“OKAY” Is A Four-Letter Word

nookayTalking about what you want in bed (and for that matter, in life) is scary, tricky business. Admitting something you want takes guts, and no one wants to be laughed at or rejected for sharing something tender with a loved one.

Sometimes though, the pull toward intimacy and connection wins out and you get up the guts to ask for the thing you want. You share a secret desire. You make your move and then…

“Is this okay?”

“Was that okay?”

“Are you okay?”

That dreaded four-letter word rears its head. When it comes to sex and intimacy, I absolutely, without a doubt, hate the word “okay.” What’s so bad about okay? Let me explain:

1. It’s unclear.

When you ask if something is okay, it is maddeningly unclear what you’re asking. Are you checking for permission? To see if you’re still loved? To find out if your partner is willing to tolerate whatever it is you want or are doing?

What do you mean by “Okay?”

Usually, it’s some combination of the above. There’s a lot of complexity wedged into that four-letter word. And only two answers: “Yes” and “no.” (I guess silence or “um…” would be other options.)

What the heck are you actually asking?

And what is it that your partner is hearing?

You might be checking to see if your partner is on board with doing the thing, but they might be hearing that you’re asking if they will put up it.

Or, you might be needing reassurance, and their brusque “yeah” isn’t exactly doing the trick.

You might be asking if a thing is allowable in the context of your relationship, and your partner might be hearing you ask if they think you are okay, as a basic human being.

This lack of clarity leads to endless fights involving the phrase “but you SAID it was Okay!”

Sure. But nobody actually knows what that means. Asking about “okay” sidesteps more honest questions. Figure out what you really want to know, and ask about that instead.

2. It encourages gatekeeping.

“But what about consent?” you’re wondering. “How am I supposed to know if something’s okay, unless I ask if it’s… okay?!”

I’m thrilled with the attention that consent culture is getting lately. There are many people out there educating and advocating for clearer and more open expressions of consent out there, and it’s awesome.

We’ve already covered how “okay” is unclear, but there’s another problem with it.

When asking “is this okay?” one person is asking permission and the other person is acting as the gatekeeper. It’s like one person wants the sex and the other person has sex to give out. (Mainly in our culture, we act like men want sex all the time and their manliness depends on being able to get it, and women have to act like the guardians of chastity and virtue, and certainly not like sexual creatures with agency of their own, capable of co-creating a fun sexy time with their partners.)

This sets both people up to lose.

Consent is about agreements between equals about how they want to play together. When one person is trying to “get” something from another who “has” it, it’s more like applying for a permit in a bureaucracy. It’s like you sort of assume the person on the other side isn’t having any fun or pleasure.

And so we ask if it’s okay. Which leads to my third reason for hating “Okay.”

3. It’s a sadly low standard.

“Okay” is a really, really low standard to hold your relationships and sex life to.

If all the time you’re asking if thing are okay, and your partner says yes, then over time you have an … okay relationship. And an okay sex life.

You deserve better than this. So does your partner.

A whole lot better than this.

Most couples have never taken the time to talk about how they want their relationship or sex life to be. What if the standard was pleasurable, or enjoyable, or fun, or good? What if you made a game of finding things that rocked one another’s world, instead of aiming for okay?

Breaking the Habit

I still catch myself asking “Is this okay?” “Was that okay?” “Are you okay?” a few times a week, particularly with people I’m just getting to know, or when don’t know where I stand with someone. But it’s getting easier to notice and to ask something else instead. When you feel unclear or unreassured after an “okay” exchange, it’s a clue to stop, and be more precise about what you (or the other person) is asking for.

Up next: 27 Alternatives to Asking “Is This Okay?”

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