Originally published at The Good Men Project.
“Sex just isn’t fun any more.”
“What!?” I exclaimed.
“I dunno. I just feel like its gotten to the point where if I want to sleep with someone, I should get a notarized, written statement of their consent. It’s just gotten crazy!”
I cannot tell you how many times I have had this conversation. As a sexual violence prevention educator, one thing is very clear to me: we suck at talking about sex.
I mean, for most of us, our only real models for learning about sexual communication are porn and television. Yet sex is a huge part of most people’s lives. Many of us learn along the way (usually from a patient partner) how to communicate well in sex, but with as many as 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, it’s clear we need to completely revamp how we talk about sex.
When I was a teenager, I probably had 10 wildly embarrassing sex talks with my dad. They basically went like this:
“Jamie, being Catholic, we would obviously prefer that you wait until marriage. But as an OB and family physician, I know all too well the consequences of sex outside of marriage, so if you’re going to have sex, please be safe. If you need me to buy you condoms, I will. Just be careful.”
That’s it. About ten years after my first chat with my dad, I asked him, “In all of those awkward sex talks we had, why didn’t we ever talk about consent?”
His response? “I guess I didn’t think of it.” Nowhere was there even a hint that consent is an important part of sex. And certainly not the idea that we should be equally or more intentional about than traditional understandings of “safer sex.”
But I don’t blame my dad. No one ever taught him how to have that conversation.
In her treatise on love and relationships, All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks notes,
Our nation is…driven by sexual obsession. There is no aspect of sexuality that is not studied, talked about, or demonstrated. How-to classes exist for every dimension of sexuality, even masturbation. Yet schools for love do not exist. Everyone assumes that we will know how to love instinctively (xxviii).
Her remarks about love are dead on, but despite the robust conversation about sex in the United States, there is one area of sexuality for which there are still too few schools: consent.
Too often, the conversation about consent (if it happens at all) goes like this:
Women , make sure you communicate what you want with a simple “Yes” or a “No.” If he doesn’t respect that, kick him in the balls.
Men, listen to what women tell you. No Means No!
While well-intentioned, thinking about consent in this way frankly sucks. First, it presumes heterosexuality (because sexual violence never happens in Queer relationships, right?). It also presumes that the only people that need to communicate their needs and desires are women and that women are the only people who might experience unwanted sexual advances or contact. It says little of asking, only of listening. It assumes the only answers are yes and no. Plus, it’s BLAND and it’s BORING!
And when something so important to our sexual relationships is only taught in bland, boring ways, is it any wonder that the rates of sexual violence are so damn high?
I mean, the vast majority of sexual violence happens between two people who know each other, often between people who have or have had a sexual relationship. Sexual violence is not exclusively a problem of serial-rapists, roofied drinks, or someone jumping out of the bushes—though those things happen and must be addressed. Many of those committing sexual violence don’t set out or intend to commit the act, and many are so out of communication with their partner that they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong!
Clearly, sexual violence is a problem of communication.
If we hope to prevent the sexual violence that affects so many of those we love, we have to change the conversation. While consent should be about preventing sexual violence, it is about so much more. It is also about creating healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships!
I want my consent to be fun, freaky, sexy, silly, seductive, creative, captivating! I want it all, and I want it healthy and mutual! What’s wonderful, though, is that it can be ALL of these things and more. Studies have shown that healthy, open communication leads to better sex. And who doesn’t want better sex?