The Soapbox: On Consent Culture
Today I’m going to fulfill a promise I made quite a while ago, and talk about what a consent culture would look like.
A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex — in fact, of human interaction — is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.
I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.
The good news is, there are things you can do to bring this about. Things beyond just “don’t rape people” (although that’s an excellent start).
Ways You Can Work Toward The Creation Of a Consent Culture:
1. Don’t rape people. It does bear saying. And I don’t just mean “don’t put on a ski mask and jump on strangers in dark alleys” rape, either. Don’t have sex with someone who is not unambiguously, enthusiastically, and continually consenting. Don’t have sex with someone who says “I guess so” or “okay, fine” (unless they are grinning lasciviously as they say this). Don’t convince someone to have sex. If they don’t want you, really want you from the bottom of their heart and/or groin, respect that.
2. When someone doesn’t want to have sex with you and so you don’t, talk about it. Share that you’re bummed but also that you take pride in your ability to take it gracefully.
When you didn’t want to have sex with someone and so they stopped, talk about it. Share that despite the awkwardness you’re glad they took it gracefully.
These are tough things to discuss (in part because they sound kind of Captain Obvious, like, no shit it was nice of you not to rape someone), but they’re important narratives to put out there. Others’ stories shape our ideas about sex, and hearing stories that fall outside the “have sex or you’re a failure” mindset are important in changing those ideas.
3. When someone tells you about pressuring or tricking someone into sex (and you’re in a situation where it’s safe to do so), call them the hell out on it. “That’s not cool. It doesn’t sound like he/she wanted it.” You don’t have to use the R word, you don’t have to tell them they should be arrested, you don’t have to call them a rapist piece of shit — you just have to make it clear they’re not getting any goddamn high fives. When you hear someone bragging about sex like it was a prank they pulled on their partner, bring the mood in the room the hell down.
You can do this with fictional stories, too. You don’t even have to be no-fun then. “Wow, you guys, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is totally a date rape song.” Without requiring a rant or a buzzkill, it just quietly plants the idea that no, that is not a “totally legit way to get sex” song.
4. When you see something that looks abusive or nonconsensual going on, don’t turn your back. At least be a witness — just the presence of another person can be someone’s biggest guarantee of safety. Stepping in and checking if everything’s okay is even better.
5. Ask before touching people. Say “do you want a hug?” and if they say no then don’t hug them — and also don’t give them any shit about not being friendly or affectionate. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just make it part of your touching-people procedure. If they say “you don’t need to ask!” nod and smile and keep on asking.
6. Negotiate sex! Explicitly negotiate sex play, and BDSM play if you do that. Be eminently clear about the fact that play is not a package deal for you, and your partner is free to change their mind about any part of it at any time — as are you. Err on the side of blunt, and say corny shit like “can I kiss you now?” and “I’d like to touch your chest.”
Once in a blue moon (really not as often as some people would have you think), you may run into a partner who refuses to negotiate, or who says “I would have done it before you killed the mood by asking.” Do not have sex or play with this person. Their loss. This is you putting the principle of “consent matters” above the principle of “have sex at all costs!”, and you can brag about it when you’re busy changing narratives.
7. Re-negotiate sex! While I don’t think every step of “can I kiss you now?” is necessary in a long-term relationship (although [my parenter] Rowdy and I really do ask every time about intercourse), it’s important to keep talking about what you want and don’t want. You’re not strangers anymore, no, but you’re also not merged into the same person. Keep active consent alive in your relationships.
8. Learn to love consent. I worry that I’ve made getting consent sound like a chore. It’s anything but. Asking for consent is a moment of delicious tension, of emotional connection.
A “yes” brings the joy of knowing someone is really hot for you, really wants you. It means that they’re going to not just go along with but be into the stuff that comes next. That’s not “prerequisite checked off,” that’s “awesome, this is going to be so much better now.”
A “yes, conditionally” helps you be a better lover to them, someone who can give them just what they want and nothing they don’t want.
9. Learn to appreciate “no.” A “no, not at all” is bittersweet — or okay, sometimes it’s fucking crushing —but it brings some finality and certainty with it. If you’re not going to have sex anyway (and you’re not, unless you were going to rape this person), at least you get to banish the “maybe I could have, why didn’t I try” thoughts.
Remember that ultimately asking for consent is not asking someone to make a decision whether they want sex with you or not. That decision’s going to get made, one way or another. Asking for consent is simply asking to know about that decision.
10. Talk about consent. Make consent part of the stories you tell about sex. Just a natural part of the process, something that ought to be taken for granted will be part of a sex story.
“So last night I asked Sandra if she wanted to hook up and she totally said yes.”
“Ohmygod, Jane asked me to have sex with her, and it was awwwwesome.”
“I heard that Rob and Josie–I’ll totally kill you if you tell anyone–totally agreed to have sex at Jesse’s party!”
“Kirk laid Spock tenderly across the science console and whispered hoarsely in the Vulcan’s pointed ear, ‘Do you want this? Do you want me inside you?'”
11. Bring consent out of the bedroom. I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general. Cut that shit out of your life. If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable — that’s their right. Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along. Accept that no means no — all the time.
Beyond what’s necessary for their health and education (and even that touches iffy territory), I don’t believe in doing this to kids, either. The size and social-authority advantages an adult has over kids shouldn’t be used to force them to play games or accept hugs or go down the big slide. That sets a bad, scary precedent about the sort of thing it’s okay to use your advantages over someone for.
It’s good to practice drawing your own boundaries outside of the bedroom, too. It can be shockingly empowering to say something as small as “no, I don’t want to sit with you.” “No, you can’t have my phone number.” “I love hugs, but please ask me first.” It’s good practice for the big stuff. Simply learning to put your mind in the frame of “this person does not want me to say no to them, and they will resist me doing it, but I’m doing it anyway” is a big, important deal.
Consent culture is a tough thing to build. I think it’s got a foothold in BDSM — we at least talk big about consent — but it’s far from established here. It’s barely starting to get tiny little footholds in the mainstream culture. But it grows in little microcultures, tiny bubbles of sex-positivity and circles of friends where consent is the norm, and it has potential to grow so much more. Give it a hand. Make it part of your own life, and it becomes just a little bit bigger part of the world. Start living consent culture.