Sexual Consent: Why We Still Haven’t Gotten the Conversation Right
In the months since #MeToo went viral, we’ve had a lot of difficult conversations about sex, consent, and feminism. And as the discussion moved from violent serial predators like Harvey Weinstein to more gray-area violations, those conversations have gotten even thornier. In early December, The New Yorker’s short story “Cat Person” kick-started a dialogue about uncomfortable sexual experiences that aren’t quite coercion. A few weeks later, outspoken male feminist Aziz Ansari was accused of employing pushy seduction strategies that don’t quite align with his public stance on consent.
The more we delve into the nuances of consent, the more it seems like there’s a deep divide between our professed values and our bedroom behavior. While I assume that most of us would sign on to an anti-assault, pro-consent platform, our default concept of romance—a strong, confident man winning over a hesitant, coy woman—indicates exactly the opposite.
But if we’re a culture that believes that sex should only be had when it’s wanted, why are we so bad at understanding and practicing consent? And, more importantly, how on earth can we get better?
To those who came of age before the “yes means yes” model of sexual communication called “affirmative consent” was a household term, the concept can feel confusing, and, potentially, like a total buzzkill. But that may be more of a branding problem than anything else: as Renelle Nelson, LMFT, CST, tells me, part of the problem is the word “consent” itself, which many people associate with contracts and legal commitments. “When people think of consent, they think about an application … of long paperwork.” The association is hardly a sexy one (unless you happen to have a paperwork fetish).
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Yet strip away the legalistic language, and most of us intuitively comprehend what consent is—when it’s in a non-erotic situation, anyway. “It’s way easier for people to understand consent when we talk about food,” says sex educator Haylin Belay. “If I come up to you and say, ‘Hey, do you want this chocolate cupcake? Hey, do you want this chocolate cupcake? Hey, do you want this chocolate cupcake?’ and then you finally eat it, are you going to feel great about eating it? No.” We have to feel “comfortable and safe” if we want to enjoy our food, Belay tells me, and the same goes for our erotic experiences.
That’s quite a simple concept—so why does it appear so much more complicated when sex is involved? Likely because of the shame, taboo, and rejection associated with sex. Many of us go into sex burdened with negative messages that already make it hard to feel comfortable and safe, let alone have an honest vulnerable conversation about what we’re hoping to get out of the experience.
Which brings me to the first tip I received from this crack team of consent experts: To practice consent, we need to get really comfortable talking about sex, both in and out of the bedroom. One way to jump-start the conversation? Pepper your intimate encounters with dirty talk. Although it’s more often associated with porn than sex ed films, dirty talk—which is, at its heart, just a foulmouthed way of expressing our likes, dislikes, and desires—can be a great way to ask for and receive consent, says Belay. “It’s saying, ‘I’m going to do this; do you want me to do this?’”
And, she notes, it’s pretty damn hot. “People say all the time that asking for consent isn’t sexy. But the sexiest thing in the world is having somebody tell me what they want to do to me and ask me for permission to do it.”
Dirty talk is just the beginning: If we only talk about sex while we’re right in the middle of having it, we’re missing out on an important conversation. Having those discussions while fully clothed, Belay says, gives people the chance to see their partners as “more complete sexual beings.” If you’re in an ongoing relationship, Nelson suggests setting some time aside on a date night out, when there’s no pressure to immediately put your desires into action. Although it may initially feel awkward, being honest about our likes and dislikes “is the highest form of intimacy,” she says. Even during a first-time hookup, there’s room to talk about desires before clothes start coming off. And, of course, going into a sexual encounter with a fuller idea of what your partner does—and doesn’t—want makes it easier to create a mutually pleasurable experience.
Learning to ask for what we want is only one part of continuous consent. To ensure that a sexual experience is mutually desired from start to finish—that everyone’s as excited at the end as they were when things kicked off—we need to keep the lines of communication open, paying attention to how the dynamic evolves over the course of the activity.
And that requires getting really comfortable hearing “no,” with an understanding that even if a partner has indicated interest in one sort of intimate activity (getting naked, making out, exploring oral sex) that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re on board with everything we might want.
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Hearing “no” can be incredibly hard, triggering emotions that have nothing to do with the immediate situation. From our earliest years, we learn that “no means naughty,” Nelson says, and hearing it in an intimate context can make us feel ashamed. It’s difficult enough to deal with a rejection from someone we have zero interest in sleeping with; when a “no” crops up mid-hookup, it can be even more challenging.
But learning to gracefully accept, and truly respect, a “no” is an essential part of a consent. “Whenever somebody says ‘no,’ the first words out of your mouth need to be ‘thank you,’” sex and relationships coach Charlie Glickman tells me. “If I thank you for setting a boundary, I’m demonstrating to you that it’s safe to set a boundary.” Though that may seem like a small gesture, it helps build trust and establish an open line of communication. The more certain we feel that our boundaries will be respected, the easier it becomes to make them known.
Responding to “no” with an expression of thanks can also help to reframe the situation in our minds, Glickman says. “I’m reminding myself to be grateful rather than getting resentful or going into a rejection shame spiral.” The more we tell ourselves that a “no” is about our partner’s comfort, and not our own desirability, the easier it will be to hear.
Of course, even with the best of intentions, all of us are going to mess up at some point. Maybe we’re with a partner who’s too shy to assert themselves, or who’s been conditioned to go along with whatever they’re asked for, even if it’s not what they want. If your partner’s in that headspace—which Glickman refers to as “compliance mode”—it can be easy to assume that they’re consenting when the reality is something different.
So what happens if you learn that a partner felt violated by something you thought was totally consensual? The most important thing is to put your partner’s well-being ahead of your own feelings of defensiveness or hurt. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by emotion when you’ve been accused of violating someone’s boundaries, Glickman notes, and suggests taking 30 minutes or so to process and return to a state of calm.
Once you feel ready to talk, open the conversation by thanking your partner for being brave and honest enough to tell you that your actions caused them pain, he advises. Though it may be tempting to rehash the specifics of who did what, it’s far more useful to “focus on the emotions and not the events,” he says, or “debate about who did what when. That’s not the part that needs attention first.” Prioritize making sure that everyone feels supported and comfortable—that instead of viewing ourselves as villains and victims, we approach the conversation as two people with good intentions, who, in spite of ourselves, occasionally screw up.
Achieving that mindset is the most important, and challenging, part of consent. We live in a world that presents sex as something men take and women give, an erotic game meant to be won. Those notions don’t facilitate an enjoyable sexual experience for everyone, and if we approach sex from that outlook, all the consent tips in the world won’t mean squat.
A successful consent culture must prioritize the idea that sex is a mutually pleasurable, collaborative experience, not an adversarial pursuit in which everyone is out for themselves. Once we get that part down, the rest is easier.