The idea of enthusiastic consent seems to have generated a bit of confusion in the wake of the Consent is Sexy campaign. (For a reminder of what enthusiastic consent is, see the vocab entry) Since the posters appeared on campus, I have heard complaints that enthusiastic consent is not realistic, that some people don’t like to shout out “Yes!! Yes!!” (as if this is the only way to give consent, or the campaign is trying to say this), and that people should be allowed to have quiet sex without facing rape allegations (again, I believe this to be an extreme conflation of the point of some of the more humorous posters.) In response to some of these questions and critiques, I would like to share my story, which I feel shows why enthusiastic consent is so important (and not that complicated).
I was assaulted at Haverford in September of 2010. I invited a guy I met at a concert back to my apartment, with absolutely no intention of engaging in sexual activity– I was merely interested in hanging out. That was not his interest. When he went to kiss me, I tried to avoid it, but he kissed me anyways. When he started to undress, I changed the subject and left the room; he followed me. He didn’t ask if he could go down on me, he just started doing it. I felt paralyzed. All I wanted him to do was leave. As he sat on top of me and shoved his penis in my face, he asked if I would “return the favor.” I was pinned by the weight; I didn’t feel I had a choice. When he put his hands around my throat and then asked if I liked to be choked, I felt the color drain out of my face and I started to hyperventilate. I was terrified. He either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. When he tried to insert himself inside me and I let out some kind of whimper, he looked up, and asked if I didn’t want to fuck him. He asked, why not? I had had sex with so many other people anyway, what was one more? I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t speak anymore; I was confused and afraid. I simply nodded no, and after some persistence, he finally rolled over. I waited for him to go to sleep, and snuck into my room to sleep where I felt safer. I was terrified all night that he would wake up and try to come into my bed. In the morning he did, and wouldn’t listen as I told him to stop. It wasn’t until my roommate woke up, and told us irritatingly to be quiet, that I finally got up and tried to get him to leave. I made him a cup of coffee, to take with him (I emphasized.) He asked suspiciously if I was trying to get rid of him. I started to panic and offered him a bagel to go.
I was assaulted at Haverford. Maybe I was raped at Haverford. It took me so long to accept the word “assault” in the first place, that I am no longer sure. I always felt like a fraud, because I didn’t scream, because I didn’t physically try to push him off, because I didn’t stick to my initial “no” once he started pressuring me. But I was assaulted. I did not give consent for any of the sex acts I experienced that night. Though I didn’t always explicitly say the word “no,” my body language and social cues did. When I changed the subject, left the room, and made excuses, he did not listen. When my body tensed up and I started to hyperventilate, he did not listen. When I did manage to say no explicitly, he didn’t listen. Instead, he slut-shamed me into feeling like I had no right to say no. I did not give enthusiastic consent. When I did give consent, it was coerced through shame. This is not consent. It is rape.
The next time I tried to have sex with my boyfriend following my assault, I had a really hard time. I started out very into it. I love sex– I can talk about it all day, and do it all night. It started out like any other sexual encounter between my boyfriend and I– sexy, raunchy, and a bit loud. But as his head started wandering lower and lower, I began to tense up. I started to flash back to when my assaulter had done the same. I was not relaxed, happy, or excited anymore. I was stiff, and I began to hyperventilate. I felt paralyzed then, as I had the night of my assault, unable to say no, unable to do anything but pray it would be over quickly. As soon as my boyfriend sensed this switch, he stopped. He looked up at me to gauge my reaction and figure out what was wrong, and saw me silently crying. Thanks to his sensitivity, to his attention to my involvement in the sexual interaction, I was not re-victimized. Seeing that I was uncomfortable, he stopped immediately. This is what it means to seek enthusiastic consent.
Consent is sexy. If you like having sex with someone who is detached, stiff, or not interested/engaged, they make sex dolls for that. Sex is an act that involves another person; we must treat each other as persons, deserving attention, respect, and sensitivity. We must ensure our partner(s)’ active, excited participation. We must pay attention to their body language. We must hear their breathing. We must look for that glint in their eyes that says “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” We must listen (with pride as appropriate) as they scream out “Yes! Yes! OH GOD YES!!” If you pay attention to your partner(s), enthusiastic consent becomes obvious, whether or not yelling is involved. And if you’re not sure, ask. Two guys in my lifetime have asked if they could kiss me. I was deeply touched each time, and the fact that they asked me made me want to kiss them even more. Consent is not coerced or obtained through shame. It is enthusiastic. And it is very, very sexy.
For another survivor’s story on why enthusiastic consent is important, click here.