ANNIE FRAZIER HALLADAY
“So we’re going to play spin the bottle at this party, right?”
My house was recently playing host to a birthday party, and at some point in the evening it became clear that some party-goers wanted to play Spin The Bottle. Somehow word had gotten out that the birthday girl (not me) was highly interested but perhaps too bashful to start the game, and things progressed from there.
Although it initially seemed like only 3-4 people would be playing, when it came time to start the game, half a dozen more people were ready to join in. Every person I talked to mentioned it was also their first time ever playing.
The circle formed. The lights were dimmed. The bottle was chosen. The bottle was test spun on several surfaces for maximum spinability. The giggling was intense.
Someone said “okay, let’s have a quick consent talk and rule review before we start. So, umm, you spin the bottle and then…. Umm…”
And then we realized. Spin The Bottle (like most things in our sex-negative culture) doesn’t have consent built in. So we made it better.
On the fly, we co-created a consent oriented version of the game that was specifically tailored to the comfort of the exact people in the circle. We didn’t start until there was group consensus, and before playing we went around and each person was able to add their own additional request or boundary for the game. Have I mentioned how much I love my friends?
Here’s the gameplay we created:
Player 1 spins the bottle (duh). When the bottle completely stops moving, the person it is pointing at becomes Player 2.
Player 1 (or the entire group) asks Player 2 “Kiss or Q?” Player 2 responds that they’d either like to kiss, or they’d like to be asked a question. (My favorite question asked was “what summer camp would you design for yourself?”)
If Player 2 says Kiss, they could then say or point at the part of their own body they would like to offer to Player 1 to kiss (such as lips, cheek, back of hand, or neck). Player 1 could also do a shoulder shimmy “wild card” move to indicate that they consented to Player 1 choosing the kiss location. Importantly: Player 1 is not obligated to kiss Player 2 where they have indicated, and can step down (but not up) the intensity of the kiss- e.g. it would be okay to kiss the back of the hand if the lips were pointed to (but not vis versa).
Some turns, the players took a moment to verbally confirm with one another the kiss intensity, or further negotiate by asking another question, along the lines of “kiss or peck?”
And then, the kissing, of course.
It was a beautiful thing, this assembled group of folks on my kitchen floor. There was a wide spectrum of gender and orientation identities- all femmes or AFAB (assigned female at birth) folks though, no cis men at the party chose to play. There was also a range of relationship styles and agreements. There was even a monogamous couple who worked out on the fly how they’d like to play but still remain within the boundaries of their agreements (they told us they were opting for Q’s or hand kisses only).
I found the game to be a powerful representation of how many facets of consent there are in practice… We often like to talk about consent in black and white terms: It’s present or it’s absent. It’s a yes or it’s a no. It’s verbal or it doesn’t count. And while all of things are true and outlining them this way is an essential part of the conversation around ending consent violations, I find that in practice there’s also a lot more nuance that makes up the way we navigate consent with one another.
Here are some of the facets of consent I spotted over the course of the game:
Pre-Negotiated, Verbal, and Informed Consent
Creating the game with all players present, and an in-depth review of the gameplay before starting was crucial to these parts of consent. Everyone confirmed they knew what they were getting into. There were no surprises, and the details of the game were known before starting. Beyond the rule setting, we also went around the circle one at a time, and each person was able to name their own specific boundaries or desires- this was also the opportunity to disclose recent or current illness or mouth sores.
Consent is always personal.
The going around the circle and checking in with each person affirmed that each person had the agency to play the game in exactly the way that they wanted to, and no one was expected to follow a one-size-fits-all experience of the game. Just sitting in the circle was not a good enough indicator- specific consent had to be affirmed by each person.
The player chosen was able to say ‘kiss or q,’ to express their general interest in a non-pressured way- without having to specifically name it at that point. Saying a hard ‘no’ if you’re not interested can be a huge challenge (especially for many women and folks socialized as women) and it was nice to have an easy option to engage in a more neutral way with the other player without worrying about dynamics that may exist outside of the game. (I first learned the term Express Consent from this podcast episode of Sex With Timaree, which I highly recommend checking out if you’re intrigued).
Possibly my favorite part of the game was watching folks point at their own bodies to indicate the area they were proffering for the kiss. Again- for women and folks socialized as women, using your words to talk about your body, your desires, your boundaries, etc, can be REALLY DIFFICULT. Especially when you’re in a giggling mass of friends, or there may be social pressure to do things you’re not comfortable with, or you’re nervous or it’s a new situation, or you’re feeling weird about yourself that day, etc, etc… By outlining some options for non-verbal consent at the beginning of the game in a clear way, folks were able to trust that their non-verbal expressions of consent/desires would be respected and interpreted in the expected way.
Making Space For The Unknown
The shoulder shimmy: a.k.a ‘I don’t know quite what I want, but I know I want something and I trust you to explore that space of not knowing with me”. One of the nuances of consent that can sometimes be left out of the conversation is how to explore a ‘maybe.’
I generally prescribe to the “Fuck Yes” model for myself… I am willing to explore something I only feel a ‘maybe’ towards, as long as I can find a fuck yes somewhere. My ‘fuck yes’ might be leaning into the fear of the unknown. My ‘fuck yes’ might be wanting to try to shift past patterns and experiences. My ‘fuck yes’ might be wanting to experience something unexpected. My ‘fuck yes’ might be yearning to find out if that thing that’s a ‘fuck yes’ for my partner might also be a ‘fuck yes’ for me. The key to making space for the unknown is TRUST between all people involved, and the commitment to back off (or lean in) when the unknown becomes known.
Overall, I think the game we created was a thoughtful container brimming with consent-mindedness and celebration of each person’s agency and individual experience, that was meant to (and successfully did) create space and connectedness between a group of ten-ish humans.
And yet, even when being mindful of all of these nuances of consent, and accounting for so many different levels of individual comfort and providing many opportunities for engagement with the game in different ways… There were still big questions and challenges.
What if all verbal cues point to yes, but that shoulder shimmy that seemed really enthusiastic before feels, to just one person, energetically a little more like a shoulder shrug now?
What about when one person has had one beer more than other folks in the circle may be comfortable with, but still seems reasonably responsible, and is enthusiastically giving all positive indications of verbal and nonverbal consent? (It was a spontaneous makeout game at a party, after all).
What happens when circumstances beyond our control, such as an un-level hardwood floor, causes the bottle to spin in ways that evoke feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt for those not in the hot seat? How might that affect the consent we are giving or interpreting?
How do we deal with the feelings that arise when our expectations were high, and we followed all the rules and were genuinely respectful, but got to the end of the game without having made out with anyone, and can't help but being a little disappointed?
What other layers of self-worth, power dynamics, social phobias, and beliefs about consent are we bringing to the game, regardless of what we have intellectually agreed to?
What do we do when things go unexpectedly?
So much of the conversation around consent gets lost when we don’t give ourselves and each other the chance to walk through these mental evaluations and nuances from a safe distance.
And that's exactly why I love games like this- they can be a powerful way to sort through some of these questions (or even simply to realize what questions exist) about consent navigation. It turns out a simple middle school makeout game can be a powerful mirror- showing us both our happy, giggling side as well as the soft places we still have insecurities and struggles.
If you’re feeling brave, feel free to get some trusty friends together a give this Spin The Bottle game a whirl. But if you do, won’t you please tell me how it goes?