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.
What do you want to ask?
The day after Thanksgiving, usually devoted to holiday shopping, has been recreated by StoryCorps as the National Day of Listening. They invite us to sit down with a family member or friend and get them to tell you a story about their life, or several stories. I agree with their premise that listening is the most meaningful gift you can give someone. And I know from the incredible expansion and gratitude I feel from listening to my clients’ stories, that this is a gift for yourself as well.
So rather than feeling frazzled, let yourself slow down enough to connect with someone in your life. Maybe you want to hear more from a parent or grandparent. Maybe you want to hear more from your partner. Surely there are questions you wonder about. Take the time to ask them, while you can. The website for National Day of Listening recommends some starting questions, and I will recommend some of my own – Conscious Sexual Self style. How about asking an elder, “how did you learn about sex? What did people tell you that turned out to not be true?” or “what has it meant to you to be a man/woman? What did people tell you it was supposed to mean?” Or ask a parent, “what has been the most surprising thing about sex or romantic relationships?” Or ask your partner, “tell me about your first crush.” You can start the listening with any question. Just take the risk to ask and quiet yourself, be present, and be curious about the person in front of you. Something we should do more than one day a year.
Recently I was out with a new friend and I felt like I might be getting the vibe that this person was interested in me sexually. Since I am not available for a new sex partner at the moment, I wanted to address this clearly and quickly so there was no confusion, so I said something along the lines of, “just so you know I am only available to be non-sexual friends”. Now here’s where it got interesting. My friend became really flustered and started apologizing for offending me. Now I am fairly certain I did not appear offended, I wasn’t even blushing. Because I didn’t think anything bad had happened here.
But that is their reason I am writing about this – our culture has engrained in us beliefs that 1) sexual desire is bad and makes the recipient of it feel bad or dirty 2) unreturned sexual desire is offensive and embarrassing 3) the only reason to reject a sexual invitations is because the person doesn’t desire us and 4) if we can’t avoid feeling sexual desire we should at least pretend we don’t feel sexual desire for other people. But at the same time, we are somehow expected to find a partner out there in the world. It is just unclear how we are supposed to assess each other’s interest since we are certainly not supposed to talk about it directly. This is especially true between men and women where we have been shamed into an illusion that women are the unwilling victims of men’s sexual desire, incapable of speaking up or being proactive about what they do and do not want. So we play these games and we are all confused and feel unsafe and unsure.
It is important that we have a way to talk to each other directly about our yeses and nos. These conversations do not need to be embarrassing or demeaning – we have made them that way by pretending that sexual desire is not a part of normal life. We have made it that way by telling women that to assume someone is sexually attracted to you makes you egotistical and prideful which sets her up to wait quietly until a line is crossed so that she can then address it. And then we have made it so that men are made to feel that if they receive a “No thanks” they have already crossed a line and should feel bad and apologize while set them up with the burden that their desire has to be the firestarter; they have to take the lead. This is unfair to all of us.
So what if we had a belief that sexual desire and attraction are natural? What if it was not offensive for someone to express desire for you, what if it was a sweet thing, a compliment, a reflection of you in another’s eyes? What if we admitted, even celebrated, that we live in a world of attractive vibrant people and we will be drawn to many of them , some of whom we will engage with and many of whom we will not? What if we saw sex drives and attractions as an expression of vitality and life force rather than something dirty and demeaning? What if we could say Yes or No without any apologies necessary? I would like that better. In the meantime, good luck out there navigating the seas of sexual desire.
You sit with friends at a café, everyone joking about sex and their partners, and you think, “there is no way I am telling them how I really feel”. You are lying next to your partner, relaxed after a slow morning in bed together, when you have a memory from a past sexual experience but decide not to share it. You are around a dinner table with your family and your mom makes an assumption about your sex life that is not true, but you don’t feel safe correcting her. You are passionately petting with a new partner, who gasps, “we don’t need to use protection, don’t worry”. Nagging thoughts about the risky sexual behaviors in your past stay with you, but you keep quiet.
Our sexual stories often contain both secrets and privacy and the need to make decisions about both. What is the difference between something you want to keep private and a secret you are keeping? How do you decide when to keep information to yourself and what is important to share? Is it ok to keep sexual information to yourself? How much do you need to share with partners?
Secrets often feel bad. We usually keep secrets about information that we are ashamed of or feel could still hurt us in some way. Secrets sometimes have the quality of withholding information that may be relevant to another person, and so they can feel hard to keep and dangerous. Secrets feel like a burden; they hold us back and weigh us down.
Privacy, on the other hand, can feel empowering . It can apply to information about yourself that is new or vulnerable and that you are still learning about, so it is not ready to be shared. Privacy feels like a choice. Things that you choose to keep private may cause you to smile to yourself. Privacy relates to things that you may feel you could share, but is just no one’s business but your own. Privacy is space you give yourself.
So how do you decide if this information is something you should share? Decide if it is currently relevant to the person you might share it with – will it impact the decisions they may make? Will not knowing this put them at risk in any way? Then decide how it is impacting your ability to feel intimate with this person. By not telling, do you feel like you are hiding a significant part of yourself, do you feel you are constantly holding yourself back? Are you thinking about it a lot, distracted by it? If no, then maybe this is something that you choose to keep private. It is not bad to have memories, fantasies, curiosities, that are just for you. Maybe someday you will share but if for now you feel happy holding this inside, let it feed the way you are with your partner and in the world, privately.