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The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent

January 3, 2011

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day coverGoodness. 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.

139 Comments leave one →
  1. english thorn permalink
    January 3, 2011 12:33 pm

    Hi, I just wanted to say that I only heard about you after the Wolf-Democracy Now debacle, and I think you’re fantastic. This page is going in my bookmarks. 🙂

  2. January 3, 2011 12:55 pm

    “Goodness. All you rape apologists really did love the Christmas present Naomi Wolf gave you, didn’t you? ” That line right there almost made all the griping that’s been going on worthwhile. Because yes, that is absolutely 100% what’s been going on no?

    There are people who have had no feminist interactions whatsoever, no love and formerly no constant linking to Wolf, suddenly popping up and going “hey look a “feminist” suddenly agrees with us! We are right!”

    Of course, nevermind the rest of us. We’re uptight harpies.

    I really enjoyed where you’re talking about infighting. Who’s “really” been raped or sexually assaulted. You didn’t cover one narrative so I can’t assume whether or not you’re familiar with it (and I absolutely cannot bear to watch your debate with Wolf because that woman gives me a huge case of the “must drink all the liquor in the cabinet”) But I have observed, once they’ve gotten over the “but Wolf agrees with us!”, folks suddenly going off on a “this case being prosecuted devalues real rape victims” with the assumption being that because the rest of us don’t get justice that it is wrong to go after Assange at all.

    Which, no. No it most certainly does not. What devalues us are our friends hammering away at the same old narratives and mocking us and claiming we’re somehow misusing our oh so nobel and much sought after status as rape survivor. Personally I’m so jaded that I don’t even care about justice, just about making these “friends” stop. Not even playing rape apologist bingo seems to make folks pick up the get a clue phone. (which, for the record, I did make one, so I guess this Assange crap has gotten somewhere sort of productive)

    Also maybe I’m just funny this way but even IF “enthusiastic consent infantalizes women” were true I’d rather be infantilized than raped. But of course that’s not the point for folks, it’s “telling a convenient narrative so I don’t have to live with the fact that I’m being a dick to people who have been there even if it does mean I have to do mental backflips”.

    Last, fuck that meme.

    • January 3, 2011 12:59 pm

      Is it tacky to reply to myself? follow up: linking to this actually brought out the “yes but that’s not the real problem, this is distracting from the real problem”. Now if you’ll excuse me, Buffalo Trace is calling my name.

  3. Jessica Moran permalink
    January 3, 2011 1:18 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I don’t know how anyone could argue with it, but I’m sure they will. No one likes to be disproved with logic. Great work!

  4. tylrjm permalink
    January 3, 2011 1:56 pm

    Oh, Jaclyn, how I love you so. You really hit the nail on the head in this post (and pretty much everything else you’ve ever written here).

  5. Anon permalink
    January 3, 2011 2:03 pm

    If I consent to sex with someone not because I want to, but because he wants to, is that rape, because it’s not enthusiastic consent?

    • January 3, 2011 2:28 pm

      Aw, you’re trying so hard aren’t you brave widdle anon?

      • Anon permalink
        January 3, 2011 2:52 pm

        Just answer the question.

    • January 3, 2011 3:01 pm

      Which I’m sure you’re asking in good faith right?

    • jaclynfriedman permalink*
      January 3, 2011 3:04 pm

      Let’s assume Anon is asking in good faith. The answer is simple: enthusiasm for pleasing your partner is a totally valid form of enthusiasm, as far as I’m concerned. Further: the point of enthusiastic consent isn’t to let you know whether or not you’ve been raped. It’s to make sure you know whether or not you’re raping someone else. So the real question is, if you’re having sex to please your partner, the onus is on your partner to ensure that your enthusiasm to please hir is real, and not coerced or forced.

      • Anon permalink
        January 3, 2011 3:07 pm

        Thanks for the response!

      • SomeFem permalink
        January 5, 2011 4:26 pm

        Hang on a sec. Consenting to sex you don’t want isn’t “enthusiastic consent”, which I thought you were advocating for…?

      • January 6, 2011 7:51 am

        I’d like to thank you for treating the question with the respect it deserves; something that often annoys me in discussions about enthusiastic consent is that people frequently ignore desire-mismatched relationships or interpret enthusiasm in such a narrow way that people with my orientation are rendered incapable of ever consenting to sex at all under that model. I found anon’s question a very important one and was pretty unhappy with everyone assuming it was a troll.

        Furthermore, your answer is very helpful in talking about how enthusiasm can refer to more things than enthusiasm for the act in and of itself; I’m going to have to think about this and see if it can’t be turned into a workable model of consent for the asexual community.

      • Jess permalink
        April 21, 2012 5:20 am

        The only note I have to add onto that is in a situation in which the partner has guilted or manipulated their partner into doing it for them.

        Say I’m not feeling aroused, but I get the urge to have sex or perform a sex act on my partner as gesture to him to make him feel good, that is enthusiastic consent.

        Say I’m not aroused and he asks me for sex that I don’t want and I say, “no.” He then pressures me into just doing something for him because he wants/needs it, feels unattractive because I don’t want to, argues, cries, threatens a breakup, uses force, etc, I give into his demands just to end the fight, save the relationship, or make him feel better, this is not enthusiastic consent but coercion. Hopefully that helps.

    • may permalink
      January 3, 2011 3:04 pm

      To take that question more seriously than it probably deserves, in that situation the person you’re sleeping with might not technically be a rapist, but I think we can all agree they most certainly are an asshole.

      • Anon permalink
        January 3, 2011 3:13 pm

        I don’t think someone is an asshole simply for asking for sex, as long as they don’t force it or pressure their partner.

      • January 9, 2011 2:54 pm

        Not necessarily. I can think of times (particularly in longer-term relationships) where one or the other of us wanted to have sex, the other could take it or leave it, and entirely lovely sex was had. “I’m not particularly horny right now, but I like to do things that make you happy and that make you feel good, and I’m cool with having sex now” is a perfectly good reason to have sex, if it feels that way to you and if there’s no pressure. And accepting that doesn’t make anyone an asshole.

      • January 9, 2011 2:55 pm

        …if there’s any pressure, of course, then yes they are an asshole.

    • Anne Smith permalink
      January 3, 2011 5:24 pm

      Well it’s at least rape-adjacent. Why does your partner feel entitled to have sex with you when you don’t want to?

      • January 3, 2011 7:15 pm

        That’s not necessarily true. I don’t gt off at giving head, I’m fairly ambivilamt towards it. But He likes it, so I do it. I’m not pressured into it, I’m not doing something I don’t want to, I am, as Jaclyn says, enthusiastic to please my partner.

      • makomk permalink
        January 6, 2011 8:27 am

        See, this would be one of the existent no-good consequences of enthusiastic consent in the form it’s commonly advocated. Consenting to sex with your partner because he or she wants it even if you don’t particularly is common and a lot of people like doing it. Including men, even a lot of the uber-Domly male BDSMers that certain people *coughradfemscough* insist are just taking advantage of women.

        (Oddly, there seems to be a fair bit of female entitlement to male sexuality doing the rounds too, possibly because in a weird way it’s backed by traditional masculinity and a male gender role in which men just don’t refuse to consent to sex.)

    • Hel permalink
      January 3, 2011 8:59 pm

      I don’t think it necessarily is rape, but it’s definitely an area that requires careful scrutiny by all parties. I’ve had sex with my male partner when I wasn’t really in the mood for sex and he was, because I wanted the bonding that we’d get from sharing his pleasure, and that was usually sex that was fun and good for both of us. I’ve also had sex with my male partner when he wanted sex and I didn’t just because I heard society whispering in my head telling me if I turned down sex I didn’t really love him, or whatever. That sex was usually bad, and my partner almost always could TELL I wasn’t into it at all, and we talked about it, and I try really hard now to be sure that I’m saying yes either cos I want sex, or cos I at least think it will be fun.
      So, I think the salient points are-Is your partner asking you for sex, or pressuring you? If he’s asking without pressure (as much as any interaction can be without pressure in this world), and you’re saying yes even tho you’re not in the mood, WHY are you saying yes, and how do you feel after? If you’re feeling pretty good about it after, cool! If you’re feeling not very good about it after, that would probably suggest you need to examine and think about your interactions about sex with your partner and your personal decision making about sex.
      You can be enthusiastic about sex without being horny. Sex isn’t just about orgasm, it can be about bonding and touching and pleasure and cuddles.

    • SomeFem permalink
      January 5, 2011 4:47 pm

      It isn’t rape, technically speaking, but agreeing to have sex with someone *with reservations* (you don’t really want to have sex with that person, or at that time, etc.), is not even close to enthusiastically consenting to sex. You can want to have sex if you aren’t in the mood, but if you aren’t in the mood *and* don’t want to have sex, a respectful partner will wait for a better time. You don’t want to be with the kind of guy who is going to pout or feel resentful because you didn’t cave and give him something he feels entitled to have, i.e., unlimited access to your body. That’s not mutual consent, that’s one partner using the other partner’s body as their personal sex toy. You deserve to be treated like an equal partner with her own set of feelings and desires, not a sex object. Besides, without *enthusiastic consent*, it becomes much easier to violate another’s sexual boundaries, or commit rape “unintentionally”. It’s better for all involved if everyone is sincerely into having sex, they communicate this, and then no one has to worry about crossing lines.

      Not wanting to have sex and feeling that you should, even having a vague feeling that it’s the “right thing to do”, is a red flag. No one should ever feel even slightly pressured into having sex, and if you do, you’re either not being honest with yourself about your needs or you’re with a person who doesn’t genuinely respect your humanity and bodily autonomy.

    • Annon permalink
      March 3, 2011 4:17 am

      Yes. Technically it COULD constitute as rape. Not so much physical because you gave in and actually said YES. but it can be emotional rape.

      It’s like 14 year old suzie, who’s a virgin, dating 16 year old Jimmy, who’s not. Jimmy’s had multiple partners and wants to have sex with suzzie. He keeps pestering her about it until she gives in, knowing she’s not ready to have sex and that’s why she kept saying no.

      Though she’s consenting physically, it’s still emotional rape because she doesn’t really want to but is doing so because Jimmy’s probably whispered sweet nothings in her ear and told her bullshit along the lines of “i’ll love you forever if you suck my dick” or some screwed up shit like that.

      • Annon permalink
        March 3, 2011 4:21 am

        then again… if she’s doing it to please him because she really wants to and he’s not pressuring her to do it or anything.. then no, I couldn’t say it is. I have an extremely high sex drive, abnormally so, and my boyfriend has often had sex with me in order to please me and help me out when I can’t get off myself. But I don’t pressure him into it. i simply state that i’m horny, I want him and playing DJ isn’t good enough.

        but if he’s pressuring her into it and she honestly truly does not want to do it and feels bad about it later on and hates herself for it, etc etc etc… then yes, i’d consider it emotional rape

    • December 11, 2011 10:55 pm

      I would say at minimum that’s dubious. If a person doesn’t want to have sex then the only reason they’d have it is because their partner wants it. Thus, pressure. If they didn’t feel pressure then they wouldn’t bother because they don’t want it.

      • August 2, 2012 12:36 am

        for me, the problem is that by wanting to please the other person, you can lose track of what *you* want. imo, the issue here is not necessarily consent (as many have pointed out above, this sort of intercourse can be very valid), but the importance of knowing/respecting one’s own desires.

  6. slantendicular permalink
    January 3, 2011 2:25 pm

    This reminds me of the case J.A. v. R. that the Supreme Court of Canada heard this past fall. The question in the case was whether someone could consent to sexual activities which would occur while they were unconscious (“when I am unconscious/sleeping do x”). The defence framed it at as a civil liberties issue (arguing that this is similar to when one partner briefly kisses another partner while they are asleep before heading off to work). Under the “enthusiastic consent” principle such a “sleeping kiss” is impermissible, right?

  7. bleh permalink
    January 3, 2011 2:31 pm

    Wow, this is one of the best explanations of consent and rape apology basics that I have ever read. Thanks!

  8. Michele permalink
    January 3, 2011 3:06 pm

    So wonderfully said. Thank you. I love the idea of “enthusiastic consent” which seems to clear up ANY confusion about whether the act is truly consensual. Posting a link on my facebook account. Thanks again!!

  9. dan permalink
    January 3, 2011 3:10 pm

    It’s a moot question: you can’t consent without wanting to do it.

    • Other Becky permalink
      January 3, 2011 6:50 pm

      That varies greatly depending on how you define “consent”. If you just go with “saying yes in the absence of physical coercion”, that can happen without any enthusiasm at all. Trust me.

    • Hannah permalink
      January 3, 2011 7:06 pm

      That’s untrue–there are many situations in which a person will consent to sexual activity without wanting to, some of them out of fear, some out of ambivalence, some out of pity, some out of love for hir partner, etc. (or any combination)

  10. January 3, 2011 3:35 pm

    “Boys are told from a young age that whatever they do will be excused under the “boys will be boys” mantra,”

    I was never told this. Perhaps my momma learned me right. She also made it clear that every partner of mine should be a willing participant.

    “Bullshit Argument #3: Enthusiastic consent ruins sex.”

    Only an idiot would make the argument that enthusiastic consent ruins sex. I want my partner to be enthusiastic about being with me and vice versa. The only way to get the best sex is through enthusiastic consent and I only want the best sex. Period.

    • ginmar permalink
      January 4, 2011 3:43 am

      Yeah, Daniel, you’re a special snowflake who lived in a cave or something.

      • January 4, 2011 11:38 am

        No, I just had a good mother who raised me right and never instilled any belief that what I do is OK just because “boys will be boys”.

        But you just go on making your false assumptions and strange analogies. It is only making you look like a fool.

      • Anneliese permalink
        January 18, 2013 9:08 pm

        Wow Ginmar, I don’t know if you are male or female but either way you are not doing any good for feminism with remarks like that. Either you are a male trolling because you don’t believe any man can be any different from you or a woman who is sounding like she hates men and doesn’t think they should have an opinion of feminist issues. I think Daniel should at least be given the benefit of the doubt that he is sincere and I think it’s great that he cares enough to write his comment on here. I also hope my son feels the same when he is grown.

  11. January 3, 2011 3:39 pm

    THANK YOU for this one! Wow, way to hit it out of the part. Enthusiastic consent has made my sex life so much better, for both my husband and I. We talk about what we like, what we don’t, and we check in when trying something new or different to make sure the other is comfortable and ok. If they’re not, we stop immediately and go back to something more familiar. Enthusiastic consent is where it’s at.

    And hey Naomi Wolf, if you’re reading this? I looked up to you, I really did; as a feminist, as an anti-capitalist, as a demolisher of the Beauty Myth. You seriously dropped the ball by saying “Waking up with a person fucking you isn’t rape!” because it totally is. If you’re not awake to consent, you can’t consent, so it’s rape. Please come down out of your ivory tower, apologize and correct what you said. Thanks.

    • January 4, 2011 3:44 pm

      See… now I feel like I should write up an “implied consent” contract for any long-term relationship I’m in.

      [[Upon this ___ day of __________ in the year ____, I ___________ hereby give ____________ (PARTNER) my implied consent for sexual activities. Unless PARTNER intentionally disregards my previously stated preferences, PARTNER is free to assume that he/she has my consent to try things that have not been explicitly discussed. Please note that consent for particular acts can be revoked at a moment’s notice (e.g., “no”, “not right now”, “maybe later”, “please stop”); however, PARTNER will not be held legally responsible for attempting them. Unplanned, relationship-related consequences may still apply, and therefore PARTNER is cautioned to use his/her best judgment in pursuing any and all acts. This contract can be canceled at any time by either party without cause. Cancellation will be presumed upon break-up initiation.]]

      It seems like there are too many gray areas in the rape definition sometimes, too many assumptions that cannot be individually accounted for. I can see why some people would be uncomfortable saying “having sex with someone while they are asleep is always rape unless it was *explicitly* agreed to beforehand.” I’m uncomfortable with that because I know I (as a female) would not consider it rape in at least 2 scenarios. At least 2 other ones? Yes, it would be rape.

      I find that much of the rhetoric surrounding this topic too polarizing to comfortably support. “Yes, it is” and “No, it isn’t” are too black-and-white for me. People are far too different and diverse to make such black-and-white rules.

      For example, the premise of enthusiastic consent is wonderful, and I plan to implement it more in my personal life—but it relies on people to be assertive and comfortable with their sexuality. If you’re saying that shy or sexually repressed people should never be seduced (not coerced, seduced—there is a slight difference) because that is rape, then I wouldn’t be able to support it. You don’t have enthusiastic consent at that point. You have tentative consent (which will hopefully build into enthusiastic consent).

      I guess what I’m saying is that enthusiastic, explicit consent is definitely an ideal everyone should work toward, but I’m unsure of how well it works as a standard everyone should abide by.

  12. Dominique Millette permalink
    January 3, 2011 4:39 pm

    Thank you for saying what I failed to say as well and observantly as you have.

  13. Sunil permalink
    January 3, 2011 9:56 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. When I first heard the phrase “enthusiastic consent” something went CLICK in my mind and suddenly I had words to describe what I’ve always thought.

  14. January 4, 2011 12:26 am


    To me, the Assange case don’t seem to have much to do with enthusiastic consent. That’s because what Assange did (according to current information) sounds like rape by the plain old consent standard. The problem with Assange’s alleged behavior is that he operated without a “yes” (to unprotected sex) or even in the presence of a “no.”

    The confusing part of “enthusiastic consent” as a requirement is that it eliminates any space for wanted sexual activity, where I’ve communicated that I want it… but where I’m not completely “enthusiastic” about it. I am all for some sort of positive communication of consent, but “enthusiasm” seems like an overly narrow requirement, which rules out some activities that people may otherwise mutually enjoy and communicate over.

    The Assange case only tells us that communication of “yes” prior to sexual activity is important, and that respecting boundaries is important; it doesn’t show us much about enthusiasm. Or am I misunderstanding what you are getting at?

    * You’ve been sexually violated in some way but it’s too painful to deal with it, so you’re invested in minimizing it.

    I think this is a good point, and it also overlaps with your 4th motive of people being confused.

    When women violate men’s boundaries, those men may become confused about to treat women’s boundaries in the future. If a man experiences a woman initiate sex with him when he is asleep (and hasn’t given consent), he might feel pain about it, or he might not even know what to feel. He might conclude, “well, I guess it’s OK to initiate sex with someone who is asleep, since she did it to me…” He learns a lesson about cultural norms, since we tend to pick up norms in micro-interactions with people. This is a classic example of social proof: monkey see; monkey do.

    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.”

    Thanks for acknowledging this issue.

    • pfff permalink
      January 5, 2011 12:53 pm

      At Hugh Ristik:

      hhhmmm, when I was assaulted I didn’t walk away from the experience thinking it was an OK thing for me to do to others just because it was something done to me. I wasn’t confused about the wrongness of it not even one little bit.

      • January 5, 2011 9:35 pm


        I’ve experienced boundary violations, and I don’t go around thinking that it’s OK to do the same things to others, either. However, I’m lucky to have been exposed to information that helped me understand that what happened was making me feel bad because it violated my bodily sovereignty. For example, I’ve had two cases where I’ve been in a naked makeout session with someone I wanted to have sex with… and she went ahead and pulled me inside unprotected without asking for consent. I never gave them license to do that! Since this has happened twice, I’m suspicious that it’s not an unusual behavior for women in our culture, yet it isn’t widely characterized as a boundary violation.

        Not everyone thinks analytically about consent. Not everyone knows that they are allowed to have certain boundaries. Plenty of boundary violations other than forcible rape are not correctly acknowledged as violations in our society, especially minor ones. As a result, it’s not difficult to imagine cases where someone experiencing a boundary violation (especially multiple times) might consequently become additionally confused about how to treat the boundaries of others.

        As a real example, take the case of infant male circumcision. Many men who were routinely circumcised believe that it’s OK to circumcise other male infants. They say “well, it was done to me, and I’m fine.” These men might find the notion that they have been violated too difficult to deal with, like in Jaclyn’s argument. But there is another possibility that I’m raising: these men don’t believe that they’ve been violated, because society has taught them that circumcising male infants is just something we do (i.e. a norm), and if other people are doing it, then it must be right! (i.e. social proof).

        Social proof is an extremely powerful force, and it would be very surprising if it doesn’t influence how people treat each others’ boundaries.

    • pfff permalink
      January 6, 2011 11:43 am

      Hugh Ristik,

      “The Assange case only tells us that communication of “yes” prior to sexual activity is important, and that respecting boundaries is important; it doesn’t show us much about enthusiasm. Or am I misunderstanding what you are getting at?”

      I think this case shows particularly well how the standard of enthusiastic consent, if applied, could have prevented unwanted sexual contact. You can’t get someones enthusiastic consent if you’ve initiated sexual contact with them while they were sleeping.

      And if you’re offering confusion and social proof as possible reasons for why some people might violate the boundaries of others I would suggest that enthusiastic consent would clear up confusion and help to resolve issues resulting from social proof because partners would be communicating about their wants/desires/preconcieved notions/expectations etc etc.

      • January 6, 2011 11:47 pm

        pffft said:

        I think this case shows particularly well how the standard of enthusiastic consent, if applied, could have prevented unwanted sexual contact. You can’t get someones enthusiastic consent if you’ve initiated sexual contact with them while they were sleeping.

        You can’t get any sort of consent, enthusiastic or otherwise, while someone is sleeping. The Assange case doesn’t show the need for the “enthusiastic” part of enthusiastic consent, because the “consent” part wasn’t given in the first place. That case shows more about the pitfalls of assuming consent, or about the need to pre-negotiate sleepy-sex. A better case to teach us about “enthusiastic consent” would be a case where consent was given, but it was not enthusiastic.

        And if you’re offering confusion and social proof as possible reasons for why some people might violate the boundaries of others I would suggest that enthusiastic consent would clear up confusion and help to resolve issues resulting from social proof because partners would be communicating about their wants/desires/preconcieved notions/expectations etc etc.

        Sure, if you get people to recognize the importance of enthusiastic consent, then they’ll abandon silly norms that are incompatible with it. But that’s putting the cart before the horse: those norms, and the social proof behind them, keep people from recognizing the importance of communication over consent. I’m more interested in what we can do to improve things in the present, rather than daydreaming about what a future sexual utopia would look like.

  15. January 5, 2011 3:46 pm

    Hugh is arguing that men who have been raped by women in their sleep “learn” (read: are justified in believing) that it is OK to penetrate sleeping individuals without their consent. More worrisomely, he appeals to Science™ to argue that their experience of being raped while sleeping justifies this belief.

    I imgaine he would not argue that men who have been raped by other men, or molested as children, are justified in believing that it is socially or morally acceptable to rape men and molest children. And yet, he argues that men who have been raped while they are sleeping are justified in believing that it is OK to rape people in their sleep (or that they are justified in believing that penetrating a sleeping individual without prior consent “isn’t rape”). Implicit in these assumptions is the assertion that it is not obvious that sexual acts performed on a sleeping person constitute sexual assault — or at least, that it is not as obvious as it is that forcing oneself on a person who is awake is rape.

    As I said, Hugh probably does not believe that someone who is forcibly raped while he is awake “learns” that forcibly raping someone is permissible. Presumably, this is because that act so obviously constitutes rape that it would be impossible for any reasonable person to believe otherwise. And when he argues that, on the other hand, men who are raped in their sleep “learn” that it is fine and dandy to perform sexual acts on individuals who are sleeping, he clearly must be assuming that it is less inherently obvious that these acts constitute rape. Otherwise, why would men who are forcibly raped while they are awake not “learn” that it is OK to forcibly rape people who are awake?

    • August 2, 2012 12:06 am

      To HR: regarding the women who “pulled you inside” without asking, i do not think that is acceptable behaviour. the other, gender-reversed scenario certainly isn’t.

  16. LoriA permalink
    January 5, 2011 4:12 pm

    I’m curious- how does sex work fit into this?

    • January 7, 2011 3:24 am

      Sex work is one of several examples that don’t fit well into the enthusiastic consent framework. “Enthusiastic” consent provides a good critique of certain sorts of situations:

      – Badgering someone until they say “yes”
      – People saying “yes” out of a motivation to people-please, rather than due to their own desire (men do this, too)
      – People “compromising” into sex they are ambivalent about

      Yet enthusiastic consent, at least as a requirement, hits a lot of bystanders:

      – Sex work

      – Reciprocal sexual favors. (Imagine a couple where neither partner is enthusiastic about giving oral sex, but both are enthusiastic about getting it. They might set up a trade that is fully wanted and consented by both people… yet since neither is enthusiastic about giving, then this practice is banned.)

      – People engaging in sex primarily for reasons of emotional intimacy, without enthusiasm for the actual act itself (Yes, this can be unhealthy, but it doesn’t have to be.)

      – People who are unattractive (conventionally) being able to have sex, ever. Even partners who desire them and want to have sex might not quite be enthusiastic about the sex itself. Having consistent access to partners who are enthusiastic about having sex with you is a privilege of conventionally attractive people. They might meet plenty of people who are interested in dating them and having sex, but those people just may not be super turned-on and crazy about having sex with them… even though they are still up for it. Requiring enthusiastic consent would ban many people without attractiveness-privilege from having sex for most or all of their lives.

      “Enthusiastic” is just too narrow a requirement, and excludes many sorts of sex that should be considered ethical. You can find ways to contort the notion of “enthusiastic” to include some of the cases, if you are imaginative and charitable. Sex workers may be “enthusiastic” about doing something that gets them paid, even they aren’t enthusiastic about the act itself. Even though members of the oral sex couple aren’t enthusiastic about giving oral sex, perhaps they are enthusiastic about the session as a whole where they both give and receive. In the case of partners of unattractive people, you could say that if they are aroused, then they are automatically “enthusiastic” and define the problem away.

      Yet I think that’s a lot of verbal gymnastics. As Thomas observes, “enthusiastic consent” is actually quite a slippery notion. Encouraging a more communicative model of consent is important, and not all of the folks we are trying to reach are going to be imaginative and charitable. Let’s not hinge the whole thing on the word “enthusiastic,” which is either too narrow, or requires a lot of unintuitive stretching.

      • January 7, 2011 3:49 am

        “Let’s not hinge the whole thing on the word “enthusiastic,” which is either too narrow, or requires a lot of unintuitive stretching.”

        This I agree with. People seem to easily get hung up on the word “enthusiastic” and the whole discussion gets bogged down. Perhaps “explicit” or “active” consent is more to the point. It’s the presence of a “yes”, not just the absence of a “no”.

      • January 9, 2011 3:05 pm

        So, eh, people who are not ‘conventionally attractive’ are somehow unattractive to everyone, including people who desire them and want to have sex with them? Because there’s only one standard that everyone in the world has for attractiveness, everyone has identical tastes, attraction is solely based on looks, and it is impossible for people to think that people who do not meet the standards of ‘conventionally attractive’ are hot as all get-out? If a person is not ‘conventionally attractive’, nobody could be turned on by them?

        Are you serious?

      • January 10, 2011 9:07 pm


        I’ll try putting it a different way: not everyone’s beauty exists in the eyes of the same number of beholders.

        Some people will have lots of people attracted to them. Other people will have few people attracted to them. At least some people in this latter category may spend years, or decades where they don’t meet anyone who is outright enthusiastic about having sex with them… even if they can find potential partners who are willing and who are perfectly down for it.

        Yes, there is enough diversity in human preferences that eventually these folks may find someone who is enthusiastic about having sex with them. But enthusiastic consent as a requirement would doom many (not all, but many) of them to multi-year periods of no sexual contact or relationships that involve sexual contact. I wish advocates of enthusiastic consent would either acknowledge this implication, or explain why they disagree.

        Does that make any more sense?

      • January 12, 2011 5:27 am

        But enthusiastic consent as a requirement would doom many (not all, but many) of them to multi-year periods of no sexual contact or relationships that involve sexual contact.

        Tough shit. It doesn’t matter why you can’t get laid; physical appearance, personality, geographical isolation, whatever the fuck. It may seriously suck, but it’s your problem, not anybody else’s.

        The point is this: Sex is not a right.
        It can’t be, since it involves using someone else’s body.

        As far as I’m concerned, the buck kinda stops there.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 4:30 pm

        HR, while I agree with the substance of your comment, I think the “attractiveness” bit comes dangerously close to implying that it’s reasonable to take non-consensual action to have sex with someone who is not attracted to you. I know that isn’t exactly what you meant, but I still think it comes too close.

        I think you have a good argument without the attractiveness bit: the fact that the “enthusiastic consent” standard does not cover consensual sex work, reciprocal sexual favors, or sex for emotional intimacy is indeed a flaw in the standard that should be examined. So I’d advise taking out the attractiveness bit, or substantially reworking it so that it’s obvious that it has nothing to do with encouraging unattractive people to pressure others into having sex they genuinely don’t want to have.

      • Jaclyn permalink*
        January 12, 2011 4:39 pm

        I really don’t agree that enthusiastic consent fails on consensual sex work, reciprocal favors, or sex for intimacy. The question remains: are you happily and freely engaging in the sex work, or the exchange of favors, or the sex for intimacy? It’s possible to be enthusiastically consenting without being specifically enthusiastic about whatever particular physical act you’re doing.

        As I said upthread: “enthusiasm for pleasing your partner is a totally valid form of enthusiasm, as far as I’m concerned.”

      • January 12, 2011 9:26 pm

        My comment seems to have confused both LykeX and Clarisse into thinking that I’m talking about dating-challenged people having some sort of right to do nonconsensual things to other people. I’m curious about what led to that perception, because my comment didn’t address practical implications, or nonconsent, at all. My comments were about the differences between baseline consent, and enthusiastic consent.

        Personally, I’ve met people who I was willing to have sex with, who I might have even initiated with, who I would have been happy to have sex with, and who I would have considered dating… yet who I was not enthusiastic about having sex with. (In some of those cases, the reason for lack of enthusiasm on my part was lack of attraction, but it’s not necessarily the only possible reason).

        Let’s put this in terms of temperature. In my mind, nonconsent maps to cold, enthusiastic maps to hot, and non-enthusiastic consent maps to “lukewarm.” If you want to discourage having sex with people who are lukewarm about having sex with you , then I can get on board with that.

        But folks, there are temperatures between lukewarm and hot… like the temperature we call “warm.”

        Basically, I get that there are two categories of sex we want to discourage (nonconsensual sex, and lukewarm-but-consensual sex), and one category we want to encourage (enthusiastically consensual sex)… but there is at least one category of sex that in between the types we want to discourage, and the type we want to encourage.

        There is a lot of space between lying on one’s back and thinking of England, and enthusiasm (as I understand the word), and I’m trying to figure out what happens in that space.

      • January 12, 2011 9:45 pm

        Jaclyn said:

        It’s possible to be enthusiastically consenting without being specifically enthusiastic about whatever particular physical act you’re doing.

        As I said upthread: “enthusiasm for pleasing your partner is a totally valid form of enthusiasm, as far as I’m concerned

        Jaclyn, this sort of makes sense, but it’s also an example of what I was calling “verbal gymnastics.” Doing something that I’m not enthusiastic about merely because I’m enthusiastic about some result that it brings (e.g. pleasing a partner, emotional intimacy) is not what I think about when I hear the words “enthusiastic consent.” I think about an act that I’m inherently enthusiastic about.

        You might be conceptualizing “enthusiastic” in a way to define away that sort of seeming contradiction, but not everyone is going to think about the word “enthusiastic” in that way.

        I’m skeptical that such an idiosyncratic notion of “enthusiasm” is a good foundation for educating the wider population about consent.

      • Smitt permalink
        June 18, 2012 5:51 pm

        @Hugh Ristick: I think I understand what your saying about unattractive people. I have had sex with people who I haven’t found particularly attractive but I don’t think you need to find someone attractive to want to have sex with them. If I’m feeling horny then someone’s attractiveness is quite irrelevant. I can be enthusiastic about the act of sex without having to be attracted to the person purely for the sake of sex itself, particularly if I know they are good at it. Also, like LykeX, I prefer the term ‘active consent’ rather than enthusiastic consent as I think it makes the expectations clearer.

  17. makomk permalink
    January 6, 2011 7:52 am

    The Julian Assange business is rather more complicated than it’s painted as. Firstly, notice that Naomi Wolf’s follow-up piece entirely relies on the notion that rape apology is a widespread, systematic problem in arguing why Julian Assange’s arrest and treatment is wrong. More interestingly, Amanda at Pandagon argued that it makes sense he’s a rapist because he’s an obviously evil guy who did things that pissed the government off, and that makes him the type of guy who rapes women. This helps support the rather odious rape-apologist argument where someone being a nice “respectable” guy is evidence against him being a rapist – yet no-one seems to have picked up on this!

    (This is also why Julian Assange’s arrest doesn’t help in getting rape taken seriously when it’s not committed by someone who isn’t designated as evil. I’ve seen a lot of people thinking the same way as Amanda.)

  18. Alek permalink
    January 10, 2011 6:10 am

    I understand all the points about enthusiastic consent, and I fully agree with them. In fact, I apply them in my life even though women shame me and say i’m unromantic to have to specifically wait for a very specific and clear verbal and literal and enthusiastic consent on everything. I won’t budge though, I firmly believe in the “only if enthusiastic yes is had”.

    I have a question though… Why do we still have the sexist notion of the woman as the yes/no answered and never the questioners? I understand the need for these campaigns, but why do they always work from the sexist notion that a woman is just sitting there and saying yes/no/yes/no… Why is there never any discussion of empowering women to be the question asker, not just the question answerer?

  19. Clarisse Thorn permalink
    January 12, 2011 4:47 pm

    I want to state first that I totally support the enthusiastic consent model in general, and I try to push it in my writing and in my workshops — I just think there are some minor issues that need to be addressed. I think fully addressing those issues will make the enthusiastic consent model stronger, not weaker.

    Jaclyn, I agree that it’s entirely possible to do sex work happily and freely. But it’s also possible to consent to sex work without loving it all the time, or even most of the time. How does the enthusiastic consent model deal with that situation?

    Here is one example that I think it problematic: a comment on my Feministe post Whore Stigma Makes No Sense. One commenter wrote:

    Clarisse Thorn’s piece is very sneakily written to lead us into accepting the idea that having sex for money is OK, and maybe I’m an old-fashioned prude, but I don’t agree. I wouldn’t say anyone has a “stigma” for it, but sex for money, or sex that’s coerced, is just plain wrong on both sides. Do it because you want to, or not at all.

    Well, yes, I do think having sex for money is OK. I don’t think it’s the greatest choice for everyone, and it’s probably not even a good choice for most people. But I think that people who choose to do it should not be shamed, or attacked, for that choice, and I see a discomfiting tendency among some feminists to shame and attack sex work specifically because it does not always fit the “enthusiastic consent” model.

    • Clarisse Thorn permalink
      January 12, 2011 4:50 pm

      Here’s another comment that was left on my Feministe whore stigma post:

      Lately, after reading a lot of writing about sex work for a class, I’ve been struggling with a lot of questions: what should my response be, as a feminist, to sex as labor? (This is also complicated by the fact that many sex workers Bernstein interviewed did not see themselves as selling sex or their bodies, but rather as selling their time, their skill, or even selling their clients their own orgasms.) How does this fit with the idea of enthusiastic consent? Can the requirements of enthusiastic consent be met when sex is part of your job–even people who love their jobs have some days where you really don’t feel like doing it, but you’ve got to anyway. And if we view sex work as the same as any other type of work, then what is the difference between forcing someone to perform sex work (ie, rape) and, say, forcing someone to clean your house?

      No one engaged it. I’d be interested in seeing someone do so. I’m really not completely on top of my thoughts about it myself.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 4:52 pm

        Sorry for the triple comment, but I wanted to make sure that I added this:

        I DEFINITELY THINK THAT SOMEONE WHO HAS SEX WITH A SEX WORKER AGAINST HIS/HER/HIR WILL HAS RAPED THE SEX WORKER. It’s not “theft of services” or any other bullshit like that.

        Just wanted to ensure I got that out there.

      • Smitt permalink
        June 18, 2012 6:02 pm

        If you forced someone to clean your house that would be called slavery but choosing to go to work everyday is different. Even if you do not enjoy it all the time you are still making the chose to go to that job everyday. I think that analogy fits sex work as well. If it was a job you choose to do you still have the choice to quit or say you are not doing a particular task within that job that you have been asked to do. I think the term ‘active consent’ works better as enthusiastic can paint a grey area as what constitutes enthusiastic. The important thing here is that they have the choice to refuse their services if they want to.

    • Jaclyn permalink*
      January 12, 2011 4:56 pm

      But I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of enthusiastic consent. For me, what enthusiastic consent says about sex work is: if you’re not doing it happily and freely of your own choosing (and yes, I think of that broadly, the way one can love one’s job but have shitty days at it), then enthusiastic consent condemns the people or structural conditions that are pushing you into sex work as exploitative and violent.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 5:10 pm

        Okay. Does enthusiastic consent also condemn all jobs people don’t like? Does that mean enthusiastic consent condemns capitalist societies? It’s okay with me if it does, but in that case the enthusiastic consent model makes a much broader statement than we normally present it as making.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 5:14 pm

        Also, how do you feel about LykeX’s first response to HR above? I’ll quote it:

        This I agree with. People seem to easily get hung up on the word “enthusiastic” and the whole discussion gets bogged down. Perhaps “explicit” or “active” consent is more to the point. It’s the presence of a “yes”, not just the absence of a “no”.

      • Jaclyn permalink*
        January 12, 2011 6:01 pm

        I agree – active consent is just as useful a term as far as I’m concerned. “Affirmative” is troubling in that it plays into the whole “now I need a contract to touch your left breast” mythology/fear. But active works just as well as far as I can see. It’s the principle I’m attached to, not the word “enthusiastic.”

        I’m not sure using enthusiastic consent to condemn all of capitalism isn’t too far a stretch, though I’m no fan of capitalism. I think it’s most useful constrained to applying to physical sexual interactions.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 6:05 pm

        I think it’s most useful constrained to applying to physical sexual interactions.

        Can you explain why this is not at odds with what you said earlier:

        If you’re not doing [sex work] happily and freely of your own choosing (and yes, I think of that broadly, the way one can love one’s job but have shitty days at it), then enthusiastic consent condemns the people or structural conditions that are pushing you into sex work as exploitative and violent.

        It seems to me that the latter statement isn’t really about physical sexual interactions at all.

        Again, I agree with the principle of enthusiastic consent as I understand it, but I think we need to figure out some good talking points that deal with difficulties such as sex work. Slogans would be awesome if we could manage them 😛

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 6:05 pm

        Oh God I hate graphical smileys SO MUCH.

  20. Jaclyn permalink*
    January 12, 2011 6:10 pm

    Can you explain why it’s not about physical sexual interactions? Sex work is pretty physical most of the time. I guess I could see it broadened to sexual interactions, in general, as long as we’re not talking a legal standard but a moral one, because that creates some shaky ground legally. But it really is a standard meant to apply to sexual interactions, which includes sex work, no?

    • Clarisse Thorn permalink
      January 12, 2011 6:18 pm

      Sure. But I guess … my point is, if a person isn’t enthusiastic about the physical sexual interaction, but is enthusiastic about some factor surrounding the physical sexual interaction (like money, or survival, or emotional intimacy), then I’m just having trouble understanding how that fits in with with the model if the model is specifically about enthusiasm within “physical sexual interactions”.

      I do think that a lot of the issues are cleared up if we talk about it as “active” consent rather than “enthusiastic” consent, though. I think that also means we’re discussing it as actions rather than emotions, which brings with it a corollary of acknowledging that it’s more useful to discuss concrete communication tactics and methods of talking about consent, rather than interior emotional states. What do you think?

      • Jaclyn permalink*
        January 12, 2011 6:34 pm

        I’m not sure “enthusiastic about survival” counts, for me. I mean, you could say a rape victim goes along with her rapist’s desires because she’s enthusiastic about surviving. So I think the same goes for economic survival — if your survival is at stake, you’re not free to choose, are you? That’s exactly the way in which I think enthusiastic consent condemns some sex work — not the sex WORKERS, mind you, but the conditions or people that have caused them to choose this in order to survive.

        I understand now the nuance you’re getting at here, and it’s an important conversation. I’m all in favor of “active” consent, which I like also because it gets to my whole “consent is not a lightswitch” bandwagon — active consent suggests strongly that consent is an ongoing state in which everyone must continually participate. And it’s true that “enthusiasm” can be a mushy thing for another to judge. But I think it’s dangerous to remove the emotional state from the equation, because it leaves greater room for coercion. If you harangue and terrify me until I say “yes” to some sexual interaction, even though I’ve said no a hundred times already, I could see the argument that that’s still “active” consent.

      • Clarisse Thorn permalink
        January 12, 2011 6:39 pm

        Excellent points. I guess I’ll have to think about it some more. I’m grateful to you for participating in the discussion, though. I think a post about enthusiastic consent and sex work or other “edge cases” would be a good thing for YMY to take on sometime.

      • Jaclyn permalink*
        January 12, 2011 6:43 pm

        Thank YOU for pushing this to the edges, where it clearly has some sharpening to do! Will think about it some more, too. We should definitely have this conversation some more, and not just in the comments here.

      • makomk permalink
        January 13, 2011 5:38 am

        Jaclyn: the practical problem with your argument is this. Suppose that a particular woman has two choices of work available to her in order to survive: working at Wal-Mart or a similar retail store, or some form of sex work. Further suppose that she significantly prefers the sex work to working in retail for some reason, but still doesn’t actually want to do either enough to meet the “enthusiastic consent” standard. (This is, as far as I can tell, not terribly unusual.) Your use of “enthusiastic consent” as a special standard applied only when sex is involved implies that her judgment about what’s best for herself must be wrong, because obviously doing work that you don’t want to is fundamentally worse if sex is involved than if it isn’t.

        Now, this wouldn’t be a huge problem if it wasn’t for the fact that a lot of anti-sex work activists, many of them feminist, already insist that the solution to the problem of women being pressured into sex work by economic circumstances is to change the law to make harder to earn money that way. What’s more, there’s a lot of silencing of sex workers that speak out against this too.

      • Sam permalink
        January 16, 2011 1:37 pm

        Clarisse, Jaclyn,

        I think that this is just another way of looking at the eternal “agency” question that is a major conceptual problem in/for feminism, especially given that so much radical feminism demands/ed female agency while denying it at the same time given patriarchy. Consent requires agency, hence the problem radical feminists have with consent under patriarchy (hence all heterosexual sex is necessarily, logically, defined non-consesual/rape if one adheres to that position, and there is simply no way around it in a consent model if women are axiomatically stripped of their free will). While this radial no-agency argument is self-defeating, and thus logically untenable, this is also where the enthusiasm problem starts when it comes to social aspects – because it’s starting from the same assumption – that agency (the ability to consent) is missing except in predefined contingencies – it is about positively defining circumstances that are believed to give women agency (to consent).

        And that, of course, runs into problems because the world is too big a place for positive-list contingency planning. Which makes “enthusiastic consent” something very useful for an abstract discussion about general sexual *attitudes*, but a rather problematic instrument when it comes to deciding whether someone had agency at some point, or whether some specific interaction was consensual or not.

  21. Colleen permalink
    January 15, 2011 2:36 pm

    I liked this article. Healing from rape is hard work. Finding articles that discuss the topic are so valuable to allow my mind to heal, become nimble and grow again. I’ll be back to this site to continue my healing, and development. Thanks a bunch!!!!!!!!!

  22. John Horstman permalink
    January 21, 2011 7:05 pm

    “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.”

    Yes, IF you adopt the position that no one should ever have sex under the influence of any psychotropic substances, and IF you assert that social factors beyond our control cannot coerce women (or men) into “active consent” to sexual activity that they’re really not that into and would not consent to in the absence of these social factors.

    Unfortunately, the first is unfair to anyone who purposely uses drugs and wants to have sex under their influence, as it presumes to strip one of agency when one is under the influence of a psychotropic drug. Ultimately, control over one’s body means one can get high and do what one wants (assuming it isn’t harmful to someone else), and universally proscribing sex under the influence is as patronizing as, say, universally proscribing sex while under age 18.

    The second is both untrue (social norms ARE highly coercive) and impossible to compensate for (as we cannot exist in a cultural vacuum). Granted, the overwhelming majority of rape is not this murky. As you pointed out, most rapists know they haven’t obtained legitimate consent. Still, it’s not always as clear-cut as you assert. The “Myth of Misunderstanding”, as you put it, is often a myth, but not always, and our culture’s screwed-up views on sex generally and the rape-culture-at-large function to make the issue of rape a difficult one to address in certain circumstances (and to write laws or construct ethical fiats that are fair in both always representing rape as rape and not representing actual consent as rape ever). There’s also the related problem of both men and women who actually don’t realize that not obtaining (active) consent for sex generally or a given act is Wrong (thanks to rape culture, they do exist, both men and women). I don’t know whether this would fall under the “Myth of Misunderstanding”, but it does happen, with llow but nevertheless disconcerting frequency.

    Anyhoo, I strongly agree that active consent is the best model we have right now, and everyone should practice it, but it’s not fail-safe.

  23. Kaliane Moloch permalink
    March 5, 2011 7:37 pm

    It’s not hard, people.

    It’s about having sex because YOU WANT TO – whether it’s because you wanted the actual physical stimulation, or to please your partner, or the emotional intimacy that came with the act. So long as you actively said yes to that union, it’s the right kind of consent.

  24. Pavlov's Cat permalink
    March 14, 2011 6:09 am

    I do think there are some interesting points to hammer out about what the agreed interpretation of enthusiastic consent is, but there seems to be a lot of stuff that is at least bordering on concern trolling here. On the one side, we have the possibility that if we accept enthusiastic consent as a standard there might have to be some ongoing communication within relationships about where we define our own personal boundaries, which to my mind is part of doing enthusiastic consent correctly. On the other hand, if we stick to what’s currently the norm, lots of people will continue to be raped and lots of rapists will continue to hide behind the same old excuses. The wider scope of pressures that might cause us to feel we have to say yes when we’d actually maybe prefer to say no, and how sex as a business transaction fits into this, need to be addressed, but implementing enthusiastic consent right here right now as an assumed norm prior to negotiating otherwise is going to prevent a lot of rapes even before wrinkles are ironed out. It might mean some of us get laid less, or that we have to talk to one another a bit more. Sacrifices I’m prepared to make.

  25. My rape doesn't count permalink
    October 25, 2011 11:17 am

    About “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. “….

    I’m a state trained SA advocate, a man, and for years a SA group leader for men at a RCC…. and I have to point out, how intense the disparity is here….created by female rape advocates. We talk about “male rape” because it so rarely matters or get’s recognized when men are raped. And do some research what male rape victims get when they contact a RCC for help: my research shows about 10% get some help and rest are told they are sex offenders, men can’t be raped, ignored (often never called back), or just flatly told “we don’t help men”. Go to or and see for yourself.

    Facts and reality are very elusive things with sexual violence, but I feel there just pervasive willful distortion of the extent, damage to and conditions of male victims. There’s some good research out there but it’s kind of… an inconvenient truth. If all victims were equal it wouldn’t matter so much I suppose, but it’s telling how often I get the… “Well, men just aren’t raped anywhere near as often as women.” Uh huh.

    You will never end sexual violence (or violence generally too) by creating an invisible underclass of male victims who are systematically ignored and actively denied, and by punishing the male perpetrators of sexual violence in a prison system where rape and sexual abuse is widespread and viewed as just punishment only to release them back into society to be non-rapists. I think they will act like they’ve been treated. It doesn’t matter. Similarly, a lot of men have tremendous pain from past sexual victimizations. They aren’t going to easily have a lot of empathy for women raped if they have to block out any feelings for their own rape (meaning, including child sexual abuse). People don’t work that way. If you can’t feel your own pain, you can’t easily recognize others. For myself, a victimized male, it’s hard to care a lot about “violence against women” when that violence directed at me is not responded to in kind—no, not recognized for what it is—a serious wound, no, it’s actively denied I even exist. I.e. “Men aren’t raped”. Or “that’s not true”.

    • Smitt permalink
      June 18, 2012 6:19 pm

      I believe you and I think there is definitely truth to what your saying. Its disgusting that so many males don’t report sexual assault I think this is definitely due to the pressure for men to be alpha-males and this idea that men don’t get raped or women are never rapists. Im sorry it has took you this long to get a reply on this, perhaps this only serves to prove your point sadly.

  26. January 26, 2012 7:16 am

    Reblogged this on burntbutteredtoast.

  27. Libro Ballente permalink
    April 9, 2012 11:06 pm

    It’s depressing how much of a paradigm change it is, even for people who do eventually come to appreciate enthusiastic consent, to let go of the gatekeeper model. For me, (cis het male) it made me terrified that my mere lust was tantamount to sexual assault, and that any sex I would have would be trembling on the verge of rape, because “girls are confused gatekeepers, and getting the gatekeeping decision wrong is hurtful, so any expression of male sexuality is abusive”. Of course, the inverse is the more troubling: abuse as the inherent aspect of male sexuality, rape as just paradigmatic sex without external civilized niceties, and sexual abuse as the natural expression of lust.
    But after growing into a much more sex-positive and enthusiastically-consenting set of opinions, I have come to see the “barely-rape” scenarios as red herrings, as you pointed out here more eloquently than I can. I think maybe their draw is that they are intellectual puzzles: “debate: was situation A a rape or not?”. In this restricted conception, enthusiastic consent is seen as merely an extra hurdle, as if to say: “it was onerous enough to get her to not say no, then we had to get her to say yes, and now we’ve got to get her to be happy too, and for the whole length of the sex?”.
    Anyway, to co-opt something the wonderful nature writer Colin Fletcher once said about learning safety tips for rattlesnake country,
    enthusiastic consent : legalistic joy-killing :: checking the street for traffic before crossing : being terrified of cars

  28. Maureen O'Danu permalink
    January 20, 2013 1:34 pm

    Excellent post, and the comment thread has largely stayed on topic and poked into the corners a bit. I first heard the idea of ‘enthusiastic participation’ as the line for consent several years ago and that is the standard that I have taught to both my sons in their relationships with others (one is straight, the other bi-curious).

    It is only by teaching standards such as these as a part of healthy relationships and healthy interpersonal communications that we can over time marginalize the rape culture and eventually flush it down the toilet.

  29. Dtothill permalink
    February 28, 2013 1:31 pm

    I think you’re right. People against enthusiastic consent are just taking too narrow of a view of what consent means. It doesn’t have to be a mood ruining direct question (although if that’s all it takes to ruin the mood then what kind of relationship is that anyways?) but you could leave a cute note, make a cheesy feminist Ryan Gosling meme, or something else. I think showing that you’ve put thought into it would make things even more romantic, not less. Body language is a trickier one, but I think your post is spot on, if you aren’t 100% sure, then ask.

  30. May 29, 2013 8:34 am

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    Enthousiastic consent is an interesting concept. More people should read about it.


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