Back to the Basics: Consent is Embodied
I’ve noticed a weird thing happening recently, maybe I’m a little frightened.
What I’ve noticed across sexuality discourse/pleasure-focused media, and equally throughout general society and conversation, is that our world is becoming a much more sex positive place in many ways, and it’s beautiful to see this sexual renaissance happening in real time, to witness the unfurling of stigmatized pleasure and sexualities, to watch as humans of all identities begin to speak out on their experiences and strive toward building a more sexually well and educated culture. It truly is beautiful.
What seems worrisome however, is that amidst all this there still seems to be some general lack of understanding on the basics, the foundational concepts that allow for this expansion in sexuality discourse to occur as a collective learning. Jumping straight into super involved and delicate kink-based pleasure practices without first rooting into the simpler factors of practicing safe sex is like jumping right into a PHD without ever completing your undergrad – you can try it, but it’s going to be messy and probably cause a lot of confusion and most likely a lot of harm.
Amidst all of our flashy IG graphics discussing sexuality, I fear we have moved the conversation far beyond what many folks are able to process, and we haven’t been placing enough attention back at the beginning where the practice of safe sex begins.
So let’s take a moment to go back to the beginning, let’s discuss consent shall we?
I think back to my freshman year of university, moving into my new residence building, and seeing a big bulletin board with the word “consent” in big red letters across the top, and several fliers and info-graphs stuck one beside the other below. I remember this being a huge topic of conversation back then, mostly because even then it was very new to being discussed anywhere and therefore felt progressive and ground-breaking to be addressed with college students in mandatory attendance.
As someone that had experienced various forms of sexual aggression and assault throughout her teenage years, I was relieved to see these conversations being had within the context of my university. It made me feel advocated for, and allowed my young 18 year old brain to verbalize many things I had felt and feared during adolescence. I also remember however, as this conversation back then was still very much in its elementary phase, that more often than not discussions of consent would begin and end with a “yes” or “no” mentality, and would seldom venture further into the nuances of what consent really means and how it looks in real life situations, in real sex.
Often, from this rudimentary understanding of consent, the conversation would turn to “well it’s not sexy to stop in the middle of things and ask permission” and consent as a topic would be dismissed. At some point it felt like it started to be regarded as “old news” or through general assumption that everyone was now on the same page about consent since we had spent a couple of years giving it some space in our conversations. The energy around consent started to feel very “yes we get it everyone knows about consent, let’s move on,” and in many ways, move on we did.
I admit, even myself, being a sexuality writer, have taken up until now to write about seemingly the most basic, foundational component of all of the other things I have discussed up to this point. I myself had fallen into this same general assumption, that we all understand consent and practice safe sex using consent, so we can move on to discussing other things now. Under this assumption then, I am constantly surprised when something seemingly so basic is blatantly disregarded before my eyes time and time again.
So here I am, putting a halt on any further sexy kinky fun conversations, so we can all go back to the A, B, C’s together.
Here are some real experiences I’ve had in the past year.
*Trigger warning: The following describes sexual harassment and assault.*
I am sitting in a bar on a barstool having a beer with a friend. I’m wearing a dress and my legs are crossed. A man I have never seen before walks into the bar and right up to me. He grabs my leg, licks my calf from Achilles up to the back of my knee, gives me a wink, and proceeds to order a beer. I am speechless, and I turn to one of the guys I know behind me. “Oh that’s just Omar,” he says. I am expected to go on as though nothing happened, so I do.
I am spending the night at a new friend’s place with whom I had been very platonic in my energy and interactions. He asks if I’d like to share the bed, and having shared many beds with many people platonically in my life, and always choosing to believe that humans are inherently good, I accept his offer. We fall asleep without any sexual contact made. At some point in the night I begin having a sex dream, feeling very real sensations in my sleep. After a while, the sensations get much more intense than any dream, and I realize I am awake. I realize I was not dreaming, and the man I’m sharing the bed with has his fingers inside of me, in my dead sleep. I push his hand away several times and tell him to stop, to which he responds by grabbing me by the ankles. He spreads my legs and puts his mouth on me, and in disbelief it took me a couple of moments to try again to get him off of me. Eventually I did, and at that moment I should have gotten out of the bed and left immediately, but I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go. So I laid there, eyes wide open, body stiff as a board, terrified to fall back into the vulnerability of sleep, until morning.
I am invited to go for a boat ride by an acquaintance I’ve hung out with in groups several times. I accept the offer, having felt positive energy from him always and never feeling reason for concern other than simply being a woman and learning to always fear men. So I go with him out on his little boat at golden hour and watch dolphins swim by and pelicans dipping for sardines in the distance. A really beautiful scene, until he gives me the eyes. We all know the eyes, and immediately I’m angry. He starts complimenting me, telling me how gorgeous I am, and suddenly his gigantic lips are on mine. I didn’t stop him, I was frozen. It all happened so fast, and the reader can think this is a cop-out if they wish, but I generally did not know how to stop him. He was all over me. Sure, some parts felt good, and I wasn’t completely opposed, but I wasn’t completely enthusiastic either. I was complacent. I didn’t want to create conflict or cause any weirdness by getting angry with him out loud, I didn’t want to make a huge deal out of things, so I went along with it. “This isn’t horrible,” I told myself, and truly, there was no space for me to say no, or to give any opinion on the matter whatsoever. So passively I went through the motions and let him use my body for his pleasure.
I’ll save the reader the copious amounts more micro-aggressions experienced and get to the point.
Consent is not complacency.
It is not passive, it is not silence, it is not shock, it is not the lesser of two evils.
Consent is not a social recognition of one’s behavior patterns as “just Omar being Omar” or the assumption of a right to another’s body based on physical proximity or generosity or setting. Consent is never implied.
Consent is not merely the lack of a no, but rather a full body, enthusiastic, unmistakable YES.
Consent is consent only if it is present in all levels of our being. Consent is verbal, physical, spiritual, intellectual and deeply energetic. Consent is a complete circle. Consent is loud.
In this same way, consent is nuanced.
In the scenarios depicted above, one could argue that there may have been a degree of consent present on my side each time. I didn’t say anything to the man at the bar, didn’t slap him away or throw my drink at him. I agreed to share a bed with another person. I agreed to the boat ride, and when things got physical, I did not actively stop them.
The problem here, is that consent is not a matter of degree, consent is always 100%. In any of these scenarios, had any of my aggressors but their own desire aside for even just a moment, it would have been very clear that there was in fact a substantial lack of consent happening. When there is no space for a no, when there is fear in speaking your “no,” consent gets confused with silence, and instead of letting silence be filled by the choice to actively listen to what the silence was saying, the people in these scenarios deemed themselves immediately entitled to fill the silence with their own intentions.
One may read this then and think, “well how are we ever supposed to know if we’re receiving consent without ruining the mood?” To this I will stand firmly in claiming that there really is nothing sexier than being asked what you want. To this I will suggest that even if the asker doesn’t get exactly what they want, if the ask is made it could very well lead to another beautiful shared experience that both parties would be both comfortable with and excited by. To this I will ask if the asker has ever considered how to slow down and actively listen to, and respond to, their partner’s body language? If consent is a full body, enthusiastic, unmistakable YES, then it is impossible for it not to show up somewhere in the body.
Consent is embodied.
The challenge then, is the slowing down required of body literacy, both of ourselves and of others. It is also very common for us to know intellectually that we don’t want something to be happening to our body, but to try and trick our body otherwise and go through with it anyway, or vice versa, perhaps we think we want something and yet our body rejects it entirely. It is crucial to be present in one’s body in order for body literacy to happen, and it is crucial to be present with our partner’s body simultaneously, if we are to offer space for real, intentional, full body consent.
If consent is unmistakable, then it is in the choice not to actively listen that it is mistaken. If consent is full body YES, then to not notice it’s lack is to not be aware of the partner’s full body. If consent is enthusiastic, then it can never be confused with passivity, apathy or indifference.
If it feels repetitive to continue having conversations about consent, it is only because it continues to be necessary. We cannot move on to wild, swinging from the rafters sex lives if we cannot get passed kindergarten and really, fully, understand the first rule of sexual engagement before and above all else. If we cannot commit to presence and intentional, informed sexual experiences, we simply cannot be having sexual experiences.
Consent is nuanced and requires intention and energy. It is also non-negotiable.