Okay, so, the first thing we have to get out of the way is one of the most important, I think, in a LOT of the more polarized conversations we’re having right now, so I’m going to make it big and bold:
NO ONE IS PERFECT.
Got it? You, the reader, are not perfect, nor is anyone you know, and I certainly am no exception.
Whether you’re a man, woman, left-winger, right-winger, trans, nonbinary, straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, omnisexual, your belly button is an inny or an outy, we ALL have made mistakes and we all will continue to make mistakes, because life is a confusing and messed up predicament for all of us – ESPECIALLY when it comes to sex.
Now. Let’s keep the philosophical stuff to one side, for a second, though I think those conversations are also important and interesting – I want to use this post to build bridges where before there was only confusion and fear. So if you’re a victim of sexual assault – I get it. This might feel a little like I’m extending an olive branch to the enemy. But just try and remember that the people who hurt other people do so because they’re in pain, too. So if we want to stop sexual assault, we have to start with a conversation about why people assault other people to begin with.
So let’s start here. I’ve been sexually assaulted in various ways and in varying degrees more times than I care to list here, and that isn’t the point of this blog post. But I know what it feels like to be absolutely, mind-numbingly, blindingly horny. I know, what a weird juxtaposition. But I know what that feels like in part because after being assaulted (one time in particular there was a man who actually physically damaged my clitoris for a while, and I couldn’t orgasm for months, and I was so afraid that I never would again that I’d masturbate, and masturbate, just trying to feel anything at all, down there, to prove to myself that I wasn’t permanently broken, and nothing would happen, so I’d end up rubbing myself raw and crying myself to sleep (I tell you this not because it’s fun for me, but because I think it paints a picture of the level of desperation some people get to, including the people who engage in manipulative and coercive sexual behaviors)) – anyway I know what it feels like because sexual assault takes away your ability to see sex and sexual pleasure as a good thing. And it can make you feel that if you can’t find someone else to fix the problem by making you feel loved and safe and desired, that you’ll never be able to enjoy that side of yourself in the same way again.
Which of course puts a whole lot of pressure on the people you want to have sex with, pressure they might not be aware you’re putting on them, that YOU might not even be aware you’re putting on them.
My point is, maybe my example is an extreme case, but I don’t think that feeling of desperation for someone ELSE to come in and make us feel sexually whole is uncommon. In fact, I think it’s probably one of the most universal experiences there is.
So sometimes, I think, you have to look at what’s wrong with the bigger picture before you point fingers and place blame on individuals, which I know is counterintuitive in our culture because we place so much emphasis on personal responsibility and have a concept of justice that’s fundamentally rooted in retribution. But the problem with retribution is that it doesn’t actually do much for the victim, still. It doesn’t prevent the same thing from happening to that person again, and it doesn’t prevent it from happening to other people. All it does, really, is make us feel, as a society, like we did our job, so we can continue on with clear consciences while the “bad people” receive their punishment.
But that ignores an enormous part of the conversation that we NEED to be having if we’re ever actually going to make any progress, which is that everyone – EVERYONE – is capable of doing bad things, and everyone sometimes does things they regret. Everyone sometimes uses other people, everyone sometimes hurts other people, everyone feels lonely, everyone feels insecure, everyone feels hopeless and worthless and desperate for validation and intimacy, but confused about how to get it.
No one is blameless, and no one is painless. And sometimes – (and I KNOW, fellow assault victims, trust me, I know this isn’t an easy thing to accept) – sometimes people do terrible things without meaning to, or without even knowing what they’re doing.
So, fine. That’s out of the way. But it doesn’t actually provide any direction as to what’s okay and what isn’t, and how we can avoid taking advantage of other people when there’s so much grey area to take into consideration. That’s a hard question, and I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. But I can speak from my own experience, so this is what I’ll say:
- Consent requires open communication about what you want AND what the other person wants, which means taking the time to let the other person consider their options without pressure.
- This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have consensual sexual experiences without a gradual lead-in, but it does mean that it’s a lot easier to make sure your partner is on board if you don’t just spring the idea on them out of the blue.
- However, EVEN WITH a gradual lead-in (say, a textual flirtation or even pre-coital sexting), it remains possible AT ALL STAGES OF SEXUAL CONTACT for one or both parties to change their minds about the encounter, which you shouldn’t ignore, especially if it’s a person with whom you’re not romantically involved.
- Many people – MEN INCLUDED – have trouble establishing and committing to boundaries. If the person you’re having sex with is the kind of person who would pretend to be enjoying themselves at a party because they don’t want to kill the mood, or pretend to love a gift, etc., you probably should be paying attention to their body language to make sure they’re actually enjoying themselves, and not just trying to do what you want because they want to please others.
- If you have to ask the person to engage in a particular sex act multiple times, they probably don’t want to do it. Ask once, then let them take the lead. If someone really WANTS to do what you’ve suggested, they will in their own time.
- Consenting to kissing does not mean consenting to sex.
- Consenting to sex does not mean consenting to every conceivable sex act.
- If the person is trying to push you away from them, odds are, something is wrong and you should stop what you’re doing.
- If you are a man, you CANNOT push a woman’s boundaries when it comes to (a) sex without a condom or (b) ejaculating inside of her. These boundaries are not negotiable and if you don’t respect her wishes, it is a breach of consent, full stop. Pregnancy is a real danger for women and putting her in a situation she didn’t agree to is never okay.
- This one should be more obvious than it is to some people, but here goes: pay attention to your partner more than yourself. If your partner is truly into it, you’ll know. And I know that it sucks to be rejected, that no one really knows what the script is for intimate encounters that don’t end up the way you’d hoped they would. But you have to make a good-faith attempt to read what your partner wants and put their desires (or lack thereof) ahead of your own, because otherwise, the intimacy you’re engaging in probably isn’t worth having, anyway, and will just wind up making BOTH of you feel lonelier and emptier.
Now, what happens when you’re chronically rejected? What about dating apps where people constantly pass you over because you’re not tall enough, not handsome enough, not athletic enough, don’t have big enough boobs, and so on… Okay, bear with me. This is going to be a tough one.
I don’t know if anyone ever truly accepts this reality, and for the life of me, I will never understand why we insist on pretending that it doesn’t truly, deeply suck that life is like this, but here goes…
I know it’s rough. I can’t accept it, myself, most days. But it’s true. And if you can’t focus on your own happiness enough not to depend on someone else to make you happy, it will continue to push people away who have already learned how to do this for themselves.
The most attractive thing you can be, and trust me, this is as shitty to hear for me as it is for you, is self-sufficient. When you know who you are and what you want out of life outside of a romantic partner, it becomes a thousand times easier to find someone who can hop in your car with you, because you’ve already put yourself in the driver’s seat.
And maybe that’s what consent means, despite all its confusing weirdness. Maybe it just means that if you want to have a sexual experience that’s truly meaningful and validating for both parties (even if it’s just a one night stand), you BOTH have to be in the driver’s seat. You both have to be making your own decisions and allowing the other person to make theirs, too, even if it means stopping halfway through or not getting exactly what you want, or giving them exactly what they want. It isn’t a perfect science, but it is a kind of calculus where you can set the target and try as hard as you can to reach the limit of “absolute consent” even if you know that neither of you will ever quite get it right.
But this is a new era for sexuality, and if you’re not at least thinking about these things, it isn’t going to be easy to keep pace with the way the rest of the world communicates and negotiates within and about sexual encounters. And I think, at least for now, that’s all I have to share on my little soapbox. But I’d love some feedback, and will be going even further into the philosophy of sex in all its irritating complexity in the future on this blog. I’ll insert some links below when I’ve finished those pages.