Once upon a time I was kissing someone. This was nice. I did not, however, want to do more than kiss this person. And that decision was respected. But sometimes it’s not.
I’m being sparse with the details here for a few reasons: I write about sexuality as a scholar, and I’d rather my audience consider my arguments than wonder about the details of my sex life; also, the details don’t matter for my point. I could be talking about kissing or massaging or hugging or cuddling or fellating or fisting and it’d be the same point.
The thing I realized, while mulling over this experience and similar experiences, was that consent should be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Consenting to kiss someone doesn’t mean consenting to let them take off your clothing, or give or receive oral sex, or engage in other forms of sexual play. Consenting to kiss someone once doesn’t even mean consenting to kiss them again. You could fill in the blanks with any intimate or sexual act you want, but the truth remains: Consenting to [do X] with someone once doesn’t mean you consent to [do X, Y, or Z] with that person again, or ever.
Communication about consent, though, is often difficult to come by. New lovers frequently explore each other’s bodies intuitively, trying to ascertain from sighs or moans or silence what feels good, what’s off limits, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of playful exploration, but verbal consent and affirmation are also very helpful tools. “That feels good” is one way to encourage a lover to keep going in that direction, while “That’s not feeling good, could you [X] instead?” is a constructive way of telling someone that you don’t like something and suggesting something else instead. The possibilities are endless, though; I highly recommend Dr. Debby Herbenick’s book Because It Feels Good for communication strategies and ideas about how to personalize abstract concepts like consent and desire.
Consent, made verbally explicit or inferred through body language, is absolutely necessary for intimate and sexual interactions to proceed. What happens when consent’s missing, though? I believe that it is possible to withdraw consent at any time, during any act, and that any withdrawal should be respected. Sometimes a sexual act starts to hurt for some reason, sometimes you begin feeling sick, sometimes you’re reminded of a bad past experience, sometimes you’re just not feeling it. Any of these reasons (and more) is valid. It might feel awkward or unpleasant to have to verbally withdraw consent; maybe you don’t want to admit to incontinence or that the current interaction reminds you of something icky. But faced with the alternative (an unwelcome or unenjoyable intimate experience), finding a way to disengage isn’t that bad. And it gets easier with practice… take it from me, I used to be very shy and I had a hard time communicating about my feelings, and now I’m assertive to the point of starting to wonder if I’m too expressive about my feelings!
The other important thing about consent that I’ve realized while ruminating over it is that anyone who respects you will respect your statements of consent. If someone is questioning your withdrawal of consent or your boundaries, then that person perhaps isn’t intending to respect your boundaries. And I don’t mean questioning like, “Are you sure you’re feeling up to this?” or “Hey, I remember you said you had a yeast infection, how are you doing down there?” or “We’ve both had a little to drink, are you sure you want this?” No, I mean questioning like “Why won’t you have sex with me?” once you’ve already established that you don’t want to have sex with that person at that time.
Questioning my decision not to have sex with you is a quick way to lose my trust. Because it reveals a fundamental disrespect of my autonomy, and my decision-making process, and those things that, you know, make me human. This is, in my mind, very much a feminist issue, and I am eternally grateful that feminists – whether or not you agree with all their points – have enabled these kinds of discussions to happen.
A feminist friend with whom I was discussing this mentioned the feminist aphorism “When a man says no, it’s the end of the discussion; when a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.” I think it totally applies here, sadly. The concept that girls are just playing “hard to get” when they say no initially is a very damaging construct, and I think we should grant people the dignity of believing them when they make statements about their desires and states of being.
I should add, however, that in established relationships, where consent is a bit more given and fluid, I think it’s okay for one partner to initiate when the other’s not particularly in the mood, in the hopes that the other partner’s libido kicks in and they start to become desirous too. Why is this okay? I think it’s largely because of the trust that’s been built between people who regularly interact sexually, romantically, etc. The initiating partner trusts the initiatee to call a stop to it if they’re super-not-feeling it, while the initiatee trusts the initiating partner to respect their decision if it comes down to that. But the most important thing is that trust and consent are foregrounded, and acknowledged between these people. I don’t get that sense from people who question my statements of consent.
How you decide to enact consent is up to you, but it’s a decision everyone should make consciously, and then communicate. I’d like to end this post with a shout-out to The Consensual Project for all the good work they do in publicizing and discussing issues of consent.
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