The warm tropical air swirls around us as we fly across the surface of the Caribbean Sea. Ernesto’s round caramel muscles ripple as he secures the air tanks around the dive boat. I’m trying to be discrete but I can’t keep my eyes off our hunky dive instructor. The sound of the engine is making it near to impossible to hear him as he tries to make friendly conversation with the tourists. But it’s fine for now, just looking at him is entertaining enough. He lifts his arm to point at something out in the water. As the others turn to look, I linger a moment entranced by the vulnerable hollow of his armpit and the natural strength in his torso.
When we arrive at the dive spot buoy, Ernesto cuts the engine. We can finally hear his warm accented English. He’s just so friendly and open. He’s making it difficult for me to objectify him into the fantasy I’m toying with in my imagination. As he begins to give us instructions, I lean forward so my erection is concealed in my lap. I smile back at him as he talks us through the dive details for the day.
“For today dive, we going down maybe 100 feet. No more. Remember no touching the reef with you fins. Keep me in your eyes at all time.” No problem there, I think to myself. “When I give you this (the ok signal) or this (thumbs up!), you give me back. Ok?” he says and smiles. We do a little rehearsal. Ok? Ok! Thumbs up? Thumbs up! And then we all laugh with the simple fun of it.
“We stay together whole time. If you have problem, come to me. Maybe you mask are no working. Or you air no working. We try and fix problem down there. If we can no do that, we come back up. We no want to come back up but if problem, no problem. Ok?” He gives us another ‘ok’ signal and the group of us lift our circled thumbs and index fingers in return.
If Ernesto and I were diving into the intimacy I'm dreaming of instead of the clear, blue Caribbean Sea, his dive boat speech would be a perfect example in consent. Ernesto set up a simple nonverbal way to check in, clearly stated the boundaries of the dive (100 feet, no more!) and gives us a pathway to address an issue should we need it. Each time he gives us his thumbs up, he is asking us whether we feel safe, if we’re having a good time and if we are good to keep going. Returning his thumbs up signals our consent.
In intimacy, as in scuba diving, the consent conversation is not the most exciting part of the adventure but its key to having a good time once we’re ventured deep down into an embodied pleasure. Although it’s a must before a diving into the ocean with life and death circumstances, consent conversations on land are not as common.
Without consent, we quickly get into trouble. Many examples from the #MeToo movement are similar to taking someone underwater diving without preparing them ahead of time. It is traumatic to suddenly find yourself panicking, unable to breathe and monstrously unconscious to inflict that kind of trauma while pretending to be sharing pleasure.
We want to go down. We want to be transformed by the pleasure. We want to return safely. And we want to know that should something happen down below that we are not on board with that there is an understood way to address it in the moment.
One by one, we step off the boat. The warm water swallows us fins, wetsuit, air tanks and all. I quickly adjust to the miracle of breathing under water but it takes a moment to tell my mind that everything is ok. We wait for Ernesto below the buoy and when he splashes through the surface, he immediately gives us the thumbs us. We give it right back, forming a group around the graceful merman.
This is day three of our diving certification and before we dive, we need to complete a test. Ernesto swims over to me and takes my respirator out of my mouth and loops it over the back of my tank. He takes the respirator out of his own mouth and holds it out to me.
My task is to take his respirator into my mouth and breathe without taking it out of his hand. Should a diver run out of oxygen at depth, this is the way two divers can breathe in tandem and return safely to the surface.
When I look up toward the light, I see the surface of the water is quite a way away. I remain calm while becoming focused on Ernesto and the air that we are sharing.
Ernesto and I swim together slowly. I stay close with him wrapping my hand lightly around his bulging tricep. We look into each others eyes as we pass the respirator between us. Although this is somewhat scary, this underwater intimacy registers deeply with me. This man is keeping me alive by sharing his breath with me.
Although intimacy is not a life or death situation like diving, breathing together with our partner is essential for intimacy to stay alive and it’s also a great way to non-verbally express consent. When something happens during an erotic encounter that we do not consent to, we stop breathing deeply. Our breath quickly becomes shallow fueling our thoughts, ensuring our quick thinking of how to resolve the situation.
When we breathe in unison with a partner, we are essentially saying I am here and I am with you. Everything is good. Like thumbs up but perhaps more subtle. When we notice our partner is not breathing deeply or seem to be holding their breath, it’s a clear indicator that something is happening and it’s time to check in.
Once we’ve all passed the breathing test with Ernesto, we follow the rope that connects the buoy with the ocean floor. We slowly start to descend. At first, the reef below us appears to be a vague landscape of ragged hills and valleys. As we approach the colors and textures of the magical sea creatures that live here slowly begin to emerge. Fan coral and anemone sway in the current. Brightly colored fish as beautiful as gems spark fireworks in bursts of excitement. Within just twenty minutes from our awkward splashy departure from the boat, we are gracefully flying through unspeakable beauty at the bottom of the sea.
My mask begins to fill with water quickly. I angle it away from my face and blow air up into it as Ernesto has shown us. But the water flows right back in and it is clear that my straps need adjusting. I can’t remember exactly how its designed to be able to tighten it while the mask is on my face. Ocean water gets in my eye and the salt stings. My vision gets blurry and I squeeze my eye tight against the sharp sensation.
I catch up with Ernesto and tug on his flipper. I point to my mask and he is immediately trying to pull on the straps on the sides to increase the tightness. Meanwhile, my eye is burning from the salt and I’m afraid to open it for fear of losing my contact lens. I'm aggittated and frustrated by the discomfort. I point upward. I need to go to the surface and deal with the situation. Ernesto signals to the group to wait for us as he takes me by the arm.
With my eyes shut tight against the sting, I feel myself rise slowly from the ocean floor tethered to Ernesto’s calm presence. I can feel the water sensually swirl between our bodies but its not the sexy moment I wish we were having.
Within a few minutes, we break through the surface. I pull off my mask with my eyes closed and hand it to Ernesto who gets to work adjusting it. Improbable as it may seem, I am able to remove my contact lens, clear the salt and restore my vision all while floating in the middle of sea. With my mask back in place, I am ready to go back down.
Ernesto gives me a thumbs up. I give it back. Relaxed and grateful that this beautiful man has helped through this moment as he said he would. In his dive boat speech, Ernesto gave us all the gift of knowing that if we needed to come to the surface, he would be there for us. Giving our consent also means sharing the trust that no matter what happens, we will navigate the depths of the adventure together.
A half hour later we are all safely back on board. Ernesto is the last diver to emerge from the sea and he quickly peels back his wetsuit from his skin. With his torso exposed, his erotic power is as strong as ever but something has shifted in me. I can’t seem to objectify him any longer.
He helped me when I struggled. He shared his air with me, keeping me alive. Now, he was more to me than a sexy body. The feeling of objectifying him felt wrong. It diminished this highly capable man into something disposable, an object for my unconscious pleasure.
Ernesto counts us with his finger and when he gets to me he says “how is you eye?”
“Fine” I say and smile. “Thanks for your help. I’m sorry if I caused some drama.”
“No problem,” he says. “Sometimes problem…no problem. Most important, you have a good time. You have good time?” he asks.
Without thinking, I give Ernesto an ok sign. Ernesto smiles, gives me a thumbs up, reaches out and sticks his thumb into the loop of my fingers. The obvious sexual innuendo surprises me and makes us both laugh. The others turn to the sound of our laughter to see what is so funny and we smile as we let go of each others hands.
Ernesto’s eyes find mine for a brief moment of shared mischief before he busies himself securing the tanks. I probably want him more than ever now. Although the sight of his moving, working body begins to reanimate my animal desire for him, the consent, trust and honor he showed me that day touched me far more deeply.