The distinction between Verbal vs. Oral

Still too busy to make a proper post, but I wanted to write a response to this comment on my How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person post that I just saw on Tumblr:

This is a great article aside from the emphasis on exclusively verbal communication. I agree that clear communication and having a complete understanding of how and when a person(or persons) is ok with what is entirely necessary; however, it is also important to remember that there are other entirely unambiguous forms of communication that some people use that are nonverbal.

You mean communication like signing, right? Thank you for the reminder, and sorry for not picking that up. I’ll try to keep this in mind.

I do mean communication like signing, using an communication board, using a pen or pencil and paper, using a tablet pc, using an alphasmart or any other adaptive technology. Just because someone is nonverbal (to whatever extent and for whatever reason) doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t give consent and frequently the sex education and consent education that any nonverbal (for reasons of disability) people receive is inadequate or nonexistent. This is related to the lack of disability related material on this subject overall but is also of course related to the general forced desexualization of disabled bodies.

I think there’s a miscommunication in how we’re defining terms. I’m a little confused, here. How is writing something down using any of those different methods, or signing or using a “talker” (this is what we’ve called them in my family), non-verbal communication? Is sign language not still a language? Verbal, to me, means using language. Sign language and written communication are INCLUDED under the category of “verbal communication.” At least under my definition!

Here’s what is NOT included under the (very broad) category of “verbal communication” by my definition: sighing, facial expressions, what clothes you’re wearing, that you have gone home with someone for a night, that you had coffee with someone, etc. Basically, any kind of assumption that someone might make about whether or not you want to have sex without asking you in some form of direct language whether you want to or not.

I was quite deliberate about the word that I chose, because I wanted to avoid this exact miscommunication.  If I wanted to refer ONLY to spoken communication, I would have said oral communication.

However, I probably should have consulted the dictionary before I posted, because I was not aware that one of the definitions referred specifically to oral communication. Every definition but the third one refers ONLY to words. So I see where the confusion came from, and I apologize for causing it. My intent was not to exclude anyone with a disability.

Is there some phrase more specific than “verbal communication” to refer to a BROAD UMBRELLA of different types of communication that include words? Or do I just have to go back and elaborate on what I mean every single time? How can I make this more inclusive when I revise it?

Edit: I also touched on this in my last post responding to Tumblr comments, but it bears repeating: The person who is being asked for consent can give it with a clear nonverbal signal, like a thumbs up. But the person who INITIATES must use some kind of direct, unambiguous language to do so rather than relying on assumptions based on body language or circumstance. (Unless, of course, what is and is not okay has already been pre-negotiated, using words. You still should check in to make sure it’s still okay every now and then, though.)


3 thoughts on “The distinction between Verbal vs. Oral

  1. The thing with “verbal” is that despite it’s more literal original definition, it’s commonly used to distinguish spoken communication from written communication or as a synonym for oral now (since the word oral makes some people giggle)

    Perhaps a better description would be that consent requires *explicit* communication, in which the intent is clearly stated (as opposed to implicit communicaiton, in which the use of ambiguity, metaphors, etc means meaning must be inferred by the user, which leaves much more room for miscommunication. )


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