I look at physical touch between two people via a spectrum model: on one end of the spectrum (of positive touch only) is the handshake and on the other end is full-blown penetrative sex. What falls in between progresses from that most casual and non-intimate/nonsensual type of touch to more intimate, more sensual, and ultimately sexual. At every point of this spectrum, romantic attraction is optional, and sexual attraction is optional in the nongenital portion of the spectrum. That simply means you can cuddle someone you don’t want to fuck and fuck someone you don’t want to date or don’t feel the least bit romantically in love with.
The nonsexual/nongenital forms of touch include: unemotional hugs, emotional hugs, holding hands, kissing (that breaks down further into “on the cheek,” “on the mouth, close-lipped,” “on the mouth, with tongue,” “on the body, close mouthed”, “on the body, open-mouthed”), cuddling (clothed or partially unclothed), caressing or petting the body affectionately, intimate paired dancing, and massage.
The erotic and/or sexual forms of touch include: mutual masturbation, sexual groping of the body with particular attention to the breasts or buttocks, dry humping, oral sex, anal sex, sex with toys, and penile-vaginal sex.
The physical touch escalator is based on the premise that each form or level of touch on the spectrum automatically and undoubtedly implies a progression to the next form or level, usually beginning somewhere after “nonromantic/casual hugs.” Therefore, if you enthusiastically engage in one type of nonsexual, affectionate touch with someone, you are expected to eventually engage in whatever physical act comes after it on the spectrum—and keep going until you eventually reach penetrative sex.
If you don’t want to share Touch C with a person, then you better not agree to share Touch B, and if you go through with Touch C, you’re implying that you’re interested in Touch D, etc. The nonsexual forms of physical affection are only means to a sexual end, their main value the potential for sex that they carry by default.
The Physical Touch Escalator in Action
So let’s say Jenny—a heterosexual female—is at a college party. She’s had a few drinks, she’s loosened up, she’s having a good time, and she starts dancing with some guy named Ryan. She thinks Ryan’s attractive, and she enjoys dancing, so dancing with him is fun. They’re feeling each other up a little, and then they end up making out (kissing open-mouthed with tongue).
Jenny’s enjoying herself, but she doesn’t want to go any further on the touch escalator. Jenny doesn’t want any kind of sexual contact with Ryan; she doesn’t know him well enough or she’s only comfortable having sex inside of a romantic relationship or she doesn’t feel like it tonight.
But Ryan, who’s also intoxicated and horny, expects that he’ll be able to take her back to his place and at least get some oral sex out of the deal. After all, she’s making out with him, right? Obviously, she’s attracted to him and in the mood for sex.
Now, maybe Jenny manages to get away from Ryan and leave the party for home with friends or by herself—in which case Ryan feels disappointed and maybe a little bit annoyed, even cheated. Or maybe Ryan convinces Jenny to go home with him, and they end up having some kind of sex that Jenny just goes along with because it’s easier to do it than it is to flat-out reject this attractive guy’s advances after she already made out and danced with him. Maybe Jenny would actually like to go to sleep with Ryan after some cuddling—but there’s no way in hell Ryan’s going to do that without sex happening first. Worst case scenario: Jenny goes home with Ryan, drunk and thinking that they can just go to sleep cuddling or not even really thinking at all, and Ryan ends up raping her without believing as he does it (or afterward) that it’s rape.
The bottom line is, once Jenny gets on the physical touch escalator with Ryan, it’s hard to get off of it before reaching the sexual end. And because she got on the escalator with him, Ryan feels like he has a right to some level of sexual favor from her.
The Physical Touch Escalator and Rape Culture
The Physical Touch Escalator involves attitudes that are essential to rape culture, which is the biggest reason why the PTE is so problematic. It is built on the following two premises:
1. If you consent to one kind of physical interaction with someone, you’re implicitly consenting to all the other kinds that come after it up to penetrative sex, which means that if you stop the escalator before you reach sexual interaction, you’re a “tease” who’s being “unfair” to the other person. You’ve “led them on.”
2. Giving someone else any kind of physical, nongenital affection entitles you to sexual interaction with that person….. which can easily turn into the classic rapist’s defense: “She/he was asking for it.”
It shouldn’t take a high IQ to see that if you combine these two attitudes, you create a situation where it’s dangerously easy for rape to happen.
Contrary to popular knowledge, “rape” is not always a clear-cut crime. There’s the kind of rape that most people think of when they hear the word: the violent, hostile, and usually stranger-on-stranger or acquaintance-on-acquaintance rape, where the victim’s screaming and trying to get away and very obviously does NOT consent; after that, drug-facilitated date rape is probably the next kind that comes to mind. These attacks are easy for the world to define as rape because the victim was a completely unwilling participant in the entire interaction, not just the genital interaction.
But the less hostile, less violent, more subdued type of rape—in other words, the kind that’s easier for rapists, their victims, and even people who know both, to dismiss as something other than rape or assault—can contain elements that lead everyone to excuse the rapist and even blame the victim. Sometimes, those elements are alcohol or drugs. Sometimes, it’s the way a female victim was dressed or where she was at the time of her assault. Sometimes, it’s the fact that the victim was flirting with the rapist prior to the assault.
But sometimes, it’s the fact that the victim did consent to some of the physical touch leading up to the rape—the ultimate “asking for it.” And these scenarios of rape and sexual assault have to be the kind that happen in personal relationships, between two romantic partners or between two friends, rather than between total strangers or acquaintances who aren’t on particularly friendly terms. So you’re with someone that you trust, that you may even love, who you’re being physically affectionate with (in a nonsexual manner) because you want to share affection with them….. You do want that touch, that affection, that intimacy. You just don’t want sex.
And it’s your right not to want sex. It’s your right to say “yes” to cuddling and “no” to penetration or “yes” to kissing and “no” to oral sex, etc.
But in this culture of ours where millions of people still don’t understand that it’s possible for rape to happen in a romantic relationship, how many bystanders do you think would easily and immediately accept that in a situation where two people who are emotionally connected are sharing consensual physical affection, that the one who ended up raped or sexually assaulted seriously, legitimately DID NOT WANT to have sex?
How many people would say, “Well, if that person didn’t want to have sex, then they shouldn’t have said yes to cuddling”? Or “If that person didn’t want to have sex, then they shouldn’t have been kissing their partner at the time”? Or even, “Well, those two are a couple, so it wasn’t rape, it was just one of them doing something they didn’t really want to do to make their partner happy. That happens with every couple, in all kinds of ways”?
And frankly, putting rape culture aside for a second, what can we expect in a culture where physical affection is sexualized so totally and undeniably in the collective social consciousness? The physical touch escalator can only exist as long as the most common mindset among the public is to read all forms of non-casual physical affection and sensual touch as innately sex-motivated, and as long as most people believe in that sex-motivation bullshit, people are going to end up raped and assaulted by their own romantic partners or intimate friends or people they’re casually dating, just for wanting and engaging in some nongenital physical affection.
The Physical Touch Escalator and Asexuality/Celibacy
As a celibate asexual, the Physical Touch Escalator pisses me off for reasons beyond its interaction with rape culture.
The PTE and its premise that all physical affection and sensual touch is sex-motivated are the reasons that so many celibate asexuals find themselves without access to regular, safe physical touch, which a lot of us desire strongly whether in romantic or nonromantic relationships. This lack of physical affection in our lives can be deeply disturbing, emotionally and even psychologically.
The PTE puts a lot of oblivious asexuals, who are sex-repulsed or sex-averse, into dangerous situations where they don’t even see the unasked for sexual advance coming and where they feel either too surprised or guilty, that they have a hard time saying “no” to the escalating sexual activity in the middle of it, even when they’re dying to get out of that situation.
The PTE makes mixed romantic relationships with sexual people super risky and dangerous for asexuals who do not want any kind of sexual contact or minimal sexual contact, and it can even make so-called “friendships” with sexual people dangerous, if the ace is comfortably participating in physical affection that they don’t even consider romantic, while their “friend” is using the physical affection to move-in on the ace sexually.
The PTE can cause sexual people to question an asexual’s identity because of the asexual’s sensuality or love of physical touch; it’s one reason why sexual people can assume that all asexuals are totally non-physical, non-sensual, standoffish, cold, etc. In this same vein, an asexual who would otherwise feel 100% sure about wanting to stay celibate could question their own desires, their own identity, their own comfort level with actual sex all because of their enjoyment and desire for nonsexual sensual touch. You got the whole God damn world telling you that nobody wants to cuddle or kiss or hold hands with someone, unless what they really want is to fuck that person, and after a lifetime of hearing that message unchallenged, it’s not easy to completely discard it even in the face of your own contradictory feelings, desires, and sexual orientation.
I’ve seen this a thousand times: some ace, usually young and new to the community, asking around: “If I like making out, does that mean I’m not ace? If I love to cuddle, does that mean I’m not ace? I love to be physically affectionate, does that mean I want sex and I just don’t know it and I have to go through with it even though I feel like I don’t want it?” It’s insane, the circles you can run around in your head all because of some cultural paradigm that’s complete horseshit.
The Physical Touch Escalator is in direct violation of healthy consent in relationships of any kind. It is a tool and expression of rape culture. It particularly endangers asexuals and other people either temporarily or permanently celibate who choose to pursue physically affectionate/intimate relationships with romantic or nonromantic partners.
The idea that nongenital physical affection can only be motivated by sexual desire and can therefore only have sexual connotations is disgusting, harmful, and unfair. It has created a society where people can rape their romantic partners or close friends and feel excused in doing so, where it’s easy for people to pressure romantic partners or friends for sex and where their partners dubiously consent to it out of guilt or a sense that they owe sex as repayment for physical affection, where the only way to gain access to nonsexual physical affection is to enter into a sexual or romantic-sexual relationship and therefore anyone not in a sexual or romantic-sexual relationship must live with next to no affectionate touch—which is emotionally and psychologically unhealthy and even cruel.
You are entitled to say “yes” to nonsexual physical affection and say “no” to sexual activity, in any kind of relationship, any time or all the time. It does not make you a tease. It does not make you a bad friend, a bad romantic partner, or a bad person. Your desire to NOT have sex is equally as valid as any other person’s desire to have sex. You never owe anyone sex, for any reason.
Holding someone’s hand or cuddling them or kissing them or giving them any other kind of nongenital physical affection does not unconditionally entitle you to have sex with that person. Ever. Even if you’re dating them, even if you’re in a serious romantic relationship, even if you’re married to them. You have no right to someone else’s body. Period.
No one should have to say “no” to sex more than once. Saying “no” to sex is not an invitation for a debate, an argument, nagging, manipulation, guilting, or any other form of coercion. If someone doesn’t accept “no” immediately and without question, kick that douche bag to the curb and don’t look back.