Feminism 201: Basic Consent Skills, Beginning to Ask Questions

April 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Any decent discussion of sexual ethics will stress the importance of consent.  One of the major reasons I find fault with the conservative, legalistic approach to sexual ethics offered to me as a young adult by Christian religious teaching was that it never talked about consent and so never had a strong foundation to work from.  Feminism 101, it seems to me, is the work we need to do to get people to think about and care about and generally shape their sexual behaviors on an ethic of consent and to shape legality around it.

This post is part of a series that will go a little beyond that to relate my experiences of already wanting a life, and particularly a sex life, built on a foundation of consent, but needing some skills to bridge the gap between what I wanted and what I’d been taught.  It is sort of my experiences working out Feminism 201… what to do after you already care about consent and begin to get with people in this new value system.

This post is about my experiences of learning how to have a dialogue of consent during sex.  Consensual sex isn’t just a yes or no, we do or we don’t.  It involves a constant dialogue (not always verbal but consistently communicated).  Initiating and negotiating that dialogue takes practiced skill to go smoothly.  I learned much of this through the progression of my own sexual experiences with other feminist, loving people.

My first sexual encounter after I became a radical feminist was actually a bit of a shambles.  I was still evolving rapidly in my new feminist consciousness, and I had just really begun to heal my own relationship to sex and alienation from my desire and consent.  I got in bed with a close friend, Laurel, who I’d bee having intense conversations about sex and Christianity and ethics with for years.  I cared deeply about her and her consent, and I certainly didn’t want any kind of sex to happen we weren’t both on board with.  As things progressed, we switched back and forth as initiators, but would both sort of slow to a halt.  I was reading a lot of mixed signals from her and knew I was giving them, as well.  One minute it seemed like we were going to rip each other’s clothes off and have sex immediately, the next minute it seemed like we were going to slow to a stop and go to sleep.

I was tuned in to consent and had a strong rapport with my partner in this experience.  Despite having the lights off (which I now think was and is always a poor choice for encounters with partners you haven’t developed a strong sexual rapport with), I could still read a lot of her energy and communication because of our familiarity.  But I didn’t really know what to do with the mixed signals I was getting or giving.  I slowed down and eventually stopped, which was the only way I could find to address it.  I just said, “I don’t know what you want right now,” and she seemed wildly relieved and said, “I don’t know what you want either.”  So we decided to make out a little more and go to sleep.

My next sexual encounter after my feminist journey was well developed was with a feminist man, Jack, about ten years older than myself who I met at a friend’s wedding.  It was a fairly low-risk one night encounter, but some time later I found myself in bed with someone else, a shy feminist lady I was very interested in this time (Valerie, who appears in many other posts on this blog), and what do you know, I realized I had learned something very important from my encounter with him – some basic skills of negotiating consent in the real world.

Simply through they way he was as a partner, Jack showed me a lot about how to initiate a dialogue of consent with your partner.  At the time we got together, I was still sorting through a lot of alienation from my own desires and consent.  I was also very tired and had had a few drinks, and as a result, I wasn’t doing much initiating.  I was giving mixed signals and having mixed feelings, and because of this I to experience a lot of Jack’s different ways of maintaining consent in our interaction.  He was very closely reading my body signals as he went along, and when I would stall or have a response he couldn’t read, he would just ask me, “How are you feeling?”  Or, “Is this good?”  Not rocket science, I know.  Yet in a tiny way, that asking is a radical act.  I was surprised by his ease in asking questions, and it made it easy for me to respond.  A lot of what was communicated was that any answer would be okay, that I wasn’t with someone who was going to freak out or pout about what we decided to do, and a lot of that was expressed through tone.

I left that encounter sure I’d been with someone with more consent skills than me.  If I had been more of an initiator in the interaction, I would not have been as skilled or practiced as he had been.  It was, for lack of a better term, inspiring, a motivation to figure out more.  I recognized that I would not have been willing to ask him questions the way he asked me.  I could already think of twenty new ways to have handled the experience of getting mixed signals from Laurel that would’ve made the experience better for both of us.

I needed to find ways to work on the skill of asking questions, which you do have to practice to be able to do without feeling awkward and to elicit the actual information you need.  Soon after that, I read the anthology Yes Means Yes.  The book was transformative for me in many, and perhaps the one where I met with the most internal resistance was in reading about an author taking on a practice of always seeking explicit verbal consent for physical touch.  The idea freaked me out and made me feel a bit angry and panicked as I was reading about it.  I tried to track my fears and realized I felt like a lot of touch in my life wouldn’t happen in this model, which led me to wonder if I was concerned that it was not really consensual.  And I knew for sure that I did not want to touch anyone who didn’t really want to be touched.  In short what I realized was that when it came to physical touch in my bonds, I was not sure it was always consensual because minor social trepidation led me to guess instead of ask.  I decided if I wasn’t willing to ask, then I shouldn’t be willing to touch someone – the risks were not comparable.  So I tried it.  I actually ended up with a lot more touch in my life, since it led me to stop assuming what people didn’t want, as well.  And it helped me get rid of some of my anxiety about asking questions regarding physical intimacy and touch.  I don’t practice EVC all the anymore, but it does inform my everyday practices in that is has become the instinctual go-to in new or tentative bonds and in any situations of doubt or mixed signals.  Consent exists far beyond sex, and negation of consent can exist in myriad of interactions, so it was good for me to recognize how I could facilitate more consent in my bonds.  And it let me practice a skill necessary for sexual consent outside of the bedroom, which is always a good idea.

Asking questions during sex isn’t rocket science, I know.  But the simple act of Jack asking me for clarification when he felt trepidation or unclear about my consent was a radical act.  Mainstream sexual convention creates an image of the perfect encounter as being one where everyone is smooth and impeccably confident, no one is awkward, no one changes their mind, no one says they want something then finds they don’t really, no one says they don’t want something then decides maybe they do, no one wants to have sex but is just too tired, drunk, shy, whatever to go for it just then and decides to go to sleep and hook up later or show future interest or spoon and talk.  No, initiation of the sex has to be so well managed (generally by the guy, women only get to manage making male notice and then jump to making marriage happen) as to go as smooth and formulaic and fake as a job interview.  And once you get to it, the sex should be one flawless, hot ride to simultaneous orgasm with no questions being asked in between.

There is a lot of inhibition and fear surrounding asking questions or just plain talking about the sex you are having with someone.  Initiating communication during sex, especially with a new person or stranger can be daunting and may meet with mixed responses.  You think you might freak them out, you think you might kill the mood, they might get spooked, you might get spooked, they might not know how to answer you, you might not know how to answer them, and how do you even begin to know precisely what to ask?  You’ll be shocked at how much sex language sounds clinical or vulgar and generally alienating when you go to talk about it with someone you’re trying to navigate a positive sexual encounter with.  Just figuring out what to say is difficult.

When I next got into bed with someone, less tired and less drunk and more of an initiator this time, I found myself reading a lot of body consent, but having moments where I just didn’t know what my partner, Valerie, was experiencing.  And, lo and behold, when I hit that confused hesitance again, I just asked.  “How are you feeling?”  And, “How are you doing?” And “Is this good?” And, “Is this okay?”  And, “Does this feel good?”  I didn’t feel awkward about asking, so she didn’t get psyched out.  And my guesses often would have been inaccurate to what she said when asked.

Later it evolved to less tentative and inhibited questions, basically matching the less tentative and inhibited sex we were having: “What do you want me to do to you?”  “Is this going to fast, or too slow, or good?” “How does that feel?” “Do you want me to seduce you?”  “Is that too rough?”  “Is this a good speed?”  “Do you want something different?”  “Do you want to stop for a minute?” And later just, “Do you want me to keep asking you questions, or just go?”  “Tell me if you want something different.”  And, “Tell me if I get too rough.”

I was fortunate in that I was with a partner who wanted consent and was willing to do the work to get it.  Questions can confront you with your own experience during sex.  They can bring you into the present in ways that are uncomfortable and show you whether you are checking out or following a formula or deferring to your partner or simply just unsure.  If someone is going to hold you accountable (to yourself and to them) for your consent and mindfully ask you what you want and how you’re feeling and be open to adapting to your answer, you’re going to have to know things.  Things about your body, about your values and desires and inhibitions. You’re going to have to face the fact that sometimes you don’t know; that all of us are, at least at times and to some extent, alienated from our consent.  You’re going to have to sort through the categories of what you want to fantasize about, talk about, do in real life, or try to find out if you want in real life.  But the sex is well worth it.  You can be more connected with your self, your experience, and your partner.

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§ One Response to Feminism 201: Basic Consent Skills, Beginning to Ask Questions

  • sistaresista says:

    Thoughtfully written and well-articulated article. Sexual experiences are often tricky, and negotiating consent, especially to the level of granularity you reach here, even trickier. Really liked how you illustrated that even simple questions, in this context, can be truly radical. Thanks for sharing your experiences and helping to shed some light on a very important subject.

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