Consent Deserves a New Definition

 

We need to fix our definition of consent.

I’m a sex educator. I teach about consent. I’ve taught my workshop on consent over three dozen times in the past two years — to middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students and even older adults. I’ve taught this workshop so many times that I can now predict, with spooky accuracy, exactly how people will react when I tell them the topic for the day.

“Not again,” they will say. “We get it already. Yes means yes. No means no.”

When I first started teaching, this was actually a pleasant surprise. I was happy that my students were so familiar with the concept — after all, I didn’t hear about it until I was in college.

Soon, though, I began to feel uneasy. Looking around the room one day, I realized that although my students could all tell me what consent was, I didn’t truly believe that any of them could practice it. It didn’t matter if they were men, women or nonbinary; if they were old or young, highly educated or barely in middle school. The way my students talked about consent felt damaging, simplistic and completely impracticable.

Let me explain.

Nowadays, people tend to think of consent as a tool for preventing sexual violence (which, of course, it is). We are told that it is a simple matter of asking to make sure that our potential sexual partners want to do the same things that we want to do. And if they say yes, we’re good to go; consent has happened.

There are some accepted caveats to this definition, of course — most people will tell you that consent can’t involve coercion or inebriation, for instance — but no matter how many asterisks or footnotes we add, the fact remains that consent, as it is defined today, is more about the appearance of enthusiasm than it is about the actual emotional experiences of those partaking.

Yes means yes; no means no. This is easy for people. It lends itself well to blog posts, rants on social media and cutesy YouTube videos. It also works very well for people who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of sexual violence than they are of actually preventing sexual trauma. In this framework, if somebody has said yes, you’re off the hook. No need to dwell on it any longer.

I like you. Do you like me? Yes? No?

But the fact is that sometimes yes does not mean yes. Sometimes yes means, “It’s easier for me to do this than it is for me to say no.” Sometimes yes means, “Maybe.” Often it means, “I’d rather say yes than hurt your feelings.”

By our current standard, this is consensual sex. There are, of course, people who would categorize these sorts of sexual encounters as non-consensual, but I’m loathe to tell people they’ve been traumatized when that’s not what they feel.

Those sorts of experiences are so common. And they may not be violent or coerced, but they’re certainly not healthy. So, over the past two years, I’ve searched and searched for a definition of consent that asks people to practice empathy, to set healthy boundaries and to ensure that yes actually means yes.

Here’s what I’ve got:

Consent is the process we use to make sure that everybody is having fun.

That’s it. By removing emphasis from the appearance of enthusiasm and instead focusing on the experience of enthusiasm, this definition demands that we do more than perform consent; it demands that we actually care about it. Most importantly, it asks us to put ourselves in our partners’ shoes and think about what might get in the way of them having fun, even if they say yes.

 What’s incredible about teaching consent from this angle is that people actually want to learn about it. Why? Because sexual communication is mystifying to people. It’s scary. Rejection is difficult, and so is acceptance: after “yes,” what next? The idea that there is a process we can use to make sure that sex is actually fun for everybody involved is comforting. Where the old model attempts to prevent us from being sexually violent, this model actually teaches us how to be sexually literate.

So what’s the process?

Talk about power dynamics. Is there an age gap? Are you different genders? Is one of you wealthier than the other? Does one of you live with mental illness? Does one of you have a history of trauma? All of these things — and way more — can affect how comfortable each of you are giving an honest “yes” or “no.” By bringing this to the surface, you know what to watch out for.

For example, if I’m going out to dinner with a partner who’s much wealthier than me, he might want to check in and say, “I know I have more money than you; are you comfortable spending this amount of money or would you prefer to go somewhere cheaper?” Or, if I’m interacting with someone who’s sexually inexperienced, I might say, “I really want you to tell me what feels good and what doesn’t. I won’t laugh at you or judge you for it.”

The simple act of acknowledging power can’t ever remove power from the equation, but it can begin to level the playing field.

Learn to enjoy saying no; learn to enjoy hearing no. In our culture, rejection inspires self-loathing. When somebody says that they don’t want to date us, spend time with us or have sex with us, we immediately launch into the not-enoughs: we’re not good enough, hot enough, smart enough, funny enough, cool enough, etc. etc. etc.

But people’s preferences and desires having almost nothing to do with us. Our self-worth cannot be contingent on other people. When someone rejects us, we should be focusing on the opportunity we have: to validate for them that their bodies and choices are their own.

When somebody says no to me, I actually try to thank them — it’s a huge gift to know that someone is comfortable enough with me to say no. Not to mention the fact that I don’t want to hang out with someone who’s just saying yes because they don’t want to hurt my feelings.

Don’t take the first thing that’s offered to you. Sexuality, at the end of the day, is about intimacy and exploration and pleasure. Everybody has different desires, different turn-ons and different physical experiences of sex. This means that different situations and types of stimulation will work better for some people and worse for others. This means that it’s almost impossible to know what you truly, actually enjoy until you discover it for yourself.

One of the biggest problems with the old model of consent is that it doesn’t make use of feedback or preference. Your choices are “yes” or “no.” This definition of consent allows for answers like, “No thanks, but how about this?” or “Yes, but can we do it like that?”

In other words, our new version of consent is a two way street — and you can’t get anywhere unless you listen to (and learn about) your partner, pay attention to your own desires, and look forward to hearing the word “no.”

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