Consent is often treated like an awkward, optional formality. News flash: consent is sexy, and far more importantly, consent is mandatory.
We’ve all heard the tired mantra, “no means no.” However, consent is far more than a lack of verbal or physical resistance. By subscribing to the idea that consent is simply the absence of a “no,” we’re upholding the mentality that a healthy sexual experience involves pushing partners to a point of protest, without any expressed indication of willingness to participate in the first place. Our culture treats sex as an exchange, where one party tries to convince the other to “give it up to them.” This adversary model teaches us that sex is a bargaining process, rather than an opportunity for mutual enjoyment. We’re conditioned to believe that sex is about power as much as it is about pleasure, and think of it as something we do to each other, or for each other, instead of with each other.
The current societal sexual script assumes that passive silence signifies that it is okay to proceed. We’re even taught that this lack of communication is desirable; from romantic comedies to pornography, “sexy” sexual activity usually involves people passionately caught up in the moment, so absorbed by their own desires they do not feel the need to gauge how the other person is feeling. Not only are we taught that communicating whether or not we want to have sex is unimportant and unsexy, we’re also taught not to communicate our expectations, preferences, and likes and dislikes. Contrary to what popular culture would have you believe, this lack of communication isn’t sexy at all. The “blurred lines” generated through this ambiguity creates opportunity for confusion, displeasure, and even suffering.
Let’s shift the paradigm, and hold ourselves and one other to a higher standard. If we don’t care whether or not our partners want to engage in sexual activity with us just as much as we want to with them, what does that say about who we are and how we treat one another? Why shouldn’t we be expected to proactively ensure that every sexual interaction is marked by mutual enthusiasm, enjoyment and respect?
This new standard of behavior, where consent is defined as “yes means yes, when no is a viable option,” instead of simply “no means no,” mandates that sex includes a dialogue. This is often met with resistance; opponents argue this conversation could “kill the mood.” Honestly, if you feel too awkward to ask someone if they want to have sex with you, you probably shouldn’t be having sex with that person in the first place. Further, if a person truly wants to engage in sexual activity, taking a moment to check in and ensure that they are comfortable will not ruin the entire interaction. It can be as simple as saying, “You ok with this?” “Do you want to go ahead?” or “Hey, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” Isn’t two seconds of potential awkwardness preferable to the potential of another person enduring a lifetime of feeling violated or traumatized? We can change our culture so that affirmative consent is no longer seen as weird, but rather seen as standard.
Under an enthusiastic model of consent, all parties, regardless of gender or sexuality, are empowered to request or deny sex. “No” is respected, and “yes” is an equally valid option. Affirmative consent is an informed, voluntary decision, and if consent is withdrawn at any point or can no longer be given, sexual activity must stop. Saying “yes” once does not mean “yes” every time, and saying “yes” to one activity does not mean “yes” to everything. Consensual sex requires an affirmative “yes” at every new stage of sexual activity, every time sexual activity takes place.
Confirming that the person you want to have sex with also wants to have sex with you isn’t a mood killer at all—its intimate, its hot, and most importantly, its necessary. When we make sure someone else is enthusiastic about what we’re doing we consider their wants and needs, and think about sex as a partnership instead of as a means to our own end. Let’s stop viewing consent as awkward or optional, and start viewing it for what it is: sexy, and required.