23 May 2015

Consent is important. Don’t oversimplify it.

Rape happens. It’s an awful reality, which a lot of good people are working very hard to fix. That starts with teaching people about consent and why it’s essential to healthy sexual interactions. But a lot of explanations of consent, while undeniably good and well intentioned, fall short of the truth.

The conventional wisdom is essentially you should only have sex if everyone involved wants to. That’s true, but not the whole story. The thing is, there are many reasons that people might want to have sex, and they might disagree with your reasons, or even your idea of what it means to want something. And that’s okay.

I’ve been in healthy relationships in which there was a mutual agreement that initiating sex while the other partner was asleep was perfectly acceptable. It was understood that if either of us wanted an interaction to stop, we would say so and the other partner would respect that. So my partner initiated sex with me while I was asleep, and vice versa—does that make us both rapists? Of course not. Those who would say yes aren’t examining deeply enough what consent really is.

I’ve been in situations where one partner was in the mood for sex, while the other partner was not. Yet the non-aroused partner still helped the aroused one to feel satisfied. They did something they didn’t “want” to do, and yet no rape occurred—it was simply a case of a person doing something to please their partner with the understanding of non-obligation and reciprocity. That’s not only okay, it’s a prominent feature of good sex and good relationships.

I have experienced unwanted sexual situations. They were horrible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. But consent is not a black-and-white, unequivocal issue. It relies on a continual dialogue of reciprocity and mutuality, and it’s up to individuals to decide what is and is not okay.

It’s not for an outsider to decide from their armchair whether some interaction between other people was okay or not. If someone says they were raped, you listen to them. And if they say they weren’t, you listen to them then, too.