Sex is Great! Consent is the presence of a yes, not the absence of a no

In our first Consent Campaign post, we explored how those who commit rape often use alcohol as a tool to incapacitate and control their victims. In our second post, we tackled the connection between alcohol and unhealthy norms of sexual interaction. With this post, we are building a vision of healthy sexuality and want to hear what you think, too!

When it comes to discussing issues of consent, I think in that case a lot of the critics of feminism resort to caricatures…they pretend that consent is this extremely complicated thing and that feminists want everyone to sign forms in triplicate before they can have sex.

David Futrelle

In conversations with young men about sexual violence, they often ask about “the line” between rape and not-rape. Because current data indicates that most perpetrators of rape are men, and because of prevalent buy-in to the myth that women commonly cry rape after consensual sexual encounters, it’s understandable that many young men would have concerns of being falsely accused of committing rape, or of accidentally crossing that line with someone.

The thing is, if we’re sitting here talking about the line between coercion and rape, or manipulation and rape, or bad sex and rape, we’re having the wrong conversation. What is the point of trying to discern the line between criminal and non-criminal (yet still harmful) sexual behaviors? Wouldn’t we all do a lot better to envision and practice the opposite of violence and abuse – that is, to practice mutually healthy and respectful sexual behaviors in all cases?

“Healthy sexuality can be understood as having the individual knowledge and sense of empowerment to express sexuality in ways that contribute positively to self-esteem and relationships with other people. It includes approaching sexual interactions from a perspective that is consensual, respectful, and informed. Healthy sexuality is free from coercion and violence.”

-“Healthy sexuality: A guide for advocates, counselors and prevention educators

“Why aren’t we all socialized to expect and proactively ensure that every sexual interaction is marked by mutual enjoyment and respect?”

-Brad Perry, “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality

Healthy sex is consensual.

Sex requires consent, which can be defined as voluntary, positive agreement between participants to engage in specific sexual activity. Consent is voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, continual, and verbal. Without consent, it isn’t sex – it’s rape. Sex is great; rape is not.

What does a lack of consent look and sound like? Here are some examples:

  • Silence
  • Mixed signals
  • Expressions of uncertainty
  • Incapacitation due to alcohol and/or other drugs
  • Drunkenness
  • “Can you stop?”
  • “Wait.”
  • “I don’t like that.”
  • “I’m not ready for this.”
  • “No.”

Consent is crucial, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a box to be checked so you can say you “got consent.”

We often say consent is given or gotten, yet using these verbs turns consent into a commodity that uses the same verbs we use for the groceries we buy. In living above this consent line, we must re-envision consent as something that is created amongst all parties involved.

-Jonathan Kalin, “Consent Must Be Created, Not Given

Communicating the “yes” is the bare minimum, only the first step. What do you want to do? How far do you want to go? Communicating before and during sexual interactions is a must to ensure each other’s mutual enjoyment. However potentially awkward it may seem, talking about one’s sexual wants, likes, dislikes, and boundaries provides a basis for a positive experience. To ensure the most positive experiences for all involved, consent must be clear and unambiguous for each participant at every stage of a sexual encounter.

Communicating about consent can look and sound like:

  • May I kiss you?”
  • “Do you like that?”
  • “Yes!”
  • “What do you want me to do?”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “That feels amazing!”

Consent is something that both or all participants in any sexual interaction should be asserting – freely, consciously, enthusiastically and affirmatively. And while consent is key, it doesn’t stop there.

Healthy sex is informed.

In healthy sexual relationships, partners are mutually informed of and openly communicate on an ongoing basis about:

  • Sexual values
  • Sexual health status and STI prevention/birth control
  • Relationship boundaries, status, expectations, and intentions
  • Emotions and thoughts related to sexual interactions and relationship
  • How prior experiences (positive and negative) impact their perspectives on sexual interactions
  • Sexual desires, preferences, and boundaries; what is pleasurable for them (and what is not) during sexual interactions

This may seem daunting to some, but the process of communicating meaningfully about sex should be viewed as positive and liberating. Everyone involved in sexual interactions is a fully human being with thoughts, values, and experiences, and sexual encounters can impact participants in extraordinarily positive ways or severely negative ways depending on the situation. To ensure sexual interactions and relationships are respectful and non-exploitative, all involved must approach the situation with honesty, openness, and a commitment to communication.

Healthy sex is respectful.

In addition to being consensual and communicative, healthy sexual relationships are characterized by partners’ respect for each other and for their implied or stated boundaries around sexual activity. Partners are considerate of each other’s feelings, concerns, values, and choices. They view and treat each other as human beings worthy of respect.

Healthy sex is enjoyable.

Whereas sexual violence is disempowering, exploitative, and traumatizing, healthy sexual partnerships are the opposite – they are enjoyable and contribute positively to people’s lives. Partners find pleasure in healthy sexual interactions, care about each other’s enjoyment, and support each other in discovering what is pleasurable for them.

And then I remembered, healthy sex does exist.

-Recovering rape survivor

It’s really not complicated and it should be common sense. Lucky for us, we all have a role to play in making that happen. We can create a culture in which healthy sexual relationships are the norm by changing the way we have sex, talk about sex, and teach about sex. Sex is great, we just have to make it that way!

Sex is Great Poster

What do you think makes a healthy sexual relationship? We welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments below. We also want to hear your thoughts on our Consent Campaign – visit our website to tell us what you think.

2 thoughts on “Sex is Great! Consent is the presence of a yes, not the absence of a no

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