The topic of consent has been weighing heavy on my mind this last week. I’ve watched people wrestle with it, spring into action around it, snark about it, debate it, discuss it and even mock it, dismiss it and reduce it to a meme. A conclusion that I’ve come to (a conclusion that I’ve come to many times before) is that most people— even the ones who want desperately to help— don’t really get consent. The fact that the topic breeds debate and frequently causes people to get angry (“What, do I have to fill out a form before I touch someone now?!“) is actually absurd because when it comes down to it, consent is just about not violating boundaries. That shouldn’t piss us off. We’re not outraged that houses have doorbells rather than coming with the assumption that we can all just walk on in, right? Right. But somehow when you suggest to people that they may want to ask before stomping all up into another person’s space, there is backlash. So how did this happen?
Think back to how you were taught about consent. Odds are you weren’t really. You were more likely taught about “no”. If you were born with a vagina, you were probably taught to be careful because people might rape you and you should say “no” or, if you were born with a penis, you were told that “no means no” and if you hear “no” then you should not proceed because, rape¹. What has happened here is that you learned a couple of things:
- One partner should charge ahead until they get the red light from the other.
- Listen for a cue to stop, rather than a cue to start.
- If you don’t hear a “no”, you’re good to go.
This model has proven disastrous in myriad ways. From lawyers who argue that unconscious victims weren’t raped because they didn’t say the all-important “no”, to people who have no idea how to communicate sexual needs because everything we’ve been taught is based in negatives i.e. what DON’T we want, to the general pattern of blaming victims not rapists because obviously they didn’t “no” hard enough, to the fact that no one knows what the hell “yes” looks like, to this bizarre idea that if we ask people if we can touch them before we touch them we will never touch each other again/it will be super-awkward and not fun.
Folks, it’s a steaming pile of horse shit. All of it.
As you may have noticed I’m a bit consent obsessed and, while consent is not always about sex (in fact a lot of what we’re talking about applies to most non-sexual situations and, ahem, communities), I’m happy to report that my own life got way easier, more comfortable, more fun and, frankly, sexier once I figured this consent business out. I know some of you already don’t believe me. You think I’m spouting the PC sex educator party line and that I’m really out to kill your fun and make every sexual encounter look like this:
I swear I’m not. I don’t want that any more than you do. The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what consent looks like —what “yes” looks like— and a misguided belief that disregarding consent makes us somehow freer and less constricted. The problem is that we think getting on the same page is complicated, consideration is hard, caring for each other’s needs is inconvenient, silence is sexy, talking about this stuff is awkward, asking ruins “the moment” and in the end this will all end up making everything a lot less fun.² But here’s the thing, the opposite is true. Being consent-aware opens up so many doors! Now, I must stress that I’m not saying “consent is sexy!” because it’s not sexy, it’s fucking mandatory! Saying “consent is sexy” is like saying “not dropping a deuce on your neighbor’s front lawn is sexy!” No one has sexed that up for you but I’m pretty sure you’re clear on why you don’t do it and we never (or rarely, I don’t know what happens in your neighborhood) complain about the horribly restrictive nature of that expectation. We just go about our lives, having an awesome time and not crapping on each other’s front lawns. Think of consent like that except it’s each other’s personal boundaries we are refraining from taking a dump on.³
So what does this look like in action?
You know what, I’m not going to start with sex. I’m going to start with some not necessarily sexual social situations:
Meeting someone new:
I’ll use myself as an example here, I am someone who needs a clear idea of where I stand with people before I’m remotely comfortable (I like to say that I’m like a vampire, I really need to be invited in). When I meet a new person and I’m not sure how they greet folks, I work it in: “Do you hug, handshake, high-five, fist-bump, wave, macarena … how do you do this?” It gives them a chance to set a boundary and usually gives us a moment to laugh together; ultimately we both feel a bit more at ease.
“But JoEllen, I’m outgoing, I already feel comfortable! I can run right up and hug everyone!!!”
Right, I’m thrilled that you are so at ease with yourself and others but there is a very good chance that your orgy of comfort has overwhelmed at least one person at some point in time. The thing is, it’s not always about you.
At a party
Well, there are any number of things that could happen here from errant groping to “you have to chug this beer/do this dance/take off your shirt/whatever asshattery to be considered fun by us” and, like it or not, these are all consent issues. So, how do we handle this? When it comes to the errant touching, just don’t. Seriously. Touch people when they have communicated to you that they would like you to touch them. (And to stop this nonsense before it starts: No, I’m not proposing that folks, mid-party, say in the stilted voice that all morons mocking consent put on “I would like you to hold my hand now, would you like to hold my hand now?” Something as simple as “come here” gives the other person an option to come closer or not and is actually kind of hot.) As for the other stuff: consent obtained through coercion is not consent. It does not matter if the situation is sexual or not. Pressuring someone to do something that they don’t want to do, intruding on their space and imposing your will are douche moves. 4
“But JoEllen, I’m down for having my boobs grabbed by strangers! It’s fun!!”
Yeah, the things is, we can’t tell the world that it’s cool to just grab at everyone because they might hit one of the people who is down, you know? Frankly, you might wistfully remember a time when strangers felt you up constantly but I’m pretty sure a lot of other folks would prefer to not have it assumed that their bodies are up for grabs. Perhaps you could communicate to some friends that you would like your rack rubbed and issue to those folks what we call “blanket consent” so you could still get the thrill and I can safely uncross my arms.
“But JoEllen, it’s all in good fun! Can’t anyone take a joke?!”
So, yes, some people are probably totally down with your clever antics and will join in excitedly. My point is, you are not the Emperor of Fun. You do not get to issue the decree as to what everyone must do for your amusement – if folks aren’t into your schtick, put on your big boy pants (or furry suit, or loin cloth or whatever) and be cool about it. When I first moved to Portland a guy cornered me to explain how an event was “all about consent” because “you can leave whenever you want.” And that highlighted the issue to me because he seemed to be missing the point that we can all always leave whenever we want because, life.
I tell that story often… it led to this…
Have you noticed a pattern yet? An awful lot of stuff that falls under the banner of “consent” can be accomplished by being just a little bit considerate of the needs of others…
Okay, on to the sex!
I was saying earlier that so many of us learned “no means no” as the rule. We know to look for no, we think we know what no looks like and as long as we don’t see that we’re doing okay. Does that sound terrible to anyone else? How do we think we will ever have enjoyable sex if we just wait for each other to tap out or announce that we don’t like what’s happening? What if, instead of looking for “no” we went into our sexual encounters looking for “yes”? Not just yes but “fuck yeah!”? Think about that for a minute. Which partner would you rather have, the one who wasn’t saying no to sex or the one who was saying “fuck yeah!” to specific activities with you?
I’ll answer that for you, you want the “fuck yeah!” one. Trust me on this.
How do we start looking for “fuck yeah!”s?
Well in the above section we talked about touching people who have given us the go-ahead to touch them… so, not tentatively putting a hand on someone and waiting to see if they swat it away, but reaching for someone who you know wants your hand on them (hot). That’s an awesome first step. I am a big believer in asking before I kiss someone and I’ve been thanked for this repeatedly. What’s awesome about it is that it’s not only wonderfully consent-aware, it also sets the stage for clear sexual communication.
Because, for the love of god, people— TALK TO EACH OTHER!!
“But JoEllen, talking is awkward and kills the moment! Isn’t it sexier to just let things happen?”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ve yet to run into the situation where saying “I’d love to suck your cock right now. May I?” has killed the moment. As for “letting things happen”, that right there is the recipe for sex that is mediocre at best. What I’m proposing here isn’t difficult and the payoffs are huge. Consent is not a one-time occurrence. You don’t get your consent ticket punched and then have the freedom to ride all day (as it were). It’s an ongoing process. A process that requires stating what you want, asking for what you need and finding those “fuck yeah”s. That process can lead to amazing sex. Extra bonus: there is no room for confusion. No grey areas, no blurred lines (so help me god). Everyone involved knows what they are there for and has the freedom to choose their own adventure. Is it a “fuck yeah” or a “no”? (Pro tip: I work off the rule that unless it’s a “fuck yeah!” it’s a “no!”) Everyone can come out a winner. Contrary to the belief that being consent-aware is a big, huge drag, it’s actually freeing. No confusion, no crossed signals, no trying to read what people might mean, and way better sex.
Consent isn’t a buzzkill, a set of restrictions or even a massive lifestyle change. It’s really just about being aware and respectful. Aware of the world outside of your own needs in the moment, aware of other people and their right to have their own needs, respectful of the fact that it’s not always about you, respectful of the experience we could all have together. We hear a lot of buzzwords like consent, community, autonomy, inclusion, respect and awareness, floating around and in a moment when they serve as everything from the talking points of the week to the sheep’s clothing into which the wolf slips to convince us he’s really a Nice Guy™, it seems time to see them be part of some action. It may be time to stop wringing our hands over what to do and start rolling up our sleeves and setting to work on changing minds. What do we think?
Can I get a “fuck yeah”?
¹In addition to the consent-related flaws of this model, it also makes it seem that only women can be raped and only men rape – ANYONE can rape or be raped. Don’t rape each other. Thank you.
²Note that these same arguments are often employed by people who engage in racist practices. It’s the whiny “Trying is hard! What about MEEEEEEE!!” thing and some people will never get over it. These people are horrible. I said it.
³I know, I’m classy as hell, right?
4 Funny story: when I was first introduced to the community (I’m going to keep saying it) in which I have come to feel quite comfortable I was almost completely scared off by a gentleman who was engaging in all of these behaviors. For the better part of a year I referred to him exclusively as “the douchey guy”