Monday, August 16, 2010

Consent and coming out

(cross-posted from Feministe)

Knowing your preferences and your limits is an important part of having a satisfying sex life. For most of my life as a sexually active person, I could have talked about these ideas, but it wasn't until more recently that I was finally able to practice what I often preached.

This is tied to the fact that I came out (selectively) as queer in 2009.

Coming out was not easy for me. I starting coming out to myself late in my first year at college, but I distinctly remember looking myself in the mirror and seeing "QUEER" stamped across my forehead. For a while, thinking of myself in that way was so difficult that I shoved myself back in the closet, determining that what had just happened must have been a weird symptom of stress or something. In the meantime, I was in a long distance relationship with a boyfriend I'd been with since high school. We'd see each other about once a month and we almost always had sex when we were together.

Fast forward one school year and I had come around to certain things about myself.
I was definitely queer. I came out to my boyfriend right away as bisexual (which is no longer a label I use). He was supportive and we stayed together because this did not appear to change our relationship. There was a problem, however. I still was not terribly interested in sex with my boyfriend.

This was something I didn't realize fully until I had a new partner, but I had never been very interested in the sex I had had with men in the past. My boyfriend and I did have sex, and it was something I had convinced myself (dishonestly) that I wanted. I had bought into the idea that I was supposed to want to have sex with my boyfriend, even when I could tell that I was not truly interested. The sex was not terrible or selfish on his part, but my interest only seemed to hold for a very brief time. This created a situation in which I rarely initiated sex. It also meant that enthusiastic consent was not something that was practiced in our relationship.

I knew my boyfriend wanted sex because he almost always made the first move. While he did not often check in with me during sex, something that may have given some indication of my lack of interest, he was good at asking me if I wanted sex before we did anything. I always said I did, whether or not it was really true, but I was aware that this wasn't the kind of consent that should take place in these situations. I knew about enthusiastic consent and I often spoke to people about the idea. I just couldn't bring myself to amend the situation with my boyfriend. It would be messy to explain that what had become a common practice did not actually fit with my personal definition of consent.

Our relationship ended a few months later for reasons unrelated to sex. I don't want it to sound like my ex was a bad guy. He did practice affirmative consent (having sex when I said, yes, I wanted to), but it didn't change the fact that I just wasn't into having sex with him and he didn't seem to notice.

Once that relationship was over, I had the time to come to terms with my queerness. I quickly realized that while I had thought that I had enjoyed sex with men before, I had not been completely honest with myself. It was a bit shocking to realize that the sex I had had in the past didn't fit my personal ideas about proper consent, but in a way it makes sense. If you can't be honest with yourself about your desires, then it's hard to be honest about what you want sexually, and not being honest about what you want makes consent very tricky. Once I was able to be true to my desires, I found myself wanting sex more often and being able to enjoy it on new levels. This gave me the freedom to navigate new rules of consent.

I've been with my current partner for almost a year now and something that I am incredibly pleased with is how effortlessly we've been able to have awesome, feminism-informed sex, and how easy it was to communicate my ideas about consent. We practice enthusiastic, affirmative consent with ease and for the first time in my life I can consider myself truly satisfied.


Anonymous said...

"Feminism-informed sex"?

What the hell does that even mean?

Amelia said...

Feminism informs the type of consent that my partner and I practice. Yes isn't the end of things. We check in with each other frequently, and if we even suspect that one of us is not enjoying the act, we stop. These are the types of things that feminists talk about, thus making our sex "feminism-informed."

Anonymous said...

That sounds like THE single most boring, unromantic, unsexy, and completely unenjoyable sex act I've ever heard of.

No offense, if signing forms in triplicate while you make love is your thing, more power to you, but it sounds completely sterile to me.

I can't possibly imagine having to stop every few moments to have to have a discussion about the act going on.

Ugh. Sucks the life, spontaneity, romance, and, well, fun right out of it.

At least in my opinion.

Amelia said...

Consent being "unsexy" is actually a topic I tackle at my college, where I engage in conversations and workshops about sexual assault/consent quite regularly.

And in fact, consent can be incredibly sexy. Asking your partner if they like what you're doing and hearing them say "Yes" can be a major turn on. In no way does it require stopping the action (at least right away) or signing forms. It does require you to respect your partner and make sure you're paying attention to them. If they seem to be somewhere else in their head, for example, you should stop what you're doing.

The feminism-informed sex I am currently having is the most amazing sex I've ever had in my life. For the first time ever (as I mention in my post), I actually want sex because my partner takes the time to make sure I am enjoying what is happening, which means I'm actually getting what I want out of the sex (and vice versa). It's hot.

Anonymous said...

See, the difference is, when I have sex, it's apparent both parties want to engage in it.

I can tell based on her reactions, sounds she makes, ways she moves, if she enjoys or does not enjoy.

She can do the same with me. If I'm dead silent while she's doing something, then she will assume that something isn't working, and try a new thing.

We don't have to draw to a complete stop, ask questions, discuss, and then start up.

We're also big on spontaneity. If I'm on the computer, goofing around, and suddenly there's a naked woman in my lap, I'm not going to sit back and demand she ask my consent. I'm going to kiss her and transfer that event to the bed.

You get where I'm going here?

I'm not trying to sound contentious. Just trying to show why *I* think, in my opinion, your way sounds unromantic and unsexy.

Amelia said...

Your opinion about my sex life (always great to have other people expressing opinions about my sex life! Woo!) is based on assumptions that you seem unwilling to let go.

I already addressed your assumption that my practice of enthusiastic consent entails the following:

draw[ing] to a complete stop, ask[ing] questions, discuss[ing], and then start[ing] up.

A simple, "Do you like this, babe?" does not require a complete stop in the action unless the answer is not a clear affirmative. It also doesn't require much more than that amount of discussion.

You also assume that spontaneity is a no-go in a situation in which partners practice enthusiastic consent. Well, to be blunt, my partner and I really enjoy various kinds of spontaneity. It was something that we discussed before it ever happened, so we had established that it was something we were both interested in, so now when the mood strikes us, we can make first moves and see how our partner responds (positively and enthusiastically or unenthusiastically) and continue or discontinue from there.

There is a lot of room for varied sexual acts under the guidance of enthusiastic consent as my partner and I practice it. Again, the sex is even better because we are able to communicate in multiple ways about what we want.

Anonymous said...

Your opinion about my sex life (always great to have other people expressing opinions about my sex life! Woo!) is based on assumptions that you seem unwilling to let go.

Thus the price of putting it out there for people to discuss, I guess.

It's not an assumption, so much as "My way sounds spontaneous, romantic, sexy, and fun, and your way does not". Like I said, it might be fantastic for you, but not for me.

We operate under assumed consent, I suppose. If she wants to pounce me, it's up to me to say "No, not right now", as opposed to her having to ask if it's okay TO pounce.

See what I'm saying? It, in my opinion, would ruin all spontaneity if she had to ask permission first.

I find, in a relationship, assumed consent makes more sense than the average "I just met you" assumed non-consent.

Amelia said...

The idea of assumed consent makes me cringe, to be honest. Consent can never be assumed. While being in a relationship with someone with whom sex is a normal activity may mean that there are certain acts that are established as things that you appreciate and enjoy, it can not rightfully be assumed that your partner (or yourself) will want any certain thing any time the other person is up for it. That is where affirmative and enthusiastic consent comes into play.

There may always be times when either partner may not want sex at all, and if consent isn't asked for every time, this can be overlooked and unwanted contact would be possible.

Also, it should never be anyone's responsibility to tell their partner that they don't appreciate something or don't want something. That's a major problem with the whole "no means no" idea - there are many situations in which it may be impossible for someone to say no, even when they don't want what is happening. It could be pressure from the partner, or not wanting to disappoint them, or a number of other reasons that make it difficult to say "no," and when asking for a "yes" would have indicated that the time was not right.

Anonymous said...

Well, see, that's what I mean. She assumes the right to pounce, and vice-versa, but if either of us say "nah, not right now", then it's not right now.

I don't see how, (your second paragraph), frankly. You don't have to ask for consent in order to be told "Maybe later".

If your partner were to make a move on you, and you were on level 17, about to beat the final boss, and really didn't want to be interrupted, you could simply say "In a little while", and they wouldn't have had to ask you for consent, but you'd still be within your rights to revoke it.

Like I said, your way works for you, but for us, in my relationship, the idea of either of us having to ask, every single time, comes off as a little silly and extraneous.

Amelia said...

I understand where you're coming from, actually, as your type of relationship (as described in these comments) mirrors sexual relationships I've had in the past.

The problem with waiting for a "no" is that while it may seem to be working with your current partner who you seem to indicate is able and willing to say no every time she is not wanting sexual activity (same goes for you, from what I can gather), this creates a mindset that may not work well if you have different partners in the future.

What if you ended this relationship and were with someone else who, for whatever reason, was not able or willing to say no whenever they did not want sex? If you were used to hearing "no" to keep you from pursuing things, then you could end up doing something that they did not want. That could lead to some thorny situations, including assault.

And I don't think that's something you'd want, even if you believe that your current method works with your current partner.