What I Didn’t Know About Consent

Dear Millicent,

I’m diving in to what blogs do best, and am about to get all personal and tell you about my bedroom. Excited? Me too. I want to look specifically at:

  • How does consent happen in long-term sexual relationships (including the business time dilemma)?
  • Even when we think we are empowered and in the know, what scripts are we really relying on?

Mr. Carla Fran and I recently had an awkward encounter where, in what was otherwise a normal scene of marital conjugality, he did not hear my protestations that a particular gesture hurt. I didn’t say it particularly loudly, and we both had been drinking. I said it again and he did not change his actions. I decided to  move along, confused if alarm was called for or not. We finished the act, I felt discombobulated, and when we talked about it the next day, I realized I was in a streak of turmoil about something that to him was an unheard note: a miscommunication with the unfortunate outcome of my discomfort.

I explained how this was problematic, even if it happened in our stable, well-built long-ass time together–how it triggered two immediate fears for me: the fear of assault, and the fear that I simply let it happen. I wanted him to realize the immense power imbalance that makes any insult in this realm scary, that rape is real and huge and terrifying, and that if anything that even is a hint of rape-like protocol is called out, that immediate concern and authentic apology are called for, and enough conversation to understand why alarm bells went off, and what everything actually meant.

So I started reading about what was a fairly undealt with word to me, consent. I thought I had the privilege of never really having to examine consent because I always had loving partners, and that “consent” was a word used primarily in lectures to teenagers or in examinations of rape.  Finding things to read was easy, because, in a strangely-timed way, this is an ideal moment to have this conflict.  With the Assange case, there have been so many helpful discussions and definitions put forward that it makes talking about such a scary subject easier, especially with the honesty some writers put forward. And I learned some things, huge things, when I really was just hoping to find language to help describe what I was feeling.

The key posts that were the most helpful were Scarleteen’s Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent, Jaclyn Friedman’s The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent, and Heather Corinna’s Immodest Proposal. Here is a quick bullet list of my own revelations:

  • Being a sexual partner doesn’t meant going along with whatever because it’s all fine, but instead enthusiastically agreeing, where, according to Corinna, ideally “by the time anyone gets near anyone else’s genitals they are puffed up with arousal like a baboon’s bright red behind.” She also suggests that sex is quite a feat of timing really, since it demands that two people want to tear each others’ clothes off at the same time. If they don’t want to (let’s say one partner is really ready to get their partner naked, and the other partner isn’t against the idea but also wants to read a magazine) then they shouldn’t proceed.  Lukewarm and superhot does not a tryst make.  I think this is more difficult in the long-term not because desire fades, but because the hot hot heat of that stages is so hot and babooned up, whereas in the long-haul there is a assumption that happiness is very much based on perfunctory business time, or compromise (i.e. Dan Savage’s hearty salute to the GGG partner, though the Game part of that does assume a kind of enthusiastic consent). “I’m tired, I have to go to work in the morning” does not stand as enthusiastic consent, but is a script I know well, and one of the reasons the Flight of the Conchords nailed it, hard.
  • The corollary to this is that it is okay to withdraw consent whenever and both parties know this without worry of insult. Kissing does not have to lead to hot kissing and hot kissing does not have to lead to sex, which sounds obvious, but I think is a common issue in long-term relationships where it is well known that certain gestures lead to certain outcomes.  A peck on the cheek, sex isn’t exactly on the table. A long kiss with some tongue, and it could easily be assumed that sex is en route. That is unless, you’re practicing enthusiastic consent, and the pressure evaporates because you are only going to hot kiss if you clearly really really wanna hot kiss.  There’s no obligation in good sex, even of the sweetest kind. {Except of course the obligation of respect and sexual health and birth control and all that jazz}.
  • Consent is not just a verbal thing about saying yes or no. I was so used to making consent the stuff of high-school assembly speeches, that I had reduced it to a quick “no means no” existence. In  movies, if a woman says “no” we know absolutely this is a rape scene. If she’s crying or upset, or says “that hurts” pretty much the same deal. But a lack of consent can also be defined by the contrast of what counts as consent. Interest vs. passivity, reaching vs. pushing away, sounds of pleasure vs. sounds of discomfort, joy vs. stress.  Enthusiastic consent is a thing of great beauty, and logically leads to great sex.
  • In our discussions about consent, my partner had to take responsibility for not ensuring consent before moving forward, and I had to take responsibility for not loudly and concretely confirming my consent status either physically or verbally.  I don’t mean to overemphasize this, but we have a solid relationship built on equality and respect both in and out of the bedroom. We also had gotten ourselves into an intoxicated situation where consent was missing. This event made us both examine important aspects we had been blind to, how quiet I had been, how much we were assuming, and how used we were to this.  It made bad moments of power imbalance inevitable, sooner or later. Looking back, mutual enthusiastic consent has certainly been part of our sex-life at times, but it wasn’t something I was paying enough attention to, because I honestly didn’t think of it.
  • And that’s because there is a lot of shit in the world that has affected my view of gender, performance, and what goes on in the bedroom (or wherever you bold souls may take it). I very much agree with Friedman’s take that saying no is hard for lots of reasons, and saying no isn’t just about rape:

Similarly, when we learn as young girls to tolerate “low-level” boundary violations like the ones we often are forced to suffer in silence at school, at home and on the street – bra-snapping, boob-grabbing, ass pinching, catcalling, dick flashing “all in good fun” relentless violations that adults and authorities routinely ignore – it makes it harder for us to notice when even greater boundaries are being violated, eventually leading to the reality that many women who are raped just freeze and fall silent, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do over and over since day one.  You tell me what’s more infantilizing: repeatedly letting boys (and grown men) off the hook for their behavior because “boys will be boys” and we can’t ever expect any differently, or creating a consent standard in which all partners take active responsibility for their partner’s safety, and which acknowledges the truly diseased sexual culture we’re soaking in every day.

In Immodest Proposal, looking at the lack of female desire in our cultural expectations of sex, Corinna says:

We’ve long idealized or enabled the romance-novel script of ravishment: reluctant women and passive girls swayed into sex by strong partners. While we’re slowly coming around to the notion that violent force is not romantic, and rape not sex, but assault, “gentle persuasion” is still swoon-worthy stuff. The young woman who is provided a sexual awakening by an almost-paternal male partner remains an ideal, common fantasy or a profound fear if those roles can’t be adequately performed for or by women and men alike.

The chastity-belts of yesteryear are on display in our museums; those of the current day live on the mutilated genitals of poor women of color in Africa and wealthy white women in Los Angeles alike, in sex education curricula and the tiresome continuance of good girl/bad girl binaries, and in suburban households everywhere where a male partner has a hard-drive full of porn everyone knows is there and recognizes he may bring in his head to sex with partners while his female other makes sure her vibrator is well-hidden and would never consider asking her partner to use it during sex together for fear of making him feel insecure.

And all of this and more has gone on for so long and been so widespread that what should be a simple given of our yes can often seem an unattainable ideal.

  • All of which opened my eyes, took a burden off, and put another, much happier one back on.  Apparently, until this past week, I have been a bit of a sexual mute. A mature, strong, confident woman, who didn’t know the basic idea that she was supposed to say yes when she wanted (and not just in an effort to be sexy for the partner’s pleasure, or to fulfill some dumb rule prescribed by the Millionaire Matchmaker), and to say no when she wanted as well.  I thought the abstract idea of my desire meant that I had to be pro-sex (not prudish, NSFW Fleshbot savvy, aggressive enough to change positions or suggest a lighter touch) and that my idea of consent in a stable relationship was that it was invisible and moot. I have to learn to use my voice in the way that I always thought I was, but was obviously only superficially doing.
  • Now I’m learning.  My partner and I are re-approaching consent, starting at the very beginning with a lot of talk.  We both feel liberated by the idea that there is no set pattern for how things must be, and that neither of us knows what the coming pattern is.  And I’m a little scared, because now I have to do way more work in the bedroom than I am used to doing, and I can’t blame anything on things I haven’t said. I have to find a vocabulary, and that scariest of things, I have to use it.
  • Another benefit of this ugly moment in our bed is that my partner had to examine his own preconceptions, and voice his concerns about patterns we had so set that they were in the running to be part of our general makeup forever and ever. I think he also took on a little bit more of how scary sexual inequality is, shedding light on larger struggles affecting way more people than the two of us in our cozy home.

Corinna ends her piece, which was part of Friedman’s collection Yes Means Yes, with a vision of what enthusiastic consent is, and where our girl goes off into the world, and finds her very healthy way:

Without the assurance or expectation that she has an age-old script to follow that wasn’t written by her, she not only knows she will have to be more creative sexually than women before her, she’s looking forward to it. She has no expectation of being asked to perform or of asking a partner to perform: her expectations are all about both of them engaging in expression, not performance. She’s not expecting porn or a romance novel: she’s expecting an interpretive dance.

M., you and I have written a lot here about the dynamics of desire, the facility of fantasy, and the complexities possible in each. I think I have been maybe off angle–thinking that, more or less, the only choices were porn, romance novel, or the awareness of settling for the real world. Like an unhappy malcontent on his birthday, pissed that he didn’t get any of the gifts he made up in his or  head, I didn’t realize that I was part of that big day. This all sounds so broad, but I mean it in the most specific of ways. Pronouncing desire is an important part of life, as long as everybody’s pronouncements (likes and dislikes) are heard and understood. And that it can be really hard to pronounce desire because the words can feel clunky and weird in our mouths, or are just plain unknown. I’m sure this will be as obvious as Early Bird Money Pie from Peep Show to many people, but for all my talk about the importance of voice and empowerment, this was a bit of a blindside. And a windfall.

Again, Corinna writes something awesome and helpful:

Consent is absolutely foundational for any kind of healthy sexuality. But our sexual revolution can only begin not only after every woman is at yes, with every invitation, but after – be it to man, woman or someone else entirely, and spoken by anyone – that yes is less one person’s answer to another’s request and more an expression or validation of any person’s own or shared desire….

Which brings me back to Business Time. That sketch blew my mind when I first saw it because I thought it was being wonderfully honest. Now I see it as a representation of what we accept as the diluted real thing. Business Time should not be something we can all relate to.  It’s still funny as it pokes at disheartening patterns, but much more brutal. Domestic dude wants sex, domestic lady doesn’t. He decides they are having sex, she vaguely gets into it, but in the end she is dissatisfied and he had a two minute encounter that could have been masturbatory at best. If consent has reared it’s forgotten head, at the worst, Sally would have slept well and Jemaine would have taken care of himself. In the best case scenario, the Flight of Conchords would have a whole other song about the surprise of awesome sexy times, and the recycling could still be taken out, cuz that’s important, too.

This American Life’s episode last week was called “Say Anything”, asking if talking really helps.  The first segment was about a book from the eighties called Please Read This For Me: How to Tell the Man You Love Things You Can’t Put into Words. The idea was that women could find the chapter on their problem, bookmark it, and have their partner read it. I listened to this right as I was spelunking in the internet to find out how to talk to Mr. Carla Fran about what had happened, why it scared me, and why it was important. We read these blog posts together, and we talked. And the answer is yes, TAL, talking really helps, as does action, and research, and checking blindspots.

Marriage is built on consent. Consent to not sleep with other people, consent to share finances, consent to mutually lift the burden of adulthood together.  And one of the greatest struggles I have found in partnering, one that you and I have parsed here enough that it seems we haven’t found satisfaction in articulation, is the boundaries of domestic space. We have asked how to share work and time with a partner, and what limits are necessary, what limits are the least flexible. Living together is the concrete of the larger, scarier and abstract boundary that is tested and wrestled when we  join up eternally with somebody in the eyes of the establishment: self vs. other. Relationships, and especially marriage, can be a challenge to voice, especially for women, but I’m starting to realize that even voice isn’t what I thought it was.  Claiming self, space, and desire isn’t the stuff of scripts and movie roles, or blog posts.  Finding words is hard. I get why women bought that book in the eighties. I get why Sally sleeps with Jemaine. I get why Mr. Carla Fran and I had to have a major talk about hard to say things. But I’m also really excited about interpretive dance.

To recap, the lessons being learned:

  1. only have sex when you really really want to
  2. say no when you don’t want to, there’s no risk of being impolite
  3. consent is part of even established relationships
  4. find a way to say what you want, it’s important
  5. assumptions aren’t doing you any favors
  6. be like a baboon. A lucky lucky baboon.