Consent (and other social conundrums) When Clubbing

I am a 19 year old guy and I have a question both about club etiquette and general advice. I have gone to nightclubs/pubs a few times with my friends and on the dance floor sometimes girls seem to stand very close to me and seem to be "inviting me" or waiting for me to make some kind of move (everyone tells me, and I suspect its true). Occasionally they even rub up against me with their bum and such. I usually try to escape or pretend it didn't happen because I just get TOO nervous. Later, I kick myself because half the time it's a girl I find attractive and would be interested in either getting to know or having some kind of frisky contact with on the dance floor. One of the things is I am terrified of moving badly or out of rhythm, of doing something awkward. My friends are all kinda fed up with me as I ask them about their encounters and seem to pass up any potential encounter I could have out of nerves or fear. They think I'm kinda 'living through them' by not doing anything myself. I'm also wondering about consent. If a girl dances up to me and rubs against me, that shows interest but isn't 100% consent, so how can I put my arms around her or dance close to her but ask? It's hard to ask because of loud music, maybe running away as I do is the best option.
Heather Corinna replies:

Hey there, Dylan: I'm really glad you came here with these questions: I think they're some good ones.

Let's start with talking about what goes on, or can go on, on the dance floor with these girls, and with consent, and then we can get to what your friends are saying and how to deal with that.

You're right: a place like a loud club can be a mighty hard place to try and do verbal consenting. Sometimes, even when you try to yell something like, "Can I put my arms around you?" the other person might hear, instead, "Man, I love hardstep, don't you?" Either they nod yes, then you do what you were actually asking about, and they're so not okay with it because that is NOT what they thought you said, or you wind up just yelling "What? WHAT?!?" back and forth until the freaking end of time.

To boot, sometimes if you can ask something like that loud enough for the other person to hear, they might feel uncomfortable just because they really didn't want everyone around them to be involved in what the two of you are doing or know about it. If you're yelling loud enough for them to hear you, you're probably yelling loud enough for everyone around the two of you to hear, too.

I don't think running away is your only option here, by any means. However, despite what your friends say, if just opting out of doing anything else, or anything with someone at all on the dance floor, is what you feel best about, that's one option, and one that's totally valid if it's the one you like and want best. If someone has some strong interest in you, too, it's not like if you walk away and go sit down somewhere a little less crowded and quiet, they can't follow you so that the two of you can actually hear each other and work this stuff out in a setting where verbal consent is doable. You also always have the option of inviting someone to go talk somewhere less loud, and you can gesture to see if they want to do that by just titling your head towards a less noisy corner or the door of the pub to step outside. Then you can ask them what you wanted to ask them. Which might include asking if they don't just want to go somewhere you can actually hear each other and interact with more than your bodies.

But I also think that some kind of non-verbal consent can work here, too, though obviously, it's not magically risk-free: there's certainly more room for misunderstandings or errors with non-verbal consent than with consent we do with clear words. It's always going to be our choice if and when we want to take that little bit of extra risk, but the good news is that if you are not making major moves here, but very small ones, it really is only a little bit of extra risk. If you do ever overstep unintentionally, all you really have to do is say -- or gesture -- that you're sorry, back off and stay backed off. I think it's safe to say that most people are going to understand, and even expect, some wires to get crossed sometimes in these kinds of settings.

As an example, let's say you're in one of those situations where you feel like one of these girls is inviting you to have some contact with her.

One thing you can do, the first thing, I'd say, is meet her gaze: make direct eye contact. Then, as you slowly move towards her to do what you'd like to do with her, you make a face, while making that eye contact, that expresses, "Is this okay with you?" as best you can. If you're not sure what that can look like, go look in a mirror, and literally ask, "Is this okay with you?" out loud: you'll see what your face does when you do. We'll often raise our eyebrows a little while we do that, and also widen our eyes some. (Just don't do it like this guy. He's also giving you some good examples of legendarily NOT paying any attention at all to the other person's responses or body language.) You can even just mouth "Okay?"

If you do that, and she seems to respond favorably, then you move into what you wanted to do, keeping that eye contact to keep doing what you can to see if everything is okay. (Obviously, we're going to need to be able to see someone to do this, so staying only behind them or vice-versa? Not going to work with this.) Over time, and with some practice with people, including outside sexy or sexual interactions, we generally can develop a sense of what people look like, with their face and their body, when things are or aren't okay with them.

For example, when we are open to someone and want to be closer to them, we'll tend to open our bodies or their parts or extend them, rather than closing them off or recoiling, like by closing our arms, moving away, or looking away. We'll be smiling, not frowning or looking scared or cornered. That thing where you say they seem to be extending an invitation to you sometimes? Probably is you recognizing the kinds of responses and gestures I'm talking about.

Perhaps obviously, there's only so much it's going to be sound to even be doing in a club or other public setting, especially once where getting clear consent is tough. So, I'd say if what you, the other person, or both seem to -- or know you do -- want to be doing strikes you as something that's really more an in-the-bedroom-alone thing than an in public thing? It probably is. And I'd say it's generally best with this to err on the side of caution. If someone doesn't appreciate you being a little cautious when it comes to consent and their privacy, seriously, I think that's their loss.

I do want to say that I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of double standards, be they about gender or anything else. As far as I'm concerned, the rules and guidelines you're beholden to, and need to think about, should be exactly the same for any of these girls. If it's no-harm-no-foul for them to be rubbing up against you, I think the same should be true for you. That said, I think that honestly, they need to be as observant about your consent and responses as it sounds like you are being about theirs. No matter what our gender or that of someone else, we all need to be really mindful about doing what we can to ask for consent when we want to touch someone else's body.

I want to make sure you know that the things I'm advising for you, here? I'd say the same were the shoe on the other foot and one of these girls were asking about this. Just like it wouldn't be okay for you to be rubbing up on someone who didn't want that and didn't make it awfully clear they did? The same is true for you.

I know sometimes guys can get the message that they need to be very concerned about consent when it comes to getting it from others, but others don't need to have the same concerns about them. I think that's bollocks, and want to make sure you know that not only do you get to opt out of any of this contact if you don't like it, aren't comfortable with it, or it's coming from someone you don't want to be doing that with, but that it's your right to expect other people to be as thoughtful about all of this as I hear you being.

Per how awesome (or not) your dance moves are: my experience is that when someone is really into someone and likes them, they're probably not going to care overmuch. They'll either think all your moves are the absolute stuff because they're mostly paying attention to the zing they're feeling about you in general, or even find what truly is, in fact, awkward, charming and hilarious, but in the good way. Plus, you can be very sure that in any given space, not everyone there is going to be anything close to an ace dancer. That includes some girls you might find attractive.

For sure, someone who is just a fantastic dancer, for whom this is a particular talent or skill, may wow people and have people be interested in them solely because of that. But a) that's not going to be all of us, since we don't all have the same skills and talents, and b) that interest probably isn't going to stick around for long if and when the rest of who that person is and how they act doesn't appeal.

I think the best you can do here is just to move and interact dance-wise, and otherwise, in the ways you feel most okay and comfortable. And then to just be yourself: I know it sounds like bullshit, but seriously, that really is the only thing any of us really can be when it all comes down to it. And if someone's burning desire is only for someone who is Fred Astaire -- wait, generational gap -- a hit on Soul Train -- argh, still generational gap! -- or who would be a reality TV dance sensation no one EVER had anything snarky to say about (okay, better, though unlikely, for anyone: the snark, it seems to spare no one), then if you're not that person? You're not going to be that person. That's okay, though: that's probably not a person for you, either. A person for you is going to be someone who appreciates the things you're good at and who is interested in and into those. Or who likes and enjoys hanging out with you even around the things you aren't good at.

Per what your friends are saying, they do get to have boundaries and say no to you per asking about their experiences and encounters, and have whatever feelings they have about you asking, and about your own choices here. But if they don't want you to ask anymore -- if what they're saying is about them being fed up with you getting in what they think is their personal business -- then the thing for them to say is just that: please stop asking me, because I don't want to talk about this with you, it's my personal business. I don't feel like, "You're trying to live through me," whether or not that's true, is a particularly cool response, or a clear one. I also don't know how you feel about what they have to say about you clearly feeling nervous or afraid around this, which to some degree you obviously do -- and I'd say that's understandable, especially when you care a great deal about consent, which is a good thing.

If you're not comfortable with what they are saying to you, I think you get to tell them to knock it off with that stuff, and just tell you if they don't want you to ask them about what they're doing, which you'll respect if they do. (You also get to ask them not to be armchair psychologists with you.)

I hope you know that what your friends think you should be doing doesn't really tell you what YOU want, what YOU feel comfortable with, or what's right for YOU. It may be you're different from them in this regard, or different for now, and you get to be different. We don't all have the same comfort levels with things like this, and we also don't all share the same concerns. Who knows, maybe some of your friends are really sucking with the consent you're asking about and could stand to take a page from you!

On a similar note, and rounding this all out, it may be that the club scene, or other similar spaces, just aren't the right scene for you, as an individual, per what you feel most comfortable with when it comes to being physical, sexual or otherwise expressing interest in someone to whom you feel attracted.

You may be someone who feels more comfortable and confident in spaces where you can actually hear each other and converse clearly, where you don't have to worry about if your dance moves would get you voted off Dancing With the Stars -- and perhaps where you can be doing something you feel more talented at or at ease with -- and where you also aren't with all of your friends.

If that rings true, and seems like a fit, then by all means, if not engaging a lot in a club is what feels best to you and instead choosing other social contexts for these interactions does? Then choose those other contexts, and maybe start spending more time in them and less time clubbing. There are plenty of other sound reasons for that, anyway, besides not feeling comfy, like if what you're really looking for is getting to know someone better, in other ways than via dance -- and let's be real: with drink or recreational drugs, since one or both of those are often in the mix when people are clubbing -- or what you're really looking for is the pursuit of an ongoing relationship.

I'm going to leave you with some extra links to look at I think might help, paired with a vote of confidence for you. I think you are clearly thinking enough about all this stuff you really can let yourself relax about it a little and trust yourself. I also think whatever your moves, so long as you aren't pushing yourself too far outside your social comfort zones in the first place -- or the ability of your limbs -- I'm sure it's all good, including in those moments, which for some of us may be few, for others are 24/7, where you are off in your rhythm or your cool, by a little or a lot.

More like This