Talking about sex can be hard. If the Aziz Ansari debate has taught us anything, it’s that many men and women lack the language to comfortably communicate what they want and don’t want from a sexual encounter. Until now, conversations around consent have been largely delegated to liberal college campuses, in the domain of young activists, and have been a subject of much mockery among those on the right. Aziz Ansari’s case gives us a chance to change that. There really is a way to make consent something ordinary men and women actually want to practice in their own lives. No one wants to be responsible for the worst night of somebody's life, after all.
People are understandably uneasy about discussing consent alongside the current wave of allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. For years, conservatives have mocked consent advocates and rolled their collective eyes at “yes mean yes” laws. Many people who agree that Harvey Weinstein is a villain are skeptical about Ansari (and the two cases are admittedly very different). Even left-leaning mainstream media has gotten in the game now: the New York Times published an op-ed calling the Aziz Ansari episode “bad sex,” and the Washington Post has written that the #MeToo movement “should give one pause.”
Putting aside the important conversations about what kinds of allegations will hold up in a court of law, it’s a good time to remember that talking about sex shouldn’t be so bleak. Asking for consent isn't supposed to feel weird or unnatural. Activists promoting consent frequently claim it can make sex better. Nicole Mazzeo, founder of Pleasure Pie, a Boston-based activist group that promotes sex positivity, agrees that being asked “Do you want to do this?” during sex is a turn-on. “Sometimes I forget to ask myself what I want, so that increases my enjoyment,” she says.
Sex, according to Mazzeo, “needs to be mutual, enthusiastic. When you’re being sexual with someone, everyone should be excited about it and should want it. Sometimes that’s just not there.”
Speaking of the Babe article about Aziz Ansari, Mazzeo says, “What made me cringe was that Grace tried to say no without really saying no, because I could relate so much to that. I wished she’d been more comfortable saying no."
At the same time, she believes Ansari was in the wrong. “It’s hard to imagine that he was certain she was saying yes.”
Mazzeo agreed it's strange that in many stories like Grace’s, women often put their concern for the man’s feelings over their own physical wellbeing. Women can have a difficult time saying no. “Often women are socialized to be accomodating and polite,” Mazzeo points out. “A lot of it is politeness and fear that the other person will be hurt by your rejection.”
She, like many consent activists, believe it’s especially important for women to learn they can take ownership of their sexual experiences and not think of themselves as being acted upon during sex. “There’s this idea that women aren’t supposed to like or want sex, that men are supposed to be the gatekeepers to sex.”
Practicing consent is a way for women to reclaim their sexual power. “As a woman, it can be hard to get to a place where you feel like a fully active participant in sex, and not prioritize the desires of another over your own desires. But everyone going into sex should prioritize everyone’s desires equally. If it seems like your partner isn’t as engaged, don’t think of it as the type of sex you’re trying to have.”
We can all learn a lot from the young leaders of the consent movement. Groups like Party With Consent have been hosting consent workshops at campuses for years. "Students struggle with coercion versus consent," founder Jonathan Kalin told the Guardian. "Our program poses questions like: 'If I asked you to have sex 20 times, and on the 21st time you agreed to stop me annoying you, is that consent?'"
As a man working to promote consent, Kalin has a keen understanding of why it's so difficult for men to talk frankly about consensual sex. "Understanding sex is central to our masculinity, up there with athletic ability and financial success," Kalin told AlterNet. "If you're masculine enough it's something that you just 'get.'" Kalin says many men want sex communication to "look effortless like we often see in movies. Our education system and media has done very little to promote what healthy sexual consent is supposed to look like for young men." Also to blame: "the years of male-gaze pornography he has consumed."
A common thread among the consent community is that consent should be fun and sex-positive. Asking for consent certainly helps prevent miscommunications — that may lead to allegations of assault in a worst-case scenario — but many consent activists would rather focus on the more upbeat aspects of consent, like the ways it can make people more comfortable with their bodies and help them enjoy sex more. As sex educator Emma McGowan writes in Bustle, “No one likes the idea of having to stop making out and say, 'Can I kiss? Are you OK with my hand on your leg? Do you like when I touch your hair?' like some automaton every time something new is introduced. Nothing about that model is appealing.”
Luckily, there are other, less uncomfortable ways. Another consent group, the Consensual Project, has published an awesome list of no-fuss ways that people can bring consent practices into their own lives. These methods aren’t formal or rigid; they focus on making sex fun and comfortable for both parties. Those who think of consent as a constant repetition of “Is this okay?” in the middle of a hookup may be pleased to read the Consensual Project’s list of open-ended questions:
- What are you into?
- What would you like?
- What’s turning you on right now?
- What about X turns you on?
The group writes, "Further, if you ask yes-or-no questions and you’re that much more likely to receive yes-or-no answers. For example, instead of always asking, 'Do you want me to (touching motion) your (body part)?' try out 'Where do you want my hands?' Be prepared to enjoy unexpected answers!"
They also suggest creative activities like writing an erotic letter to get more comfortable talking about what you want during sex:
"What is a love letter? It’s pretty self explanatory. It’s an opportunity to creatively envision your next hookup. You can explore the mood, the environment, the wardrobe, or anything and everything you can imagine. That way, when it comes time for your next hookup, you’ll be more equipped to express what you want. It's real fun and you don’t have to be a major in literature to do it."
Some takeaways: men, asking for consent doesn’t have to be emasculating or overly formal. And women, getting comfortable with speaking up during sex can make sex even better. “It will be awkward at first, but you get used to it and it makes sex better in the long run,” Mazzeo says.
Mazzeo, for one, feels optimistic about the future. “I really hope that having a spotlight on this stuff will help us move forward into a place where we have more agreements about what consent means. I think we’re moving in a positive direction.”