When I get up in front of a room full of teenagers and tell them that consent is sexy, I mean it. I’m not telling them that just to get some hippie feminist agenda across. I’m not telling them that because it’s the trendy, politically correct line in the wake of Steubenville and the military sexual assault epidemic. I’m telling them that because it’s true. Consent is sexy. Talking about sex is sexy. You know what isn’t sexy? Rape. It turns out that rape is only sexy to rapists. [TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of rape and sexual assault]
Normally I don’t read anything on The Atlantic that isn’t by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This piece, however, has been getting a fair amount of attention in feminist circles, and for good reason. The article focuses heavily on a play called Speak About It, which is comprised of several short skits showing students acting out realistic sexual situations, as well as other media representations of realistic sex, such as HBO’s Girls. I’m not going to touch on the politics of that particular show because I have never seen it, but the article singles it out as having very realistic, or “unerotic” sex scenes. And of course, it wouldn’t be a mode sex article without mentioning the dreaded hookup culture! If I were reading this out loud, this is where I would play the scary music and the thunder claps.
Emily Esfahani Smith’s point is that modern sex, or at least portrayals of modern sex and therefore what we tell people (i.e. teens and young adults) is bland and unerotic. The reason? We talk about it too much. Really. The article ends with this charming, helpful bit of advice: “If we want sex to be sexy again, perhaps we should speak less about it.”
Let’s think back for a moment to what a culture of silence has gotten us. Rape, abuse, incest, domestic violence, and institutional sexism and misogyny that keeps us from reporting any of the above. Feminists have been working for decades to break the culture of silence around sexuality to end these tragedies. We’ve gone from not being able to even allude to the act of sex in public to openly talking about it on the bus or at lunch. We’ve finally reached a point where community leaders can make information about safe, healthy sexual encounters available to teens and young adults, either in person or online. The goal of this is not purely to make sexual encounters erotic, but to make them both enjoyable and safe. These are not mutually exclusive.
The major failing of the Atlantic piece is that it sets up a false dichotomy. To talk about sex is to make it non-sexy. To keep quiet, to say nothing and let whatever is going to happen happen is to be sexy and erotic. Obviously, this is utter bullshit. Talking can be sexy. Make it sexy, make it sweet, make it fun. Find a game to play or talk dirty. If you’re worried about the whole mood-killer thing, find an unobtrusive spot to quickly slip in some communication and get right back to business.
The Atlantic piece calls for a switch back to the old ways of sex, back to the times when nobody talked and everybody just did it. The article acts like those times just disappeared, when you can watch just about any mainstream movie or television show and see just the kind of non-communicative sex Smith finds so erotic. The truth is that there has been no real switch at all, just a slight sway in the way our culture is beginning to look at sex. To those of us who have been fighting for this for years, it’s a glimmer of hope. It’s the hope that one day we won’t have to overhear young women at the sandwich shop talk about how, “He just put it in out of nowhere,” or watch television shows where characters that just want to kiss end up having sex. The idea of a culture built on communication and consent has just barely started, and already it’s being torn down and bemoaned as the murderer of eroticism. If that’s what true eroticism is to the author, this lack of communication and potential for rape, it needs to be eliminated. I’ll take the eroticism and sexiness of communication and consent, please.
Author’s Note: Silence can indeed be sexy if it’s discussed beforehand as a part of safe sex play and a safe word is negotiated between consenting partners.