[TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains potentially triggering material related to sexual assault and consent.]
For the past several months, my academic research has been focused on sexual violence prevention and healthy sexual relationships. Yes, it’s a little depressing to read sky-high statistics and rape myths all day long, but I love what I do. Last month I attended a conference and presented on consent in healthy relationships to a bunch of mostly college-age feminists. A few days ago I did a class presentation on a similar topic, and next week I will be giving the same presentation for a research symposium. Based on the first two experiences, I’m not exactly looking forward to the next one. Why? Well, people seem to have a problem with that whole enthusiastic consent thing.
The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement. Many of you may be familiar with the book Yes Means Yes!, which popularized the idea. The concept also requires that consent be given to each piece of sexual activity, meaning that a yes to one thing (such as vaginal penetration) does not mean consent to another (like anal penetration). Basically, we’re saying, “Yes! I want this!” or, “No, I don’t think I want to do that,” and we’re asking “Is this ok?” To do these things is to be respectful of not only your own bodily autonomy, but also your partner’s. It’s just common courtesy, really. To give enthusiastic consent isn’t exactly to scream that you want it at the top of your lungs; it’s more that an unsure or hesitant yes is not enthusiastic consent, and needs to be considered. But still, I have faced opposition when talking about this.
My first experience with this sort of opposition was at the conference I mentioned above. I was giving a presentation to a rather small audience, which I was grateful for as it allowed for discussion. Most of the experiece was quite positive, and I got a lot of great feedback. And then we hit the enthusiastic consent barrier. Now, in a room full of feminists and feminist-allies, I was not expecting to get any argument on this. I was, to be honest, a little shocked, because I had not planned for debate on this topic. “But it kills the mood!” and “I think that’s unnecessary” comments filled the room. The thing is, I never said it was easy; I said it was necessary and important if we are going to move forward. I know I may get some disagreement on that, but I think it is very true. 93% of victims (and I say victims because I don’t know who survived and who didn’t) are assaulted by someone they know. This means that there is a clear consent issue in this culture, and enthusiastic consent is one way to help fix some of that problem. And yes, I realize that stopping the sexytimes to ask if something is OK isn’t exactly hot to most people. I get that. Make it hot. Make it sexy. you don’t have to stop, walk twenty paces, and ask for permission. Whisper it gently into your partner’s ear, seductively say, “Hey, I think XXX would be sexy. Want to try it?” If your partner is even hesitant, back off. You might need to talk it over. Even after telling these things to my audience, I still got “Ugh, really?” looks and “Uh-huh…” type comments.
My next experience, giving a class presentation, fared slightly better. I was presenting to groups of three or four at a time, with a three minute time limit, so there wasn’t much space for discussion. But if I had a nickel for every raised eyebrow I saw, well, I still couldn’t buy much because there weren’t very many people in my class! Anyway, I definitely got Those Looks again. A couple of people laughed. One person made fun of the idea. Someone told me it wasn’t realsitic. And maybe I do live in my little corner of the Ideal Feminist Paradise, but I’d like to think it’s possible to do.
I know this concept is hard to grasp. I know it’s difficult and requires work on your own part and your partner’s. We don’t like the idea of halting sex. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid we’ll break the mood. Maybe we’re afraid our partner is going to think we’re weird for asking. Maybe we think, due to so many cultural and social factors, that we are entitled to something that we are not. Maybe we put too much trust in our instincts. However, I say that it is better to err on the side of caution. I personally would rather break the mood and have to try again later than do something my partner was not fully comfortable with, but didn’t want to vocalize. So what do you think, Wise Ones of Persephone? I’m curious to hear from you. Was it just my demographic? Too young? Too conservative? What are your views?