Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Few Thoughts about Consent

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?


  1. Oooooh! I have feelings, maybe unpopular ones...

    I like to have explicit conversations before anything more than kissing happens. Sometimes sooner than that.

    I believe if a person has strongly held beliefs about how they want to navigate a situation they are responsible for communicating that.

    I also think it's wise if you're on the 'less explicit asking' side of the equation to ask if less asking is ok. Simply ask, do you prefer to be asked... what's that look like for you.

    I personally establish with my partners, that I am very good at saying no and knowing what I don't like... so you never have to hesitate to initiate something you want because I know if I'm not feeling it I'll communicate that and I feel 100% safe because I know you'll respect me.

    I am in a place of privilege in that I have incredibly strong 'NO' skills, I was not raised to be pleasing or demur.

    Everyone is responsible. We're all responsible for finding what works for us and PREEMPTIVELY communicating that clearly.

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    2. This all sounds great to me -- having a "meta" conversation about consent with new partners, or before any experience in which multiple people will be playing together, seems like a smart idea. And it's always better to err on the side of too much communication -- checking in when it's not strictly necessary isn't nearly as problematic as failing to check in when it's crucial.

  2. I tend to be a fuck yes (http://markmanson.net/fuck-yes) type of person, especially around sex/consent and look for the same in my partners... I definitely experience spontaneous desire so it's very obvious I'm enthusiastic & consenting.

    If someone isn't showing up in a fuck yes way I stop immediately and check in. So I agree it's WAY better to err on the side of caution and stop to communicate during sexy time if you're even having an inkling of doubt.

    This link is also an interesting perspective on consent when someone isn't experiencing spontaneous desire...


    So maybe the friend who said it would have felt better to be asked wasn't experiencing spontaneous desire and needed more to go on before he went to oral... I hope she communicates with that partner what would feel better in the future.

    I love these types of conversations as they can only lead to understanding ourselves better and having better relationships. Glad you're back! :)

    1. Hey, thanks! I'm glad to be back, too. I read the "Fuck Yes or No" piece a year or so ago, and thought it had some great points, but wasn't convinced of its universal applicability, so thanks for sharing the post on "curious consent". I definitely agree with that OP that being in a responsive space -- an "I'm interested in becoming more interested" frame of mind -- shouldn't be conflated with the lukewarm "I'm not sure" that Manson thinks equals a "no".

  3. I love asking consent in more subtle/sexy ways. For instance, when I invite someone new home, if he's wearing a shirt with buttons, while kissing, put my hand on the first button like I'm about to unbutton it, and ask gently "is it OK?". And before unbuttoning his pants again, and so and so. I think that the, least verbose it gets (without losing meaning),the sexier. Like "is it OK?" (while doing the gesture to start some action and smiling and in soft voice) rather than not touching and making a straight face and asking "is it OK if I undress you and I do this and that?".

    Also, once I start feeling fully comfortable, I usually am the first one to say "let's do this: you start anything you want and I'll stop you if necessary". Again, soft voice, smile, cute face.

    So far it's what has worked best for me.