February 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In my middle-American high school, students could get in trouble up to being expelled for “public displays of affection.” By the time I graduated, the administrators had become so strict, they were expelling students for hugging or high-fiving at school.
Stewing in a retrospective rage about PDA’s recently, I thought anew about how this system estranges young people from their own consent. Shaming and punishment for completely consensual acts of physical affection, whether sexual or not, probably grew from administrators trying to prevent students from making out in the hallways, cracking down in an overzealous attempt to maintain control. The rule is, in short, an incredibly bad rule. It is counterintuitive to just about everything I can think of that is good: consent, touch, solidarity, body autonomy, friendship, happiness, and, yes, sex.
I wish I could replace a legalistic, authoritarian PDA rule with a consent-based rule system. I was thinking about how little I knew about consent when I was in middle and high school. I think a lot of people have their first real, deep friendships as teenagers. And a lot of us have our first sexual relationships then. All in all, it’s a pretty important time to advance in our comprehension of consent and ability to engage an exchange of negotiating our own boundaries and wellness with someone else’s.
I started to think out a model of what new rules might look like. Students could be collectively introduced to consent and engage in a week of EVC where they were not allowed to touch without getting explicit verbal consent. Any touch that was not explicitly allowed would become taboo, as it should be. The language of consent and skills to ask for desired touch, respond authentically, and manage one’s own feelings when disappointed could be taught as rudimentary skills required when touching other people. And after that week, consent could be expanded to a standard of more simple expressed consent. There could be discourse teaching students to bring in nonverbal signals and cues, to look for and give consent, and use basic consent skills like the 90-10 approach.
The rule then would be that no touch was allowed that was not consensual. I think just about everyone would break the rule at some point, and particularly at first. Adults would need to be capable of leading students through negotiating hurt feelings and miscommunications. And in the end each student would need to have their right to account for their own experience of having consented or not upheld and never overridden. Teachers and administrators would then have to apply their own judgment as to an offending student’s intent and the proper response. Rampant offenders would be singled out pretty fast. Types of bullying and coercion that go on without breaking any “rules” would come to the surface. And in general, everyone would get some model of consent in their mind and start learning skills early.
I didn’t have a language for consent until after college, but was figuring it out in slower, foggier ways from my experience years before then. During my sophomore year of high school, a trend kicked up where we would suddenly pat each other on the rear and say “good game.” I thought it was hilarious, and I was really bold about it and got some fantastic responses from people. One guy I did not know well was in mid-conversation when I got him. He turned and winked and said, “I play hard,” then picked up what he was saying without losing stride. We actually became better friends after that.
But I patted one of my friends, standing in the midst of a bunch of our mutual close friends, on the rear who was really, really upset. She had already had her butt touched several times that day and didn’t like the joke. She didn’t have any solid footing to make an argument, since she was considered a “prude” and had been essentially judged all day for her “weird” response. Those of us who were her close friends I think were all surprised and abashed for a moment by her response, but then staunchly defended her right not to be into “good-gaming.” I apologized and felt genuinely sorry, putting onus on me and not her for being out of line. And I only got people I knew liked the game afterwards. It was a weird moment of recognizing consent, and realizing that it was a real risk to invade someone’s boundaries even with good intent, not knowing how they would feel.
My group of friends didn’t have any language to talk about consent. We just had to feel our way about it. It’s a confusing business to sort things out in the midst of a rape culture. I think I would have been really into EVC and an applied consent ethic as a teenager. It would have helped me to think and relate to other people better, and I think it is worth teaching. To be honest, I think it is imperative, and I find it really twisted that we don’t consider consent a standard topic of education for all people.
February 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
I was recently on my favorite blog Yes Means Yes and read a post by Jaclyn Friedman on the sexual politics of the show Glee. Towards the end of the article was this section outlining a marvelous confluence of coercion in everyday life:
“Not so for the Parents Television Council, who have launched a ferocious campaign against the show, saying, ‘The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.’
That the Parents Television Council considers seniors in high school ‘children’ tells you nearly everything you need to know. The rest you need is about their willful denial of the importance of context. They seem to believe that any depiction of teen sexuality — including depictions of teens negotiating safer sex, and an early Glee episode (which gave me false hope for the show) that saw a lead character unapologetically informing her peers that girls have their own sexual desires, and another one challenged by male performance anxiety — is a danger to ’our children.’ In order to believe this, you must also believe that all teenagers are a) too dumb to tell the difference between the vapid, ornamental bunnies on the deservedly cancelled Playboy Club and, say, the smart, abrasive, complicated and proudly sexual Britta on Community, and b) would be completely asexual if they could only avoid the sexy grip of Evil Television Shows. These are far more childish beliefs about sexuality than any held by most of the teenagers I’ve met.
Over here in reality, we know that many teens explore sex. It’s true that television can influence how they think about sex, which is why erasing all sexuality from the airwaves is never the answer. Sex is a part of human life, one that many teens are working hard to understand for the first time. Silencing the media’s conversation about sexuality just drives the subject underground. That leaves young people less equipped to negotiate safer sex and contraception, and to articulate needs and boundaries. Instead, we should be working toward a media that prioritizes the quality of its sexual messages over the quantity of them. Much like all of us would do well to do with sex itself.”
In broad strokes, both the parents and the feminist in question wan these children to grow into a healthy, mature sexuality. But the tactic is totally in contrast. It is not what is being taught that these parents are reacting against. The priority of these parents is not to protect their children from coercion and teach them to protect themselves. Though they confusingly and bizarrely cast the television show Glee as coercing teenagers – cough, cough, excuse me – children into having sex. But coercion is not truly their enemy, sex is, and anyone who is not them threatens to provide information or influence causes them to react because these parents want the power to control knowledge about sex and to coerce their children to say no to sex or yes within a tightly controlled set of parameters and don’t want anything to threaten that power.
Essentially, they have the legal right to do so. Their children are their property, there is essentially no transition of rights into adulthood, cultural or legal. You hit eighteen and you belong to yourself. Before that, you’re theirs. There are many parents who do not want to relinquish control over their children, and are merely forced to by the passing of time and their children’s’ uncontrollable encroaching autonomy. (Though, in my view, there are some children too demoralized and controlled to ever truly get out, who do not survive in one way or another.)
Benevolent patriarchy is a term I learned from bell hooks (who taught me just about everything I thought I should’ve learned in college) that describes the behavior of those who hold power for the supposed good of others. In the nineteenth century on women’s rights, it was common to hear the idea that men wanted to protect women from rights to choose for themselves for benevolent reasons, to protect them. Patriarchy has at least two manifestations, especially outlined in the Second Wave movement, the domination of men over women and the domination of men (and women, which is often understated) over children.
I am challenging a pseudo-sacred cultural assumption here. A lot of loving people have children. But a lot of people have children. It is untrue to claim that all, and perhaps even that most, parents love their children. It is true to claim that all parents have substantial power over their children. Unlike the once considered “natural” domination of men over women, children are inherently helpless and subject to parents. And history has proven time and again that without substantial checks and balances human beings do not use power well, that is they use power for their own seeming gain typically to the detriment of those under them. There is more mitigation of that power now than ever before, but the work is not nearly done.
The nuclear family is perhaps the most unchecked, private sphere of domination in our society. We all begin as children, and it is there that most of us cut our teeth on oppressive systems, starting with helplessness in the face of almost total control by parents. There are laws against physical cruelty (historically recent laws beginning only past a certain point) and yet no laws regarding psychological cruelty or domination committed by parents against their children. If you were not abused as a child, you are in the fortunate minority – fortune here meaning merely that you were privileged with what ought to be extended to every human being and as yet has not.
Why so many parents are terrified of their children having sex or merely knowledge about sex may seem like a mystery. But parents were once children, too, and it is very hard for people not to pass down trauma. And many institutions of power are also invested in controlling human sexuality. Abstinence only education is an attempt to maintain control over human sexuality rather than to place power where it belongs, in the hands of the individual. Parents hate all sex ed because it threatens their control. Religious groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control. Political groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control.
As Shulamith Firestone said, “Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.” Quality sex education would give rise to the powerful and dreaded monster informed consent. It threatens to put the knowledge necessary for young adults (notice the avoidance of that phrase by the Parents Television Council) to claim ownership over their own bodies, their own sexualities, their evolving right to choose.
Yes it is complicated to teach young people about sex. Yes to do so responsibly it will take more resources than we commit now. But will it honestly be more risky? Is anyone noticing how rampant child sex abuse, unacknowledged rape, unintentional pregnancy, and other unchecked pain and untended suffering surrounding sex exists in our current culture? In my view, the sex negative generation has had their time. A long, long, long time. They have proven incompetent at creating a healthy, sane, or safe world or cultivating ethical and happy sexualities in people. This may seem like a low blow on my part, but since the Catholic sex abuse scandals, I feel anyone touting sex negative messages and appealing to benevolent patriarchy as deserving our trust hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It is time to try something new. And, honestly, I’d be shocked and amazed if we could mess it up any worse than it already is.
Parental ownership of children needs to be challenged on every societal level. Parents need to rethink their role. As a parent, you are raising a human being who belongs inarguably and only to their own individual self. They can and will choose for themselves (eventually) and you have no right ethically (albeit still legally, but times, they change) to dominate and control them. It is your appropriate role only to support and equip them to make the best choices they can once they are able and ready. Our broader society does not seem to know what rape is. And it certainly does not know what child abuse is either. I’d like to ask those Parents Television Council folks, why don’t you ask young adults – er, I mean children – how they experience the show… or yourselves. Sound scary? Cause if it does, you should do some thinking.
February 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
How do you communicate consent?
I recently read and loved the article “Submissive Skills” by Clarisse Thorn. I often find her writing about negotiating consent in BDSM relationships excellent and illuminating. They feel relevant to dynamics I’ve experienced negotiating consent not being a BDSMer. I love that she breaks up the usual assumption of the top as the initiator and adds a more complicated portrait of initiating sex as a bottom and in dialogue with a partner. I especially loved the specific examples of her past lover initiating as a bottom. She points to often overlooked consent skills that include knowing what you want, interpreting well your body’s response in a given experience, indicating accurately how you want to change a dynamic, and externalizing what is happening internally for your partner to read.
Consent is a dialogue, and usually someone is the initiator. In discussions of consent, onus is usually placed on the initiator to actively get consent from partners. And encouragement is usually given to non-initiating partners to communicate non-consent. These two steps reestablish an egregiously absent bottom line in sexual ethics and go a long way in stopping rape culture. It reminds initiators that absence of consent is non-consent. It acknowledges how hard it can be to communicate non-consent. To me, consent skills begin with learning to protect yourself and your partner from having nonconsensual sex. Taking no for an answer and expecting, rather, demanding partners who accept no for an answer at any and all points in a relationship without threat or punishment.
Consent is a dialogue and usually someone is the initiator. In a scenario where both partners have a solid consent ethic, the initiator will be looking to their partner for active communication of consent. This is where consent confusion and consent paranoia can come in and make life, or rather sex, difficult. This is why I imagine some people are beginning to replace “enthusiastic consent” with “good consent.” In a context of consent, (i.e. We have established that we want to have sex with each other), there is still the need for a lot of decision-making an ongoing dialogue of consent (i.e. What sex are we having and how is it going?). Consent skills might begin with stopping nonconsensual sex from happening, but I think they go on to getting consensual sex to happen. Perhaps this is one reason why BDSMers like Clarisse Thorn have a lot to teach the rest of us about consent, they’re used to having to create what they want without a status quo in mind.
It is difficult to know and communicate your desires, and it is difficult to accurately and confidently interpret and negotiate with what your partner is telling you. Consent frustration is what I would call that sense those of us looking for consent sometimes get when we want to say to our partner, “Please tell me when you’re consenting!” Or, “Tell me louder.” Or, “Keep telling me. Tell me again.” And that desperate sense we sometimes get when we feel, “I just don’t know what I want,” or, “I just can’t say what I want.” And perhaps also the sense we sometimes get when we feel we just aren’t sure what our partner is telling us.
Before reading Clarisse’s article, I had recently thought to ask my close friend and frequent sex partner Valerie, “How do you communicate consent?” Even though all the sex we have is consensual and not traumatic, it is sometimes fraught with consent paranoia, confusion, and frustration. Valerie found it hard to answer, and what she did say surprised me, pointing out several ways I was misreading her response, like her going very quiet and relaxed as a positive sign whereas for me that would be a terrible sign meaning I was freaked and checking out.
After reading Clarisse’s article I realized I have some consent skills I hadn’t recognized and so does Valerie. I have actually worked to externalize my response (in my experience, INTJ’s have to learn to communicate emotion anyways), and I feel comfortable enough when I give a nonverbal signal and I can tell she doesn’t catch to give a stronger signal or just verbalize what I’m saying. I think I learned some of those skills from my first lover, Tom, whose response was so vivid I could practically feel it in my own body. He was almost impossible to misread. Valerie is less comfortable adapting her communication, but she is one of those people amazing at interpreting nonverbal communication she receives. When we were first together and I was more shy and working myself up to asking for something specific, she would often read cues off my body I thought were subtle and do it before I said anything. So lack of response to small cues probably seemed to her like expressions of non-consent from me early on.
I imagine most people come to sex and communication of consent with strengths and weaknesses, same as any other context of communication. We live in a culture that actively alienates us from our own consent, which makes it difficult to prioritize and look for consent in others. After we learn to care, we probably all need to work on one dimension or another of our consent skills, whether it is seeking out what we want, learning to say no to what we don’t want, learning to negotiate consent when we’re unsure, externalizing signals, feeling comfortable enough to get a little louder and a little clearer when our signals are not read, reading other people better with a broader understanding of how different people might respond, asking the right questions, or making those questions sexy enough to keep the energy going in our interactions.
From my experience, I would say the number one skill needed to overcome consent frustration is patience. Both with ourselves and our partners. And I think that if we are even working on it, there’s a lot to be grateful and give ourselves credit for.
February 7, 2012 § 3 Comments
My friend Veronica likes to use the phrase “the wearing-down approach” to consent. She sometimes adds, “a.k.a. coercion.”
This describes when someone keeps asking, or keeps calling, or otherwise continues to push a boundary you’ve set until you either escalate your “no” or give in. They don’t escalate the aggression of the approach, instead they stay neutral or more often add a level of helplessness or neediness to the situation. They keep testing the boundary, changing the emotional pitch, over and over, to see if it will stand.
Let me just state…
BEGGING IS COERCION
I have so rarely heard anyone discuss begging and posturing low status and neediness as a means of coercion. Yet it comes up time and again in accounts of friends processing past experiences of rape and other coercion.
Of course, there is such a thing as more accurately portraying the intensity of our feelings about something, there is such a thing as checking in again as time passes, there is such a thing as making sure someone is sure. But there is also such a thing as tiring someone out by getting them to set the same boundary over and over again. And there is also such a thing as learning to over-express emotion to control someone else’s behavior by exploiting their empathy, and often their learned sense of responsibility for someone else’s feelings.
Coercion can be overtly violent, but it can also be less overt and manipulative. We’ve all met one of those people who can’t take no for an answer but doesn’t blow up, who plays angles and manipulates more “nicely”. A lot of us have done it and at point or another, and some of us are trying to break the habit.
But I hope we can start calling a spade a spade and clarifying in our own minds and hearts that repeatedly pushing against someone’s boundary or posturing multiple emotional pitches to try and get a different response is disrespectful and unethical. It teaches people away from consent. It is the opposite of love and counterintuitive to it. It is coercion. And it is abuse.
January 31, 2012 § 4 Comments
It takes a lot of time and intense work to actually become sex positive, not just in theory as a political stance but practically in our own minds and bodies. Healing from even the everyday sort of sex trauma our society dishes out is a process. Souls are slow growth crops. But miraculously resilient.
I want to encourage folks to keep the faith. At thirteen I believed even thinking about sex was wrong. At nineteen, I could not feel any sexual energy or sensations without becoming almost unbearably sad. At twenty-six, I experience a ton of joy in sex and feel that sexual energy is an healing and sacred force in my life. I still have a very long way to grow, but I’m far enough along now that I only rarely crash into total despair. And I see a lot of people I’m close with progressing in their own journey, each of their lives adding to my hope for broader societal and global change.
I thought I would list a few things that have helped heal and grow for readers to consider trying. If anyone has something that has helped them they’d be willing to post, please do!
1) Re-parent and re-educate. Most of us learn about sex in vague, patchy, loaded awkward ways by people trying to control our choices. As adults, we are our own guardians and teachers, and we can choose to re-teach ourselves, to unlearn sex-negativity and shame by seeking out sex-positive environments. Put in some new messages from books, conversations, websites to defy the sex-negative messages of the past. I feel more is better, just tipping the scales of what’s in my brain on the topic of sex.
2) Talk about sex with safe people. Most of us only talk about sex, often in limited and uncomfortable ways, with partners whose feelings we’re preoccupied with. Most of us haven’t learned to talk about sex before we attempt to do so in high stakes situations that make it difficult. Talking about desire and consent, experiences and thoughts with close people we aren’t in sexual relationships can help in pushing past the taboo and shame and awkwardness of the learning process and give us the skill when we need it. It can also teach us about letting down boundaries, what is safe for us and what is not. And it can be a good context for working on consent skills as we navigate our own comfort levels and those of our friends.
3) Learn from solo sex. Most of us learn first to have sex with ourselves. And what we often learn is how to make as little noise as possible as we rush to relieve the stress of pent-up sexual tension before shame – external or internal – catches us. Naturally, when we get with a partner, we have sex the way we have learned how. We can begin to move away from shame and towards remaining embodied and to externalize our response in the safety of solitude in order to be better prepared to be with partners.
4) Learn to manage triggers. A lot of the same feelings come up in solo sex that come up in partner sex, and sometimes it can help to learn to manage them alone. Just identifying when we are triggered – when our response has to do with experiences in the past that are interfering with us responding in line with the present – is important. And there are lots of skills to manage our response. I always point to Staci Haines book Healing Sex as a masterpiece of creative and radical values put to work, and I wish there was an equivalent written those of us who do not identify as survivors of child sex abuse.
5) Write about it. Obviously, at some point I even decided to write this blog, but long before that, I started writing about sex in my journals. I wrote about past experiences many of which were still loaded with extreme and difficult feelings, wrote out questions of what I believe and what I wanted and wrote towards answers, wrote about numerous books and articles and new sexual experiences as I processed them. I got to know myself a lot better. Putting something into words can get it out of your head, away from haunting you, and out where you can really see it objectively and start to work with it. Even if you have to burn it immediately after, I suggest writing about sex in every form that occurs to you.
Lastly, what I did not list was to learn about rape culture and learn about consent. This blog is written for people post feminist awakening to the reality of sexism and rape culture and in the midst of a personal process of change. If you’re on here, you’re probably doing this work and know how great it is, but I thought I’d write it out.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Before becoming mindful of consent most (and more likely all) of us participate in rape culture. There are a million different parts to play. From actively coercing others imagining ourselves entitled to what we take, to betraying own consent by communicating consent that is not authentic or following a prescriptive pattern in sex or relationships rather than negotiating for who and what we want, to good old slut shaming, to advising our friends to compromise boundaries for the sake of protecting attachments to partners, parents, traditions – it seems nearly every situation calls upon us to either reinforce or defy a status quo of coercion.
I doubt if anyone comes to feminism, to consciousness of consent, without some regret over the past, some grief to tolerate, some healing to do. Awakening to feminist consciousness is a crisis. We see with a new lens, not only our society but also ourselves. We have to learn to stop coercing, as we pick up the habit long before we are conscious adults. Consent doesn’t just happen. It is not habitual, not the status quo.
I’ve talked before about the other side of the coin of coercion – about all the sex that does not happen because people are coerced not to have it. I care a lot about this sex, because only a world where consensual sex becomes the norm — where it is understood and talked about, represented in art and media and the backbone of law regarding sex, and so on – will clear lines be drawn between sex and rape, coercion and consent, justice and injustice, abuse and love.
In this post, I’d like to talk about even more sex that doesn’t happen, specifically the sex that does not happen because we have become mindful of consent but do not know how go about ensuring it while initiating sex.
Sex doesn’t just happen, we learn how to make it happen, just as we learn how to make anything happen. I’d say there are essentially three ways we can learn to make sex happen a) blatant coercion, like bullying and physical violence b) cryptic coercion, like manipulation, flattery, and begging and c) consensually. There’s a lot more skills taught for a and b than there are for c. We learn from our society how to make sex happen predominantly by using coercion. Even if we’re lucky enough to have decent technical sex education, we don’t learn the necessary skills to negotiate consent.
For the consent-minded, sex is spooking. Consent requires upholding boundaries between ourselves and others and knowing how to negotiate situations in which the choice is made by all parties to let some of those boundaries down. Consent paranoia – that panicked, decidedly turned-off feeling we get when suspect our partners are not consenting or consenting falsely – is a decidedly healthy, enlightened neurosis. But I should like to think we move forward and learn the skills necessary to represent our own consent and interpret that of our partners accurately and consistently.
Maybe you’re a brash egotist who learned how to check your privilege and will have smooth sailing from here. But the rest of us shy freaks need to get into some dialogues and work out how to gain some confidence and grounding with sex and consent. The first sexual experience I had after becoming a feminist with another recently feminist friend got more and more anxious and stilted until I said, “I’m not sure what you want,” which brought out a relieved response of, “I’m not sure what you want either.” That experience petered out because neither of us really knew how to get a grasp on what we wanted or trust the other person to express consent and not be persuaded by a desire to please.
One thing I’ve learned is to translate my consent paranoia into expressed consent confusion, not just to feel anxious about consent but to recognize and name how I’m feeling and ask the other person for more information if I can. It finally occurred to me to ask Valerie, “How do you express consent?” From her answer, I realized there were times I was reading her response all wrong, assuming her responses would read like mine.
In films, consensual sex “just happens.” In life, people have to make it happen, write the script, direct, provide technical support and dramaturgy – the whole thing. It’s essentially a creative process, and I think most of us are at least partially if not desperately blocked. There is often a lot of consent confusion to clarify before we can decide how to act. Personally, I am happy to be in a place where while the sex might not always be happening, there is no risk of the rape happening instead. But I’d like to move on from here.
While I may not be coercing people (including myself) into sex, I do sometimes find that sex is not happening because I and my partner don’t know how to initiate it. There are lots of questions to answer after consciousness of consent hits you. How do you ask questions without killing the mood? How to you redirect what’s happening if your response to what you initially asked for is not what you expected without worrying too much about our partner’s feelings or confidence? How do you know what you want? How do you consensually ask your partner to choose for you? How do you learn to read someone’s response to interpret nonverbal consent? How much responsibility can and should you take for another person’s consent?
December 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I recently took a job in a UU church, the latest I’ve had in a string of nonprofit jobs and commitments. Before that I spent a lot of time involved in Christian churches and groups. This latest experience has me considering anew the lack of consent informing most religious, and other groups formed around an ethical core, I’ve encountered. I feel like I found the same paradoxes and atmosphere of confusion in all those environments, and for myself the same patterns of poor boundaries and a disoriented moral conscience has come up. I end up leaving those groups for my own spiritual health, and this new job looks like it will be the same.
I am more and more convinced that an ethic which is not built on a foundation consent will prove itself almost impossible to sort out in practice and eventually prove counterintuitive. Without consent as the baseline, it is very difficult to decipher what is right.
I keep running into groups that feel it is right to coerce others, so long as their intentions are good, either into believing or doing something. More p.c. groups seems to limit their coercion to themselves, only using guilt and pressure to control their own people. And practically all moral groups seem to believe in self-coercion as a manifestation of conscience, a method of being good.
I think that because of the status quo, intimate groups not build upon the foundation of an ethic of consent always turn coercive. A few years ago, I lived in an intentional community that ran a soup kitchen, and recently I visited a permaculture homestead. In both environments it seemed to me there was an overarching atmosphere of coercion among the people living there. I don’t know whether it was implanted by the leaders, but I suspect it was simply an unconscious manifestation derived from all the group members (including myself in the first case) that the way to be a good person was “sacrifice,” essentially to coerce yourself into giving more and more for the service of the greater mission. Both environments were burn out mills with very few long-term members.
Is that what conscience is, the will to bully yourself? I don’t think so. I do not think it is sustainable, wise, or ethical to coerce yourself into anything. It doesn’t matter whether the thing itself is bad or good. And I believe a conscience given proper reign can lead us to much greater and more energetic and inspired action in unity with ourselves if we allow are able to learn better skills for facilitating change in our lives. When parts of ourselves are in dissonance, such as occasions when our habits or our laziness or our fear conflict with our conscience, our hope, our sense of what is right or what could be, internal bullying exacerbates the conflict and damages us rather than facilitating an act of moral discipline and inner peace. Real change cannot occur in a context where our own boundaries and limitations and our own consent are not well kept.
If you undermine your own consent, if you cannot sort out the lines between your rights and those of another which mainstream culture blurs and a consent ethic can help clarify, and if you cannot understand the risk you take in exacting influence and know when to stop and practice self-restraint, you will not be able to be ethical. A foundation of consent seems to me the cornerstone of a truly logical and consistent moral ethic.
December 19, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I still love Christianity, but let’s face it – something went wrong. Somewhere between say Jesus and Constantine things got jumbled, the message of radical love got appropriated back into a violent and imperialist control mechanism. The message of Jesus started to sound just like everything else. It’s the same today, when Jesus, American nationalism, capitalist consumerism, sexism, and other seeming incompatibles overlap and tangle until nothing distinct or compelling is left about the message of Jesus. It seems like just noise. Noise that somehow makes many of us feel particularly angry and sad. I think that’s because we still catch a glimpse that there’s something else there, or should be.
I find confusing messages and images of God, of Divine Love, even in my own psyche. I imagine most of us do. How do we get back to sorting out what’s what? How do we learn how to let our intuition guide us away from coercive rhetoric that feels wrong but wins our allegiance because it sounds right? A big help for me has been adding the principles of radical feminism to the mix – that is clarifying the whole business through the lens of applying an ethic of consent.
Love cannot be love without beginning with consent.
The whole image of a Christian God has turned into the figure of the Great Coercer, the one who will come with power and punish you and the fear of whom should dictate your actions. Or turning the coin, God is a benevolent coercer who will reward and privilege and protect you from His wrath if you do what he wants. Extrapolate that into a romantic partner, and God is a stereotypical abuser. Transpose that onto a parent, and you have the very norm that disturbs me in our current, unconsciously abusive manner of parenting. Implant that into a person’s psyche and you have perhaps the deepest-set and damaging intimate terrorism to be had.
People keep threatening and touting a coercive God, and yet, what do we find? No such God ever arrives. No deity makes us do good or stops us from doing bad. Let’s face it, as much as it sounds convenient, God isn’t going to make us do anything. Whether we see it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not, God is consensual. It is only people who harm and torture and reject and punish, claiming to be representatives of the Divine. My theory is, if God is good, and God refuses to coerce us, we have no right to be coercive ourselves, especially in God’s name. And if to be good is to be like God, and that means practicing a consent ethic no matter how strong our feelings are or how much we think we are right.
I feel that sorting the still, small voice of conscience, my own intuitive sense of right from the voice of shame in myself has been my journey towards sorting a false image of God, a fear-mongering and restricting force, from an authentic one. It’s the duality present in the rhetoric of Christianity that used to tangle me up and put me at odds with myself. I am grateful now to have the touchstone of consent, radical love articulated through another lens, to reorient me.
September 27, 2011 § 1 Comment
Coercion for a good cause? Somehow that does’t compute for me. I imagine everyone has their unique negative feelings regarding interactions with canvassers. Guilt, shame, irritation, sympathy — perhaps some of those with really excellent boundaries or a sturdy non-engagement habits brush off what my friend calls “live spam” same as us city-dwellers do close encounters with pigeons. But for myself and a lot of my friends, it can be a small, unsolicited moral dilemma, a sort of special breed of street harassment that is supposed to be in line with our values. Probably being twenty-something, working with not-for-profits, and generally attempting to be open and engaged sets us up for high intensity canvasser interactions. Canvassers tend to be our peers and likely find us most approachable and sympathetic. And since most of us are broke or giving money elsewhere, we often have to stick to saying no rather than breaking free with a small donation.
I am amazed by how much canvasser tactics are simply coercive tactics and how often being accosted by a canvasser feels uncannily like being approached by someone in a bar or on the street trying to pick you up (in a very non-feminist way). They often literally use the same lines, jumping in front of you and saying things like, ”Hey, what’s your name?” And my favorite, which I have only gotten from male canvassers, in response to a, “No, thank you,” which is my current status quo, the ego-bruised counter-rejection. Things like, “You don’t have a name — okay, fine.” Or how about, “You don’t like polar bears? Pssh, man.” Or, “You don’t care about women’s rights?” I had one of those freakishly personable attractive and charming people you instantly like hop in front of me and say, “Where have you been all my life?” I blushed, I admit. But I didn’t stop, since I knew I was being asked for $25 rather than a date, and instead was like, “Geeze! Use your superpowers only for good!” and thought about the moral complexities of the interaction all day. I once told a Red Cross door-to-door guy I was unemployed. He was training someone and hadn’t been able to get any answers that day, so I asked if he wanted to go through his material with me anyways. He said that would be helpful and seemed relieved to have some sort of training scenario. I could not believe the number of times I had to say “no” and the degree to which I had to escalate my no to get through his scenario, even though he was just showing a new person what a typical interaction was supposed to look like. It left me with a similar feeling to having to get rough in rejecting someone’s advances, kind of strangely rattled with an edge of feeling bad and guilty but more so angry and a bit disturbed.
Much like being approached unexpectedly with street flirtation, I have had a few really good encounters with canvassers. It’s a pretty terrible job. I had a roommate who had worked for the Obama campaign who told me about her own moral dilemmas regarding canvassing and how incredibly grueling the work was. She was almost never home and had been moved from city to city so many times it was ridiculous. I gave hot chocolate to a guy about my age having a meltdown in a snowstorm, because no one was even looking at him. I got some good information about how Oxfam’s donation system works and why it is helpful to them to do a scheduled donation rather that frequent one time donations, even if they add up to the same sum. I gave a girl some blueberries from the farmer’s market on my way back and thanked her for being a non-coercive canvasser, and she seemed really moved by the acknowlegement.
I am not a marketing genius, and I can see how hard and frustrating it can be to incite people to contribute to a cause in world deadened by excessive marketing. But somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that street canvassing is not our best option. I feel like with the degree of passion and talent available to not-for-profits even just with young, entry-level employees, creative alternatives could be found. Do some crazy stunts. Learn some guerilla advertising. Or at the very least, take the coercive edge off of canvassing rather than training people how to be better at it. I don’t see how a better world is supposed to be born that way when it mirrors so much the ethics of the status quo.
September 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been thinking about consent as it relates to leadership. It occurs to me that leaders would rightly be those with the most advanced and creative consent skills. The whole idea of a democratic leader is someone who represents the collective body, advocating for both the desires of the majority and the rights and wellbeing of the minority at the same time. The concept of consensual leadership, however, seems almost an oxymoron by today’s understanding. Leadership is generally tied up in power play and understood as control by express means of threat and coercion and the display of power (like what would be commonly deemed appropriate for a dictator, military leader, dog owner, or school teacher) or covert means of manipulation (like what would commonly be deemed appropriate for politicians, advertisers and PR persons, preachers leading their flocks, or seemingly nonviolent parents still exerting control). It reminds me of the way dating and making romantic or sexual connections is viewed, the skills required for flirting, cruising, or having sex being tied up in the mainstream with power play and “getting” something, while the skills needed for consensual, healthy, and meaningful connections are something are consent skills like self-awareness and authenticity, ability to ask questions despite awkwardness, management of consent paranoia, etc.
June 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I recently decided to begin openly describing myself as polyamorous.
I’m not a big fan of the attitude of “your sexuality labels are public property and should come from a fixed set, so stand and deliver!” that seems to be the status quo. I’ll often resist self-defining except with people who seem to be really listening. How someone labels their sexuality just doesn’t seem to me to be that strong of an indicator of who they are or how they are in their relationships. And, well, people are liars – consider the abundance of “monogamous” cheaters. And there is an assumed norm that doesn’t have to do the work of self-defining.
However, I do see value in the willingness to claim a countercultural identity publically as an act of defiance. And even more so, I believe that talking about countercultural views and practices regarding gender, sex, and relationships with people who are generally respectful and open can make huge strides in forming allies and can be freeing since witnessing someone else think or live in a new way can give you permission. So I’ve been trying to be more open with engaged people in talking about my personal beliefs and ethics, especially around sex and relationships, which are taboo starting out.
In thinking about posting on this subject, I didn’t want it to be polyvangelism. I recently heard the term polyvangelist used to describe those of us who are poly who think it’s a good idea for everyone. I laughed and blanched, since I recognize the impulse. But I have to remember that when I’m inclined to throw the poly card, I don’t just mean that someone should have sex with multiple people. Sleeping with more people is certainly not a fix for all relational issues. As Valerie said once, “When I hear about someone whose a chronic cheater, I always think ‘polyamory,’ but then… the skill set required for cheating and the skill set require for polyamory are really not compatible.” If I think a bit harder, I usually realize that it is actually some element of the relational dynamic that seems to be causing issues and making people unhappy. It’s not the monogamy, but the romantic myth at fault.
People think of polyamory in contrast to monogamy. By plain definitions, monogamy would mean having a sexual relationship with only one person in a span of time, and polyamory would mean having sex with any number of partners. I’m all for monogamy, plain and simple. I don’t think it hurts anyone. I’ve known a lot of people who are monogamous whom I believe really know themselves and are making conscious, self-derived choices. But usually monogamy is assumed to mean not only sex with one partner, but to include vast elements of behavior and a worldview mandated by the romantic myth. The romantic myth I think destroys a lot of beautiful bonds and causes a lot of suffering in the world.
One leg of the romantic myth that chills me is the concept of “emotional monogamy.” You’re supposed to dethrone all your meaningful bonds from the past and avoid making new ones or else stand accused. Communicating, “You are doing something wrong. You are immoral,” when what we really mean is, “I am scared,” or, “I am jealous,” or, “I am realizing that I do not trust you to tell the truth,” or, “I want greater connection with you and this contrast just made me realize it,” won’t help anyone create a stronger relationship. I think it’s a way projecting feelings of possessiveness onto another person rather than taking responsibility for them and sorting them out into some deeper meaning.
If we expand polyamory to simply mean having a life of many loves, not strictly sexual, then I think it is undoubtedly a good idea for everyone. People who only have sex with one person (or one person at a time) will more likely find their relationships taxed and strained by trying to get all their needs met from that one person. If you always drink from the same well, you’ll dry it up eventually. I think these kinds of relationships are often lost simply because when conflicts arise, the only person to go to in order to process those conflicts is the person involved. I think you need a friend who feels more objective and advocates for your bond to process things with in order to bring a more enlightened and balanced mentality back to the conversation and not just have incendiary rounds of fighting every time an issue is brought up, or worse, avoid talking about it until it blows up.
I talk a lot about sexual consent on this blog, so I end up talking a lot about friends I’ve had sexual relationships with, but those are not my only or deepest bonds. I just don’t see any truth in my bonds existing in a hierarchy where “romantic” bonds are above “platonic” bonds. Nor do I see that as a particularly relevant distinction, honestly. Sex does not an entirely new beast of a relationship make, at least, not in my experience. Yet no one finds a relationship self-help books that says, “Have lots of close and lasting friendships, and you will learn a ton.” The support and skills I have needed to maintain a bond with my best friend, Emily, I imagine are exactly the same as those needed to support a loving monogamous sexual relationship, since it is a long-term bond I prioritize. Even if I only slept with one person, I would still be polyamorous, since I already have a primary partner I’m not willing to give up in Emily. I’m just willing to have more than one.
Does that mean I just don’t love people I sleep with as much? No. Looking at love bonds as a hierarchy where participants rival for affection, or simply at yourself as a limited vessel holding a finite amount of love you must pour out judiciously is a mindset simply too small for love. In “The Ethical Slut”, they call this mentality starvation economy thinking. I don’t love my best friend less because I begin to love my new lover or my other best friends more. In my experience, the opposite is actually true, that both the capacity to love and the skills involved expand as you use them.
I’m polyamorous because my priority and I believe my rightful purpose in life is to seek as much genuine love as possible, and I assume it is the right of everyone else to do the same. C.S. Lewis, who really shaped my thinking as a young person, says that God does not find our desires too big, but too small. A love ethic does not require that we want less, that we tie ourselves to a small set of people and beliefs and restrict our desires and growth outside those boundaries. It requires that we grow, that we enlarge our hearts to carry more empathy and find greater connection, that we suffer the depression of letting go of the old to replace it with the new, always seeking greater truth and connection with the divine. I find it most in other people, so I’m not willing to whittle myself down to one.
June 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Deciding what’s going to happen in a sexual situation can be tricky. In my experience, deciding what’s going to happen during an evening hangout with a friend can be tricky, since making decisions can just be hard. How many of us sit staring at menus for ten minutes? Imagine you go to a restaurant and there is no menu, the server just asks, “What do you want?” Too many options and not enough information to decide. That’s kind of what partner sex is like.
One excellent trick I’ve learned with my friend and lover Valerie in dividing up the decision-making process is that whoever does not want to make the decision helps the other person by generating options. This way it’s not just one person being passive and one person being active, but both people engaging in different roles in the decision making.
In an everyday situation, it would go something like this:
Person A: “What should we do?”
Person B: “I don’t know. What do you think?’
Person A: “I don’t know.
From here you are at risk of the cyclical “What do YOU want to do” routine.
Person B: “You don’t have preferences?”
Person A: “Not really. Can you generate options?”
Person B: “Well, we could go outside. We could go for a walk downtown or along the pond. We can get food while we’re out, either pick something up or get groceries. Or we can stay in. I can come there and we can order food. Or you can come here. Or we can cook if you have stuff.”
So now Person A doesn’t feel like they’re totally in charge and deciding for someone else, and they don’t have the pressure of choosing along with the pressure of being creative. Often, everyone knows one of probably six usual options will be what they choose, they just don’t want to seem boring. Once you’ve got the usual suspects or some new ideas on the table, it’s easier to decide.
Person A: “Going outside would be good. I think cooking, too.”
Person B: “Do you have anything already? I have some potatoes, bread, and some avocadoes.”
Person A: “I have carrots, that’s basically it.”
Person B: “We could make chili. Or curry. Or soup. Or try burritos like we said that one time.”
Person A: “Ooh, burritos!”
Person B” ”Ok, cool.”
My belief is that all people really want when they spend time together is to create a pleasant and/or constructive and tolerable experience for each other and feel connected with one another. Everything is an excuse to make a connection. Getting to the experience, however, can be a more or less painless process.
Most of us are shy to some degree in bed, and some of us are worried about treading on our partner’s consent. So having one person decide and another person generate options can be a way you can ask for something you want from a place of comfort that you aren’t leading your partner into something they aren’t consenting to and excited about. Sometimes the sex “just happens” and sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes people both try to read each other, and everything stalls. Or you just aren’t sure which direction to take things in. So having a bit of a framework of how to go about in a mutual way is helpful.
In bed, it might go something like *this*:
Person A: “What do you want to happen?”
Sometimes it’s as easy as Person B saying, “I want ____,” and Person A being into it, too. Sometimes not.
Person B: “I don’t know… I like what’s happening so far.”
Person A: “Well, we can keep doing this for a while, and then move to something else.”
Person B: “That sounds good.”
Person A: “What should it be?” If Person B seems to stall or get spooked by being put on the spot… “Do you want me to give you some options?”
In my experience, this is less of an awkward and more of an exciting experience in bed.
Person B: “Yeah, sure.”
Person A: “I could touch you. Or I could go down on you. Or we could fuck. Or some combination of the three in whichever order you want. Or we could switch to you being on top.”
Person B chooses whichever option, and when there is some indication that both people are ready…
Person A: “How should we be? Is there a position you want to try first?” If Person B doesn’t have an immediate answer, Person A can give options again… “We could stay like this. Or you could move over me. Or I could be behind you…”
And so on and so on.
*I was trying to keep this applicable to different combinations of genders. What’s obviously missing is a discussion of safer sex practices including barriers and birth control and the use of toys. I think it’s always wise to talk about sex with someone before having sex with them, and to try and get a feel for their safer sex practices and expectations and how they match up with your own before you’re on the verge of the act. If someone is really uncomfortable talking about safer sex, that’s probably not a great sign.*
This might seem like a lot of talking, since talking during sex can be really spooking. The BDSM community has a lot to teach us all about the need for becoming comfortable with verbal negotiations of sex. My indicator to myself is that if I can’t talk to someone about it, then I probably am not ready to do it yet. Practice helps; reading a lot about sex in different types of language, talking with both lovers and friends explicitly about sex when you aren’t having it, writing out some sex scenes, learning to say things out loud during solo sex, and learning to talk to your partners comfortably during sex can all be remarkably challenging given the cultural stigma against talking about sex ever and saying anything during sex that’s not “hot,” or more precisely I think, commonly said in mainstream pornography.
May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
This may be an issue that crops up only between women. But I doubt it. It is certainly an issue that crops up only among people who have a well established desire to have only consensual sex. So if you’re still working on that, you need Feminism 101 type discussions, and not this entry. This discussion is for those people engaging in their personal lives from a strong stance of feminist ethics and working out the complex dynamics of a countercultural value system meeting with the real, quite muddled world. So if you’re starting from there, feel free to read on.
The way I see it, once you are committed to consent, there are two lines of work still to do. The first is developing the skills to negotiate consent in real life situations, where formulaic, performative lessons society has taught us about initiating sex just don’t apply and often work against us. The second is managing the all the stuff that crops up for you and your partners regarding sex, when triggers from past trauma and mixed up shaming messages and simple lack of helpful skills all get in the way of everyone actually having the experiences they want. This post is about a place where those two things seem to really connect.
I’m in a steady sexual relationship with another radical feminist, Valerie. She identifies as a kinkster, and I don’t (although radical feminism and polyamory with people of diverse genders obscures the definition of “vanilla” to some extent.) One of our most important conversations about sex took place after I joked around about rope play. She hit the breaks suddenly and had what could only be described as a crisis of consent. She was about to do the freak-and-run, but luckily she decided to stay and talk it out. We hit upon a major internal experience we were both having but not able to articulate, which we started calling “consent paranoia”.
Basically, we were both second-guessing each other’s expressions of consent, but were not able to constructively address it. As a result, one of us would stop something from happening (express non-consent) not out of a lack of personal desires but out of a sense that the other person was not or could not be genuinely consenting. Since then, there have been times when both of us have starting backing off and realized the motivation was not lack of consent or desire personally, but worry about the presence of consent from the other person, even against all evidence. I don’t think this experience is totally uncommon, but without a name for it, there is rarely a dialogue about how to address and manage it in a healthy way.
In essence, without recognizing it, we sometimes start making choices for each other, that is the choice to stop, not out of a will to dominate, but out of a desire not to cause harm. Is that so bad? No, it’s not so bad. The risk factors are quite low here, compared with deciding to go on with something someone does not consent to; nobody is going to get sexually traumatized. But some consensual sex and the corresponding connection was not going to be had and anything that estranges two people seems like an issue to me. I think the more good sex is had the better the world will be and the easier it will be to name and be outraged by abuse masquerading as sex.
A lot of us recognize that we have ourselves failed to express non-consent or expressed consent when we were not consenting for some reason or another. A lot of times, that reason is external, i.e. we’re with an abusive partner. But sometimes, it’s internal, like when we’re too afraid of hurting someone’s feelings to say no, or this and not that, or just not right now. Or it’s because we simply do not know what we want and don’t know how to exist without anxiety in a state of “maybe” or how to go about searching out what we want so we can express our consent. It’s definitely good to know this is a reality and that false expressions of consent can happen and to incorporate knowledge of that dynamic into how we engage with one another, especially when we don’t know our partner too well. In the past, I had what I now believe was a nonconsensual sexual experience with someone who was not only expressing consent but initiating the interaction. I was relieved when Jaclyn Friedman addressed this in a Q&A she crafted from an attack on her work. I had one of those “Thank God, it’s not just me!” moments.
I think what we need is not to ignore or suppress consent paranoia, especially since it feels very similar to actually noticing when someone is giving mixed messages or feigning consent, but to develop the further skills to negotiate consent when our risk tolerance not for ourselves but for our partners gets too high for our comfort. It can certainly feel awkward to say, “Are you sure?” or “I’m getting some mixed signals from you, and I need us to slow down,” and then address worries cropping up for us internally. Being able to just say, “I’m having some consent paranoia,” has done a lot for me. This kind of honesty requires a lot of vulnerability and trust in a partner.
Negotiating not just yes and no but the maybe aspect of sex in a way that is tolerable for all parties is an important skill that our society generally does not acknowledge as even being a part of sex. Soliciting an affirmation from your partner that non-consent will be addressed, that you won’t be allowed to venture accidentally into leading experiences of non-consent, that they will be accountable to themselves and to you is necessary for a feminist’s peace of mind and should be considered a part of maintaining your own consent. It seems sad to say it, but a lot of people do not assume that their partners only want to engage in acts they are fully consenting to, but that they want to engage in anything they can get away with. Consent is not understood to be the bottom line for enacting desires, the battery without which the fantasy cannot and does not run in real life. I think we need to communicate this to our partners in a myriad of ways consistently over time. And I hope this creates new awareness and new standards of what people expect from sex partners once they’ve had a partner who is mindful and skilled in managing consent.
As I said, I don’t think this issue is exclusive to relationships among women. I’ve known men who second guess or simply feel guilty about expressions of consent from their female partners because of an internalized sense that their sexuality is inherently violating and damaging and degrading to whomever they have sex with. The “I got her to do this” creepy showboat side of performative sexist masculinity also can add a flavor of creepiness to the genuine desires of men with willing partners. Men get a share of sexual trauma instilled in them from our society, as well. How many men grow up being taught that their penis is an instrument of pleasure rather than an instrument of pain, a means for creating connection rather than forcing submission? How many men grow up being taught that their bodies are designed to nurture and create and take please and joy in the world rather than to dominate and kill, or, at best, protect and work? A lot of men find it hard to believe they can be mutually desired and censor their sexual behaviors rather than addressing worries and negative feeling that come up when they seek them out. I’m sure a lot of men experience consent paranoia as regularly as women do.
What are the causes of consent paranoia? Seems to me like it can be a lot of things – differing communication styles, internalized shame, politicization of particular sex acts, changes in a partners signals over time, obsession with consent, low lighting. Whatever it is, knowing how to distinguish concern about a partner’s consent within a spectrum of one’s own is something everyone operating from an ethic of consent has to manage that seems to generally go unnamed.
April 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There’s a lot of necessary and important conversation going on surrounding the ways our society coerces people into sex they don’t want. Dismantling dominance culture and realizing the ways that rape culture solicits us to participate in a system of oppression and abuse is one of the most important works facing new wave feminism. I want to flip the coin a bit and talk about the side of coercion not usually focused on, societal pressure to not have sex even when consent is present for everyone involved. Just as people will express consent when the consequences of not doing so create too much risk, we will also refrain from expressing or acting on consent to sex when the environment and consequences are too high risk. It short, just as much as you can be forced into sex you don’t want, you can be forced to deny sex you do want. I see both as sexual coercion and as traumatic experiences.
My youth was shaped much more by this experience and my relationship to my own consent more damaged and suppressed by it than sex I was forced to have. I know many of my friends, especially in high school, and sexual partners since then have had similar experiences, especially those raised in environments shaped by conservative religion. I think a lot of people have.
I grew up in a small, rural town in the Midwest, where there was a church and a liquor store adjacent on every corner. There was an atmosphere of poverty and despair, an enormous amount of meth production that went unaddressed. It fit the bill for everything that is wrong with the commonplace hypocrisy of the system often attempted to describe by the inadequate phrase “conservative Christianity.”
The first place I went to as a young person looking for ways to ground my sexuality in a love ethic was the Christian church and Christian writing available to me. No one else was talking about ethics, and no one else was talking about sex, at least not outside of jokes and secret discussion with other teenagers I knew. The shortage of information and resources available would shock most New Englanders, indeed I have shocked many a friend with my description of “sex ed” in my school, which was showing us horrid pictures of STI’s and one graphic birth video. No one talked about the relationship elements, except Christians.
I went to youth group. I studied the Bible. I read books like those by Eric and Leslie Ludy and Elisabeth Elliot. And I got more and more confused.
The compromise I struck with my conscience resulted in an almost complete suppression of my sexuality. I was uneasy and disturbed by the marriage-focused dating lit I found. I stopped thinking “sexual” thoughts and stopped masturbating. I focused on my energies on other things, mostly good ones that served me well, mainly on genuine love bonds in friendships and on the education that got me out of my town and my family of origin once I graduated high school.
When I fell in love with one of my close friends my junior year, I felt a new round of turmoil. All of a sudden, my sexuality, which I’d mostly buried rather than evolving, was all I had to work with in negotiating my first really passionate romantic bond. I had a great relationship with Tom. He was an artistic, high status, attractive boy who played in a metal band and had long hair was new to the area. He moved between clichés and was one of those rare high school students of high status who is socially generous and disrupts bullying. He was the sort of guy that parents and teachers dub a bad boy and other teenagers consider really nice and a good guy. Tom had been moved around all his life and had negligent parents who were largely hands off. He’d had lots of sex and had lots of guilt mixed in with it. By the time we broke up, a year and a half later, we’d done a lot of making out and both done a lot of freaking out about ourselves and our bond, which was mostly unconstructive. The main theme of those freak outs was whether or not our bond was ethical, whether or not we were treating each other with genuine love and respect.
I think now, we weren’t, but not because we didn’t want to, but because we were unresourced, unsupported, unskilled, and not yet free to go and find those things for ourselves. I can see now how many factors were at play in frustrating our connection to each other, which was inclined to involve a deeply passionate sexual bond: lack of safer sex information to allow us to talk out our risks and evolve sexual practices we were both comfortable with, lack of parental support and instead threats and shaming, a complete lack of privacy in both our homes, sex negativity in our culture and school, intense teen negativity, unconscious assumptions about what having sex meant about us and about our bond, unprocessed family trauma, and ingrained sexist beliefs about gender, and the intensely sex negative, body negative, fear-based conservative sexual ethics our Christian (he was raised Catholic) religious backgrounds imprinted into us. It is very hard to make any sex, much less beautiful, consensual, fulfilling sex happen in the midst of an environment that hostile.
There was a general impression I took, particularly from the youth group culture I experienced, that the goal of adults was to keep teenagers from engaging in wild, reckless, foolish, catastrophically damaging sex they thought they wanted to have. Yet all around me, I saw young people confusedly trying to sort how to make real connections with each other and treat each other well and survive the utter misery of being teenagers. Namely, I saw a lot of young people willing to love and desperate to find out how to be loving in their romantic relationships and sex lives meeting not with support and education but instead being met with the sort of vague, hostile disapproval that crushes self-esteem and creativity of soul and a general imposition of fear about their sexuality and their sexual choices. The assumptions seemed to be that teens were bad, sex was bad, and that control was necessary, and that fear was an instrument of love.
From the way we treated each other in our bond as it did exist, I think Tom I could have experienced a lot of good with each other if we’d had sex. A partner who respects your rights and consent is bare minimum. A partner who resonates with the deepest core of you and wants to know as much of your real self as possible and to participate in and witness the journey as you coax that true self further and further out into the world – that’s where the best sex is had, and what I experienced in my relationships later in life. The inability to create that sexual bond and loss of one of those rare, intense soulmate sexual partners was an experience I was not able to name, but that mingled grief and despair into my sexuality that took me years to process and move past.
Why is sex not being had a problem? Because it is also a part of system of oppression, dominance, and control. And it alienates us from our own desires and consent and rights. It blurs the line between consent and coercion, between sex and abuse. Without clear definitions and practices along those simple lines, we will never see a world free from abuse and full of great sex.
In this culture, there is a complex web of consent confusion. Women don’t have sex for fear of pregnancy, slut-shaming, family abuse and rejection, and other punishments. Men don’t have sex because they’ve imbibed a belief that they have to be “masculine” to get sexual partners or because they’ve internalized a belief that their sexuality is inherently dominant and violating and a harm to their female partners. People of all kinds don’t have sex with people of the same gender because of internalized homophobia and fear of harm. People in relationships don’t have sex with anyone but their single partners for fear of societal punishments, loss of the relationship, and an inability to imagine or create healthy, safe, loving bonds free of the romantic myth, which most often translates in practice into a life of jarring serial monogamy. Christians don’t have sex because they believe it is wrong. People who don’t fit the image of physical beauty imposed on us all by an exploitative culture and media don’t have sex because they believe they are of less worth and less deserving of loving, passionate sex partners than others.
Enabling people to say no to sex they do not want and yes to sex they do want, and even maybe to sex they haven’t decided on yet is my vision for the world. Many seem to think chaos and more abuse would ensue. I think sorting sex from abuse, choice from coercion, free will from submission to dominant culture, love from fear will only create of more truth and more love. And yes, more sex.
April 20, 2011 § 1 Comment
Any decent discussion of sexual ethics will stress the importance of consent. One of the major reasons I find fault with the conservative, legalistic approach to sexual ethics offered to me as a young adult by Christian religious teaching was that it never talked about consent and so never had a strong foundation to work from. Feminism 101, it seems to me, is the work we need to do to get people to think about and care about and generally shape their sexual behaviors on an ethic of consent and to shape legality around it.
This post is part of a series that will go a little beyond that to relate my experiences of already wanting a life, and particularly a sex life, built on a foundation of consent, but needing some skills to bridge the gap between what I wanted and what I’d been taught. It is sort of my experiences working out Feminism 201… what to do after you already care about consent and begin to get with people in this new value system.
This post is about my experiences of learning how to have a dialogue of consent during sex. Consensual sex isn’t just a yes or no, we do or we don’t. It involves a constant dialogue (not always verbal but consistently communicated). Initiating and negotiating that dialogue takes practiced skill to go smoothly. I learned much of this through the progression of my own sexual experiences with other feminist, loving people.
My first sexual encounter after I became a radical feminist was actually a bit of a shambles. I was still evolving rapidly in my new feminist consciousness, and I had just really begun to heal my own relationship to sex and alienation from my desire and consent. I got in bed with a close friend, Laurel, who I’d bee having intense conversations about sex and Christianity and ethics with for years. I cared deeply about her and her consent, and I certainly didn’t want any kind of sex to happen we weren’t both on board with. As things progressed, we switched back and forth as initiators, but would both sort of slow to a halt. I was reading a lot of mixed signals from her and knew I was giving them, as well. One minute it seemed like we were going to rip each other’s clothes off and have sex immediately, the next minute it seemed like we were going to slow to a stop and go to sleep.
I was tuned in to consent and had a strong rapport with my partner in this experience. Despite having the lights off (which I now think was and is always a poor choice for encounters with partners you haven’t developed a strong sexual rapport with), I could still read a lot of her energy and communication because of our familiarity. But I didn’t really know what to do with the mixed signals I was getting or giving. I slowed down and eventually stopped, which was the only way I could find to address it. I just said, “I don’t know what you want right now,” and she seemed wildly relieved and said, “I don’t know what you want either.” So we decided to make out a little more and go to sleep.
My next sexual encounter after my feminist journey was well developed was with a feminist man, Jack, about ten years older than myself who I met at a friend’s wedding. It was a fairly low-risk one night encounter, but some time later I found myself in bed with someone else, a shy feminist lady I was very interested in this time (Valerie, who appears in many other posts on this blog), and what do you know, I realized I had learned something very important from my encounter with him – some basic skills of negotiating consent in the real world.
Simply through they way he was as a partner, Jack showed me a lot about how to initiate a dialogue of consent with your partner. At the time we got together, I was still sorting through a lot of alienation from my own desires and consent. I was also very tired and had had a few drinks, and as a result, I wasn’t doing much initiating. I was giving mixed signals and having mixed feelings, and because of this I to experience a lot of Jack’s different ways of maintaining consent in our interaction. He was very closely reading my body signals as he went along, and when I would stall or have a response he couldn’t read, he would just ask me, “How are you feeling?” Or, “Is this good?” Not rocket science, I know. Yet in a tiny way, that asking is a radical act. I was surprised by his ease in asking questions, and it made it easy for me to respond. A lot of what was communicated was that any answer would be okay, that I wasn’t with someone who was going to freak out or pout about what we decided to do, and a lot of that was expressed through tone.
I left that encounter sure I’d been with someone with more consent skills than me. If I had been more of an initiator in the interaction, I would not have been as skilled or practiced as he had been. It was, for lack of a better term, inspiring, a motivation to figure out more. I recognized that I would not have been willing to ask him questions the way he asked me. I could already think of twenty new ways to have handled the experience of getting mixed signals from Laurel that would’ve made the experience better for both of us.
I needed to find ways to work on the skill of asking questions, which you do have to practice to be able to do without feeling awkward and to elicit the actual information you need. Soon after that, I read the anthology Yes Means Yes. The book was transformative for me in many, and perhaps the one where I met with the most internal resistance was in reading about an author taking on a practice of always seeking explicit verbal consent for physical touch. The idea freaked me out and made me feel a bit angry and panicked as I was reading about it. I tried to track my fears and realized I felt like a lot of touch in my life wouldn’t happen in this model, which led me to wonder if I was concerned that it was not really consensual. And I knew for sure that I did not want to touch anyone who didn’t really want to be touched. In short what I realized was that when it came to physical touch in my bonds, I was not sure it was always consensual because minor social trepidation led me to guess instead of ask. I decided if I wasn’t willing to ask, then I shouldn’t be willing to touch someone – the risks were not comparable. So I tried it. I actually ended up with a lot more touch in my life, since it led me to stop assuming what people didn’t want, as well. And it helped me get rid of some of my anxiety about asking questions regarding physical intimacy and touch. I don’t practice EVC all the anymore, but it does inform my everyday practices in that is has become the instinctual go-to in new or tentative bonds and in any situations of doubt or mixed signals. Consent exists far beyond sex, and negation of consent can exist in myriad of interactions, so it was good for me to recognize how I could facilitate more consent in my bonds. And it let me practice a skill necessary for sexual consent outside of the bedroom, which is always a good idea.
Asking questions during sex isn’t rocket science, I know. But the simple act of Jack asking me for clarification when he felt trepidation or unclear about my consent was a radical act. Mainstream sexual convention creates an image of the perfect encounter as being one where everyone is smooth and impeccably confident, no one is awkward, no one changes their mind, no one says they want something then finds they don’t really, no one says they don’t want something then decides maybe they do, no one wants to have sex but is just too tired, drunk, shy, whatever to go for it just then and decides to go to sleep and hook up later or show future interest or spoon and talk. No, initiation of the sex has to be so well managed (generally by the guy, women only get to manage making male notice and then jump to making marriage happen) as to go as smooth and formulaic and fake as a job interview. And once you get to it, the sex should be one flawless, hot ride to simultaneous orgasm with no questions being asked in between.
There is a lot of inhibition and fear surrounding asking questions or just plain talking about the sex you are having with someone. Initiating communication during sex, especially with a new person or stranger can be daunting and may meet with mixed responses. You think you might freak them out, you think you might kill the mood, they might get spooked, you might get spooked, they might not know how to answer you, you might not know how to answer them, and how do you even begin to know precisely what to ask? You’ll be shocked at how much sex language sounds clinical or vulgar and generally alienating when you go to talk about it with someone you’re trying to navigate a positive sexual encounter with. Just figuring out what to say is difficult.
When I next got into bed with someone, less tired and less drunk and more of an initiator this time, I found myself reading a lot of body consent, but having moments where I just didn’t know what my partner, Valerie, was experiencing. And, lo and behold, when I hit that confused hesitance again, I just asked. “How are you feeling?” And, “How are you doing?” And “Is this good?” And, “Is this okay?” And, “Does this feel good?” I didn’t feel awkward about asking, so she didn’t get psyched out. And my guesses often would have been inaccurate to what she said when asked.
Later it evolved to less tentative and inhibited questions, basically matching the less tentative and inhibited sex we were having: “What do you want me to do to you?” “Is this going to fast, or too slow, or good?” “How does that feel?” “Do you want me to seduce you?” “Is that too rough?” “Is this a good speed?” “Do you want something different?” “Do you want to stop for a minute?” And later just, “Do you want me to keep asking you questions, or just go?” “Tell me if you want something different.” And, “Tell me if I get too rough.”
I was fortunate in that I was with a partner who wanted consent and was willing to do the work to get it. Questions can confront you with your own experience during sex. They can bring you into the present in ways that are uncomfortable and show you whether you are checking out or following a formula or deferring to your partner or simply just unsure. If someone is going to hold you accountable (to yourself and to them) for your consent and mindfully ask you what you want and how you’re feeling and be open to adapting to your answer, you’re going to have to know things. Things about your body, about your values and desires and inhibitions. You’re going to have to face the fact that sometimes you don’t know; that all of us are, at least at times and to some extent, alienated from our consent. You’re going to have to sort through the categories of what you want to fantasize about, talk about, do in real life, or try to find out if you want in real life. But the sex is well worth it. You can be more connected with your self, your experience, and your partner.