Enthusiastic Consent: Sexy & Necessary

According to RAINN’s website, 1 in 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. There is a sexual assault every 2 minutes in the US alone. When Yale frat boys enthusiastically chant “No means yes, yes means anal,” it’s no surprise that a recent UK study found that nearly 1/3 of students are not learning about consent in sex ed. (Imagine what that says about students in the US, where any sex education beyond abstinence is practically nonexistent.)

Consent is…

Sexual consent is when all persons involved in any sexual activity have voluntarily agreed to that activity. A consenting person is free of mind-altering substances, as well as manipulation or force from others. They have a full understanding of the situation and are old enough to legally agree to it. Consent can have limitations. A person may consent to oral sex but not intercourse, spanking but not if it leaves bruises. Consent can also be revoked at any time. Even if someone previously agreed to intercourse, but changes their mind mid-act. Even if you have been with your partner for years and have had sex hundreds of times.

There are two types of consent: verbal & nonverbal. Verbal consent is very explicit, using one’s words in order to remove doubt or confusion about the situation. In the most basic sense, this is telling someone else “I want to have sex with you.” However, even though communicating verbally is much more efficient, many of us rely on nonverbal cues during sexual activity. If you want to have sex with your partner, you may moan and unbutton their pants in order to make your intentions clear. But this can be a tricky situation, especially for new couples.

Consent is not…

Consent is not based off of assumptions. While writing this, I was reminded of an email forward from when I was a teenager that described what different kisses mean. According to the wisdom of the internet, a kiss on the stomach meant “I’m ready.” I don’t know about you, but kissing a guy’s stomach came long before I was ready to have sex! My point is that different people interpret actions in different ways. If you gauge your partner’s desire for one action (sex) by their enthusiasm for another action (undoing their pants), you make the mistake of assuming. In this example, your partner may be expecting petting, oral sex, or even just some pants-less time together.

Consent is not the absence of “no” or “stop.” An argument during the Steubenville rape case was that the victim never said no — even though she was intoxicated to the point that even her attackers described her as “like a dead body.” Anyone in their right mind can see that this is absurd. But people also refrain from saying “no” for plenty of reasons beyond being physically incapacitated. Peer pressure and a fear of rejection are just a couple of big influences, especially for young individuals. “Maybe” or “I guess so” also don’t count. If the person you are with seems to have some reservations about sexual activity, stop and have a more in-depth discussion about it. 

Despite what some believe, consent does not ruin the mood. It shows your partner that you are concerned for their comfort & pleasure. And what’s better than knowing that the person you are with truly wants to be with you?

My Challenge to You

The sad truth is, even if we know all of this and we aim for explicit consent, we get lazy sometimes — especially in long-term relationships. Therefore, my challenge is that you make an honest effort to give & get consent. I’m not saying that you have to explicitly ask for consent every time you kiss or touch your partner. You can discuss consent beforehand. The next time things are getting a little steamy, you can whisper in their ear what you’d like to do, or ask if they’d like for you to get a condom. If you’re shy, showing your consent nonverbally is still better than nothing — but take it beyond just “not saying no.” Remember: consent is an enthusiastic yes!

Popular BDSM Erotica: Damaged & Diluted

What images come to mind when you think of BDSM practitioners? Do you picture a loving, committed couple in the privacy of their own bedroom or a strict, leather clad Dominatrix in a public dungeon? Are they plagued by mental illness or are they leading happy, healthy lives volunteering at your local soup kitchen? Or do you envision a group so diverse that it can include any combination of these and more? 

Some time ago, I read an article in Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures called “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in the U.S. Popular Media” by Margot D. Weiss.1 While the entire book was one that I would highly recommend, this entry in particular really stuck with me. Why? Because Weiss much more eloquently states what I have been thinking for years: more media representation does NOT necessarily lead to a more widespread acceptance or understanding of BDSM. Quality over quantity, people.

Weiss makes her case by pointing out two ways that BDSM is often portrayed: (1) by “normalizing” and (2) by “pathologizing” the behavior. While her article deals specifically with the film Secretary, I couldn’t help but also apply what Weiss was saying to the recent trend of BDSM erotica. Here, the act of “normalizing” makes a moderate amount of sense from a business standpoint. The target market for erotica largely overlaps with romance paperbacks. The classic BDSM storyline where a girl enters into a 24/7 power exchange (with intense training & canes that cause bruising welts) scares a lot of those readers. Therefore, in order to sell more books, authors substitute a diluted version of BDSM that feels risky to the vanilla crowd, but ends at blindfolds and handcuffs. (Some, like E.L. James, even have their “Dominant” abandon BDSM once they fall in love, replacing it with a desire for marriage and children.)

Although this limited view is somewhat annoying, it’s Weiss’ research on “pathologizing” that worries me the most, because it senslessly threatens the BDSM community. The most popular example is, of course, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy. Christian’s backstory includes being physically abused as a child as well as sexually manipulated as a teenager by a much older woman. He goes into therapy, admits that he basically beats women that remind him of his mother, and believes that his penchant for BDSM is a disease that Ana cures him of. Ana backs this belief up by constantly wondering how bad his past was to make him like the things that he does. Wow. While the BDSM community and many psychologists are working to revise the DSM’s criteria for sadomasochism, this nonsense is making the bestseller’s list.

We can’t even try to pretend that Fifty Shades is an isolated incident. What Happens After Dark by Jasmine Haynes is about a girl who was abused by her father. She uses BDSM to cope, engaging in potentially dangerous behavior with strangers. In Bared to You by Sylvia Day, both Gideon and Eva are victims of past abuse. Eva was sexually violated by a member of her family, Gideon by a childhood doctor. Their past abuse makes their passion more “raw and intense.” 

These representations “enforce the boundaries between normal and not normal,” says Weiss. It leads to wrongful assumptions and discrimination. Court cases against those involved in BDSM are not a thing of the past. Individuals are still at risk for losing friends, lovers, family members, and careers because of a sexual behavior that others have deemed as “sick.” And in a time when erotica could easily be used to further the cause of sexual freedom with respectful, knowledgeable, and sex positive depictions, many authors are perpetuating an outdated view of the damaged individual who practices BDSM that is mildly kinky at best — and abusive at worst.

1. Margot D. Weiss. 2006. “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in U.S. Popular Media.” Journal of Homosexuality 50(2/3): 103-130.

You can also find an electronic copy of the article here.