I posted to Facebook what I thought was a very interesting article about consent that argued it should be about asking a sexual partner whether they want something so that they have the chance to say “yes” rather than only pushing their boundaries until they say “no”. The idea was to look at consent as people’s (and specifically women’s) chances to affirm desire for sex rather than only as brakes on sex. In response Heina (of Skepchick fame) stopped by and also linked to a similarly constructive and sex-positive take on consent.
I liked the articles because they reminded me of a relationship with a woman (I will be vague for her privacy’s sake) wherein she once, unprompted said, “never ask me to do x”. So I never did. Then one night she asked me, “do you ever do x?” And I said I did and I liked it. She said it would make her feel weird. So I didn’t at all ask her to do it. Then that night, she initiated our doing x and she completely threw herself into it and was awesome at it and we both had one of our best nights together. And I loved how awesome it was to have her want it and choose it completely for herself with complete freedom to not do it.
But the articles’ talk of explicit communication and explicit “yesses” in sex got some pushback from two women who expressed attitudes that they, and supposedly all women they knew offline, wanted a man who didn’t need to stop and talk because that just killed the mood or showed a lack of mastery on his part. So, I want to speculate a bit about where such attitudes, which are culturally pervasive, might come from and express why they are so problematic to me (regardless of where they come from).
For centuries in the West, marriages were arranged around other factors than romantic love. As a result of this the romanticization of love and the idealization of romantic love occurred in stories that were at odds with the institution of marriage. Stories of adultery or of desiring to marry someone socially forbidden or someone other than the one arranged for you highlighted the tension between one’s yearnings to be with someone based on infatuated love and sexual attraction, on the one hand, and social responsibility to marry as one was expected to, on the other.
And still to this day, one finds romantic comedies and romantic subplots often beginning with the hurdles of existing relationships or social customs that would have to be overcome in order for the protagonists to be together. Forbidden, stolen, sinful, passionate, emotional, desirous, romanticized, and idealized love is all celebrated and contrasted with institutionalized, customary, socially approved, religiously sanctioned, realistic, committed, routinized, and supposedly “rational” love. The heart goes against reason, passion goes against custom, the natural goes against the civilized, and sex goes against propriety.
It was typical of the romantic era, being both a manifestation of and a reaction to the Enlightenment, to dualistically oppose nature to civilization, emotion to reason, and love to custom. There have also been many accounts of women as more emotional, more bodily, and more in touch with nature than men, who are considered (with sexist presumption) to be more rational. And at least back as far as the Greeks there has been the notion that emotions were inherently passively experienced things that threaten to overcome one and from which one suffers.
And, possibly worst of all, Christianity is behind much of this dualism with its language of the flesh vs. the spirit and its penchant for constantly treating sexual desire as a temptation towards sin or (at its worst) a sin itself. By spreading so much mistrust and vilification of sex, sex becomes exciting as a form of mischief and transgression, and having sex takes on the passive form of falling into temptation, losing one’s spiritual control and descending into fleshly animality. And blaming sex on the devil or on the power of one’s lusts against one’s will, make it possible to both have sex and then be forgiven for it. If one is overwhelmed one can displace some responsibility for “sinning”. Weakness is more forgivable than deliberate agency and so there is incentive again to conceive of sex as a form of succumbing to passion.
These dualistic oppositions are all false, simplistic, and counter-productive to dealing with reality and living as happily as possible and having happy sex. In particular, they set up unrealistic expectations and criteria for sex and love. What gets built into our attitudes are the questionable assumptions that all true love and good sex comes “naturally” where “naturally” means without any active work or obstacles to overcome along the way. We have to passively fall into love and be overcome by sexual desires and orgasms. We cannot think our way there. And, so the myth goes, the custom, obligation, and routinization of sex in marriage spell the death of sex. Hot sex is not something you can ever expect or plan or calculate or work on. True love can have nothing to do with contractual obligations.
So, with these sorts of crummy attitudes, many people find the often inevitable challenges to work on their love relationship to be a sign that the relationship is irreparably flawed. True love is supposed to just happen with no effort and no compromises necessary. And for some people, any disruptions of sex because of physical fumbles, external distractions, awkward recommendations, refused requests, struggles to get wet or keep an erection, or simple pauses to ask about how things are going are enough to spoil the whole mood. Because supposedly all this reality disrupts fantasy, all thinking breaks the spell of illusion, all this active choosing means not passively being overwhelmed, all this imprecision and lack of mastery signifies one’s lover is a loser. Or asking your partner to do a lot of work for you or to follow careful instructions feels like you would make yourself a mood-killing burden and makes you self-conscious. So, people judge there’s no point in going on “faking” it. Or, worse, they just opt to fake it to save face, and end up unsatisfied.
And I suspect it is in the context of some of these mythological dualisms that people become suspicious of calls for explicitly communicated consent and discussion of sex. It’s assumed that you shouldn’t have to ask because were you a truly desirable person you would simply be able to make your lover feel overwhelmed with so much desire that they just cannot refuse any longer. The game for women is supposed to be “resist enough at first in order to make a man prove that he can overcome resistances with his skill and his charm and make you desire against your reason”.
Because supposedly love and sex should not come from the head. They should come from the heart and the loins against all reason. They should be irresistible. So a woman should start out trying to resist. She should start out trying to be the protector of decorum and institution and chastity and reasonableness and civilization. And then the guy should go out of the realm of reason, into displays of power and charm and induce irrational desires such that she cannot help herself but submit, return to nature, and become wild and passionate.
Notice, it’s not just women who are supposed to be passive here. The active men are themselves passively to be under the sway of their animal lusts. Women are not (technically) supposed to be raped on this model but rather they are to be so passionately overwhelmed that they can’t help but want it bodily and obviously–even though their reason might actually say no. Neither are supposed to be reasoning here. Women sometimes see the sexual thrill as the ability to make their men overcome with lust and unable to resist, too. Sex is not rational for anyone. (Just as theists unfoundedly often claim to atheists that love is not supposed to be rational either and therefore is some proof that there are good things that are irrational like faith is.)
But sex is not just a passive thing that happens to people. It is an activity, and one that requires some choices and some practice and some responsibility and some adjustments from person to person and occasion to occasion. So we should not inculcate in people fears that they are doing it wrong when sometimes it requires some work, skill, practice, discussion, and even concentration. These things make it clear to someone that it’s not really just a passive, overwhelming easy pleasure. And when this happens they can feel crippling anxiety and pressure rather than pleasure if they self-consciously misinterpret the active work they have to put in as a failure to “fall into” sex the right way or to be “naturally” a virtuoso at it.
Sex is an art. There should be no shame in having to learn it, to practice it, to ask questions about it, to communicate with one’s partner about it, to plan for it, to read about it, to experiment with it. We shouldn’t have to feel like failures in magnetic sexual power when we prove not to be mind readers who can expertly figure out all that a specific partner needs and wants without ever having to talk about it explicitly. We shouldn’t feel like our pleasures are unreal or not worth it for our partners if they take some work to achieve. We shouldn’t have to feel like we cannot deliberately schedule sex lest it be inherently routinized. We shouldn’t feel like there is no way to deliberately create a sexual mood lest we be faking it. We shouldn’t have to fear that committing to a lifetime of sex with someone (whether monogamously or polyamorously) is a death sentence to passion. In lovemaking familiarity can breed an intimacy and mutual understanding and rhythm and experimentation and practice and mutual experience that can make the whole thing richer and more reliably satisfying than many barely pre-discussed one night stands with all their risks of miscommunication and hit-and-miss experiments and social norms against treating sex like something intimate friends do rather than something only for the mindless animals within us all.
While everyone’s habits of thinking about sex are different and some of these dualisms may be so ingrained and such a part of the rush of sex for some people that they are things people don’t even want to change their minds about, we can control and renew our attitudes through different habits of mind. And I think we will be generally better off the more that we have attitudes such that reasoning is not the enemy of true emotions, talking is not the enemy of true feelings, working is not the enemy of playing, committing is not the enemy of wanting, comfort is not the enemy of excitement, consent is not the enemy of passion, and sometimes awkwardly experimenting and practicing is not the enemy of fun.
All in all, we will do better if we see sex, even casual sex, as about engaging a full person (or people!) with a full personality and foibles. We can do that and still see them as sexually exciting, impressive, and amazing. There is so much more that we can learn about making ourselves and our partners ecstatically pleased by dealing actively with the realities going on in our sexual encounters than by desperately trying to create and live by silly illusions of passivity. None of this has to be about “forcing” anything. We should not have to fear at all costs “breaking the mood”. When we lose the baggage of so many irrational dualisms, we have sex with a lot less pressure and, potentially, a lot more pleasure, because we’ve brought our full minds and full social and emotional capacities to bear to help our sometimes clueless animal sides along. You know, just like we do everywhere else in civilized society.
More of my thoughts on sex and love can be found in these posts: