Consent Does Not “Ruin the Moment”

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

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[storytime] These Streets Are Mine: On Street Harassment

I got sexually harassed today.

Actually, it happens all the time. Like, almost every time I venture out on the city streets for longer than ten minutes. It’s kinda like when you have to drive in the city and you can never find a good parking spot, or when you’re stuck behind a group of sluggish tourists on the street.

You know, annoying stuff that happens when you live in the city.

Except this is different. Because this only affects people who are (or appear to be) women, and because this is a conscious, purposeful attempt to make us feel unsafe and violated. It is not a compliment. It is not “boys being boys.” It is harassment.

This time, I’m on a dark El platform at 10 PM. I’d just been out with a friend and had a great time. I’m wearing a nice dress, same one I wore to work, not that it’s any of your business. An old man calls something to me from 10 yards away; I ignore him.

A few minutes later he ambles over, passes in front of me so close as to brush against me, and says, “Mhm.”

He stands on the other side of me until the train comes and gets into the same car as me. He doesn’t get a seat near me because there are too many people, but I see him looking over.

I slowly reach into my bag and pull out my pepper spray, letting it dangle from my fingers. And I look up with a face of stone, and he knows that I know what he did.

I am attractive. You can think I’m vain for saying that, but I don’t really care what you think. It’s hard not to know you’re attractive when you’ve been told from birth. My parents always say, “You’re so beautiful, you can get any guy you want if you just stop being in such a bad mood all the time.” They say, “Make sure you have a guy walk you home.” They say, “Try to find a job where your boss is a man. It’ll be easier that way.”

In the past, when I had friends who didn’t get it, they did it too. They thought I couldn’t possibly have any trouble in my love life. They thought I couldn’t possibly have a problem with the number on the scale.

Beauty carries a lot of privilege in our society–and, really, in any human society, although standards of beauty vary. But, unlike most kinds of societal privilege, this one comes at a cost. I’m not particularly interested in debating who has it worse, but suffice it to say that I would rather not have strange men brushing up against me when I’m trying to take the train home at night.

And no. I will not demand that my male friends take me home; that’s not their job. I will not dress in ugly, baggy clothing. I will not stop leaving my apartment in the evenings. I will not stop taking public transportation. I will not stop walking down these streets, because these streets are mine.

I’m not afraid. Not because I have no reason to be, but because I couldn’t keep living if I were. I can’t keep crossing the street every time I see a man. I can’t keep wincing visibly every time I hear their slurred come-ons. I can’t keep tugging at my clothes in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how to cover up what I never chose to have in the first place.

I’m not afraid. I’m angry.

A while back, the writer Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year and a half and wrote about her experience. This is what she said about the first time she went out in drag:

I had lived in that neighbourhood for years, walking its streets, where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren’t pretty. But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly, and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

They can choose to look away from women, too. But our society teaches them that women are there for their eyes.

There are things I can do. And I’m not talking about the “don’t go out alone” types of things. I find that anger deters these pathetic men more than anything else. They don’t want a woman who’s going to cause trouble, who’s going to whip around and snarl, hit, tell them to fuck off. They don’t want a woman sitting straight up, glaring, with a can of pepper spray ready in her hand.

Nine of out ten of them will stop at that.

As for the other one, well, I suppose that’s a risk I have to take if I’m going to fight for my right to walk down the fucking street.

Just like any man can do.

For more information: Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment

Sunday Link Roundup

So I’ve decided to dedicate one post each week to sharing all the awesome things I read elsewhere on the Internet. Hopefully I actually remember to do this each week. 🙂

1. On the benefits of psychiatric labels. I’ve written about this before, but this blogger says it beautifully: “My labels have freed me to live in better harmony with the person I wish to be.”

2. On sexual harassment as an exercise of power.

3. On casual sex and how, for some people, it’s just not that great. I can really relate to this.

4. On “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting in life. This super-controversial post uses video games as a metaphor for privilege. It’s been accused of ignoring issues like class, but I think we can all agree that Metaphors Are Imperfect.

5. On the (in)visibility of bisexuality. Also, everything else on this blog is fantastic.

6. On Mitt Romney as a bully. I wrote about this too, but this post explores more facets of the story. “The fact that so many responses to Romney’s abuse categorise it as pranking or fun rather than bullying says a lot about why this country has such a big bullying problem. The refusal to identify what he did as wrong, and to connect the dots on what it means politically, speaks to dangerous social attitudes.”

7. Last but not least, this blogger dedicated an entire post to why my blog is awesome. Needless to say, I feel really really special. 😀