Getting real about consent

Consent is a buzz word these days. In sexuality education and sex positive circles it’s thrown around with gay abandon, while its definition and its processes are in continuous formation. We are still debating and describing in detail what it means and how it’s established. Many of us have recognised it’s far more complex than simply ‘yes vs no’ and despite the popularity of videos like the tea and consent video, its detractors recognise simplifying something so vast in this way is, to a degree, part of the problem.

In a sexuality and wellbeing context (in contrast with an abuse context) consent has been posited as the antidote to the so-called ‘raunch’ culture and ‘pornification’ of women. It’s the cornerstone of many a sex-ed class these days in progressive schools and colleges across the world, and it serves as a reference point to help us better understand exactly what we are doing and take a moment to slow down and check in with ourselves and our partner/s.

When consent is framed only as an antidote to sexual assault, it reduces the conversation to damage control instead of well-being. Traditionally, sex-ed classes used to focus only on reproduction. Now they focus on reproduction and consent. Both of which are useful to a degree but omit one of the most important aspects of our sexual unions – pleasure. Consent in a sex context based solely on a yes/no format offers little in the way of discussions of satisfaction. The current framework is heterosexually inclined and leaves men, boys and masculine folk as the controllers responsible for asking and initiating sex. If they are too afraid, awkward, avoidant or uncomfortable, it shifts the entire responsibility onto girls, women and femmes to do the heavy lifting without addressing the concept of mutuality at all. Seeking permission is important but alone it tells us nothing about pleasure nor invites us to share anything about how we like sex to be.

In short, sexual consent isn’t enough if you:

  1. don’t give a crap about the experience of the person you are with and
  2. you do not know what you are doing or how it feels or if it could feel better, or
  3. would prefer to just do it than talk about it first, or
  4. if your sexual motivations or intentions aren’t clear and transparent.

And here’s the rub… while some teens and young adults (and older adults too let’s face it) are taught the nuts and bolts of consent being YES and NO, they’re not taught anything about the ingredients that go into establishing what motivates us to have sex in the first place, what makes it feel good nor are they taught much about the value of empathy or listening as a means of connection and exploring erotic possibilities.

This is where many high school sex education classes (and to a lesser degree adult sex-ed classes) are going wrong. Without explicit, useful, and accurate information about how the body works from a pleasure perspective and not just a reproduction perspective, it’s difficult to create cohesive conversations about:

  • what feels good and why,
  • let alone determine if we want to give it, receive it or something else entirely
  • how to negotiate that part
  • or who benefits from the transaction and how.

In a perfect world both parties would benefit equally, but we do not live in a perfect world, and this is an integral thing to be acknowledged when discussing consent. Forget perfection, let’s get real when discussing sex!

Straight but not narrow

While the default for many heterosexual couples is penis in vagina (PIV) sex, few opportunities are created to allow for discussions about this or even outside of this. When I work with heterosexual couples struggling with sexual connection, I may ask them why they think PIV is at the top of the sex / lovemaking pyramid. They often have no idea. They respond with:

 “I don’t know”

“I’ve never thought about it” or

“it’s just the way it is”.

Occasionally they’ll say,

‘well it’s how you make a baby’….

which is true to a certain extent, but that’s not the reason most people engage in sex. Think about the last time you had sex… was it to make a baby? The reality is PIV is a default for most heterosexual people and they have no idea why!

All of these are reasonable responses given the social climate we live in. But the truth is, these responses are so frequent because our cultural difficulty in discussing sex (as in doing it as opposed to sexual identity), combined with our ineffective sex education systems omitting this kind of information from their curriculum, let us all down. While heterosexual couples default to PIV and think that making babies is the reason people have sex, it’s no surprise so many struggle to identify what pleasurable sex is, how to connect intimately or why they do it in the first place.

The crux is people do not know why sex is discussed the way we discuss it, nor do they realise there are other ways of doing so. Parents freak out to me about their kids’ sex education all the time, but 90% of the people who see me for therapy could have avoided it if they had access to better (read: useful) sex education.  If adults can’t get it together to establish even the basics of what they’re doing in the sack, let alone consent, it’s too much for us to expect our youngsters to do it.

But the internet is rife with sex info these days… so why are we still struggling?

When teens and young adults are repeatedly told that sex for women is painful the first time (or much of the time) and sex for men is all about their dicks and ejaculations with no explanation why… guess what? They believe it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone drinks the Kool Aid, no questions asked. And sadly, no amount of scouring the net for ‘squirt’ videos or attending pick-up artist classes is going to change that. And this is another problem.

When we are told over and over that sex hurts women, or women don’t enjoy sex or the pressure is only on women to give consent or that PIV is ‘real’ loving sex and fingering, toys, oral, anal and BDSM (kinky stuff) porn and group sex are not – there is absolutely no incentive to learn why this is happening or if there is even another story hiding in the narrative. When we are told sex hurts or it’s dull or he can’t control himself or he needs it more than women over and over, that shuts down exploration of how we might do it differently. When young men are told women don’t experience much pleasure from sex, there’s no incentive to learn how to create pleasurable contexts for them. They are taught to focus on themselves, not explicitly, but by omitting the info they need to be good lovers; to practice listening, to practice asking and to practice negotiating touch to recognise they can be receivers too. Instead they focus specifically on their dicks and their pleasure to minimise the anxiety of discussing sex; and in responding to what they’ve been taught about consent, (because they want to be good and kind) seek it in yes /no format to simply make sure they aren’t hurting her. Good start, but it’s just not enough. She doesn’t know what she wants or how to speak up so she says nothing. He doesn’t know how to ask, doesn’t listen well or doesn’t know what to do even if she were to respond!

In this way, sex education systems are letting teens and young adults down by not explaining in greater detail how sex works physiologically with an emphasis on pleasure and shame reduction; instead blatantly omitting this most crucial information. This omission tricks us all into thinking – it mustn’t be important. Pleasure mustn’t be important and talking about pleasure is also not important. That pleasure is awkward. He gets an erection (or doesn’t), feels awkward and doesn’t realise neither he nor she have to do anything about it. It’s not a state of emergency, it’s simply a biological state that makes penetrative sex possible. It’s an erection, not cancer. It isn’t an imperative that demands any kind of intervention or completion. But without knowing how to navigate this, we may find ourselves overwhelmed or ashamed at what to do or say about it. Omitting such information encourages anxiety. Making decisions based on anxiety leads to disasters. An orgasm might be nice, but when anxiety is driving our erotic impulses, sex can get very messy.

When we think something is unimportant, we do not invest in it

Australian kids and adults are encouraged to spend a lot of time learning to play sports under the guise of health and relationship building skills. Big corporations fund school sports education but few, if any, fund sex education. Youngsters receive medals and trophies for their valiant efforts on the sports field and are taught emotional management and resilience in a sports context, but struggle to understand the mutuality of consent or how to negotiate a pleasurable intimate, erotic experience. This of course is not their fault, but it is a symptom of a culture that values prowess on the sports field over competence in matters of the body and heart. It’s the same culture that pretends it cares about consent, but places the onus on women and girls to be the gate keepers of sexual morality, while precluding men and boys from much, if any, participation in it at all. It’s the same culture that reinforces women are ‘done to’ and men are ‘doers’, when men are told they must seek consent, not give or negotiate it. We do not teach people to see how that power plays out in their personal relationships until anxiety is present or it’s too late.

When we hear about consent over and over with no definition nor explicit instruction of its application, we must look at the apple that has fallen from the tree. The tree is infected. Sex is not considered valuable enough to prioritise, so we do not. Relationships are taken for granted so we don’t learn to nourish them. While this is relegated to the too-hard basket, such valuable educational discussions go left unchecked and eventually destroy relationships, which is usually what bring couples to me.

Instead of leaving the burden of consent to women and girls alone, let’s expand the conversation to include information about exactly who is doing what to whom, how it feels and who gets what from it. It needn’t always be equal, but it does need to be fair! When we can speak as freely of our achievements in negotiating pleasurable sex as we can about celebrating our sporting expertise, I will begin to believe society gives a crap about consent. Until then, giddy up!