California recently passed legislation requiring Universities receiving State funds to use a standard of “affirmative consent” in disciplinary hearings about sexual assault. The new law has resurrected conversations about sexual permission, what it means and why it’s so important.
In a nutshell, it means that consent requires the presence of a “yes,” rather than the absence of a “no.” In the context of sex it means that whoever initiates needs explicit confirmation that their partner actually wants to join the party before getting down to business. It also means that consent needs to keep happening throughout a sexual encounter and that it can be withdrawn at any time.
The analogy I often use for sexual consent is a person’s home. When I visit someone else’s place, I generally don’t barge in. I ask if I can come over or I wait for an invitation. Once I get there, I signal my desire to enter their home by knocking or ringing something. When they answer, I wait for them to say “come in,” or otherwise indicate permission by stepping to aside and gesturing that I should cross the threshold.
Once I’m inside, I still respect the fact that this is someone else home. As my visit continues, I’ll ask “Do you mind if I use the bathroom?” or “Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” I don’t assume I have free run of the place just because I have permission to be there.
I do have freer access in certain people’s homes. I know I can sprawl out on my best friends’ bed; rummage through my mother-in-law’s fridge, and use my key to get into my mom’s house if she isn’t home. My relationships with these people are longstanding and there’s a great deal of trust on both sides. I’ve also met a few folks who are comfortable extending the “make yourself at home,” invitation to even casual guests, but again it’s never something I’d presume without being told.
Affirmative consent is about having similar practices around sex with other people. For most people negotiating consent won’t sound exactly like a visit to the neighbours (“Do you mind if I stroke your penis?” or “Could I trouble you for some anal sex?”), but personally, I think it would be wonderful if we respected people’s ownership over their own bodies at least as much as we respect their ownership over their property.
I’ve read commentary from folks who are worried, that if the “yes means yes” standard of consent catches on, it will lead to a surge of false sexual assault accusations and convictions - particularly against men. Here in Canada, sexual assault laws actually do use an affirmative consent standard. Yet the rate of false accusations remain somewhere between 2 and 8 percent - as low or lower than false reporting of any other crime. Charges and conviction rates for sexual assault are also lower than for those crimes of similar magnitude.
Affirmative consent is not a nefarious plot to brand sexual partners as rapists. It’s about taking steps to ensure that sex is mutual, that everyone is participating because they have an active desire to get with each other.
There are also concerns about the way asking for consent might ruin the “mood” of sex. Will previously hot hook-ups turn into dull contract negotiations, with all terms agreed upon before the first kiss? Will be tedious process of constantly asking “Is this okay? Is this okay?” before touching any part of your lover’s body? “If you start talking, it almost breaks the moment, it takes away from the natural flow of it,” said a 19-year-old student in a recent Globe and Mail article.
I think this quote cuts to the heart of this issue for many people. Sex-negative attitudes discourage folks from talking about sex...especially during sex. Imagine trying to prepare a meal with a friend and saying, “I was think of adding some walnuts to this pasta. What do you think?” In response, they place a finger on your lips and whisper, “Let’s not talk. It ruins the food.”
We accept that collaboration requires communication, Porn and other media perpetuate the myth that fitting our bodies together in intricate, orgasmic ways is purely instinctive - no talking required. We also send a similar message when sex education teaches young people to avoid pregnancy and STIs, but neglects lessons about communicating sexual desire or negotiating pleasure.
Talking about sex isn’t unnatural. It may be unfamiliar and at times it can be intimidating. But it is possible to move past the fear of sex talk. Doing so can lead to better, more satisfying sexual experiences for everyone.
Initiating sex with someone - especially, if you’re legitimately unsure about whether they want you back - can be an intensely vulnerable act. Like many people, I hate the prospect of rejection. I extra hate it when I’m naked. Even though I’ve been sleeping with the same person for almost 20 years, I still have anxious moments when asking my partner for something sexual suddenly feels like a big risk.
I still ask, though.
Avoiding those uncomfortable feelings is tempting. I don’t enjoy being told no, especially when I’m really turned on and wanting have partnered-sex. There are moments when the old saying “it’s easier to beg forgiveness later than ask for permission in the first place,” can be a pretty tempting alternative. Fear of rejection is a real and powerful thing.
You know what? Too. Damn. Bad.
My desire to avoid having crummy feelings, does NOT give me the right to make decisions about my husband’s body for him. Period. Furthermore, I don’t want to.
If I’m going to have sex with someone else, they have to want to have sex with me. Not grudging sex. Not passive, this-is-easier-than-getting-into-an-argument-about-it-sex. Happy, I-WANT-to-be-doing-this-with-you sex. No one, not even my husband, owes me sexual pleasure. I love when we do have sex together, but ultimately, I’m responsible for my own sexual gratification.
Affirmative consent isn’t a magical solution that will eliminate sexual assault and make everyone comfortable with sexual negotiation. But it’s an important step towards creating a standard that says we can and should be talking about sex...especially when we’re about to have it.. I hope our future films, books and television shows feature hot sex scenes, with explicit negotiation. When my son grows up, I hope he thinks it’s weird NOT to check in with sexual partners, that he needs permission before visiting another person’s body and that when it comes to consent “yes” means “yes.”