As seems to be the case with everything I write lately, I want to be extra cautious and throw a trigger warning on here. I'm talking about consent and agency, and respect thereof. Also, there is discussion of sexytimes in a potentially sexy manner. Additionally, all persons and events in this blog post are composites of several case studies (because I think it's fun to call my hookups "case studies," shut up) and details have been changed to protect identities.
I have distinct memories of nearly every single time a person I was maybe-considering-doing-something-physical-with stopped when I said stop. Seriously, I don't have clear memories of every sexual encounter I've ever had, nor even every enjoyable one, but memories of every time in my life when I've been so much as kissing someone, and have decided that this is not something I can/want to do right now, and have voiced that, and that has been immediately respected? Those are permanently imprinted on my brain.
I can remember plenty of times when I have said "stop" or "wait" or "*incoherent mumbling that was supposed to be 'I am too drunk to make this decision'*" or "*safeword*" and the other person has kept touching me, or tried to talk me into continuing, or stopped and not really immediately said anything, but then gone on to make little comments about it in what seemed like an effort to wear me down. But there have been exactly five times (prior to my current relationship, in which I have always felt listened to and respected, thanks honey!) where I have said something similar and the other person has immediately stopped kissing me, touching me, whatever, moved out of my personal space, and either said nothing (as I continued talking) or asked "are you ok," or "do you need to talk about this" or hell, even "did I do something wrong?" Which is totally an ok thing to say when the person you are half-naked with is suddenly in full on panic mode, going rigid and starting to cry! Thanks for being so cool about that, guy that I was half naked with!
To put this into perspective, five occasions of respected non-consent may seem like a lot, if you've only had sex with a couple of people, or have so thoroughly thought through every single move before it happens and are so self-aware that you never have cause to second guess yourself. If such applies to you, I say hooray! Good for you, and your personal decision to not have sex with lots of people, and your self-awareness and sobriety. I mean that sincerely. However, that has not been my experience. I have been promiscuous for the majority of the last decade. I have had drunken hookups. I have started to fool around with friends and realised as I was unzipping their pants that maybe this is not the best move for the friendship. In terms of percentages, for me, five occasions where my lack of continuing consent was immediately respected is downright shitty.
Now, for those of you who may be reading this and thinking, "Maybe if you were less slutty/drank less/had more foresight, this wouldn't be an issue," on some level you are probably right. If I had only ever had sex with one person, while completely sober, under ideal conditions where everything was well-discussed before it happened, I would possibly (probably?) never have had cause to think about whether my continuing consent would ever be an important issue. You know, assuming that the other person was totally on board with the same definitions of consent that I use, and totally committed to establishing said consent. But that is not my point.
My point is that consent is not the absence of no, but the presence of an enthusiastic yes. And if you're saying to yourself, "but I don't want to have to get my partner to fill out paperwork before sex," or something similar, you should either stop being an idiot/smartass/rape apologist (if you are being sarcastic/thinking that I should stop being such a Humourless Feminist and bake you a pie while giving you a blowjob) or read on and maybe learn something fun (if you are genuinely unsure of what I mean and concerned that I may want sex to be less fun).
Consent is sexy. SO SEXY. Seriously, it's not about formal agreements and initialing Nipple Clauses (though if that's what turns your crank, I'm not here to judge). Some of the hottest sex I have ever had (and by "sex" I don't just mean intercourse, I'm using the term in a fairly broad sense, as I usually do) was when consent was obtained at nearly every step.
Okay, story time. Before I continue, I'd like to point out that none of what I say here is intended as ideal models of consent, or a script to which you should adhere. I'm just going to talk a bit about times when I felt that I honestly had the option to continue with the sex or not, that the other person would have accepted my answer either way, but continued "check-ins" were made as things progressed in a way that felt like it made the experience more pleasurable rather than making it weird and legalistic.
Many moons ago, because I am SO OLD YOU GUYS, I was at a party at this guy's house. I was pretty sure he had actually invited me with the express purpose of getting me naked, which was cool with me because I had more or less accepted the invitation with the express purpose of getting him naked. We ended up alone in his room, under the pretense of me "looking at his guitar" or some shit (this is why musicians get laid, you can totally use "guitar" as a euphemism for "genitals") and were sitting next to each other on the bed, doing the semi-awkward sexual tension thing. Excuses were made to brush against each other, one thing led to another, and I was leaning in close to him with his arm around my waist. We looked each other in the eye, he nodded slightly with this sexy half smile, and we started kissing. Fast forward through much making out, including several half-hearted motions on both sides to return to the party which were swiftly terminated with "well, just one more kiss..." because we all know how that goes when you're young and horny. We were taking a smoke break, because making out is hard work or something. He was looking at me appreciatively, idly running a hand across my stomach, and "suddenly noticed" that my pants had laces on each side of the waistband, almost corset-style. (Hot damn I miss the wardrobe I had at 18, but anyway...) He said something terribly smooth like, "do these actually come apart?" while looking me in the eye, taking note of my reactions. I informed him that they did, and what's more, the similar lacing on my shirt (I like grommets, okay, don't be so judgy) also came unlaced quite neatly.
See what he did there? He asked "can I undo your pants" in a way that was still sexy (ish, shut up, we were young and awkward) and allowed me the opportunity to move things forward or not. I also took the opportunity to be an active participant in this sexual adventure rather than just lying there and getting fucked (see how passive that is?) by saying "why yes, and you may also take off my shirt." Once we had finished smoking and resumed our fevered mashing together of faces, I asked him in a semi-teasing voice if he should get back to his party. He replied with something to the effect of, "I maybe should, but I'd rather just spend the rest of the night in here." I said that I agreed, that staying in his bedroom sounded much more fun than going back out. Again, see what we did there? Gave each other a perfectly respectable "out" with mention of returning to the group in the living room. We both said that we would rather stay where we were and continue with the undressing.
Another story. Hot guy at an event, eye-humping the shit out of each other all night. (In fact, I think that is the exact phrase I used to explain to a friend why I was leaving Denny's in such a hurry... "That guy? The one I've been eye-humping the shit out of all night? Yeah, I might go get naked with him.") The actual physical contact between us began with a "goodnight hug" that turned into a kiss. A hot, spontaneous kiss with me backed up against the door of my car, hands all over each other.
Frequently the "consent is complicated, this is too hard" crowd worry that a model of enthusiastic consent will end spontaneity. It really doesn't have to! Here is an important thing-body language. If the other person is doing their best to wrap their legs around you while standing awkwardly on a curb, grabbing on to your belt loops and pulling you against them, they're probably into it. If you move in for a kiss and they go stiff, or are half-heartedly kissing back while turning their pelvis away from you and fiddling with their keys? Maybe not so much. In either case, if in doubt, ask. Seriously, just ask. Hot Spontaneous Kiss Guy said something to the effect of, "would you like to spend the night?" Asking something straight up does not have to be clinical, or weird, or a mood killer. Maybe try to avoid a Beavis and Butthead-esque, "Heh, heh, so, are we gonna like...do it?" unless that's what turns you and your partner on, in which case go nuts. But a simple "would you like to go somewhere more private?" or similar is HOT. And face it, if you can't discuss what you're about to do, you probably shouldn't be doing it.
Everything that happened that night was consensually hot. We both laid our boundaries right out from the get-go, with regard to specific things we were not willing to do. At every step, we were checking in with each other to be sure we were both still on board with the way things were going, and making the check-in part of the sexy fun. To paraphrase...
"Your legs are beautiful. I'd love to see them without your stockings on."
"I want to bite your neck."
"Would you please stroke my cock?"
"Do you like it when I lick you there?"
Always waiting for the other person to actually respond in the affirmative. That's sexy. "Yes" is a sexy word.
A model of enthusiastic consent, where "no means no" is not enough but must be accompanied by an understanding that "yes means yes," is only possible if every person is empowered to make their own sexual decisions. Each person must be free to learn and express what turns them on, what they don't like, what lines they absolutely will not cross. Women must be able to be active participants in their own sexuality, rather than passive objects of desire. The current cultural model of a woman who always appears to be available for sex, while only actually performing (I use that word for a reason) the act under certain conditions, who has effortless, vocal orgasms every time and finds no greater pleasure than when being penetrated with a penis, has to end. Slut shaming has to stop-in order to be able to fully enjoy and participate in their sexuality and that of their partner, women must not be demeaned for making decisions in this area. (I have a whole other blog post about what I call the "illusion of availability" which I'll save for another time.)
I hate to make this clinical now, but in sex, as in medicine, informed consent is key. Accurate information must be available to allow risk assessment of sexual activity. People must be able to protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancy. So-called "education" that teaches teenagers that condoms don't protect you from disease (rather than giving truthful information about failure rates and allowing people to make their own decisions about what percentage of risk is acceptable) will not help them make sensible decisions. Regardless of how often you tell your kids not to have sex, or how much you think they've internalised that message, there will always be a certain number of people who get caught up in the moment and decide to proceed with sexual activity anyway. If they have been taught that condoms won't do them any good, do you think they're likely to use them?
Anyway, it's late (early?) and I've been rambling for a while. I just wanted to get this down.