We need to talk about enthusiastic consent

I recently had an open and honest conversation with a guy friend about sex. The conversation turned to what he disliked in sex and he spoke about how he hated when his sexual partner just laid there doing nothing. As someone of the opposite gender this bothered me for several reasons which I put to my friend. Did you consider whether they wanted to be having sex? Perhaps they weren’t comfortable? Maybe they felt like they had to be there? Such questions weren’t meant as accusatory, but I wanted my friend to think about what it was like for their sexual partner, and after the initial defensiveness they started to understand the importance of what I was saying. Women love sex too (!) so if she’s just laying there perhaps it’s time to ask her and yourself some questions?

What I was teaching my friend about, and what he went on and spoke to his guy friends about, was something called enthusiastic consent. For the uninitiated, enthusiastic consent is the idea that consent moves beyond the initial ‘yes’ and is shown by engagement and enthusiasm. It’s about checking in with your sexual partner and acknowledging their sexual and emotional signals. It’s also about acknowledging that consent can’t be given where there is manipulation, pressure, threats, and where both people aren’t in the right state of mind. I wasn’t surprised when my friend revealed that he’d never really thought about consent like that but all it took was our conversation to completely change the way he went about sex. He had a little lightbulb moment and that was all it took to change how he saw consent.

A lot of my female friends have spoken to me about feeling unable to say no before or during sex. We live in a casual sex society which has increased the expectation for easy sexual gratification. A ‘no’ can often be seen by the other person as a challenge to overcome, and when the lack of consent is accepted can lead to resentment, anger or sexual assault. The sense that saying no will result in a backlash, and the stories of women being raped or murdered for avoiding advances, all contribute to a culture of fear around saying no to sex. It should be completely obvious why some women are hesitant to do so, especially when drugs and alcohol are brought into the mix. It’s a valid fear. The reality of people like my guy friend is that they don’t want to be having sex with someone who doesn’t want to be having sex with them, but the lack of understanding around consent, combined with some legitimate fears, creates a situation where we all too often have someone ‘winning’ and the other person ‘losing’ in sex.

It’s so important we are teaching and talking about consent openly from a young age. I was never given ‘the talk’ by my parents and my catholic school failed miserably to teach me about sex or consent. My learning came from the internet and from talking to my peers. Things like #MeToo and #TimesUp have made it clear the importance of talking about this. It’s only with these massive movements that society is realising how prevalent sexual assault is and we’ve become more receptive to having frank conversations about things like consent. Among my friends there is the sense that society is finally hearing what we’ve been saying for a long time. For a lot of men, things like consent have been a taboo, or something they don’t want to talk about. It’s crucial we break down this stance and teach about things like enthusiastic consent at a young age before people start engaging in sex.

It’s also important to consider that consent isn’t constant; it can easily change and can initially be given hesitantly. Therefore, it’s so important to check with a sexual partner that they are comfortable with what is going on during a sexual encounter. For one person ‘yes’ may mean it’s okay to do any configuration of sexual acts, while for another it could mean something very different. Sex is raw, fun, spontaneous and yes, sexy, but this is why it’s so important we are listening to each other and acknowledging body language. Saying yes to sex is one thing but that doesn’t mean I’ll be comfortable with everything, and — for example — I know that personally I can’t really commit myself fully to something I haven’t tried. There is a culture of disregarding signs of reservation, anxiety and distress. It’s worrying that so many of the women I spoke to had stories of men not picking up on their lack of comfort, or perhaps of acknowledging that discomfort and just not caring for their own pleasure.

Of all the sex I’ve had in my life I’ve never been uncertain that my sexual partner wanted to be having sex and looking for that enthusiastic consent made the sex better, not worse. We can’t fear having these conversations, either with our sexual partners or with our friends. We need to decide what consent means for each of us and listen to each other with the dignity and respect we all deserve without unfair pressure or influence. Real change should come from the Government and our education system, teaching about consent from a young age and repeatedly, so we can effectively change the culture of sex among young people. The kind of change we need is slow however, and so it’s so important we are having these conversations ourselves with our friends, family and online. Like with my friend, all it can take is a conversation to change how someone goes about sex. All we need is to create some lightbulb moments and that can be all it takes to change how someone sees consent.