How Nice Guys Misunderstand Consent

Written by
Michael Wells

How Nice Guys Misunderstand Consent

Written by
Michael Wells

How Nice Guys Misunderstand Consent

Written by
Michael Wells
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Want to be a better man, a more aware & engaged lover, and feel emboldened in your dating life?  Good. Read on.

Men. I'm about to talk about one of the stickiest, most socially charged topics in the world. But I am doing it because it is important.

Obviously, it's important to understand what consent IS, because someone's emotional, psychological and even physical security depends on you understanding consent. Further, your decency as a human being ( and possibly your freedom ) depend on it.

It is essential to understand what consent IS.

AND... it's equally important to understand what consent ISN'T.

"Nice Guys," in particular, struggle with misunderstanding consent, and falling pray to "Green Light Syndrome" - a term that Dan Munro and I coined to describe the "waiting for approval" worldview that Nice Guys suffer from.

When you misunderstand consent in either direction, you can damage your relationships terribly... either by leading them too aggressively, or... by not leading them at all.

Let's go deeper.

My life

For most of my life, I've struggled with social anxiety that was at its strongest around beautiful women.

All the stories came up... I'm not good enough... rejection is certain... she will think I'm a creep... and rejection will hurt badly.

NONE of these were true.

It took hard work to kill those limiting beliefs I had... but, with practice, I was able to mostly-comfortably walk up to a woman I didn't know, and start a deep & meaningful conversation.

It was life-changing. ( You can m_essage me below if want to know more_ )

And then... I encountered a new problem.

The problem of misunderstanding consent

Even after I'd largely overcome my fear of rejection, and my "not good enough" story, I found it nearly impossible to get from "Hello, I'm Mike..." all the way to the possibility of something romantic or sexual potentially happening between us.

The key question I was stuck on was consent, which I understood as...

Before we go any further, she has to tell me that she wants more to happen.

As a "Nice Guy," one of my greatest fears was the possibility that I might make someone uncomfortable.

Sex was very important to me -- it probably ranked above food -- but because I saw it as such a big thing, I was absolutely petrified at crossing some invisible line of respect.

I feared forever traumatizing some young woman, or being labeled a creep - just because I told her that I find her attractive.

What if she has a boyfriend, or is married? What if she likes someone else? What if she doesn't find me attractive? What if she feels embarrassed, uncomfortable, or somehow pressured?

Frankly, I was terrified.

For me, this made dating difficult, and sexual escalation felt nearly impossible.

Directly expressing attraction terrified me, so I turned to online dating as a shield, because it weakens the directness. Even there I trode very lightly in how I expressed my romantic and sexual interest in a woman.

I felt like at every step in the development my relationships, I had to get a clear "YES" in order to proceed to the next level.

I needed permission... for every step.

Waiting for the YES

The way I approached this was simple.... I'd go halfway.

I'd take a deep breath and express attraction in some way... "Wow you look very attractive in that dress."

And then I'd completely stop, and wait for permission to proceed.

I expected her to meet me halfway.

A clear YES would be if she smiled, came closer, and said "Thank you," or returned the compliment in some way. And then asked for my phone number. She had to very boldly and directly express her mutual interest.

Anything less was unacceptable, and I interpreted it as a NO she's not really interested.

Why this didn't work

The problem was, it didn't work the way I imagined.

I rarely got the clear green light "YES" that I wanted to see, even with women were quite interested.

Women might appreciate the compliment, but tentatively...

It's like they were thinking...

"That's nice, but what does this guy want?" "Is he interested in me or just making a random comment?"
"Well, is he going to make a move or not?"

Ladies and gentlemen ... I made ZERO moves.

And as you can imagine, the result was usually no relationships, extreme sexual frustration, and a lot of very confused women.

It wasn't until reading The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida that I began rethinking the way I interact with women. David describes masculinity in a way that made it clear to me that despite my best intentions, I was not being very manly.

The YES Problem, and why women don't meet you halfway

Green Light Syndrome is the term that Dan and I use to describe the "waiting for approval" mindset - where you are waiting for a clear YES before you step forward.

Lately I've been learning a lot about the masculine / feminine dynamic in my own relationships, with incredible results, and I now have a theory why "waiting for the YES" doesn't work.

In a fundamental sense, "waiting for the YES" is directly against natural masculine-feminine dynamics.

It's like trying to lead a dance, by weakly leading one move at a time, and then waiting for her to make every second move by herself.

At best, you end up with a very awkward-feeling interaction, with a lot of uncertainty and confusion.

For many women, this feels incredibly uncomfortable, and even dangerous.

The 3 Choices Women Face

Here's why. If you express your attraction to a woman and then stop and wait for her response, then she basically has three choices...

#1 - A YES - Return your expression of attraction

Few women ( except strongly masculine women ) can do this comfortably, because it immediately puts them a position of risk.

If I say YES, will he think I've committed to something, even though I'm not sure yet?

What if I change my mind? Will he become angry with me and expect more?

What if other people see me say "YES", will I be socially branded as an eager slut?

What if he changes his mind? I will feel rejected.

This sense of risk is important to understand, so let's call this The YES Problem.

#2 - A NO - Turn down your invitation to connect

"Thanks, but I just see you as a good friend"

Often this might not be a final decision on her part.

It may even be that she wants to say YES - but when she feels pressed to give an answer, NO is the safest response.

That's right... when you demand a woman give you permission, you're likely going to get red lights all day long.

Many times, Nice Guys feel that women just don't like them, and it's because we put women in a awkward situation. When you demand that a woman respond with a YES or NO to your expression of attraction, NO is going to be the default answer most of the time.

Think about that carefully.

#3 - NO RESPONSE - She just... waits to figure out what's going on.

How interested is he? Is he serious? What exactly are his intentions? Is he going to suggest something?

She just waits to gather information.

For nice guys, this is the death zone, because it's a stalemate. Women won't move foward until they feel that they know what's happening- otherwise, it feels unsafe.

Men, on the other hand, are sitting there waiting for the green light, which will likely never happen.

Neither of us feel like we can move forward safely, so we just sit there, inches apart yet entirely alone.

How the YES Problem Affects Relationships

You can think of the three choices that women face as similar to natural fight, flight, and freeze responses. In the exact same way, they are "go towards", "go away from", or "go nowhere."

In my own early relationships, as a "Nice Guy", I didn't take much initiative, so the only women I ended up with were those with a strong masculine dynamic.

I could deal with that, sort of. She wore the pants, but I always got to know what was OK, and what wasn't. The green lights and red lights were clear, because she was the assertive one.

That dynamic pretty well colored our entire relationship.

If you are leading your relationships "half-way", like I did, you've probably seen these problems too. Don't feel bad... it took me years to develop the empathy and understanding that women generally don't enjoy halfway leads either.

The Central Lesson

The key lesson I learned from these experiences is this...

Women don't want to be asked to say YES. They just want the safe ability to say NO, at any moment they choose.

This understanding has been world changing.

So what is Consent?

Let's use this understanding to re-consider our ideas around consent.

The simplest definition of Consent, the way I see it today is...

"she has to want this too."

... which is NOT the same thing as "she has to TELL ME that she wants this too," or "she has to meet me halfway," or "she has to lead every other move," or even "she has to say YES verbally."

Determining a woman's level of interest in you can be very tricky. Because of the YES problem, women generally will not make their level of interest exceptionally clear.

So how can you know, at any moment during your connection-building - especially as things begin to escalate sexually - whether she wants this as much as you do?

My 3 Rules of Consent

When you re-frame consent as being more directly about the NO-signal rather than the YES-signal, your relationship and dating world improve dramatically.

My three fundamental rules are-

  1. She must be 100% able to say NO

  2. She must be 100% comfortable to say NO

  3. You must 100% respect a NO

Let's explore each of these more fully-

#1 - She must be 100% able to say NO

This obviously means that she must be conscious, as Tea and Consent makes clear. "Don't make them drink the tea." If you've missed that memo, someone seriously needs to set you straight.

However it also means that whe must be sober enough to be clearly and consciously aware of what she is doing and who she is with.

Fortunately, I've never experienced this- however it's also why I never go to bars to meet women.  When a woman expresses attraction to me, I want to know that she's fully in control of that decision- both at the emotional, and at the rational levels.

Think about this- even if she says YES, or doesn't stop you, is it really consent if the morning after she is ashamed at waking up next to you?

#2 - She must be 100% comfortable to say NO

It is also crucial that she feel safe & comfortable to say NO, in every way-

  1. Physically safe to say NO, with zero physical threat, or emotional outbursts on the part of the man.
  2. Socially safe to say NO, with no judgement or severe social repercussions.
  3. Consequence-free to say NO. There must be no risk of her world changing in a negative way. That includes career, her living situation, even her friendship with you.

Always give her a a safe, comfortable, consequence-free exit. Let her be there completely by choice. Make certain she feels safe at all times with you, as your first objective. Right behind that is expressing your sexual attraction- but her assured safety is always your first priority.

#3 - You MUST 100% respect a NO

Expect it. Accept it. It's totally fine.

A NO is not a personal attack, or even a rejection of who you are, she's just not ready right now for something more intimate.

It doesn't matter if it happens right as you're about to first say "Hello," or whether you've been married for 20 years. If she says NO, guess what? It means you need to stop, and give her space.

She's free to change her mind later. Even 30 seconds later if she wants to.

NO often does not mean NO FOREVER. - however it does mean NOT YET, and you MUST respect that.

Here's how...

  1. Simply stop, no matter what you're doing. Even if you're in the middle of sexual intercourse, and she's been super-keen all the way up to that moment... if she says NO, just stop immediately.
  2. Give her space to consider what's happening, and how she feels about it. For many women, sex is a highly emotional experience, which can create a lot of anxiety. She's processing a lot of feelings and thoughts here, so give her time.
  3. Make sure she's free to leave, safely. If she chooses to stay, then you can continue building the relationship, and invite her to deepen sexual connection again later.
  4. Simply accept the NO as a NOT YET, and have absolutely zero negative reaction to her NO. Men understand that women have strong emotions, and need to process them to know what they want- and we respect that.
  5. Don't ask WHY, You might not understand the NO, and want to know her thinking- but she often cannot give you an answer. She's still processing her emotions and feelings, and her sense of whether she trusts you and how that balances with her attraction to you. She can't explain that in words. A WHY is also easily misunderstood as a challenge to her NO, which directly violates the safe & comfortable exit rule.

Essential Things to Understand

Of these three rules...

  1. She must be 100% able to say NO
  2. She must be 100% comfortable to say NO
  3. You must 100% respect a NO

I'm assuming #1, and #3 are absolutely clear, and we all get it with zero confusion. This isn't rocket science.

Rule #2 however is trickier, and has some important subtleties to understand - particularly about the "Consequence Free" part.

What we're aiming for as men is to make sure that we create a situation where she has zero consequence from saying NO.

She must feel that there no risk of her world changing in a negative way. That includes career, her living situation, even her friendship with you.

Let's dig a bit deeper on that one, and look at some problem scenarios.

Scenario: Potential negative impact to her career

This is why dating in the workplace is fraught with danger, and sexual harrassment is such a big deal. If a woman feels her job might be at stake, that's huge pressure that restricts her freedom to say NO.

The same is true for teacher-student relationships, which is why most schools will simply fire the teacher outright.

Consequences everywhere. Especially, if you are above her in the command hierarchy, in any way. She simply cannot say NO without fear of potential risk to her job, or her future opportunities with the company.

How to avoid this-

My recommendation? Just don't go there.

If you are both honestly interested in something happening, change departments, change roles, change companies... talk with HR... whatever you need to do to make sure she has full freedom of consent.

Scenario: Potential negative impact to her social world

Have you ever seen someone propose on LIVE television, or on the giant scoreboard at a baseball game?

Seems super romantic, doesn't it? And certainly there is part of us that loves to see a good love story.

However, it might not be as romatic as you think.

Even BBC news gets it...

Public proposals are risky business though. On the one hand, the receiver could feel pressured to say yes and on the other, a no would be mortifying for everyone involved.

Even if she says yes, was it really consent?

The point here is, romance and grand public gestures are all great, but be as aware and empathetic as you can about the situation you're putting your partner in.

How to avoid this-

Open and honest communication. If the two of you know anything about each other, you should be pretty aware of the futures each of you imagine, and how you see your own future together.

In short, you should know whether marriage is something she's thought of, and whether she thinks she'd like that with you someday.

You can make the public proposal a complete surprise, and have tons of fun with it- when you already have a fairly clear idea of how comfortable she is with the idea of getting married to you someday.

Much like buying someone a puppy for Christmas, make sure they're ready for that level of commitment and responsibility first.

Scenario: Potential negative impact to your friendship

Unfortunately, Nice Guys have a very disturbing pattern of relationship-building which can create huge problems- both for you, and for the women you like.

When we like a woman, we often invest huge amounts of time in building a deep, trusting friendship before we ever express attraction.

Then, one day when we're feeling safe, and emotionally close to this person, we make a move.

Here's why that often SUCKS, and creates a VERY uncomfortable situation for women.

  • She doesn't really know whether you're just being affectionate, or sexual.
  • She is having difficulty believing what's happening, even while you're peeling her clothes off.
  • She's psychologically in disbelief, and frozen with fear, which at the same time emotionally scared of destroying your friendship, or hurting you emotionally by saying NO.
  • In some ways, emotionally she likes you - or she wouldn't be your friend. But that's NOT the same thing as wanting a sexual relationship. Sexual attraction, and sexual choices, involve other very different thoughts & feelings.
  • In the suddenness of this, she has zero time to reconcile her thoughts with her emotions, so all she can do is feel panic. Frozen. Disbelieving and uncertain of what to do.

This situation doesn't allow consent. She's not consequence-free to say NO.

When a woman feels safe with someone, that sense of security is very powerful, and unfortunately very easy to abuse. This is why most sexual abuse happens at the hands of people who "you never would have thought..." "just the nicest guy..." and happens with close friends, friends of the family, or even family members.

If you've ever had this thought...

I'll build trust first. Once she trusts me, she won't resist me.

You're not a sexual predator, so don't behave like one.

How to avoid this...

If you're friends with someone who you've secretly been attracted to for a long time- and you want a sexual relationship with them...

  1. Tell her straight up, that for a long time you've felt a deep attraction to her. Tell her what exactly you appreciate about her.

  2. Tell her exactly what you would like to happen, if she happens to feel similarly.

  3. Make it clear that there are ZERO consequences for a NO. You will still be her friend.

  4. Thank her for listening and letting you be honest, and then just continue on with your week. Suggest that maybe the two of you step back and think for a bit, and have coffee together a week later.

  5. Give her LOTS of space to think, and feel, and decide what she wants. As long as she needs. You're not waiting for "an answer."

  6. Be prepared to lose her for awhile - or even forever - as a friend. She may be totally unprepared for this truth, and need that distance, and that's OK.

For the future, learn to express attraction the moment you feel it. Don't hide the truth, you're just creating a gnarly mess for everyone to clean up later.

Dealing with Uncertainty...

Emotional empathy is a very useful skill here, because the more aware you are, the more readily you can detect emotional discomfort or uncertainty. However at any moment you are not sure how she feels, or whether she's comfortable, simply ask -

"Are you OK?"

A female friend pointed out that asking "Are you OK?" is more comfortable than asking "Is this OK?" The reason is that when you ask "Is this OK?" you're still asking for a YES approval, and she may not yet know whether her answer is yes or no.

When you ask "Are you OK?" this gets straight to the heart of the matter, which is, is she comfortable with this? If she's indecisive, she can answer "I'm not sure..." or "I feel confused..." instead of yes or no.

Now this is the hard part...

Treat uncertainty as a NO.

When you are seeing clear signs of uncertainty, give her space. This requires empathy, respect, and very straight communication. Remember, you want her to want this.

Make the uncertainty the center of your communication, so she knows you see it, and she can be free to talk about it and process it, with you.

"I really like you, and ( oh my GOD ) I want this to happen... but I feel like you're not certain. It's important to me that you want this too."

Again, her sense of security and comfort with you come first. If sex doesn't happen for the two of you today, you'll survive just fine. And if things continue to grow between you, you'll be 10x more connected next time.

If she's worthy of being intimate with, then she's worth the wait. Gym and a cold shower will help you sort out your dopamine.

Living by the 3 Rules of Consent

These 3 rules are very simple, and very straightfoward.

They give you, as a man, a very clear understanding of what it means to be assertive, without being threatening, overbearing, or domineering in any way. Simple, pure, honest masculinity. You lead the dance.

You decide what you want. You invite a woman into that space with you. And you accept and respect a NO at any moment.

It's that simple.

This approach gives women complete safety with you- because they always know exactly what you want, they never feel deceived or manipulated, and they get to safely choose their consent moment-by-moment.

You can invite a woman to anything you want, PROVIDED the standards for consent are met.

That's pretty cool, and you get to create that experience for her.

Welcome to being a MAN.

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. Last updated on 
December 9, 2018

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      The psychology

      If you're a psychology buff, what you're seeing here is known as Impostor Syndrome, or the "not good enough" story, coupled with a cognitive bias known as confirmation bias.

      Essentially, I had doubts about my self-worth, and whether someone else would appreciate me in their lives. Those doubts started as a suspicion, evolved into a theory, and later became a belief that was hard to shake.

      The process by which this happens is confirmation bias, in which your brain very selectively accepts information. It amplifies the experiences and facts that confirm your "not good enough" theory, and it mutes evidence that contradicts the story.

      If someone didn't show interest in connecting with me, I'd think "of course."

      If someone did want to connect with me, I'd think "I must be misunderstanding this..."

      This effect is so strong, that you'll even find ourself sabotoging good potential connections in confirmation of your story.


      Anonymous. Another great article Mike. What’s your take on this... my longest lived casual relationship was with a girl who constantly said no with her words, but yes with her body language. Boy was I confused during our early days.

      Michael Wells Thanks man. Yeah, I think that's the trickiest of all situations for men. I've experienced that too but not as directly as what you're describing.

      In my example, as we were getting intimate she would sometimes say no, and then seconds later she'd pull me closer. In that situation, it felt like she was weighing what she wanted, between body and mind, and deciding second by second. So she'd say no, I'd go no further, and then she'd maybe feel safe to lead the deeper physical connection. All I can do is really just give her space to make that decision on her own.

      In other cases, like the one you've described, we enter the rather dangerous area of rape fantasy, where some women apparently are wired to feel sexually excited by aggression. Any mis-interpretation on this is hugely dangerous, so personally I draw the line there. It's way too dicey and uncertain... so I'll confront that, and say "look, it feels like you want this, but you're telling me to stop, so I HAVE TO STOP." You'll probably have to discuss directly what she really wants, and what excites her, and then if she wants the aggression and you trust each other, maybe establish a safe word and go nuts.

      In your specific example, I'd directly call it out.

      Hey look I hear your saying NO with your words, but I feel you saying YES with your body. I need to know if you want this.

      What makes this especially difficult is that chances are, both are true. She want this, and she doesn't. Her thoughts and emotions, body and mind, don't always agree.

      Sexuality is a complex topic which doesn't have many boundaries, other than the legal ones.

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