempowered manner. Ideally you want to give genuinely within your own boundaries.
Moving counterclockwise, in the bottom left quadrant, you allow your partner to touch you as they want. You give permission for them to take pleasure in your body, always checking in with your boundaries. When there is an absence of consent, it becomes tolerating or enduring, where you are passive and might feel like a victim.
In the bottom right quadrant, you accept the touch that you requested. You are receiving what your partner is doing for your pleasure. You know what you want, and you ask for it. The shadow side is ignoring your partner’s boundaries such that you feel entitled to the touch.
On the top right, you touch in ways that are pleasing to you. You touch another for your own pleasure, within their boundaries. Many people find this quadrant challenging, feeling “selfish”. It can bring up shame and self-doubt. Being selfish with integrity means owning what we like and confidently asking for permission to do so, respecting the other person’s boundaries. The shadow side is when we don’t gain permission and we become the perpetrator or groper.
Spending time in each of these quadrants, for three minutes at a time, can help us better understand our challenges, fears, doubts and pleasures.
For more information on Betty Martin and the Wheel of Consent, visit www.bettymartin.org.