The problem with our muddled discussions about consent is that they conflate spontaneity with sexiness, and explicitness with drudgery. In popular fiction romance is based on instantaneous mutual telepathy in which somehow every move is nonetheless a titillating surprise. We are culturally terrified of crushing this illusion. It is a sexual phobia, a bedroom taboo. Asking summons demons in our mythos of getting busy. What happens when asking might actually stop the momentum or even reverse it? You have to pause, which apparently is the anti-viagra of our times. It doesn’t have to be.
Ever since the notion of affirmative let alone enthusiastic consent hit the media, it’s been mocked. It infantilizes adult behavior. It takes away the mystery. It results in parodical endless questions. It replaces passion with permission. It is the literal death of spontaneity. You might as well order your romance off a menu.
Why is consent so bothersome???
Let’s start with some counterexamples in the extreme to see where consent lives unproblematically.
When you go to the Bunny Ranch in Nevada to frequent the famous brothel, you pay by the performance including each of the allowed scenes. You can select a light meal or the full, messy buffet. People pay a lot of money for this. It’s still erotic I presume, even though you state what you want, and pay for it, before you get it.
Sex work may not be the best reflection of great sex, but it’s worth noting that consent is considered standard practice there.
Another example from the fringes. A cliche trend in porn is videos in which the plot is a casting call for a new porn star. Innocent-acting young ladies are brought into a room, most often with a couch in it, and they are asked to do a series of escalating audition exercises that start to look an awful lot like porn itself.
Not only is the provocating porn recruiter down with asking, so is the viewer, who presumably knows that this is neither spontaneous sex nor an actual casting call for a new porn star. But for masturbation sake we are willing to suspend our disbelief that asking before doing, talking before touching, can be arousing.
Ok you say, this is porn and what you just described could portray a coercive situation that’s exploitative in both narrative and structural power dynamics. And yet: there is asking for each step, and it builds the excitement.
Not persuaded? You concede it may be enough to jerk off to, but it’s not realistic, and it’s definitely not romantic…
Ah romance, the movie-made script in which writers spend weeks setting up the plot for sudden spontaneous and speechless action. In movie sex scenes the steamy intertwining of bodies never pauses for breath let alone words. This sells tickets because no one’s idea of date night is a gradual buildup which covers birth control and sexual history and recent STD tests.
In popular fiction romance is based on instantaneous mutual telepathy in which somehow every move is nonetheless a titillating surprise.
In real life people don’t use Tindr or Grindr or the local meatmarket dance club to enthusiastically declare, I want a booty call and a shot at an orgasm, you!!!!!?
That would be silly.
So all of this talk of consent muddled in with “real” abuses of rape, assault, and harassment doesn’t fit, right? I can finally go back to intuiting and spontaneously grasping and thrusting…
Not so fast.
Let’s dig a little deeper behind the underlying anti-consent framework.
In lore, a woman’s body is a prize to be won and then taken. The hero conquers and then commands by virtue, demonstrating might as right.
How could this end badly?
Let’s imagine you’re a teenage girl exploring your sexuality and every message you’ve been given about sex involves a guy who ‘gets’ you. Gets, as in the object and whatever sex act is [not] under discussion as the reward. Does a winner ask for their prize? No, they won it. It’s theirs. They take it. Yes is the default. No requires both effort and confrontation.
Let’s imagine you’re a teenage boy pursuing sex and every message you’ve been given tells you that the key to getting it is confidence. Is it confident to ask? Asking is for permission, which means that no is a chance, and what kind of winner engages in that kind of doubting mentality? I’d argue it takes more confidence to ask than to act as if you don’t have to. But it’s not perceived that way.
Peel back another layer…
Aside from the troubling problem of why the girl is the prize and the guy the prizewinner… Why is simply asking for or being asked if you want something such a killer of male and lady boners?
If I walk into a restaurant I am not less tantalized by having to ask the server for medium rare ribeye with truffle butter and a poached egg. And If the server says, sorry we’re out of that tonight, I don’t storm into the kitchen kicking over pots. I get excited. I ask. Then I enjoy. It’s quite normal. Chef’s Choice may exist but it is a rarity and something you opt-in to at only the finest restaurants.
Or if a woman on one of those horribly stereotypical home redesign shows picks out the specific details of each knob and strip of paint trim for her new kitchen, she isn’t less delighted with the stunningly completed room. She tells, then she gets. She is markedly ecstatic. The kitchen looks wonderful, just as she had imagined, and requested, it.
Those biased and farcical examples involve ordering more than asking you may say, so the expectation is that you’ll get what you want right after you ask; the asking is just a formality. Noted, you’re going to get what you want — and the requesting it doesn’t lessen the desire.
What happens when asking might actually stop the momentum or even reverse it? You have to pause, which apparently is the anti-viagra of our times.
The problem with our muddled discussions about consent is that they conflate spontaneity with sexiness, and explicitness with drudgery.
Counter-case in point: Louis C.K. whipped out his dick and asked startled women if he could touch himself. Definitely a surprising move. Not sexy. He even sometimes asked them first before unzipping. Still — not sexy.
Counter-Exhibit B: The stranger rubbing his shorts against you on the subway is certainly acting spontaneously, but it’s just gross (and illegal).
So we have established that consent can even be sexy a la reputable sex work and self-referential porn. And spontaneity can be unsexy as in “wanna see my wang” comedians and subway stalkers.
But if asking isn’t the death knell of getting off and sudden acts of groping aren’t guarantees of two satisfied partners, what’s the catch?
Could it be that people judge a situation by context rather than words spoken or not spoken? I think this is a fair assumption.
But context, that word speaks to ambiguity, and in romance you are certain from first sight that a smiling newborn will soon follow a sun drenched honeymoon which will come right after that first magical kiss. You have to be careful, because if you are too specific the whole vision will vanish and you’ll be back alone eating Pringles during a Netflix binge.
Ambiguity is not a sexy word, unlike mystery. Ambiguity reminds us our theories of mind are underdeveloped and imperfect even with good intentions. Ambiguity tells us that instinct is no substitute for having listened to the lived experience of someone else, let alone lived through it.
If ambiguity is the real problem, then a simple way to signal one thing or the other should do the trick. Consent should release rather than quelch the waters of arousal.
Here’s the thing. It’s embarrassing to ask. That’s the whole problem. It’s equally embarrassing to tell. Because one may be rejected and the other not reciprocated. It’s either intimidating or adolescent in its uncoolness. Or both.
Worst, it’s vulnerable.
This is actually deeply true and entirely an illusion. Your average tantric couple or sexually enlightened dad could ask their partners point blank if they’re in the mood for anal tonight and no one would bat an eye.
In relationships with real trust those kinds of questions help you avoid confusion, discomfort, and frustration. The answer is not always yes, but there is always another night and life is long. (And no, you don’t Ansari them by asking 15 more times over the evening).
In relationships where trust has barely been built questions offer even more benefit. People lament the reduction of titillating uncertainty, but by reducing ambiguity, you create an onramp for more openness and adventure.
Equally important is that the best sex is vulnerable but in a way that frees rather than endangers you. Any sexually happy couple blissfully discovers this and sexually unhappy couple knows how rare it can be.
Maybe consent is the problem then when it’s mixed with scarcity, a perceived limit on the number of chances available, or the window of time to grasp them. If time is of the essence and your opportunity is right in front of you, shouldn’t you, mustn’t you, just act?
Because — that would mean that just asking is enough to derail the chance, in which case the connection isn’t strong enough.
Because —if the sexual momentum combined with a lack of asking are to avoid scrutiny, that is coercive.
Because--if you know that consent isn’t confirmed and you worry, if I ask then she won’t let me put it in, it’s coercive to intentionally keep things vague and (seemingly) spontaneous.
Because — not asking would mean you have so little faith in your ability to find another person or potential moment that you have to slip in unannounced.
But what about passion??? When two people are into each other and they both feel it, they still want it to be Special and sear their memories with unbridled libido. When you Know the moment is right you don’t have to ask.
First, these scenarios are rare in the dating world. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in one and the person you’re with couldn’t handle a positive word about their shared interest it’s an illusion for — at least — one of you.
We are culturally terrified of crushing this illusion. It is a sexual phobia, a bedroom taboo. Asking summons demons in our mythos of getting busy. Seduction in our sexual parlance has many moves and even some alluring phrases but no inquiries.
Second, what is the cost of being wrong? If you might take a little off your fastball to avoid hitting the toddler walking across the field maybe you’d do it. I mean no one would blame you for trying to strike out the batter but couldn’t you, shouldn’t you, mustn’t you consider the downside?
If a girl you’re with never says yes or moans it or puts your hand where She wants it, then you might, totally, accidentally, rape her.
Her experience could be so traumatic it would ruin years if not decades of her life.
And all you need is to get a clear signal that she’s into it? I mean, come on. This is like paying a penny for flood insurance when you live near a river. It’s SO cheap and it can guard against so much damage.
How could you not?
Because it kills the mood, that’s why dummy. First you ‘ruin the moment’ by speaking, and then you have to repeat the insult for each new activity! To ask for a kiss and then ask for a hand job and then ask for doggy style. It’s just too many questions! Who can stay aroused during a freaking census?
The passionate transactions of sex seem to dissolve into misery when looked at directly, like a quantum particle located with sufficient precision to make it get all fuzzy about what it’s supposed to be doing.
It’s part of the bigger problem, that tacit sex is praised and fast sex is craved. Where is the Slow Sex movement? The one that pays attention and savors. The one that gets both people in the mood? The one that cares if everyone is actually enjoying themselves? It sounds a little boring if you say it out loud, but that’s a distortion of how our senses work and bodies respond.
How often is sex without communication just bad. How often is it scarring? How often does the impulsive rapture of seduction deliver what it promises without mistakes or regrets?
Is consent that scary and pitiable that we’d rather stuff our faces with junk food sex in the hope that it will turn out like the manicured fake hamburgers of a McDonald’s advertisement?
But I just can’t ask, you insist. Or I don’t want to be asked. I want to be taken. I want to take. What’s mine. What’s ours. What we both want. What we both need. Presumably. And, there’s the rub. Maybe Meatloaf was admitting he’d do anything for love except kill the vibe by asking for it. The biggest fear is not an answer but the question itself.
Here’s a question. Have you ever held the body of someone you cared for, loved, would risk your life to protect, and while they quivered with excitement for your hands on them, uttered softly, Can I?
If you had, then you’d know how powerful, beautiful, sensual, and sexy consent can be. Because when you hear yes, that’s fucking hot.