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!