The topic of rape culture and what it means to give consent has been coming up in conversations online and off lately. The discussion regarding whether a sex scene in HBO’s Girls depicted rape, sexual assault, or just bad sex helped bring the topic to the forefront of the Internet. Meanwhile, conviction of two of the suspects in the Steubenville rapes fired up the conversation again when the defense’s primary argument was that the boys “didn’t receive a definite no” from a girl who was so intoxicated that she literally couldn’t stand upright and was being carried around like a side of beef.
In the aftermath of the guilty verdict, several people observed that many of the teens at the party didn’t realize that this was rape. To them, the fact that the victim was unconscious didn’t mean anything. “I didn’t know this was rape,” said one witness. “It wasn’t violent.” It wasn’t a stranger leaping out of the shadows, knife in hand to drag her into a dank back alley. It was just some guys and a girl who was too drunk to say “no.”
The idea of just avoiding a “no” is a distressingly common one. The emphasis on consent is often the idea of “No.” “No means no” we are taught, that when a woman says “stop,” we stop. That’s good. That’s incredibly important.
But sometimes it’s not enough to just not get a no. You need more.
It’s not just about not getting a “no.” It’s about getting a definitive “yes.”
A Question Of Consent
The emphasis on avoiding “no” can sometimes make the discussion surrounding the idea of consent seem needlessly complicated.
In Girls, Adam (played by Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby) start off having sex… and it’s not pleasant. After having agreed to Natalia’s preferences — no soft (ticklish) touching, no ejaculating inside her — things take a darker turn. Their first time having sex — where Adam even says “I like how clear you are with me” — was enjoyable. The next time… not so much. Adam demands that she crawl on her hands and knees across his filthy floor, ignores her protests that she hasn’t showered as he goes down on her and pays no attention to her half-hearted participation. At the end, he pulls out and starts masturbating, aiming for a porn-style money shot. At the last minute he listens to her numb protests to not ejaculate on her dress and cums on her chest instead. “I, like, really didn’t like that,” says Natalia afterwards.
It’s profoundly uncomfortable — intentionally so — and is designed to bring up many questions. Did she consent? Did saying “wait, I didn’t take a shower” count as a “no”? Was Adam supposed to understand that Natalia was trying to refuse without upsetting him, or is it completely understandable to assume that her complaint was her worrying about his discomfort at her lack of cleanliness? When she’s only half-heartedly participating in his demands — that she really likes him, how he looks, and his apartment — should he have taken that as a sign to stop? Would it be reasonable to assume that she was still consenting?
For someone who liked clarity, shit got murky really fast… and left people wondering what the hell they just watched.
All too often, when the subject of consent focuses on “no means no,” you inevitably find people who will insist that the concept is muddled and confusing. When we say that “no means no” and someone doesn’t give a definitive no, what does that mean?
In many ways, the focus on “no” puts the burden — yet again — on women to rein in the libidos of men who presumably can’t control themselves… and in many ways can put them at a disadvantage. Women are often socialized to be non-direct for fear of causing offense; many women are frequently uncomfortable with being up front with saying “No, I don’t want this.” In the case of Girls, Natalia protests to Adam that she hasn’t taken a shower; she’s trying to give him the wave-off as he pulls her underwear down but he either misses her meaning or possibly ignores it deliberately.
Alcohol also has a way of making a definitive “no” hard to recognize. While booze doesn’t create emotions — a person who doesn’t like somebody isn’t going to magically going to fall in love because he or she has had one too many cocktails — it does lower one’s capacity for rational thought and decision making. A person may not want to have sex with someone, but enough booze will can make them more likely to give in to pressure or to otherwise make poor decisions.
A focus on “no” also causes many people — mostly men — to worry about misreading signals. Others will incessantly challenge the idea of rape and rape culture by trying to rules-lawyer consent (hat tip to Amanda Marcotte for that phrase, by the way) with an endless repetition of theoretical situations and “what ifs” in order to “prove” that consent is confusing and difficult to acquire. “Is it rape if she passes out while we’re having sex she consented to? What if she gets off on being roofied? What if she forgot the safe word?”
You can what-if and “is it rape if” until the cows come home. When you switch to the idea of affirmative or enthusiastic consent — focusing on getting an unambiguous “YES” instead of stopping at “no” — it changes the equation entirely.
“Yes Means Yes”
Enthusiastic consent is fairly simple. It’s the idea that while “no means no” is important, getting a “yes” is even more important.
Hope I didn’t just blow your mind there.
More seriously: think about it. The idea of enthusiastic consent is all about making sure that your partner is genuinely into having sex… that you are getting clear and unambiguous signals that he or she wants to fuck. It’s the difference between “Dear God, I want to fuck you right now” and “Yeah… I guess, whatever” when they really mean “no.” Similarly, a partner who is simply not resisting but otherwise not saying anything is not giving enthusiastic consent. It’s about more than just needing to get off — because that’s easy enough to do on your own — but having an experience with your partner. It makes sex about the two (or more…) of you rather than one person using the other as a sex toy that can occasionally help move boxes and dust the window sills.
The focus on an unambiguous yes (or a “give me your cock” or “I want you to eat me out right the fuck now” — you get the idea) cuts out any murkiness around the idea of whether somebody is consenting. It’s hard to mistake a “please fuck me,” after all. It simplifies the issue rather nicely. Didn’t get a “Yes”? You don’t have sex. End of.
That “enthusiastic” part is important, too, because it comes with the understanding that consent isn’t a binary decision — it’s not all or nothing, always on or always off. It’s an understanding that consent falls on a sliding scale and can be dialed back or forward as both partners feel the need. Just because somebody said “yes” earlier doesn’t mean that they couldn’t change their mind later on… even in the middle of things, if it comes to it. If one partner or the other indicates that they’re no longer in the mood or that they don’t like what’s happening — such as Natalia’s lackluster, limp agreement to Adam’s requests — the sex stops.
Thing is though: this doesn’t necessarily mean that things are over. A person can decide that he or she is no longer willing to have penetrative sex… but is perfectly happy (again: enthusiastic, not just offering to keep the other person from getting angry or upset) to have oral sex, or give a hand job or just cuddle for a while. The important part, though, is what it says: that you respect and are invested enough in your partner — even if it’s a one-night stand — that you want their full and eager participation. It’s an expression of the collaborative model of sex, the idea of sex as a jam session between two people who want to have fun together, rather than the adversarial model that encourages men to get what they want as cheaply as possible.
This approach encourages active communication with your partner, something that I believe to be required for really good sex. You have to be willing to talk about what you want and what you don’t want before and even during sex, establishing important boundaries. It mandates that you’re paying attention to your partner’s pleasure as much as you are to your own and being sensitive to their level of participation and involvement. It means that you can’t just take consent for granted — even if your potential partner has been giving every possible signal that the two of you are going to have sex — they still have to assent in the affirmative rather than one person assuming that it’s fait accompli and risking making a huge mistake.
The Difference Between .”..yes” and “YES!”
I want to put a special note on the word enthusiastic because, frankly, not every “yes” is equal. In fact, there are many times when “yes” still means no.
I’ve seen many discussions on the ways of turning a “no” into a “yes.” Some people are known for suggesting that a woman’s first couple of “no”s don’t count, or that phrases like “We’re not having sex tonight” is meant to be a shit-test, a “can you change my mind?” challenge rather than an explicit statement that she does not intend or want to have sex with you tonight. Some will talk about making it about what she “owes” him — he bought dinner, rented the movie, paid for the plane tickets, etc, and now she’s required to pay him back with sex. Others will rely on guilt — “I guess I thought you really loved me…” or emotional threats like “If you don’t, I’ll find someone who will.”
In PUA circles, you will find discussion about handling “no” in jargonistic terms like “Anti-Slut Defense” (That is, that she’s afraid of being seen as a slut by her friends and thus is hesitating in order to build up plausible deniability) or “Last Minute Resistance” (LMR for short). The tactics involved in “handling” LMR or breaking through her “Anti-Slut Defense” can vary from ignoring her first signs of refusal to utilizing social pressure to coerce a women into sex via freezing her out. The freeze-out involves withdrawing all positive attention — essentially giving her the silent treatment — until she feels the pressure to reinitiate sexual contact. It plays directly on the social contract and the way that women are trained to interact with men, as well as our instinctive need for social approval. It plays on a person’s complexes and insecurities, making them want to reconnect with those good feelings and leave her believing that it’s her fault for all of it going away.
Sound a little ridiculous? Imagine if you will, that you’re hanging out with someone you care about; everything’s happy, you’re having fun. You’re having incredible conversations, the kind where you feel like you’re communicating on the deepest levels… and then you do something innocuous and it all turns off like a light. Now all that warmth has gone. You’re getting short, curt, single syllable answers, they refuse to look at you. They insist that nothing’s wrong, but everything about the way they’re acting screams that they’re pissed at you… and implies that it’s all your fault.
If you’re at all emotionally invested in this person, you’re going to feel confused. You’re going to feel upset and a little anxious and want to make things better. You’re much more likely to try to do whatever it takes to melt that ice that’s suddenly developed between you.
Now imagine that applied to sex.
I want to be clear: this sort of “yes,” a “yes” gained through coercive methods does not count. This runs counter to the entire idea of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. It’s not a true, enthusiastic “yes,” it’s just a way of manipulating someone so that – once again – you’re just avoiding a “no.”
Similarly, a “yes” under the influence of alcohol is not the same. A “yes” after a night of drinking could be that he or she really wants to bone… or it could be they don’t but would be more likely to give in or have sex anyway even though they don’t really want to. Like I said earlier: booze doesn’t make emotions appear from nowhere, it just lowers inhibitions and impairs decision making. Someone who really wants to have sex with you while drunk will still want to have sex with you later. Someone who doesn’t want to but will anyway is someone you shouldn’t be having sex with in the first place.
Rule of thumb: too drunk to drive is too drunk to consent. You can wait until he or she is sober.
Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
Having just put the emphasis on enthusiasm, I want to make a point or two that inevitably arises whenever the subject of enthusiastic consent comes up. One frequent issue in relationships — especially long term relationships — is the idea of sex when one or the other partner isn’t terribly in the mood but is willing to go for it anyway. Passion does fade; when the relationship is still in the honeymoon phase, you frequently can’t breathe without both of you wanting to bang right then and there, but as time passes, there will be plenty of occasions when one’s libido isn’t 100% in tune with one’s partner. Many a person will frequently have sex — or some form of sexual contact — when he or she isn’t absolutely in the mood and their partner is.
Some will question whether this does or does not meet the level of “enthusiastic consent.” In the strictest definition: no, not really. But in a long-term relationship, one presumably, hopefully has lines of communication wide open. People in a long-term relationship will often have long established occasions where consent can be assumed and the understanding that there will be times that they are willing to be giving for the sake of the person whom they love and want to be happy… even if they’d rather be catching up on Game of Thrones and Facebook. As long as they are able to talk about what they are and aren’t willing to do, establish boundaries, and aren’t pressuring one another to act in a way they aren’t comfortable with, or engage in acts that they would rather not perform, I’d say that this is fine.
Communication is always key. Consent is not just about what you aren’t willing to do, it’s about being willing to talk, to communicate openly and without reservation with your partner about how they feel and how you feel. It can be intimidating, especially for guys, to take ownership of their feelings about sex, especially if they don’t want to have it. Many men feel that they have to have sex, even when they’re not comfortable with it, because they’re men and that’s what men do so they have to suck it up. There will be times that men will feel pressured, even coerced, just as women do. There have been times where I’ve felt pressured into sex that I didn’t want, yet went ahead and had anyway… at the time I didn’t feel that I could communicate with my then-girlfriend and just went along with what she wanted in order to avoid the fight that would have occurred otherwise. And I know I’m not the only man who’s had experiences like this.
Being able to communicate with one’s partner, to know that one’s limits and wants will be respected, is key to enthusiastic consent.
The Benefits of Enthusiastic Consent
Part of rape culture is a culture that makes excuses for — even tacitly approves of rape. It’s a culture in which the victim is blamed for his or her own assault because “she got drunk” or “she should have known better” or “she didn’t say ‘no’ clearly enough”. It’s a culture in which consent is thought to be a tricky thing, and in which people complain of “mixed messages” and flirting, acting in a sexual manner, dressing provocatively or even having a drink is often portrayed as tacit consent.
It’s a culture where gender roles are strictly defined; men are the hypermasculine aggressors who are expected to be insatiable and perpetually aroused while women are valued only for how much sex they haven’t had yet and how dearly they parcel it out. It’s a culture wherein men aren’t allowed to have doubts or uncertainties about sex or even moments where they don’t want to have it; men who are less than insatiable are “pussies.” Meanwhile women are scorned for taking ownership of their sexuality, devalued or insulted for not restricting access to sex; in rape culture, one’s sexual history makes the difference between a victim and someone who was “asking for it,” who in effect deserved to be raped because she didn’t guard it strongly enough.
Enthusiastic, affirmative consent helps strip this away. It removes the excuses that rapists and rape apologists hide behind. It doesn’t matter that she was drunk or being flirty or even gave some guy a lap-dance at a bar because consent is about saying an explicit “Yes, I want you to fuck me” not about whether she’s a cocktease or made him think that she was OK with it without saying the words. It transforms sex from the gatekeeper model where men try to bribe or bargain with women in order to get off, to one of explicit partnership, where sex isn’t about transaction but collaboration and building something amazing together. It helps create a culture of understanding and — more importantly — safety, where women can feel fewer restrictions on their own sexual expression and are freer to enjoy the sex they want, too.
It’s about open communication with your partner, learning how to express how you feel, checking in with them about their pleasure and being a better, more attentive lover.
But more importantly, it’s hot.
Enthusiastic consent isn’t about a call and response for every step of the way; it’s not “may I touch you here? May I kiss you now? May I undo your bra?” It’s about dirty talk; grabbing your lover by the back of the head and growling “I want you inside me now.” It’s about saying all the nasty, dirty things you want to do to them and hearing “Oh GOD yes….” It’s hearing “Yes, like that,” or “Here, touch me here!”
There aren’t mixed messages when it comes to enthusiastic consent. In a world where an explicit, enthusiastic “yes” is the threshold of consent, you know damn good and well that your partner is really excited to be having sex with you.
And really, isn’t that what we all want?