In this April’s Elle Magazine there is a commentary on new consent laws, such as those enacted in California this year, defining true sexual consent as acknowledged by verbal consent. The woman writer, Cristina Nehring, claims that asking for verbal consent is the “death of eros”. She writes a lovely narrative about her first experience of seduction and also about the sometimes exciting blurring of lines that can arise when surrender and seduction are at play. But, her resistance to verbalizing “YES” during sex is deeply concerning to me as a sex therapist and educator. And what is even more concerning is that Ms Nehring’s opinion is one that I find more than a few women quietly hold.
Ms Nehring proudly closes her article with this statement : “I would never have pursued anything in love or bed had I been asked to consent to it in advance or explicitly name it afterwards.” The implication that she doesn’t find this troubling or sad, speaks volumes about still common attitudes regarding female sexuality.
The role of the seduced, the one who is wanted rather than wanting, the reserved partner who gets overwhelmed by sexual pleasure so that she cannot say no even as she is unwilling to say yes - How many romance novels, old movies, and morality tales contain this female archetype? The woman who gets overcome by her, almost always male, partner’s passion without having to claim her own, holds a potent place in our culture’s sexual fantasies. And how convenient it is to not have to take responsibility for a sexual hunger that has been shamed and demonized. How relieving to let all that go and not have to actually admit that you want, that you feel pleasure and crave more. And indeed these can be powerfully freeing roles to enact in a BDSM scene that is carefully negotiated beforehand. But that takes communication and explicit consent. Sticking to these roles without dialogue can do a lot of damage.
Not feeling allowed to speak about desires is disempowering whether you do it to yourself or someone else imposes this limitation on you. By not getting comfortable with explicit language, we limit what we can experience and share with partners. By requiring partners to play along with unspoken roles and rules, we blur the boundaries and add to the confusion. By complaining that we should not have to respond or that it ruins the mood if our partner whispers in our ear, “Do you want this?”, we take a step farther away from honesty and intimacy. Believing that clearly communicating consent for sex is embarrassing or burdensome is an effect of a history of sexual repression, not a truth about eros.
There are many ways to consent, many of them quite compelling, and I wish for partners to try them all out together. However, being able to speak up, whether in whispers or groans, is foundational. Being able to say, “YES!” is a gift and a right we should all celebrate. Pursue love and sex with enthusiasm and pride. Pursue them by saying you want them.
The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.
As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous. As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?
What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?
So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is. I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.