The Words That Come After “I Want”
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”.