Yes You Can! Why Enthusiastic Consent Is Easier Than You Think

Maybe you’ve heard about this totally revolutionary brand new idea called enthusiastic consent. It’s all very theoretical and complicated but the basic idea is that you should ask someone whether they would like to do something with you before you do it together, and you should not proceed unless you get an enthusiastic yes.

I understand that in the olden days – which is where some people still live in their minds – it was considered perfectly fine to proceed with any old thing without any explicit consent. Then we started saying “no means no” to make everyone understand that you have to stop if someone says no to having sex with you at any point. Yes, at any point! Like, halfway through sex! Even then! Shocking, I know.

Most people in our culture now understand this, at least in principle. Some people like to derail conversations about this by bringing up this one time they heard about when someone said no, but they really did want to have sex (Hi John Marsden! I see you there making it easier for young men to accidentally rape young women! I SEE YOU.). Frankly I don’t care about the 1% of cases in which adhering to the rule “no means no” causes people to miss out on eventually-consensual sex. A rule that works 99% of the time is a good rule. And when it works, it prevents rape! We’re gonna err on the side of preventing rape here!

Unfortunately, accepting this principle is not really enough. The first problem is that some people don’t understand (and perhaps don’t care) that consent is so crucial, and so if it is easier to make it look like they had consent than it is to actually get consent, those people will opt for the former. They make it their goal to avoid getting told no. If they never ask, maybe the other person will never say anything! Boy, that sounds like fun. What could be more fun than having sex with someone who may or may not be enjoying themselves? It just adds that extra level of excitement: “Does this person actually hate being in bed with me? Ooooh it’s turning me on just wondering about it.”

Okay, I’m obviously joking, but some people apparently don’t mind whether their partner is secretly hating it and would say no if asked. Or perhaps these people are so terrified of being told no – so convinced that they will be utterly destroyed by rejection – that they simply cannot bear to ask. The second story sounds more tragic, but the effect is the same. As long as they don’t hear the no, things are fine for these people, and that means they’re willing to risk committing rape.

The second problem is that if all the focus is on the no, then the person whose consent is being solicited is the person saddled with the responsibility. If we’re dealing with people who don’t want to ask or don’t think to ask, the problem gets worse, because then that person has to say no of their own volition, without prompting, with no idea whether it is even safe to say no or not. That is much harder even than saying no when your partner/s ask for your consent. It is clear now that “no means no”, while a good starting point, puts too much onus on the person who wants to say no. It’s not good enough.

By contrast, the “yes means yes” principle, coupled with an understanding that we want our sexual partners to be happy, enthusiastic, and honest about their desires, is a solid foundation on which to build good practice around consent. If you are committed to this paradigm, you will ask, offer and discuss sex activities with your partner/s often. You don’t get yes once and then assume you have a free pass on that thing forever: your partner/s might be into something one day, but not the next. They may be into one thing, but not into another thing that seems similar to you. Ask them what they want and encourage them to be honest with you. Similarly, don’t expect your partner/s to read your damn mind: tell them what you feel like doing or having done to you right at that moment. Does this sound like a recipe for great sex? It is!

So, I hope the merits of enthusiastic consent are clear. Unfortunately, some people find it really hard. Like, really, really hard. Twin prime conjecture hard (okay maybe not that hard). Even just trying it once appears to be too difficult. But here’s the truth: enthusiastic consent is not hard. If you can communicate with adult humans (heck, you only really need to be able to talk to one adult human), you can do enthusiastic consent.

But suppose you do find it hard. How can you make it easier? First, you need to get used to talking to your partner/s in bed – I mean, have an actual conversation. Ditch those hollywood ideas about perfectly synced-up effortlessly sexy uber-romantic simultaneous orgasms, and throw out those literary-fiction tragic-wah-wah deep and serious silent sex tropes. (I assume you already know that pornography in general is also an appalling model for your sex life.) You’re not in a movie and you’re not characters in a book. You’re just people! Talk to each other!

You can start small: during sexual activities, say things like “That feels great” or “I really like this” or “Does that feel good?” or “That’s really hot” or “A little to the left please!”. If you are really uncomfortable speaking during sex, you can even start by only saying positive things – then you can be virtually certain that you will always get a good reaction from your partner/s. Start saying positive things often, and you will normalise the practice of speaking to each other in bed. Once talking in bed becomes normal, it then becomes easier to speak up when you would prefer something be done a little differently, or you dislike an act altogether.

Once you can express both positive and negative sentiments about your activities in bed, you can quite easily level up to asking what your partner would like before you engage in any acts. When it feels normal to talk and to openly express your feelings in that environment, engaging in a dialogue with your partner is a natural next step. It becomes easy to ask your partner if there is anything they would like or offer a suggestion of an activity you would like to try – while giving them ample opportunity to express their feelings and preferences.

Second, things will be a lot easier if you do the mental work to demystify sex in general for yourself. Sex is not any more magical than anything else in the universe, nor is it even particularly mysterious. Sex will not validate you as a person if you do it well enough – nor can it invalidate you as a person if you need lots of guidance and gentle instruction from your partner/s. In fact, nothing in life can validate or invalidate you as a person because the concept of validation itself is nothing but a dangerous illusion. The sex you have is not part of some grander narrative about your life – indeed, there is no grand narrative about your life! It rarely works well to approach sex as though it is something you have to get right. Even worse, treating sex as though it is a mystical grail quest that will imbue your life with wonder and specialness if only you can do it perfectly is a recipe for disaster.

Sex is an activity that you do with other adults by mutual agreement because you enjoy it. There is no higher aim. Your partners are not complicated puzzles that you have to decode – they are people, and if you want to know what is up with them, you can just ask them. If you’re not looking to get pregnant, then sex literally has no function other than to be enjoyable for the people doing it. Talking about ways to make a fun shared activity work best for everyone involved is sensible and emotionally healthy behaviour. How has it become strange to discuss sex with our partners? How could this be silly or bad? It makes no sense!

Keep reminding yourself of that. Keep dismissing negative thoughts that tell you to be ashamed or embarrassed of speaking about what you want. Again and again, your brain will throw these cultural messages up at you, and every time you must decide to reject them. Reject the idea that good sex means nobody talks about what they want. Reject the idea that your partner/s “shouldn’t have to ask”. I had to do a lot of work around this one, but remember: your partner is well aware that they are in bed with you and not Charles Xavier. Reject the fear that you sound silly when you talk about sex or during sex. You don’t sound silly: to anyone who is worth your time, you sound great. Good, giving partner/s want their partners to enjoy sex, and if you tell them what you like, that makes it a lot easier.

Finally, the practice of enthusiastic consent should be coupled with the understanding that saying no (or “not today” or whatever) is allowed, and that receiving a no in response to a request will not destroy you or doom your relationship. Make sure that the no goes well for all parties, and in so doing, you will prove to yourselves that you will all survive it. The person giving the no should never shame the other person for their request. The person receiving the no should never pressure the other person or make a dramatic show of being disappointed.

When handled with respect, honesty and caring, this situation really isn’t a big deal. We don’t always all want the same things all the time, but with a little communication, we can usually work something out. You have a much better chance of resolving things productively if you can speak openly about your feelings to the people who matter to you. This applies to life in general. Welcome to enthusiastic consent!


7 Comments on Yes You Can! Why Enthusiastic Consent Is Easier Than You Think

  1. Connie Connie says:

    Yes and the Consensual Project has been doing great work on this front. They have practical ideas for opening communication with partners (starting from the idea that consent can be sexy and incorporated into foreplay) and information about maintaining enthusiastic consent with respect to longterm partners.

  2. Let’s just say that I know someone who accused someone else I know of sexual assault. This guy (let’s just call him the accused) actually dated my current partner, who told me that they had dinner, like twice. Nothing serious in other words. However, the summer before we started dating, the accused told me that him and my current partner were in a serious, heavy relationship, deeply in love, planning on spending the rest of their lives together, etc. The disparity of how each viewed the relationship really could not have been more stark. We also know somebody else who pretty much had the same experience with the accused as well.

    In any event, the accuser is a bit of a wallflower, not that being passive means one deserves to be sexually assaulted, but I don’t think it takes a lot of imagination to fill in the blanks of what probably happened. They went on a date, after dinner the accused, thinking the relationship was already starting to take off…

    Whatever the case may have been in this incident, I really do agree and think the need and importance for having enthusiastic consent from a partner before engaging in sexual intercourse cannot be emphasized enough.
    -Jeremy

  3. Llyr says:

    Here’s one of the most cogent points I’ve seen brought to this subject:

    http://pervocracy.blogspot.com/2011/10/aiming-higher-than-not-bad.html

    “Having sex that isn’t rape is like cooking food that isn’t poison. It’s the bare goddamn minimum. …

    Few things worry me more than people (okay, men) who say it’s difficult to know if someone’s consenting or not. This suggests to me not just that they could be violating someone’s consent, but that even if they aren’t, they’re having terrible sex. If your idea of sex is limited to ‘one partner silently gets on and grinds away and the other tolerates it,’ it can be consensual, but it’s probably not much fun.”

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Yes! I love Pervocracy.

      I’m also worried by people who say consent is hard. It makes me wonder if there’s someone else on the other end of that story, anxiously telling their friends “I’m not saying it was rape, it wasn’t, I didn’t say no….”.

  4. Penny says:

    Just popping by to drop off my own opinions on the subject, which are very confused and conflicted and probably unhelpful and I will ramble, because when I talk about things important to me I often do (oh look, it’s started already).

    I agree, in general principle, having been the victim in the past of what I term ‘accidental rape’ in which the other party took my ‘no’ to mean I was being coy, rather than actually terrified. Similarly, I’ve come up against the avoidance of the ‘no’ and the repeated questioning until they get a ‘yes’.

    However, I personally struggle to talk during sex (and I could go on for hours about how this links back to the aforementioned rape, since that was my first sexual experience, but that would be irrelevant and for my own sake, not yours). Part of this is a physical thing, in that I swiftly get very incoherent, but most of it is part of my cultural grounding and my own inhibitions about sex. While I’m relatively comfortable having sex, talking about it is very awkward for me. I would suspect this isn’t that unusual, either, given how taboo sex can be in everyday life. But talking DURING sex for me is also tied up in other issues…it can make me so embarrassed I can’t feel sexy, for example, it can kill spontaneity, it’s probably also connected to my inability to take sex seriously, and I assume it’s attached to varying issues in different people (like everything)

    My point, I guess, is that enthusiastic consent is perfect in concept, but in practise it’s much easier said than done, and it seems to me very YMMV. I think this is a fundamental problem with sex and sexual rights, because what people want, gain and lose from sex varies so wildly.

    (Looking back on this post, I notice that most of the issues I mentioned were the ones the original post discussed working through. Also that I probably brought nothing new to the table. But there we go.)

    • Connie Connie says:

      I think talking about sex can start with small steps. For example, I always make sure to check-in with my partners with non-committal or judgemental questions like: “Is this okay?” or “Does it feel alright?” or “Do you want to keep doing this?” Even doing that can make quite a difference because then you’re not pre-empting the yes or no answer, and it’s purpose is to avoid an unpleasant experience for either party before it happens.

      I don’t think it ruins the mood and even if what you’re doing IS okay with your partner, often it’ll open up the way for more dialogue or suggestions about what to do next. And just go from there and keep talking and keep working at it.

  5. Aparna says:

    And here I thought that sex would bring enlightenment at least;-)

    Having had limited experience with sex, I used to think that this – the way you outlined it – is how you would go about it anyways. (Because, how else would you know what your partner wants? or how would your partner know what you want?)

    Nice post!


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