Is there an all-encompassing ethic of sexual consent? Ozy Frantz lays down some ground rules.
A version of this article was originally published at No Seriously, What About Teh Menz?
Folks in sex-positive circles talk about “enthusiastic consent” as a good standard to keep everyone safe from violation of their sexual boundaries. It’s a nice idea, but personally, I use “good consent” instead. Enthusiastic consent is a problematic term. Lots of people consent to sex without enthusiasm for the sex itself: sex workers, people who enjoy pleasing their partners even when they don’t personally desire sex, even people who are trying to conceive a child and have sex when one partner is ovulating. Similarly, there are lots of enthusiastic people who still don’t have good consent: if you’re a high school teacher and your fourteen-year-old student enthusiastically consents to sex with you, you still shouldn’t have sex with them. Good consent is a way vaguer phrase, but it’s also more all-encompassing.
All parts of good consent are for everyone. We’re socialized into this fucking awful pursuer-pursued dynamic, where dudes are supposed to push as far as they can, and women are supposed to respect themselves by being the gatekeepers to their genitalia. (I think that sentence needs a lot of scare quotes, so here are some you can sprinkle throughout as you please: “””””””””””””””””””””””””””) This dynamic is bullshit. Everyone has to work on getting in touch with their own desires. Everyone has to make sure their partner is consenting.
Getting In Touch With Your Own Desires
The first step to making sure that you don’t do anything you don’t want in bed is to know what you want! You’d think that would be really easy, because you’d just be like “hey, does this turn me on?” and then you’d have your answer. Maybe it works that way in Liberated Sex-Pozzie Utopia Land, but unfortunately in the real world it’s more complicated.
We have this entire culture that’s telling people that there’s One Right Thing To Want. Dudes, for instance, are supposed to have a high sex drive, to like porn, to enjoy casual sex, to be attracted to thin young feminine large-breasted women, to want anal sex and public sex and rough sex, to not want pegging and ageplay and vanilla missionary with the lights out. If you’re asexual you’re broken; if you like drag you’re a pervert and probably a pedophile; if you’re a male submissive you’re pathetic and unmasculine; if you’re queer you’re destroying America. I don’t understand why people do this: what possible gain could there be from reducing the vibrant rainbow of human sexuality to two colors (the dude color and the girl color)? Those two colors look much nicer as part of the whole spectrum.
Holly Pervocracy has an awesome guide about learning what you want, but I think the most important question to ask yourself is how you feel about it. Does the idea of a particular sex-type thing make you happy, or nervous-excited like you’re riding to the top of a roller coaster, or at peace, or curious? Conversely, does it make you feel sad, or self-hating, or used, or degraded?
People don’t necessarily know what they want. That’s okay. Sometimes you don’t know! Even about things as fundamental as sexual orientation, it’s okay to identify as questioning. I think a lot of people feel pressure to be like “I’m a pansexual monogamous dom with a foot fetish!” when the actual answer is “I dunno. I think I might like feet.” You always have a right to be uncertain, to try things, to do something once and decide you hate it and never do it again, to go through phases, to change your mind.
Communicating With Your Partner
I think the biggest keyword about good consent is negotiation.
A lot of people think of negotiation as the bit where you sit down with checklists in a very formal way and are like “so, how do you feel about flogging?” But negotiation is a lot of different things! It can be snuggling and talking about all the sexy things you’d like to do together in the future. It can be whispering about how much you crave your partner’s hands down your pants as you It can be saying “a little to the left” when your partner is almost there, or it can be saying “ohmigodYES” when they do it right. It can be a casual discussion about the obvious hotness of tentacle dildos. It can be saying “what the fuck were you thinking?” when your partner thinks it’s a good idea to, without asking, bite your clit (this happened).
And, no, negotiation is not just for kinky people. Even with vanilla sex, your partners may be tremendously diverse– some might like having their nipples played with, some might not; some might like one technique in oral, some might like another; some might enjoy watching you masturbate, some might not. There is no way you can know unless you talk about it.
However you are negotiating, it is important to have a nonjudgmental attitude. If your partner really likes having sex on a trampoline while dressed as a clown, you do not have to have sex on a trampoline while dressed as a clown. You do, however, have to recognize that you’ve been privileged enough to learn your partner’s sexuality and that you respect and honor them telling you this. Also, you should refrain from calling their sexual turnons weird or gross or sick or slutty, because that is a really good way to keep them from ever telling you anything that turns them on ever again. (The same thing goes the other way, too: unlike myself as a teenager, you should not call someone uncool or prudish because they really don’t have any kinks. Not having kinks is just as valid as having kinks.)
Some people think negotiation is not sexy! I do not quite understand those people. I am not sure what’s not sexy about “I really want to suck your cock,” or about an extensive discussion of all the things that turn your partner on. Personally, I think it’s because people are scared to talk about their sexuality– hell, I am. You’re making yourself vulnerable to someone else, you’re afraid that they’re going to reject you… negotiation is fucking scary. But it’s necessary.
A final note: in discussions of consent, we always hear about the Mythical Straight Ladies Who Want Men To Push Through Their Boundaries. Those ladies can do exactly what everyone else who’s into noncon play does: negotiate ahead of time and set up a safeword and boundaries first. And speaking of boundaries…
Knowing Your Boundaries
This is the most important rule of boundaries: it is okay to set whatever boundaries you want.
IT IS OKAY TO SET WHATEVER BOUNDARIES YOU WANT.
Our culture (I blame rape culture) has a bunch of rules about what boundaries are the right boundaries. Kiss the cheek of your Aunt Mildred. Hug your friends. Have sex on the third date. Give him oral if he’s paid for your dinner. Eat women out or you’re a misogynist. But those rules are completely bullshit.
The only reason you ever have to have for not wanting to do something with your own damn body is “I don’t want to.” Period. End of story. And if anyone guilt-trips you about it, they’re the asshole here.
Every person has the right to boundaries. Men have the right to boundaries. Higher-libido partners have the right to boundaries. Doms have the right to boundaries. Everyone!
It is important to make your boundaries as clear as you can. Let me be clear: this is a “do what you can” situation. There are lots of reasons– being a survivor, being uncertain of your boundaries, shock in the moment, not wanting to make a fuss, being shy or socially awkward, being sexually inexperienced– why someone might have difficulty expressing their boundaries firmly, and that’s okay. People do not have the right to violate you just because you froze up instead of saying “stop that, I don’t like it.”
Nevertheless, it is generally easier for other people to respect your boundaries if you have expressed them clearly and firmly. Captain Awkward has a lot of advice for people wanting to learn how to express their boundaries better.
Respecting Your Partner’s Boundaries
The first step of boundary respect is very simple: no means no. All kinds of no mean no. “Maybe later” means no. “You’re too drunk” means no. “I’m not sure” means no. “I’m not ready” means no. Some people seem perfectly capable of understanding that “I dunno, I’m kind of busy” means no when they’re asking someone if they want to play a video game, but are completely unable to work out that anything means no in sexual situations except signed, notarized paperwork properly filled out in triplicate and crossfiled with the Department of Justice.
The corollary of no means no is that only yes means yes. Now, some people have interpreted this as saying that only all partners continually chanting “yes!” counts as consent. However, there’s lots of things that “yes” can be. “Yes” can be actively participation in the sex—taking off clothes and initiating sex acts. “Yes” can be a prearranged safeword. “Yes” can be the various sounds of enjoyment people give during sex. “Yes” can be “fuck me hard, you sexy stud.” Whatever.
Sometimes you might not be certain if your partner is saying “yes”– perhaps they’ve gotten quiet and you’re having trouble reading their body language. In those cases, it’s best (in my experience) to check in. I tend to say “hey, you okay, or do you want me to change something up?”, but there’s no set formula. Some people find that check-ins break the mood (…I don’t get those people either), in which case you should probably tell your partner that and accept that if you’re not enjoying what they’re doing you’ll have to speak up.
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between negotiation and pressure that might lead someone to violate their boundaries, so I’ve written up two sample conversations to show the difference!
Pat: I really don’t want anal sex.
Robin: But whyyyyyy?
Pat: I just don’t.
Robin: That’s not a reason.
Pat: I think it might hurt.
Robin: Come on, anal sex doesn’t hurt.
Pat: I don’t know, I’m just not comfortable.
Robin: If you really loved me you’d have anal sex.
Pat: I really don’t want anal sex.
Robin: Okay. Do you mind if I ask why?
Pat: It just doesn’t appeal to me.
Robin: Do you think if we go slowly it might make you more comfortable?
Pat: I don’t know. I just think it’ll hurt.
Robin: I understand that. But if we do decide to do it I’ll make sure to go slow and use lube, and we can stop whenever you feel pain.
Pat: Okay, but I still don’t really want to.
Robin: I’m not going to lie, that makes me kind of sad, but I’m happy to do what you want.
Finally, in some circumstances, even enthusiastic consent is not good consent. For instance, you should not have sex with someone you have power over. Although the age of consent is contentious, because it’s drawing a big red line through a whole lotta gray area and because some teenagers are capable of consenting to sex with adults, it’s still better to not have sex with someone under the age of consent. The only people worse than teenagers at deciding if they’re mature enough to have sex is the adults that want to sleep with them. You can wait until they’re legal. Finally, the whole “drunk sex” issue is contentious, and I feel hesitant to comment on it, because my experience with alcohol is only slightly greater than my experience with traveling to Mars. However, I’m willing to state that there is a point at which people are impaired enough not to give good consent, and you should probably not have sex with them then unless you’ve previously discussed that drunk sex is okay.
Dealing With A Partner That Disrespects Your Boundaries
Dump the motherfucker already.
…Damn, you mean I have to provide actually helpful advice? Okay. Sometimes people violate boundaries by accident, mistake, or miscommunication. You can tell those people because they apologize a lot (whatever “a lot” looks like for them), feel bad about it, and stop fucking doing it.
However, if a person systematically, flagrantly, or repeatedly violates your boundaries… that person is not a good person, no matter how much they claim to love you. There is no justification for someone touching, kissing, or doing sexual things to your body without your consent– no matter how “minor” they are. You are not overreacting, and it is not your fault.
Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why someone might stay in an abusive relationship (and any relationship where your boundaries are systematically, flagrantly, or repeatedly violated is abusive). But please, I encourage you to consider breaking up with your partner and to talk to RAINN’s online hotline, or another hotline you find comfortable, even if you don’t feel like a survivor.