In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a homework assignment attached to the end of this article. But it’s to go have sex, so hopefully you won’t mind too much.
As I’m sure it’s been on everyone’s mind over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk to young people and teach them about sex and consent. There have been some awesome points made about teaching respect and changing rape culture, but I still felt like there was something missing. And today, I was listening to an NPR discussion on how to talk about sex when I had a thought: we’re doing this the wrong way.
Stick with me for a minute. The way that we’ve had this discussion is by telling parents and young people about how important consent is, how there are situations where someone can’t give consent, and how it’s time that we learn to respect each other. But let’s face it… we’ve been giving this information for a long time, and it’s not getting through. And then I thought about the reasons we’re giving young people to make sure they have consent. The main reason? To keep you from accidentally committing a crime and ending up in jail. And sure, that’s true, but it’s about so much more than that as well.
Now, it’s been a little longer than I’d like to admit since I was a 15-year-old, but I do remember what it’s like. And frankly, I don’t know how much these messages that we’re giving to teens now would have resonated with me back then. I mean, obviously I knew that “no means no”, and that rape was bad. But I had no idea about some of the nuances of consent. How would I have known what it was like to give consent, to ask for consent, what it felt like to have consent? How would it have made a difference? How would my life be better?
How would you answer those questions to a 15-year-old?
You’re going to have to forgive me for framing this in terms of heterosexual relationships and gender stereotypes, but the concern stemming from Steubenville (and the countless similar cases across the world) has to do with gender socialization and traditional heterosexual roles. I’ve heard from teen and adult males alike that they can’t ask for consent—because it would be awkward, because it might ruin the mood, or scariest of all, they partner might say no. Now, let’s break down that logic for a minute. That assumes that the only reason their partner hasn’t stopped them yet is because she doesn’t realize what’s happening. As though if she realized that his intention was to have sex, she’d get up and walk out.
Doesn’t that involve guys selling themselves a little short? And maybe we can see where that’s come from in the media, where they’re constantly being inundated with commercials about ways to make themselves more appealing to women. It makes it sound a little like men are expected to trick a woman into having sex with them (ranging from the body spray they use to the car they drive). But the exact same messages sell females short too. Like somehow women don’t have any agency over their own sexuality. That they couldn’t possibly want to have sex without some kind of lure.
It’s a double-edged sword, but you can almost see where these ideas about men’s and women’s attitudes towards sex come from. Men want sex, and are willing to use whatever deceitful means necessary to get it. Women don’t want sex, so they’re going to block you however they can.
So maybe it’s not that surprising that even when adults say “consent is important!”, teens don’t see where it could possibly fit in with the scenarios they see in the media.
Look, as adults, most of us have been in a situation where we’ve had totally consensual sex. It might not even be something that we actively think about in sexual situations anymore. Like, maybe you’re used to your partner and their reaction to your initiations. Or maybe your partner has signals just for you when they want to get frisky. Or maybe you just trust that the other would say no if something was off. Accidentally having sex without consent isn’t really a concern for you.
But do you know what it’s like to *really* have consensual sex? How does it feel when you’ve been asked for consent? When you give consent? What makes it special?
And I think that’s what we’re missing in our conversation about sex, sexuality, and consent. Why is it good? How do you know when you’ve given it? Has it just become something that you’re used to?
How can we expect teenagers to get this if we don’t?
Maybe, the first step in talking about consent is to really understand it ourselves.
So here’s my challenge to you. Actually, it’s a challenge for you and your partner. Have sex. But this time, really think about consent. Make it an active, ongoing part of your sexual encounter. How? Here are some ideas:
- Ask your partner for permission before you move things to the next level, whatever that may be. What’s it like to ask? What’s it like when your partner says yes?
- What’s it like when your partner asks for permission? What does it feel like to give consent?
- How do you keep up consent as you move forward? How do you communicate it? Words? Body language?
- How do you talk about it after? How do you make sure that you’re meeting your partner’s physical/emotional needs or desires? How does your partner make sure that you’re meeting theirs?
I’ve been bugging my friends about this for the past couple of days, and each of them have had fairly unique answers. But one thread runs through it all- it’s something that they get to know more about as a relationship progresses. And that’s a really important point. It’s different in each relationship, with each partner. What may have been a “let’s take this to the bedroom” kind of kiss in one relationship may just be a kiss and nothing more with someone else. But that assumes context, and subtext, and all sorts of nuances that I probably couldn’t have wrapped my head around at 15 (and have yet to meet anyone who could).
So that changes the conversation that we need to have with young people, since consent has a totally different (or nonexistent) context for them.
Or maybe think about this: Consent is about way more than just permission. It’s reassurance, it’s confirmation that, in fact, this person does want to engage in this with you. It’s an opportunity to feel wanted. And let’s face it, Cheap Trick didn’t sing that they wanted you to begrudgingly agree to have sex with them. They wanted to be wanted.
But first, go back and figure out what it’s like for you.