Active Sexual Consent (and Dissent)

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Since Jonathan Korman wrote about consent, I’ve been giving it some deep thought. Including the comment by Niki Whiting on how women need to be educated about consent. And I’ve been thinking of it in context of the freak out in the atheist community over harassment, and in other freak outs that have happened in the Pagan community. I think one of the problems with consent and communication is that we tend to treat sexual attraction as some sort of mystical, ineffable esoteric experience.

With examples like Tristan and Isolde, no wonder we're mixed up about consent.

Think about any romantic scene in a movie. Eyes meet, the tension is palpable, they both know what the other is thinking, then suddenly they are naked and doing the deed. While it may make for good tv, is that really the way sex happens? Of course not. And that’s one reason we are confused about sex and consent. Because a look isn’t clear communication, particularly between people who don’t know each other very well.

Since we have this idea that sex begins with something so ephemeral and esoteric as a look, we get hyper-sensitive around the confusing looks, words and touches that we think might lead to sex. We have built an edifice of shadows and mirrors consisting of sexualizing the non-sexual and obfuscating sexual desire until I’m completely surprised that anyone ever gets laid.

One of the flashpoints over the atheist freakout is a woman who was uncomfortable that a man had asked her back to his room for coffee while they were alone on an elevator at 4 am. People are freaking out on all sides. Testosterone-laden misogynists are lashing out and so are feminists. And there seems to be very little middle ground.

I keep thinking about this in light of my own experiences at Pagan festivals and conferences. I have always felt very safe at these events. I have had men that I don’t know well come up to hug and kiss me, and I never had the impression that it was sexual or that it was inappropriate. I have never felt harassed. I have had friends receive inappropriate propositions from men. Generally it was the man’s first time at such an event and it was made clear to them their behavior was inappropriate. I know men who have received inappropriate propositions from women at these events, and again they were rebuffed in a way that made clear that their behavior was inappropriate. When behavior is inappropriate staff at these events are generally very quick to address it.

I think part of the reason I feel so safe and feel comfortable giving and receiving hugs at these events is that the majority of Pagans are very aware that sexual actions require clear consent. I’ve chatted a bit about this with some male friends. One told me that unless a woman explicitly states that she wants to have sex with him, he doesn’t interpret any interaction with a woman as sexual. Another told me he politely declined an invitation from an intoxicated woman because there was obviously not clear consent. I’ve also been told that men are can be wary of expressing interest in a woman, because sometimes it just takes one woman being offended at being approached to give you a bad reputation, and it’s worse as you get older.

I think about this in context of “Elevatorgate.” That the woman was uncomfortable is clear, but from her own statement is doesn’t sound like any major boundaries were crossed. An offer was made and refused. This particular incident seems to be a classic case of proper behavior, although if coffee is a euphemism for sex it’s a poor one. Had this happened at a Pagan conference it would have passed by without incident, because in general we are good with sexual boundaries. Apparently atheists are not, and this innocuous incident simply became the flashpoint that set off atheist women discussing really common inappropriate behavior in their community, like groping and rape threats.

What seems to be happening in this atheist freakout is that proper communication and consent are being conflated with harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct. If being groped and harassed are a serious problem at these events, you can understand why this happens. People’s nerves are worn raw and until the actual problems are addressed everything involving sex, sexuality and gender at these events will become a flashpoint. Rather bizarre, to think that this is one area where atheists are failing in comparison to religious conferences.

Consent is something I have learned through experience and self-knowledge. There was no one to teach me the art of communication and consent in a sexual context. In my younger days I was confused about consent and communication, and made a few faux pas along the way. I also had some lovers who led by example. I was completely shocked when I had a friend ask me point-blank if I would like to have sex. I was so shocked I said no a bit indignantly. Once the shock wore off, I realized that was a brilliant way to approach sex. We did become lovers, with crystal clear consent, and I cherish the memory. But I wasn’t brave enough to practice such clear communication for years. I had another relationship in which consent, boundaries and communication was initiated by my partner, and I learned a lot from him about being clear about expectations and needs.

A few months ago I was dating a nice guy. I liked him. He liked me. So I made it clear that I would like to have sex, and if he agreed then we needed to go ahead and plan for that. He did agree. Maybe it wasn’t an ideal romance comedy lead up to a sexual encounter, but we had a good time. With clear expectations up front, there was no fumbling or sheepishness about using protection, and I had an overnight bag so I didn’t have the “walk of shame” look the next morning. I was very pleased with how smooth and worry-free the whole experience was for me.

Practicing active, clear communication around sexual consent is so important. Had I known in my early 20′s what I know now, I could have saved myself some heartache. So here is what I’ve learned, and what I would teach any of my potential hypothetical children:

Non-consensual sexual harm is wrong. This should be self-explanatory and should not be acceptable in any community. This statement does not require qualifiers, and beware of people who try to add them. BDSM is consensual, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Anyone below the legal age of consent by law is being harmed even if they consent. People who advocate sex with anyone below the legal age of consent is not someone you want to be around.

You are allowed to ask for sex. Politely, clearly and before any overt sexual advances are made, it is ok to express an interest in having sex with someone you like. Ask them. Make it clear you are asking, that you are talking about sex, and that you will respect whatever answer they give. Asking for sex does not make you a slut or a whore. Asking for sex does not mean you have to accept insults regarding your sexuality.

No means NO. If they tell you they are not interested, you don’t ask again. You don’t pressure them, judge them or treat them unkindly. If you liked them enough to want to have sex with them, then they should be someone you still think is an awesome person after they decline sex.

You have a right to clear sexual communication. Mixed signals are not ok. Maybe the person giving them has no ill intent, but that does not make it ok. Someone who may have turned you down before may change their mind, but it is their job to express that to you clearly. If someone is not being clear or making you feel uncomfortable regarding consent, then you shouldn’t be having sex with them.

You have the right to say No. Saying No does not make you a bad person. Saying No should not end a friendship. Saying No does not make you frigid or a prude or unmanly. Saying No does not mean you have to accept insults regarding your sexuality. It is ok to say No within a consensual relationship. You don’t have to say why you are saying No. If you say No and change your mind later, that is ok and you need to communicate that clearly.

Talking about sex is not the same as asking for sex. Just because someone is comfortable talking about sex, does not mean they are consenting to have sex with you. By the same token, you should be able to talk about sex without anyone mistaking that for consent.

Not everyone is comfortable with consent or the language of sex. Even if you do everything right, if you are clear, polite, non-judgmental  or simply discussing sex, people may mistake your intent. You may ask someone for coffee, and they interpret that as sex. Someone may invite you to dinner, and they may think that by accepting you have consented to sex. Try to believe the best of people, trust your instincts, be polite and be clear.

Every culture treats sex differently. An intelligent, attractive, educated and experienced Pagan partner will have a different perspective of sex than an intelligent, attractive, educated and experienced Catholic partner. Be aware of these cultural differences. A Catholic lover may have an issue with birth control. A Pagan partner may not expect an exclusive relationship. Don’t assume all smart, sex-savvy people are the same regardless of culture.

I’m by no means an expert, but I think that’s a pretty good set of things of which to be mindful. Certainly a good set of things for atheists to be mindful of, it seems. The mystery of sex is in the act. We need to remove the mystery from communicating interest and consent, and seperate the wholesome aspects of sex from non-consensual sexual harm. That won’t happen on a large scale in my lifetime. But it certainly could happen in our communities. All it takes is a little education.

Love is the law, love under will.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • sunfell

    In a perfect world, coffee would be coffee, dinner would be dinner, and dating would be fun instead of the horror-fest it often is. Sadly, this isn’t a perfect world, and for some guys, all of that – coffee, dinner, and especially a date- means ‘sex’- even if you indicate that it does not. For them, ‘no’ means ‘keep asking and wear her down, and if she keeps saying ‘no’, ignore it.’ Once broken, trust is difficult- if not impossible to regain. I’ve learned not to even smile at or speak to men I do not know- because some of them believe mere eye-or social contact means sex.  Of course, that makes me a ‘frigid bitch’, but I’ve already been sorry. Now I prefer to be safe.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       I’m sorry you’ve had that experience.

  • Ladycicilia

    “Asking for sex does not make you a slut or a whore.” It also doesn’t make you a creepy harasser if you are male. As long as you make a polite offer, and politely accept being turned down, the one you asked really shouldn’t have a leg to stand on to freak out about it. I know too many nice guys who are afraid to proposition anyone ever, because they don’t want to be labeled “creepy”. Note I said “polite”. If you do it wrong you definitely can make it sexual harassment!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1405785827 Mark Pemburn

    Superb!  Thank you!  Would that I had heard this message when I was young, it would have saved a lot of heartache and loneliness.  Not too late (even in one’s sixties) to embrace new perspectives.  

    BTW: I’ve been in the pagan community for the last 15+ years and would claim that no broad generalizations can be made of our attitudes or behavior in any realm.  I can’t speak for the atheists (though it tickles me to hear them referred to a ‘religious’ community ;-)  We are all products of our backgrounds as well as our individual proclivities and YMMV.

  • Aidan Kelly

    Your sanity is awesome.

  • Ywendragoneye

    Excellent advice. I don’t really understand getting all upset about being propositioned, but I suppose it depends on the situation. Reminds me of the whole Larry Craig uproar. Is it illegal to tap your foot in an airport restroom? Is it illegal to proposition someone in an airport bathroom? Seems to me no illegal act occurred. Hypocritical, based on his his political stance (pun intended), but how is tapping your foot against the law? But back to your original writing, I would much rather someone ask, than just assume and make an unwanted move.


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