We’ve Got to Talk About Enthusiastic Consent

by | November 9, 2012
filed under Feminism, Sex-Ed

by A. Lynn. This article was originally posted at A Nerdy Feminist. Cross-posted with permission.

A recent work event got my wheels turning and I began to think about how we so rarely talk to teens about enthusiastic consent.  [TW some discussion of rape culture. Detailed discussion of consent.]

I’ve written a bit about the topic before here and there, because I think it’s really important. In it’s simplest form, enthusiastic consent is a move away from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” It’s a paradigm shift that requires open communication and challenges the assumptions of our rape culture.
As Elfity explains at Persephone,

The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement. Many of you may be familiar with the book Yes Means Yes!, which popularized the idea. The concept also requires that consent be given to each piece of sexual activity, meaning that a yes to one thing (such as vaginal penetration) does not mean consent to another (like anal penetration). Basically, we’re saying, “Yes! I want this!” or, “No, I don’t think I want to do that,” and we’re asking “Is this ok?” To do these things is to be respectful of not only your own bodily autonomy, but also your partner’s. It’s just common courtesy, really. To give enthusiastic consent isn’t exactly to scream that you want it at the top of your lungs; it’s more that an unsure or hesitant yes is not enthusiastic consent, and needs to be considered.

Clearly, this is great stuff. Like I said, it challenges our rape culture which far too often shames people, especially women, into being afraid to openly articulate what they really want. I’m ecstatic that this concept is making headway in leftist circles. But I am concerned that this message is not making its way to the people who probably need this information the most: teens.A few years ago I was a part of a sex education program that I was really proud of. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it did answer girls’ most pressing questions and was not abstinence only. We didn’t assume that all girls were straight. We didn’t assume that sex would only occur within a marriage. We told girls that they had to communicate their boundaries with their partners before they were actually in a sexual situation. We told girls they had a right to protect themselves and that no one had a right to their bodies. However, I can’t say that enthusiastic consent was totally present. I mean–consent certainly was. We affirmed repeatedly that no one should ever do something they don’t want to do or that made them uncomfortable, but I’m not sure it went beyond that.And the more I think about it, the more I am certain that a sex education can’t be complete without a section on enthusiastic consent. What I’m particularly concerned with is the feelings that accompany enthusiastic consent and the fact that we’re not talking about them with youth.When you are inexperienced–not just sexually, but just in life in general, it can be really hard to parse apart feelings of excitement, worry, nervousness, fear, giddiness, and/or arousal. I mean, if you really think about it the physical response to those things are all similar, but there is clearly a big difference between feeling fearful and feeling excitement. If we are not talking with teens about how their body might respond and how that varies from listening to what you really want, we are doing them a big disservice. If someone never tells you that it’s ok to be excited and nervous during a sexual experience, but never afraid or dreadful, then how can you know? These are nuanced distinctions, and if you aren’t properly educated and don’t think about these things before you encounter a sexual experience, how can you possibly communicate what you are feeling in the moment? And when we don’t teach teens that talking about sex in society or our schools is ok, how can we expect them to communicate within their own intimate relationships?

Seriously–our sex negative society delivers so many disservices to teens that it disgusts me. So many schools and sex education programs aren’t even allowed to talk about condoms let alone the fact that sex is supposed to be fun and pleasurable. I mean, the horribly sex-shaming “education” I received in middle school was so focused on making us fear sex (especially girls) that there was no possible place to properly discuss consent. And if any of us might have wanted to ask, “How do you know when you’re ready to have sex?” the question was preemptively squashed since we were told from day one that sex was only applicable between one man and one woman inside the bond of marriage.

It makes me really sad when I think about it too much. My parents are far from perfect, but thank goodness that they properly educated me in this realm.

There are so many problems with the American sex education system that I can’t even begin to compile a complete list. But unless and until enthusiastic consent is included, our rape culture will be alive and well.

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  • Bernd Jendrissek

    Does enthusiatic consent necessarily need to be expressed in words (spoken or written)? Is there room for bodies to speak? There’s that truism about how body language communicates so and so (very) many percent of the total message; does that transfer to this context?

    I worry about attempts to redefine the “natural” protocol that mating behaviour is (or should be? are we saying that what’s “natural” is okay for cows to do, but that for us it isn’t okay?) Maybe we can, maybe should (?), build a consensus that mating behaviour should be de-naturalized as it were, and overlayed with a more formal protocol. Is that what you’re suggesting?

    To me it seems problematic either way you go. When a man mates a woman the way a bull mounts a cow, that seems a bit rape-y, so going all “natural is good” seems incomplete at best. Yet if you want to draw up an explicit coitus contract (remember to initial every page), that seems a bit deflationary. Maybe I’m just over-analysing and stretching analogies to beyond breaking.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Hi Bernd,

    I don’t think anyone’s talking about written contracts or formal protocol. I think the distinction between yes/no consent and enthusiastic consent is more about communication and safe exploration of desire. It requires the people involved in the sex act to really examine what they want in advance, to consider how to explore that in a way that’s physically and emotionally safe. It requires considering how much of what one wants is real and how much is just projections of what one thinks they should want. It encourages open and honest communication between partners.

    So you can’t have enthusiastic consent without basic consent.

    In terms of bodies expressing desire, I think you can learn a lot from your body, but a body’s response can’t be a litmus test for basic consent. Someone can seem to be consenting or not objecting physically because of drugs or alcohol, but that would still be rape. Some men get erections and some women get wet when being raped, but it’s still rape.

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  • Quentin

    I have a problem with the whole “yes means yes” thing because, while I get what it’s trying to do, yes DOESN’T always mean yes. Yes’s can be coerced. People can be in a state (i.e. of intoxication) where a yes is invalid. It just seems like switching out one rape culture tactic with another. I actually prefer “No means no” because, while I get it’s problematic aspects, at least it’s accurate. “No” does mean “no.” But the absence of a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean consent.

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  • I agree with Quentin. I also think that while we are teaching boys and men to look for enthusiastic consent we should also be empowering women to use “emphatic refusal”. Not waffly, meek “I’m not sure that we should…” but “Get the fuck off me you prick!”

    In the absence of physical threats or weapons there is no reason to think that the average date rapist is also a psychopathic killer. I don’t like the way women are told to submit to rape lest they be killed.

  • Lewis Malarki

    (1) what about mentally ill people – depressed people, for example, who have difficulty mustering enthusiasm for anything at all – should they be disqualified from sexual relations? enthusiastic consent implies a certain personality type (2) the concept of enthusiasm applies more pressure and performance anxiety: is my sex life “enthusiastic” enough? is my partner sufficiently enthusiastic? (3) enthusiasm can be feigned: just look at any porno for tons of fake enthusiasm. but consent is a performative speech act, no means no: once spoken, it takes effect, and consent is either given or withheld with that utterance. that is why “consent” is something that can be tested in a court of law, whereas “enthusiasm” is vague and subjective, purely relative. my enthusiastic consent might be underwhelming, by your vigorous standards. for these reasons, the concept should be abandoned. keep it simple, stupid.

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