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The Words That Come After “I Want”

January 16, 2009

There are several common threads that run through many of the essays in Yes Means Yes. One of these is the need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

I started thinking about this on Wednesday, when I read at the launch party at KGB from Lee Jacobs Riggs’s essay, “A Love Letter From An Anti-Rape Activist To Her Feminist Sex Toy Store”. I found myself quoting the same passage earlier today in a comment thread here. Lee wrote:

To say that sex and rape are unrelated, however, is to both ignore the deep scars across the sexual selves of masses of people and avoid the dismantling of the symbiotic relationship between a sex-negative culture and a culture that supports sex in the absence of consent.

Let’s be clear. Consent is saying yes. Yes, YES! This is the definition in my experience, employed by today’s rape crisis services. Their models for prevention education, however, fail to teach young people how to really articulate or receive consent. They instead focus on how to say and listen to “no.” “No” is useful, undoubtedly, but it is at best incomplete. How can we hope to produce the tools for ending rape without simultaneously providing the tools for positive sexuality?

YMY at p. 109 (Emphasis supplied.)

Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Beyond Yes Or No: Consent As Sexual Process” deals almost entirely with this subject. She begins:

What does it mean to say to someong, “Fuck me?” … To tell them exactly how you want to be kissed, licked, petted? Or to tell them just what it is you want to do with them? For one thing, it means that you are taking the bull, as it were, by the horns. You’re letting your lover — and yourself — know what you’re looking for, rather than leaving it up to the imagination.

YMY at p. 43. Bussel goes on to say:

The kind of consent I’m talking about isn’t concerned just with whether your partner wants to have sex, but what kind of sex, and why. Do you want to be on top, do it against the wall, doggy-style, missionary? These are questions good lovers ask of one another.

YMY at p. 44. Bussel then takes a page from the BDSM community, recommending a simple “yes, no, maybe” chart for communication. There are a few other essays in the book that discuss the process of communicating explicitly about sex, but what I’ve quoted basically makes the point.

All this sounds like common sense to me, yet there is this pervasive sense that explicit communication about sex is somehow unsexy: that if we talk about it, the spell will be broken. I need look no farther than our own comment thread for evidence of this. Here, John said:

Personally, I would love the “explicit” thing if it would be also taught that it’s OK to be sexually frank. Lack of explicity in sexual contexts is usually a result of uncertainy, fear of rejection and the attempt to keep an exit option on both parts.

I think only part of that is right. Uncertainty about what one wants to do with a partner certainly happens, but there is no particular reason why it is easier to resolve uncertainty by doing than by talking. So that’s out. Fear of rejection, though, gets to the heart of it. I recall Susie Bright saying (and I’m paraphrasing because it was a TV interview that I can’t find now so I’ll have to do this from memory) that it’s so easy for us to say what we don’t like, but it’s so hard to say what we do like. When we say what we do like, she said, we are vulnerable. We reveal something about ourselves that can be criticized or ridiculed. That’s rejection.

Sex, for me, even with casual partners, has always been intimate. In fact, the kind of sex I’ve had, which includes a lot of BDSM and specifically a lot of bottoming, in specifically intimate for me because it is vulnerable for me. I seek that vulnerability because I find intimacy through it. But, and I think this is true not just of me but for most folks to some degree, the dynamic works the other way, too. In intimacy we are vulnerable.

It is self-evident to me that it is erotic, and not anti-erotic, to talk about desires and fantasies with a partner. One of the most effective ways my spouse and I approach sex is to talk during the busy work day or while ferrying the brood to family gatherings about what we might do when we have the time and privacy — the nuts and bolts, the cuffs and spreader bars and the redoubtable Vixen Creations Randy. That sets the stage for both of us. It makes my cock hard right away. And when we don’t have the time or inclination for a BDSM scene, when we fuck or give each other hand jobs, the usual course of the conversation is, “what have you been thinking about lately?” And I say what’s on my mind. And I can say what’s on my mind. It’s hot. Talking about what gets us off, itself gets us off.

In part, my view of these things is shaped by a very non-standard set of experiences. I was a kinkster in my mid-teens and very much an out kinkster in my late teens and twenties, so to me, sex was never the version I saw in the movies — the kind where no words are exchanged, where the soft music starts and the camera pulls in close to bodies that are magically guided to only do the “right” things. I knew that didn’t work for me. In my life, from very early on my sex partners and I had to work out who got tied up and how to know if something hurt in a good way or a bad way or too much.

I’m not a fan of John, his comment or anything else he has written here. But I think there is an essential truth underlying what he said: a little voice that says, “what if they don’t like me?” Our sexual selves are important to us, and they are tough to defend.

I’ve been told that the Latin pudenda is literally “parts of shame”, and that it applied to men’s as well as women’s genitals. Primarily, we shame women in Western culture for being sexual at all — including when they are sexual in ways that directly serve male desire, especially when they are sexual in ways that does not, and including when their sexual expression is not to be sexual. But we lather a thick layer of shame around sexuality that affects everyone. Men can be sexual in a consumptive way or a competetive way, but when talk turns to being intimate, men turn sheepish. If how they are sexual does not follow the masculine script, it takes a lot more courage to talk about it — not just in public, but with partners. Women have to deal with slut-shaming to talk about what they want, and men have to deal with anxious masculinity, and the pernicious little demons in the sex-negative culture hover over lovers: telling women that if they say what they want, ze will think she’s a slut; telling men that if they say what they want, ze will think he’s a pervert or, god forbid, some kind of fag (and I’m incorporating here — for those looking for inside baseball — some of Patrick Califia’s criticisms of the way gay leathermen gossip about which top isn’t “really” a top, reducing gay leather tops’ sexual range to that of a high school het boy; which may not be everyone’s experience, but as observation of the then-current queer BDSM community, Califia had at least at one time a better vantage point than most folks I know.)

Fear and shame are never far removed. People who are ashamed crave acceptance but fear rejection. People who fear rejection are shamed and self-censor. And so, some folks say, we’d rather just muddle through and hope our lovers figure out our needs and desires without us having to take the chance of naming it.

That has to change. That’s the fear and shame that keep us from raising our children to understand sex and how it relates to them. That’s the fear and shame that maintains silence and acquiescence as the norm instead of enthusiastic participation and affirmative consent. That’s the fear and shame that coercion and misery and rape hide in and use for apology and cover: a tangled warren of baggage where monsters can hide in every shadow. We need to clean it out. We need light and fresh air in the space after “I want”. That’s what I want to leave to my children.

If anyone is reading this that has desires that ze can’t give voice to, here’s what I think. I think ze should go to the mirror and look zirself in the face and say, alone but out loud, the words that come after “I want”.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2009 7:15 pm

    Yes, yes! I was planning on writing a blog post about this soon, and I probably still will, but you have already said so much of what I had to say!

    “there is this pervasive sense that explicit communication about sex is somehow unsexy: that if we talk about it, the spell will be broken”
    This, in particular, is something I have been thinking about all week. But I think it is not just fear of rejection that drives it. Nor is it the (mostly media-driven) mystique of “true lovers read one another’s minds”. Nor is it the fact that so many people have no idea what they want, and therefore can’t articulate it — and then feel embarrassed about not knowing, so they don’t own up to it ….

    Sometimes, I find myself thinking that it is somewhat driven by the submissive urges of many partners. I find that bottoms frequently have a hard time articulating what they want — not necessarily because we don’t know, but because it is so difficult for us (or at least, for me) to feel as though I am taking control in such an obvious way. The only way I have found to deal with this is to (a) articulate my desires in a safe space far away from bed, in traditional BDSM style … or (b) ask my lover to “force” the answer out of me (in a safe/sane/consensual way of course) … but even that is hard, because I find myself reading him and trying to figure out what it is he wants to hear. And no, I don’t think this is mostly because of gender roles or anything like that … I think that it is mostly because I want to submit so strongly when I’m in love, and it makes me feel so incredibly anxious when I feel like I’m taking sexual control.

    Who knows? Perhaps I have taken the submissive label and am using it to legitimize a part of myself that is “really” driven by repression and shame. But I do wonder, I really do, about how much of this problem — on a broad social level — is driven by unacknowledged submissive urges.

    Anyway, the moral of the story is that getting into BDSM and learning “safe space” sexual communication techniques (for instance, writing letters rather than talking face to face) has really helped me talk to my partners. And I am just not sure there is a way to make myself comfortable with telling my lover exactly what I want, when we are in bed together … at least without ruining my immersion in the submissive headspace that can make intimacy so magical for me.

  2. January 19, 2009 1:37 am

    I wrote my post. It ended up being “Five important things missing from the sex-positive movement”, with emphasis on positive communication being #5. I didn’t even really bother with the point I was trying to make above, because it’s a very complicated point, and I wanted to focus on other things. But I did link to you guys! So here you go: [ ]

  3. January 19, 2009 8:47 am

    My experience won’t be exactly the same ; I was raised in France by anglo-saxon parents and one of the things I’ve heard my mother say most about sex is “you’re so lucky to have been raised away from anglo-saxon concepts of guilt about sex”. Admittedly, coming from her I find that kind of funny, since I’ve heard a bit about her uni years from my godmother and they seemed to have fun-and still do.

    Still in France, my mother’s idealistic image of the county’s approach to sex is a bit naive; many girls seem to wait for the boys to show them how it’s done (approching this from a totally heterosexist POV, sorry, can’t talk for others^^),although I do think we’re slightly more open than my British/American family and friends.
    You can’t have a positive sex life without talking about it, unless you’re incredibly lucky. The other can’t read your mind, only you can tell them exactly what it is that turns you on, and what feels good.
    And talking about sex IS incredibly erotic; my boyfriend lives an hour away, and works, while I’m at uni so we don’t get to see each other that often, and during the week we talk about sex all the time-what we want to do, how, what’s going to happen next time he walks through the door.

    It’s scary, for sure; it’s still so easy to be seen as a slut, or as a nutcase if any of your fantasies veer away from he “norm”; I’m not a very open person to start off with, but as time goes it gets easier, with casual partners or long-term relationships.
    It’s necessary!

  4. John permalink
    January 23, 2009 10:10 pm


    “I’m not a fan of John, his comment or anything else he has written here.”

    Thanks for clarifying that… you’ll come around, no worries. Although I was a little disappointed not to get a reply to my last comment on the other post, I find a lot in this that I can agree with… but I guess I can’t be a fan of yours now either 😉

    “but there is no particular reason why it is easier to resolve uncertainty by doing than by talking.”

    I think that very much depends on the context and the situation.

    You only mention environments in which you are already very familiar with the person you’re trying to talk to (“partner”). Remember that I was NOT talking about what I think is your definition of sexual activity but MINE, which I think is significantly wider (including sensual touching and kissing).

    I was mostly concerned with what’s going on during the mutual seduction when people don’t know each other well and not necessarily trust each other enough to reveal their weaknesses rather than during a relationship when they do. That’s that game changer with respect to frankness. Building a relationship can be tricky, and it’s not ease to always find the right level of intimacy, physical and otherwise.

    You know, as I mentioned, not being able to sexually escalate myself, scared of initiating without logical certainty of mutuality, I had to actually develop a script that would get me around it, and it actually DOES include a lot of talking, or rather, letting women talk about themselves and their desires. Guess what, what most women have told me they want is a confident man who knows when it’s time to push them against the wall and kiss them. Being pushed against a wall for kissing is the “ideal kissing” setup I heard most often, although not from a statistically relevant number. So actually asking about this would probably actually ruin that mental storyboard – question is, should that be destroyed? It’s not my fantasy, and I’m not able to fulfill it for any woman, so I wouldn’t mind, but still – I’m not sure *that* would be a fair limitation.

    Apart from that, I pretty much agree with most of what you say.


  1. [classic repost] Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing « Clarisse Thorn
  2. » [classic repost] Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing Clarisse Thorn

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