I was out with several friends the other night, and one of them was recounting a recent sexual escapade in which there had been, as she put it, “consent issues.” There was a collective gasp: what sort of consent issues?! “Like, we were making out, and then he pulled down my underwear and started going down on me without asking,” she said. She went on to explain, “There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have said no if he’d asked, so I don’t know if I should be that upset about it. It’s probably a generational thing – he’s quite a bit older. I guess I just wish he’d given me the chance to say yes.”
This got me thinking about consent, which is somewhat unusual for me. If I’m in a well-established sexual relationship with someone, I tend to dispense with explicit consent, at least under normal circumstances. It’s usually only if I’m with someone whose preferences I don’t know well, or whose nonverbal cues I can’t yet read, that I seek verbal consent. It seems like the polite thing to do. But it doesn’t feel like a particularly sexy thing to do, and I happen to know there are other people out there who feel the same way.
Last summer, my husband participated in a group thought experiment. The question was posed, “If you were to join a sex cult, what would you want it to be like?” Very quickly, participants divided into two completely opposing factions, based on a single issue they could not agree upon. Yup, you guessed it: consent. Group A said they would not consider joining any type of sex cult unless it had been founded on consent as the guiding principle. They wanted to be asked about everything, every time. Essentially, they wanted a culture of micro-consent. Group B, on the other hand, hated the idea of micro-consent. What was the point of joining a sex cult if it meant you were constantly having to say stupid shit like, “May I step into your personal space? Yes? Okay, how is this for you? Now, may I touch you lightly on the forearm?” For these people, negotiating consent had always been the unsexiest part of sex, and the whole appeal of (hypothetically) joining a sex cult lay in the nonverbal ease of getting laid on a regular basis. They wanted to be free. They wanted to be spontaneous. They wanted to follow their desires wherever they led, into a field of boundless possibility, secure in the knowledge that everyone they met had already said yes – unless and until they explicitly said no.
I’m not keen on cults of any stripe, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be tempted to join either of these groups. Neither one sounds like much fun. In group A, I’d be thinking about boundaries more than I’d be thinking about sex. And in group B, I’d just be saying “NO!” all the time.
Is there a middle way? Can we make consent culture a little bit sexier? What does option C look like?