March 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I believe consent resides in the body alongside the mind. To be skilled with consent, we need to learn to listen to our bodies, and to have some ability to understand, with their help, what another person’s body is telling us.
A culture of coercion has made consent hard. Confusion about our own consent comes from society, an abuser, or some other voice of authority saying you’ve experienced one thing and your body telling you another. This kind of undermining of personal experience estranges us from embodiment and consent. What did we experience? What are we experiencing now? Sex or rape? Love or abuse? The answers lie in our bodies when our minds have been confused.
I wish I could put into a bottle and share what it feels like to have embodied, consensual sex, free from both present coercion and interference of past trauma. It took me a long time to experience it and now I have a baseline that makes it much, much harder be coerced or confused.
As well as I can describe it, this is some of what embodied, consensual sex feels like for me:
It feels like excitement and pleasure, an energizing and motivating force, even before we touch.
It feels like energy, roiling up in and around me and my partner, drawing things together and pushing me to experiences larger than myself, greater than my body can hold, bigger than either of us but including us.
It feels like trembling, like being vulnerable, and the peace of knowing that it will be okay, of being safe and healing.
It feels like taking in a beautiful scene, like witnessing truth and knowing some new quality of my partner’s humanity, witnessing some new facet of their soul.
It feels like being seen, like showing myself to another person, who is opening out to take the experience in and holding it in reverence and being transformed.
It feels like my heart breaking open and getting larger, letting the new in, rather than the feel of it breaking and shrinking, crumbling in, keeping things out.
So much abuse gets called sex in this culture, so much pain gets undermined and painted over as something else. People learn to believe the feeling of pain, sickness, shame, fear they have in their bodies are what sex feels like, what sex is. They learn not to look to their bodies for an account of their experience.
A friend of mine was once in so much pain talking about a sexual experience she’d had, her whole body was tensed, her shoulders pulling in to try and hide her chest, her jaw tight, and she was crying. She was trying to convince me that she had expressed consent and didn’t have the right to consider her experience abusive or traumatic. When I tried to get her to check in with her body and asked her if that’s what sex usually felt like, she said, no, it was what abuse usually felt like.
Past abuse can leave us distanced from our bodies, frozen with past trauma we buried to survive. Coming back can mean experiencing those feelings now, which is difficult to choose. I believe we have to be embodied in order to have the transformative experience of sex we are meant and have a right to have. We are mean to be our own rescuers, our own administers of justice, restoring what was lost to ourselves, moving past experiences of pain that hold us away from pleasure now. And for many of us, I think that means allowing ourselves to feel the feelings of past abuse now while remaining safe and making choices in our current lives.
This is what embodied, consensual sex does not feel like for me, but what abuse or the memory of past abuse often feel like:
It doesn’t feel like seeking quiet, being small and still, waiting for things to go away, hiding away in to be safe. That’s what being triggered feels like.
It doesn’t feel like a pain in my stomach, like fear, like animal panic upon being cornered, like an urge to escape and weight holding me down. That’s what being coerced feels like.
It doesn’t feel like nothing, like not being there, like being gone. That’s what being disembodied feels like.
It doesn’t feel like being numb, being cold, turning everything down to become invulnerable, impenetrable, experience anything and survive. That’s what believing I have to tolerate something I don’t want, what being caught intimate abuse feels like.
It doesn’t feel like shame, like a rent of agony in my chest, like wanting to shut my eyes and duck my head, hide away and not be seen. That’s what the coercion of sexual shaming feels like.
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.
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?