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Let’s Talk About Sex, During Sex: Expanding Consent

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March 10, 2014

Since entering the wide and wonderful world of feminism, I’ve always been known as the “sex educator” friend. I’ve put condoms on bananas, explained how the hymen works, and of course, hammered in what consent actually is numerous times. I talk about sex, a lot. Especially with those I actually have sex with—which is often what surprises people the most.

Just the other night I was talking with two of my best friends late into the night, and we were discussing our relationships, current challenges, successes, how great Space Jam is, and of course, sex. At one point I was personally sharing a recent sexual encounter that I’d had with someone I’m seeing. In describing the story, I told my friend matter-of-factly that I asked him if he’d want to go down on me—this was just one point of many in the story, but one of my friends interrupted me.

“Oh my gosh. You’re much bolder than I am—I just don’t know if I could ever do that.”

“Do what?”

“Just say it like that.  Just ask for it like that. I feel like it would be uncomfortable. I’m definitely not at that point yet.”

We moved on to other topics, but I kept mulling over what she had said later on. And it made me think, and consider a lot about the way I talk about sex versus other people I know. To which I began to wonder—why is communication in bed seen as not just ”unsexy” but innaccesible? Being honest about our desires, in the moment, when having sex with other people? Which led me to realize how much the current mainstream conversation about sex is failing us.

We think often about consent as having to put forth what we don’t want: don’t do this, don’t do that, etc. and there’s been a fair amount of pushback against that idea from the feminist/sex-positivity movements. That consent should be defined by the lack of a no, but the presence of an enthusiastic yes. But what about after we say yes? When we really do want to have sex with somebody, or somebodies, but we don’t feel like we can concretely lay out what our desires are. Many of my friends know how to, and feel confident in being able to let a partner know that they would or would not like to partake in sex in the general sense—but the idea of saying something like “Could you pull my hair?” “Would you like to go down on me?” “can we do this position instead of that one?” is a foreign concept.

Consent is about an enthusiastic yes. But it’s also about feeling comfortable, and safe, in communicating desire. Consent needs to have space for actual communication—whether verbal or not— that isn’t just yes or no, but “I would like it if  you do this,” Keep doing that,” “I like that but maybe try this,” and on and on.

It might seem simple—to just talk about it—but we’re repeatedly told by cultural messaging that communication isn’t attractive, or it will hurt your partner’s ego, or all kinds of other bullshit. And depending on the identities people having sex with each other hold—a man and a woman; a cis person and a trans* person; an able-bodied person and a person with a disability—a person holding an oppressed identity that a sexual partner doesn’t share can make one feel disempowered to speak up.

We need to keep emphasizing an enthusiastic yes when it comes to consent—but we also need to bring into the conversation that it is not only okay, but healthy and in many ways necessary to talk to a partner about sex during sex, beyond yes or no answers.

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