The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent
Goodness. All you rape apologists really did love the Christmas present Naomi Wolf gave you, didn’t you? When she said putting a penis in a woman while she’s sleeping is a “model sexual negotiation,” and that those of us who insist on making sure everyone in a sexual interaction is participating freely and enthusiastically are “trivializing rape” and “infantilizing women”? Judging by the emails and phone calls you’ve been showering me with, and the lovely tweets you’ve been sharing over at #mooreandme, it sure seems like you think you must’ve been very good boys last year indeed.
But it’s 2011 now, and it’s time to clear a few things up. All this sturm und drang about the women, won’t someone think of the women is so transparent as to be laughable. Those of you espousing this argument tend to fall into three camps:
- You like the rapey status quo in which men have free access to women’s bodies and the cops and the courts almost never do a thing about it, and you want to keep it that way;
- You’ve been sexually violated in some way but it’s too painful to deal with it, so you’re invested in minimizing it.
- You like having access to power, and the dudes in power (even on the left, esp. when it involves a lefty hero) don’t often take rape seriously, so you’re not going to either.
(Two things should be obvious here: 1) I’ve got more sympathy for the middle motive than the other two and 2) these three motives aren’t mutually exclusive.)
There is a fourth camp, though: folks for whom this discussion is new and/or confusing. And it’s for y’all fourth-campers that I’m writing this post, to expose the mythmaking that’s been perpetrated by the folks in the first three.
But first, a brief definition. (Longer one here.) Enthusiastic consent is a principle that says that “no means no” is crucial – if a sexual partner says no, you have to stop – but it’s not enough. In order to ensure consent and prevent sexual violence, everyone, regardless of gender, has to make sure that their partner is enthusiastic about what’s going on.
Enthusiastic consent is an ongoing state, not a yes/no lightswitch. It requires sexual partners to be in ongoing communication with each other. It does not mean that you have to get a signed contract to touch my right breast. It does mean that you have to pay attention to whether or not I’m into it as you move your hand toward my right breast, and that if you can’t tell, you have to ask.
But this very basic and humanistic proposal – that sex should only happen when all participants actually want it to – makes some people very uncomfortable. Which says more about them than it does about enthusiastic consent, of course. Let’s take a look at what they’ve been saying:
Bullshit Consent Myth #1: Enthusiastic consent trivializes rape. I’m not going to go off here on how offensive it is to me to suggest that I would trivialize rape in any way, because I’m pretty sure the folks repeating this empty meme don’t really give a shit about my feelings. Instead, I want to point out how offensive this empty meme is to logic. The whole point of enthusiastic consent is that it prevents rape, and also removes rapists’ excuses so that we can hold them accountable – and that reduces rape for everyone, because the average rapists rapes 6 times.
The heart of this argument is even more offensive, because it sets up a hierarchy of who’s “really raped.” And you know what doesn’t help rape victims at all? Pitting us against each other. Telling the woman who was raped by a friend who used alcohol and coercion that her efforts to seek healing and justice somehow hurts the woman who was raped by a soldier who invaded her village does not in any way halt the use of rape as a weapon of war, or hold those who perpetrate it accountable. Instead, it encourages us to spend our energy fighting each other instead of the actual rapists and the systems that enable them.
Peel away the poutrage of rape apologists and it’s pretty plain that saying that some rapes count and others don’t is what actually trivializes rape. Enthusiastic consent is about making sure those rapes that apologists want to trivialize (which: almost all of them) are taken seriously, not just to give survivors a fair chance at justice, but to REDUCE THE NUMBER OF RAPES going forward.
(A note here on what I like to call the Myth of Misunderstanding: Research shows that most rapists aren’t confused about whether or not they’ve got consent for what they’re doing. They know they don’t. But they use things like alcohol and emotional manipulation to create plausible deniability. So when I say “enthusiastic consent prevents rape,” I mostly mean, it prevents rapists from hiding behind excuses like “I asked her 30 times and she said no, but the 31st time she said nothing” or “I didn’t hear her say no.” But it also is a great tool for those of you who are afraid you can accidentally trip and fall and rape someone. In reality, it’s super easy to not rape someone. Just make sure they’re into what’s happening, and if you can’t tell, ask.)
Bullshit Consent Myth #2: Enthusiastic consent infantilizes women. First off, this assertion is both sexist and heteronormative. Everyone, regardless of gender, has the same obligation to get enthusiastic consent from their partner, regardless of their partner’s gender, so how enthusiastic consent infantilizes women in particular I do not know.
That’s a lie. Of course I know. If you assume that women are always the gatekeepers of “no” and they’re always sleeping with men, who are always pressing them to say “yes,” then enthusiastic consent would impact women differently than men, though it still wouldn’t be infantilizing anyone. But if you’re making those assumptions you’re probably having transactional sex at best and are a rapist at worst, so I’m not sure this little essay is going to help you.
The argument for “infantilizing” is about the word “no” and whether we can expect everyone – or at least all adults — to always say it when they mean it. And you know what? In a perfect world, maybe we could. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world of context that can make it nigh on impossible for people to say no when they mean no. We live in a world where men are expected to go out and “get some,” while women who are sexual in any way are said to have passively “given it up.” Where women are still regularly taught that the best way to survive a rape is to go along and hope it’s over soon, because if you try to fight back you’ll fail and get more hurt. (The opposite has been shown to be true, btw.) Boys are told from a young age that whatever they do will be excused under the “boys will be boys” mantra, and that “boys will be boys” mentality leads to what I call the “boiling frog” problem of women’s sexual boundaries. I call it that because if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out, but if you put a frog into a pot of room-temperature water and slowly heat it to a boil, the frog will acclimate as it heats and never jump out, eventually boiling to death. Similarly, when we learn as young girls to tolerate “low-level” boundary violations like the ones we often are forced to suffer in silence at school, at home and on the street – bra-snapping, boob-grabbing, ass pinching, catcalling, dick flashing “all in good fun” relentless violations that adults and authorities routinely ignore – it makes it harder for us to notice when even greater boundaries are being violated, eventually leading to the reality that many women who are raped just freeze and fall silent, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do over and over since day one. You tell me what’s more infantilizing: repeatedly letting boys (and grown men) off the hook for their behavior because “boys will be boys” and we can’t ever expect any differently, or creating a consent standard in which all partners take active responsibility for their partner’s safety, and which acknowledges the truly diseased sexual culture we’re soaking in every day.
Besides which, I fail to see how expecting everyone to ensure that their partner is consenting is infantilizing. If anything, it requires more adult skills than just asking people to back off once they’ve already crossed someone’s line. Which brings me to the next bit of bullshit:
Bullshit Argument #3: Enthusiastic consent ruins sex. Well, yeah, if you’re into having the kind of sex where you don’t give a shit about your partner as long as s/he is “giving it up” to you, and nobody says a word to each other lest they ruin the “mood,” then yeah, enthusiastic consent is going to kill that particular kind of rapey pleasure.
For those of us who prefer our partners to be actually into us in bed, enthusiastic consent is pretty awesome. Being in ongoing communication with your partner while you’re fucking encourages dirty talk, playfulness and connection, and allows those of us who have consciences to let go of worry that we might be crossing a line and just enjoy the sex we’re having.
While we’re on the subject, I have something in specific to say about the radically dumb idea that talking about sex is unsexy. First of all, I suspect many people who believe this have never tried it so, y’know, maybe give it a go? And another subset of folks who believe this have tried it but feel so awkward or uncomfortable being fully-present during a sexual interaction that they can’t tolerate it. To them I would say: if you’re doing something you’re not ready to talk about with the person you’re doing it with, even enough to ask “is this good?” or growl “I really want to do x to you…” and solicit a reaction, you’re probably doing something you’re not ready to do.
But there’s a deeper level at play here: many folks raised female have been taught that we ought not to have sexual desires, and certainly if we have them we shouldn’t talk about them, lest anyone think we’re slutty or something (and we all know what happens to sluts.) And lots of male-type folks are taught that they’re supposed to know what their partner wants without even having to ask, or else they’re not “real men.” So there’s stuff to overcome here, for sure. But I’m here to testify: it’s super-worth overcoming it. Because when you become able to talk about sex while you’re having it, not only do ensure that nobody’s raping anybody, but you have way, way better sex. You know more about what you’re partner wants in the moment, and your partner knows more about what you want, and, well, everybody gets more of what they want. Plus: dirty talk is hot! Use your imagination, people!
And next time someone tells you enthusiastic consent is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea? You’ll know where to enthusiastically tell them to shove it.