Friday, November 6, 2009

Waiting for a "Hell Yes!"

"How can you lie there and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?"
--Billy Bragg, "Greetings to the New Brunette"

"No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise."
--Rorschach, Watchmen

A few days ago, I read this excellent post about asexuals and rape. The author linked to another interesting post about the concept of "enthusiastic consent". This was defined as an unambiguous "Hell Yes!" to sex, rather than the drunken mumbles that sometimes pass for consent. In that post, Hugo Schwyzer writes that the opposite of rape is not consent, but enthusiasm. I guess it's a radical statement, but it shouldn't be. When I read that, I had a 'Eureka!" moment. I finally realized why things like "gift sex", which I wrote about here, are such disturbing ideas to me.

So this will be a post about sexual consent and "compromise", although I wasn't sure if I should even write it. What do I know about sexual compromise? Nothing from firsthand experience. But it's impossible to be part of the asexual community without hearing about the issue again and again. Yes, all this will fall into the category of "Well, easy for you to say." But if it's so easy, shouldn't I just as well say it? Isn't it better to think about this stuff on a hypothetical level first, rather than when you're already in bed with someone?

Anyway, I come with a proposition: That when asexuals talk about sexual compromise, the idea of enthusiastic consent needs to be considered. I don't think there should be a double-standard, where sexuals ought to be enthusiastic, but asexuals have to be resigned to sex they don't want just to keep a relationship together. In his post, Schwyzer writes that enthusiastic consent "sets the bar pretty darned high." Well, yeah. I thought one of the positive things about having sex today, rather than in times past, was that you could have some standards, perhaps even high standards, about the sex you decided to have. No, it's not easy to have high standards in America today. We can't expect health care, a decent education, the maintenance of our personal safety, or a stable job. But can't we at least set a high bar for the things we can more easily control? Like Billy Bragg's girlfriend of song, many of us are still having sex in the Victorian era, engaging in what Schwyzer calls "sex characterized by obligation, confusion, and detached resignation".

I'm aware that a standard of enthusiastic consent presents a conflict for asexuals who badly want to be in a romantic relationship, and yet may not be enthusiastic about sex under any circumstances. But I worry about asexuals for whom "does not pressure me to have unwanted sex" is not a necessary factor in a relationship. When we feel like we have to choose between being alone and having sex we're not thrilled about, how are we going to view ourselves? What does a choice like that do to our self-esteem and mental health? As much as our partners may love us, we still need to advocate for ourselves. I've always felt uncomfortable about the common idea of asexuals having sex "to please a partner". Sure, you can please a partner and be enthusiastic, in fact you're more likely to please them if you are. But having sex "to please a partner" with no other motivation is a pretty low spot on the evolutionary ladder of consent.

Unlike Rorschach, I don't take such a hard line on compromise. But I would wonder if compromise is always good, in all situations. I feel strongly that when we talk about sexual/asexual relationships, we have to make sure that asexual needs are not seen as subordinate to sexual needs. I also think we shouldn't be afraid to keep our relationship standards high, as hard as it may be for a group so small. I think we all deserve a partner who will make an effort to get enthusiastic consent out of us, whatever our orientation may be. Rather than the traditional waits for love or marriage to have sex, why not wait for a "Hell Yes"?


Anonymous said...

You post reminded me of an American woman I met while traveling abroad. She'd been married for 30 years or so. She told me that she and her husband never exchanged an angry word. Her secret?

She told me that the more compatible you are with your partner, the less you have to compromise.

Which in our case translates to: If sex is something you don't want to compromise on, find an asexual partner.

I know, I know. Easier said than done. :)



I found this very interesting and GIFT SEX......oh no!

pretzelboy said...

I don't like being the naysayer on the matter, but I have a feeling that if we try to set the bar too high, people won't care or they'll try to find creative ways around it. If you tell people that it's wrong to have sex before marriage, lots of them define sex very narrowly to convince themselves that the sexual activities they are doing don't violate that. I have a feeling that "enthusiastic consent" would be treated similarly.

I certainly agree that many people think the bar for consent is lower than it actually is (and education in this area would definitely be a good thing), but I'm inclined to think that the solution is getting people to care about the feelings of potential sexual partners and think about the consequences sex might have on them rather than (as is often the case) just trying to get something that they can convince themselves can at least sort of pass for consent. Ethically, I do think the bar is quite a bit higher than mere consent.

However, I feel like "enthusiastic consent" simply fails to fit actual people's experiences with sex and reinforces cultural ideals that "real" sex is always supposed to be like super totally awesome. But people would still be people and still have the same sexual expectations, the same exceptions of what would happen in a relationship if they don't have sex, etc. And the result would be a lot of feigned enthusiasm.

Ily said...

Pretzel, it seems like you're describing a vicious circle: People have a lot of bad (or unwanted) sex, but we have to remain true to the sex people are really having, so how are they supposed to have better sex? At any rate, caring about the feelings of potential partners seems to be exactly what the enthusiastic consent concept is getting at. Then, it would matter more whether you were really into what was happening or just faking it. But I also think people need to remember their own feelings too. Even if your partner cares, they can't know what's in your head.

Cerberus said...

Glad you liked the post. I have always been evangelically for enthusiastic informed consent and think it really should be the bare minimum for sexual conduct.

Sex is a mutual act, something two or more people do together rather than what one person does to another. It can be unilateral, but both partners should have at minimum a full knowledge of what they are doing and seeking and confirming desire to continue at each step, compromising it away is just enabling problems in a relationship and worse can lead to nasty conflicts because two people obviously want two very different things from long-term relationshups. It may hurt in the short term to lose a partner, but people who are incompatible are incompatible and that doesn't somehow change if you force yourself into doing things you don't want to do.

And I approach this not only as an asexual, but one of the rare ones who has freely chosen to engage in a limited range of unilateral sex acts with my partner. None of those actions would please me nor my partner in the long run if I was forcing myself to perform them or doing them "because I had to".

And a hell yes to waiting for a partner who not only respects one's autonomy, but is willing to wait for a hell yes rather than a how bout now. Because the latter betrays a partner more interested in meeting their needs than respecting their partner and views their partner as some form of living sex toy and no one deserves to be reduced to that.

Anyways, great post and glad to see the concept catching on.

Cerberus said...


It's not enthusiastic sex, it's enthusiastic consent. One is still free to try crappy sex, except the idea is that any partner has a right to stop it at any time and if sex isn't working, the partner who notices their partner not enjoying themselves should want to change it up to either please their partner or find out what's wrong.

It's encouraging communication so that sex is not something one does to get done, but the mutually pleasurable act it should be. Because who should want to have sex with a hurting partner or a miserable partner or a partner you had to cojole into sex, it's just not good enough in the short run to justify the long-term damage continuing has on the unenthusiastic partner.

And if it just isn't meeting a partner's needs then the couple either needs to discuss alternate setups to their relationship (like opening it up so the more active partner can meet their sexual needs outside), see if the more active partner is able to handle less or no sex, or simply end it. If a couple is unable to form a workaround of being sexually incompatible then they shouldn't be together. It may hurt in the short-term, but such a relationship is always more likely to hurt more in the long-term if you try and force the situation.

Lanafactrix said...

What Cerberus said.

Part of the point of enthusiastic consent is that it encourages a performance rather than a commodity model of sex. The idea isn't that sex is always mind-blowing; in fact, it's the opposite--that sex is something that gets better with practice and that it should only be done with full and enthusiastic participation.

Anonymous said...

This is really really interesting, because my number one problem with the standard of enthusiastic consent has *always* been that it doesn't take asexuality into account. I agree that asexual compromise can get into some very very murky waters, and that any asexual/sexual couple needs to be *really* careful and communicate like hell to make sure it doesn't turn into something nasty. "Resigned" is not good and should not happen.

However, my reading of enthusiastic consent has always been that under that standard it isn't actually *possible* for an asexual person to meaningfully consent, because we will never be able to muster the required enthusiasm for the sex act in and of itself. And. You know. Fuck *that*.

pretzelboy said...

Cerberus, I don't feel like I can see a big distinction between enthusiastic consent and enthusiastic sex. Most of the things that other people get me to do in my everyday life, I am more than willing to do and freely consent to, but I'm not like "Hell yes!" about them. "Hell yes!" is reserved for things that I either really want to do (and am excited about) or things that I pretend like I want to do.

I guess that part of my issue with the idea of "enthusiastic consent" is that the author has a very specific audience and age-group in mind, and "enthusiastic consent" may well be appropriate for the first few times people have sex--but the idea that both people will be really excited about sex every time they have it (even in situations were consent is clearly present) is nonsense.

This kind of idea, as I understand it, can create sexual problems for lots of couples. Suppose that we have some middle aged heterosexual couple that's been married for about 20 years and don't have that much sex anymore, and a big part of the reason why is that they think they should only have sex when both people are really in the mood. But if they have to both be like "hell yes!" at the same time in order to have sex, the result may well be that they almost never have sex--even if this ends up being a considerable source of frustration for both people.

In such situations, of course, communication is essential. But one thing that I've read is often helpful is to agree to have sex on occasions where one person may generally want it and the other is perfectly willing to go along with and try to have a good time. Or they could try to make extra effort to create situations where they'll be more interested, or something like that.

So I guess that my big problem with "enthusiastic consent" is that it doesn't do justice to the reality of actual people's sexual experiences, and it reinforces unrealistic ideals about how awesome sex is, like, always supposed to be. And then people get depressed about how they don't match up to some ideal that--as it turns out--almost nobody matches up to.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and interesting comments. I meant to comment earlier, but ended up doing something else for a while and forgetting about it.

kaz - You say you have trouble believing that an asexual person CAN enthusiastically consent. But it is indeed at least possible for some! I do it on a fairly regular basis, you know.

I have been in situations where I did not enthusiastically consent, and even had experiences of withdrawing consent in the middle of the act. But on the other hand, I have also been able to enthusiastically consent to sex on many occasions. I don't think enthusiastic consent literally means saying "hell yes!" and on that level I think pretzelboy is misunderstanding the concept. It really doesn't refer to that extreme of a level of enthusiasm. Just an enthusiasm which is genuine, and not feigned.

I don't think it suggests that every time a couple has sex, they will be be really really excited about it. C and I hardly ever get all that excited about sex, but it doesn't mean we haven't enthusiastically given consent. We both thoroughly enjoy it.

Also, I don't think it refers to immediate level of interest at any given moment. There are plenty of cases where I'm not that interested to begin with (specifically because I'm not aroused--enthusiasm is usually purely a product of arousal for me) but willing to go along with it, but then I get more enthusiastic about it as I get more involved with it. I don't think that in any way means I haven't given enthusiastic consent.