“So what’s the best way, in day-to-day life, to establish what someone likes? Well, we fucking ask them.” ~ Cordelia Fine
So, following a discussion I recently had on Facebook, prompted by this Ravishly article around practicing consent as a heterosexual woman, I agreed to write my thoughts on the subject of women and consent. While I liked the article I’ve linked to and thought the author, Suzannah Weiss, made her points well, everyone else involved with the discussion tended to disagree with me.
I had originally linked to the article because I felt that; in the context of a movement where we’re trying to teach young men that wearing a woman down until she stops saying no – or getting her so drunk she doesn’t think to say no – doesn’t mean that you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you’ve got this whole consent thing covered, it’s worth pointing out to women that while they might not be going around raping men in large numbers that doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of using shady or disrespectful methods to obtain consent.
Boundaries are for everybody; and we should all be taking care to ensure that we respect each other’s.
It’s out of order for any of us to manipulate, coerce, or otherwise try to ‘persuade’ someone to have sex if they’ve already made it clear that they don’t want to. Pressurising people into sex is bad, folks.
And yet, society feeds us a couple of gender stereotypical messages that can make it difficult to recognise without careful examination that this is what we are doing.
The first of these messages is that men are up for sex whenever, wherever, with whoever.
This isn’t the case and it’s an unhelpful idea all round.
It’s unhelpful for anyone who wants to have sex with a man because it suggests that if he doesn’t immediately start ripping your clothes off at the merest suggestion of the idea you just need to carry on ‘seducing’ him and eventually he’ll be turned on and ready to go. And if that doesn’t work you must be inherently undesirable.
It’s unhelpful to the man himself because it suggests to him that if he isn’t always up for it for whatever reason there must be something wrong with him, because every other guys is. And it can prompt him to ‘perform’ when he doesn’t particularly want to, out of a sense of guilt or obligation – well this is what I should want to be doing – or because he fears that otherwise his partner will feel rejected or unattractive.
The second problematic but prevalent idea is that men are inherently stronger than women.
In the context of sexual relationships this is a problem for women – as we’re taught that because we’re supposedly physically weaker than men we can’t coerce them, or each other, into doing anything. Which is unhelpful because for a lot of women it has meant that they haven’t felt the need to examine whether their own behaviour is out of line. If you’re under the impression that you can’t make someone do anything that don’t want to do you’re unlikely to stop to consider whether they’re only going to bed with you because they felt like they had to.
It’s an issue for men because it can result in their boundaries being pushed or ignored to the point where they end up engaging in sex that they’d rather not have.
Now I’m not suggesting that this is the same as a lack of consent; but if, for example, I want to have sex with my boyfriend and he says he’s really tired, he’s just come off nights, work was really draining, and he just wants to go to sleep, I should just let him go to sleep. I should not sulk, or guilt him into doing something he’s just said he doesn’t want to do.
Otherwise he might consent, but he’d be consenting because it was the easiest way to deal with me being a dick.
And that really isn’t okay.
Reluctant consent isn’t good enough; we should all be aiming for sexual relationships in which we and our partners feel comfortable declining sex and knowing that their wishes will then be respected.
And as a bonus, hopefully by paying closer attention to how we treat our sexual partners’ boundaries we’ll more easily able to recognise if their behaviour towards us crosses the line. And feel more confident in asserting ourselves and saying, actually, no means no, this isn’t okay.