It seems that consent is a bit of a tricky concept for people to understand.
Consent is being able to agree to something, without threat of negative consequences if one doesn’t agree to the thing. Consent is being able to say ‘Yes please, I would like that’
Or, “I am not sure how I feel about it, but I am willing to try it, as long as we can stop at any point if one of us is not comfortable.”
Consent is not constant, we actually negotiate (or bulldoze through) consent situations throughout our daily lives. But because these are not always in sexual contexts, we don’t recognise the situations as consent-negotiations.
Consent is not a sexual concept. It needs to be present for sexual activity to not be violation, but it is a much broader concept, and gets ignored in many more ways than sexually.
Consent is about bodily autonomy – being able to make decisions about what happens to your own body. This includes any and all aspects of physical contact that may occur on, in, or with the body.
Greetings, food, exercise, having your picture taken, family gatherings – these are all common sites for consent and consent violation.
We seldom take them seriously, because we do not recognise how navigating these interactions trains us for (not) being able to safely navigate sexual interactions.
How do we know if there is consent in a situation?
How do we clarify our own sense of consent?
This leads us to, what I feel is the missing piece of the consent puzzle: Pleasure.
What is pleasure?
What meaning does pleasure have for you?
How do you navigate pleasure in your own life.
What limits your access to pleasure?
How often do you get to decide on the kinds of pleasurable activities you engage in?
From where I am sitting, we live in a society that is terrified of pleasure. More specifically, pleasure for all participants in activities, not just men. There is often an implied assumption that pleasure is the realm of cis gender men.
In this sex negative world, the focus in many sex education classes, is on saying no. It isn’t explicitly clear what we are expecting young people to say no to, but it is generally a blanket “No” towards anything vaguely sexual.
This is gendered. There is a societal myth that comes with the heteronormative conversations in classrooms:
men are the pursuers of sex and women are the gatekeepers, the ones who hold the responsibility of saying no to their pursuers.
At the same time, this is a world where people’s objections are ignored. Being able to say no, and have it respected, is not something that can be relied on.
There is a lot of fear about being accused of rape. It is not a label that people want to be associated with. But, when people do come forward and accuse others who have violated them, it gets twisted into somehow questioning the violated person for wanting it, or for giving off mixed signals which was confusing for the accused. Or that the violated person didn’t give a clear no.
In the typical discourse around violation, often confused as a consent conversation, pleasure comes in as a way to discredit people who have been violated. That suddenly, they wanted the implied pleasure of the violation? As if the idea of pleasure is so confusing, that it blurs the fact that consent was missing.
I want to reiterate, that saying no, and backing off when someone else says no, is not what consent is about. That is about human dignity and respect.
Consent is the presence of a “Yes”. It becomes even less confusing when it is a presence of a Yes Please.
Probably, because we are so focused on telling young people to say no, we have not thought about why they would say yes.
When we ignore, or leave out the fact that partnered sexual activity could be – or rather, should be – pleasurable, consent makes little sense.
There are many reasons people engage in sexual activity. If we are trying to work towards a world where there is less sexual violence, we need to imagine and acknowledge reasons for engaging in sexual activity other than for obligation, exchange for resources or out of fear of consequences if one says no.
Despite bodily autonomy being a human right, it is not a privilege for everyone. Bodily autonomy is being able to make decisions for your own body – what happens to, in, and with it.
The thing about rights is: we all need to have our rights respected, without violating the rights of others. This is why consent is a conversation, or negotiation, to make sure that getting the kinds of interactions you are wanting, does not violate the bodily autonomy of others.
This is where we are failing.
Not everyone has the privilege of bodily autonomy, of safety and dignity. Sadly, I have my doubts about whether we, as society, really believe they are human rights for all.
So, when we are talking with youth about being safe when engaging in sexual activity, we need to speak about what this safety could mean.
Because safety and consent are linked.
If we feel safe, we are able to communicate honestly about what we want, don’t want, and are open to trying out at some stage. Being safe means that we are comfortable in the knowledge that the people we are interacting with, care about our own safety, as much as we care about theirs.
Safety is an emotional experience. If we are feeling safe – physically and emotionally, we are able to relax in to the possibilities of pleasure.
We need to acknowledge that people engage in sexual activities because they have the potential for pleasure.
There are so many mixed messages about sex and pleasure which we are exposed to. On one hand, we are being told that it is risky, dangerous, and something we need to say no to.
On the other hand, if the media is not displaying sexual violence, it is providing us with unrealistic ideas about what pleasurable sex looks like. With all the pleasurable sex I have had, I am still waiting to experience some of the orgasms displayed on screen.
What media does not showcase, is how to have conversations about sex, so that everyone involved feels safe. How people get to deciding what kinds of activities their sex will consist of, so that it has the potential to be pleasurable for all involved.
How “going with the flow” can often lead to situations where activities that have not been discussed, happen, and people do not always know how to, or do not feel safe or able, to stop what is going on.
Now, people often tell me that having consent conversations are boring.
That they are passion killers. That knowing what kinds of activities and sensations their intimate sexual partners might want, or want to explore; what is good and not good for them; is not a turn on, but rather a turn off.
That makes we wonder about how consent may be absent for these people. It also makes me think about how afraid we are to find out what our partners may want, to be able to say what experiences we are interested in. Afraid to hear that what we have been doing, has not actually been pleasurable for the other people involved.
It also makes me wonder how much we judge ourselves for being sexually curious. I have clients who range in age from early 20s to late 50s, who speaks about how sexually curious they are, but talking to their partners about their own pleasure, makes them feel dirty and gross.
This is a common experience, and I wonder if it is because we have not normalised the idea that sex can, and should be, pleasurable. That this pleasure shouldn’t be left to happen accidentally, but should be discussed in ways that allow for thinking about how to enhance the pleasure for all involved.
What else can we expect where there are no sex education discussions about the fact that sex can be nice. Should be nice. That people have a right to enjoy the sex they are having.
When sex education is solely focused on the heteronormative assumptions about risk and negative consequences – pregnancy and sti transmission – there is no discussion about how to have pleasurable sexual activity, while making attempts to avoid these negative consequences.
In my Masters research I asked my focus groups what they had learnt about consent in school based sex education. The most common answer was: yeah, we learned about rape.
One participant spoke about how both people need to agree on what is going to happen.
That was the closest to consent that any of my participants spoke about. One participant, who I read as a woman, was saying that she doesn’t understand why people speak about sex being good for girls. That she doesn’t get anything out of it, but having sex is the only way to keep her boyfriend happy.
This broke my heart to hear. That despite having gone through “sex ed” at school, she was scared of the consequences of saying no to sexual activity she clearly didn’t want, which sounded to me like the sex she engages in, is coerced. Consent and coercion cannot happen together. This leaves no space for the idea it is her human right to be able to choose the sexual activity she engages in, and that she has the right to enjoy sexual engagement.
By leaving out these important elements of consent, we are doing the work for the cause we claim to be working against. Elements that not only need to be included but emphasised:
- Consent is the presence of a yes
- Consent is saying yes to something that is wanted
- The activity can stop at any time, without repercussions
- The yes is not out of concern for what would happen if one said no.
By leaving out the vital role of pleasure in the workings of consent negotiations, we are legitimising sexual violence.
When youth come out of school based sex ed thinking that consent is all about saying no, that it is about avoiding rape, we are helping to blur the lines between sexual violence, and sexual activity.
We are leaving out the idea that sexual activity is something that should be enjoyable for everyone. That enjoying the activity is a good reason to engage in it, as long as everyone involved wants to be, and has the option not to be – without threat of negative consequences.
I am desperate for a society where consent is not the responsibility of the violated, but a shared responsibility of everyone who interacts with others, in any way.