Sex & Consent: It's Time To Go Beyond The Rules
A decade after Jaclyn Friedman co-edited the seminal book "Yes Means Yes," which redefined consent, she writes why we must move past simple codification.
When I talk to students about sex and consent, I’m often asked —mostly by young men — how often they have to check in with a partner to make sure they're doing consent right. Every 10 minutes? Five minutes? Two minutes? Or there are those who try to “trick” me with technicalities. What if my partner doesn’t want me to ask? What if both of us are drunk? Who is raping whom?
But rape is not a technicality, and consent is not a one-and-done box to be ticked; it’s an ongoing process between two people, which requires treating your partner like an equal. Trying to reduce “consent” to something you need to get out of the way so you can go ahead and get some means you’re more concerned with gaming the rules than with treating your partner like a human person. And that humanity is at the core of true consent.
It’s been almost a decade since Jessica Valenti and I released Yes Means Yes, the anthology that helped popularize a new definition of consent, one that insists that the absence of “no” is not enough, and that only a freely-given “yes” means sex is consensual. If you can’t tell, you have to ask. The book and the idea have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Since it was published, four U.S. states have implemented “ yes means yes” laws mandating that all colleges and universities use the standard in adjudicating sexual assault case. In addition, nearly a 1,000 colleges around the country have independently adopted the standard for themselves. Countries such as Spain and Sweden are making their own “yes means yes” laws, too. All of this rulemaking is fantastic: it’s a way for institutions to take a stand against sexual predation, and to create major opportunities for consent education. After all, if “yes means yes” is the law, everyone needs to know how to follow it.
But on the way to codification we’ve replaced some of the old rape myths with this new one: That consent is just a hurdle you have to clear in order to Get The Sex.
But on the way to codification we’ve replaced some of the old rape myths with this new one: That consent is just a hurdle you have to clear in order to Get The Sex. That's where all these consent apps come from. You know, the ones that are introduced every six months or so to great fanfare only to immediately go down in flames because they all imagine a world in which people sit down together in front of a phone before they Have Sex, and then once they’ve recorded themselves consenting that’s that. BOOM. Consensual Sex. In the process, we’ve forgotten that enthusiastic consent is so much more than a string of legal language — it’s a humanizing ethic of sex.
Real consent requires us to really be present when we’re having sex with someone. It requires us to see our sex partners — whether they be anonymous hookups or life partners — not simply as instrumental to our own pleasure but as co-equal collaborators, equally human and important, equally harmable, equally free and equally sovereign.
For many of us, after growing up with so much toxic and often contradictory messaging around sexuality, being able to engage in that kind of seeing requires us to make a profound personal shift. First, and most centrally, we have to get to a place where we only want to have sex with people who are genuinely into having sex with us. If that sounds like too low of a bar, it’s because we all know, factually, that decent people don't want to have sex with people who aren't into it. But real consent requires us to go deeper. Do you approach sex as a collaborative process, or as a personal accomplishment? When your friend tells you they had sex last night, do you high five them? Or do you ask them how it was for everyone involved?
Real consent requires us to be genuinely vulnerable.
Once we’re there emotionally, we have to learn how to communicate clearly during sex. We need to develop the emotional muscles required to overcome a lifetime of messages telling us that we should be thinking and talking about sex at all times — except with the people we’re fucking. We have to overcome gendered pressure — on men, that you should be so virile and psychic that you know what your partner needs better than they do, and on women, that we shouldn’t be wanting sex in the first place so how dare we say we want more of that one thing and less (or none) of the other. We have to stop pretending that being queer or kinky means we don’t have any challenges when it comes to consent. Whatever our gender or sexuality, we have to discover that sometimes checking in with our partner can be sexy — just drop your voice an octave and say stuff like “does that feel good” and “I want to X you, do you want it?” and see how it goes. Sometimes it’s going to be awkward, but it’s better to be awkward than wrong about whether or not we’re hurting someone.
Real consent requires us to be genuinely vulnerable. We have to be willing to be rejected at any time. We have to be more invested in our partner's well-being than we are in avoiding hearing something that might bruise our feelings. Having sex is not, in and of itself, an accomplishment. The real accomplishment is to have sex in a way that leaves everyone involved feeling more fully human, not less.
No wonder so much of consent discourse focuses on codification. Leaving consent in the realm of rules requires much less of us. It’s so much easier to rely on cookie-cutter instructions, to wait for someone tell you how to just do The Thing that's required to be a good person. But people are messy and sex is a complex, living, breathing interaction. Interacting with humans, especially at such an intimate level, is never going to be simple, no matter how much we wish it would be so. It's just not.
When we talk about “consent education,” we have to go way beyond a skit at college orientation, and focus on emotional literacy.
Over the years, I’ve heard from many heterosexual men that they feel personally attacked by changing consent standards. Many tell me they feel the rules are targeting them, giving them special responsibility that women don’t bear. That’s not true, but I understand why they see it that way. In part it’s because statistically speaking, men commit the vast majority of sexual violence (excluding child sexual abuse, which has different gender dynamics). So any conversations about healing our sexual culture require us to talk specifically about masculinity. And the very things required for a deep moral sexual consent practice are the things forbidden by our dominant, toxic ideas about what it means to be a man: comfort with vulnerability, patience with rejection, compassionate communication skills, and the ability to see women as co-equal collaborators.
So when we talk about “consent education,” we have to go way beyond a skit at college orientation, and focus on emotional literacy. Real consent education starts at home, with parents teaching kids of all genders that they have the right to say yes and no to all kinds of touches (including grandma’s kisses!), but so does everyone else the child may want to touch. Real consent education builds emotional literacy and resilience in every child, regardless of their gender, and should be taught in age-appropriate ways in every grade starting in kindergarten. And yes, real consent education teaches that being a “real man” involves not dominance but democracy — an instinct for treating everyone as equally human and important, including sex partners, including women and girls.
Whatever our gender or sexuality, it’s time to move past a rules-based understanding of consent. Rape is a profound violation of a person’s body, will, and spirit. The harm that can be done in the absence of consent can last a lifetime. Nobody wants to live with the pain of that violation, or with the pain of having caused such a wound. That’s why each of us has to do what it takes to truly internalize the values of enthusiastic consent. If we’re willing to be vulnerable, we can even help each other out with this work. It will be tough, but it will also be rewarding. Because consent really is for all of us. Learning how to negotiate consensual sex will make all of us better, kinder, more creative, and more collaborative people. Not to mention more fun in bed.
To get there, we just have to change the sexual culture we live in. Starting with ourselves.