Enthusiastic Consent. I’m a fan. For any of you not in the know, Enthusiastic Consent is a way to make sure that yes really means yes and no means no, during sex. It’s an ongoing conversation during sex itself, where partners listen to all manner of cues to make sure that what’s happening is really wanted. Scarleteen has a good definition here. Enthusiastic Consent is a term designed to get people talking to each other about sex so that when the sex happens, everyone is on the same page, happy and in alignment with what’s supposed to happen.
I had a conversation today with a friend of mine to discuss his curriculum on Enthusiastic Consent on college campuses. And I’m all for it, the enthusiasm and the consent.
But it got me thinking. When is this sex supposed to be discussed? Right then at the bedside? A few moments before, in the living room? In the car after dinner? When does the actual conversation and agreement about sex occur?
Part of me thinks that concepts like Enthusiastic Consent won’t truly take hold until we are able to have conversations planning the sexual encounter long, long before moment of consent occurs.
Let’s look at this from a different angle. Imagine this dialogue between two friends planning a meal together.
Sam: Hey, you want to have dinner tomorrow night?
Alex: Sure thing! Thanks for asking!
Sam: I was thinking about this new Thai place up the road.
Alex: Hmmm. Thai sounds good but I just had it for lunch today, actually.
Sam: OK, no prob. What about Indian? That way I could still get a curry.
Alex: Great! Which restaurant? India Star or Madras?
Sam: Oooh! Madras!
Alex: OK, should I pick you up or would you like to meet there?
So forth and so on. They might even discuss with pleasure the food they are planning to have.
The next day, it’s likely they’d confirm plans, check in to make sure everything was a go. And things would go great. Or, maybe someone has to change plans right before hand which could cause some disappointment, but they’d likely reschedule and everyone would deal.
Even if they wind up at the restaurant but Sam isn’t hungry for some reason, Alex wouldn’t think about forcing Sam to eat if it was clear Alex didn’t have an appetite.
Maybe Alex would even enjoy Sam’s enjoyment of the food.
We plan pretty much all of our activities, social or otherwise. We ask, negotiate, detail the plans and check in to confirm. We can even take classes to learn how to be better at certain aspects of social and work things: Cooking! Party planning! Etiquette! Why don’t we do this about sex? Why do we wait until the very last minute to get the details set? Or just fumble into bed with hopefully willing partners?
Because the stakes of attempting to have sex are higher than a simple lunch date? If we start with a presumption that sex is high stakes, it’s important, it’s a connection of some sort between two people, then how is it that the conversations around sex are so limited and clumsy? Why not have those high stakes moments more prepared for, more thought through, more discussed?
Why are there no culturally accepted forms or practices to gain relational and erotic literacy—so that those skills are built one upon the other—leading to an end result of enthusiastic consent. Wouldn’t this also foster graciousness and acceptance if sex doesn’t happen?
That’s a rhetorical question, FYI. I know very well why there aren’t. I understand that A) our culture doesn’t really promote that level of honest discussion around sexuality, B) sexual education and acknowledgment of sexuality is not the norm, and C) we don’t place much value in pleasure for pleasure’s sake. We do place a strong emphasis on “getting laid” but also “not talking about it.” Those things don’t go well together.
Because of those dynamics, the scenario for a young couple newly interested in each other might go like this:
Sam: You want to come over and watch a movie tomorrow? (And hopefully have sex with me.)
Alex: Sure, I’d love to see Harry Potter. (I really want to watch Harry Potter and maybe cuddle, I like Sam a lot.)
Later that night:
Sam: (makes a move)
Alex: (Um? What?) Okay, I guess.
Sam: (Yay! Wait, do I have protection? I think Alex has some?)
Alex: (Gah, I don’t have protection maybe I’ll just do oral because I don’t want to have intercourse yet.)
Sam: (Alex likes ORAL!)
And maybe things work out okay. And maybe they don’t. Maybe Alex feels like things went too fast. Maybe Sam is thrilled and thinks Alex is happy. Maybe Alex thinks Sam is a jerk or maybe they move forward and don’t really discuss it.
Things can get even weirder if one partner stops the other in the middle of things. Someone feels frustrated and resentful. Someone feels guilty and like a failure. Heck, both of them probably feel like they failed at sex. But they were set up not to win, if you think about it.
The stakes should be both higher and lower. Sex should be important enough to talk it through, to really plan. But also, sex should be human and regular enough so that if someone gets cold feet in the middle, no one freaks out.
Because we live in a culture that doesn’t support sexual education and literacy at all ages and because much of our culture is distrustful of pleasure, we fail to plan and we refuse to really talk ; we obfuscate much of our intentions around sexuality. This raises the stakes to a nearly impossible level leaving everyone feeling fraught.
A final conversation between our friends:
Sam: Want to come over tomorrow night? I’ve been enjoying dating you so much and well, I’d love to to take the relationship to the next level and have sex.
Alex: Wow! I like you too, a whole lot. But I’m not in the right space for that, so I’d love to cuddle, kiss, and watch a movie. I’d like to take things a little slower maybe than you, but I do want to get to that point with you.
Sam: Sounds great. Let’s see where things go, but I won’t have any major expectations tomorrow.
Sam: I’m not sure if I’m into waiting a long time. Let’s talk about things tomorrow and I’d like to hear more from you.
Sam could accept or reject the offer. Alex too. But they’d both be real clear on what they were getting into with each other on the date.
While this final scenario does indeed happen out there in the world (I know people within queer spaces in the LGBT and kink/poly community who discuss sex this way, with more transparent negotiations), my guess is it’s a long way from happening as a global practice.
Few of us discuss things like this, and even when we do, it often feels the opposite of sexy.
My friend and I discussed this over our coffee, wondering how we can ever teach enthusiastic consent without actually teaching the skills of having plan-ful conversations about sex well before the act. How do we start farther back, both in schools but also with parents and other adults so that you get the conversations started at multiple ages?
I think the paradigm has to shift, I’m not always entirely sure how to get that shift started, but I want to live in a world where we plan and tend not only our meals with friends, but the best and most honored parts of our relationships with our loved ones. If sex is that important, we really really should talk about it.