Feminism

consent isn’t enough

This is a concept I’ve been wrestling with for a long, long time. In a way, I’ve written about it a few times, most directly here and here. I’ve heard similar thoughts from many women– in comments, in letters, in real-life conversations. Ever since I heard the term enthusiastic consent I’ve latched on to it as my basis for sexual ethics, as I strongly believe that the only sex that should ever happen is sex that all parties definitely and enthusiastically want. The only times I have sex with my partner are times when we both very much want it.

Because, honestly, I’ve always known that simply “giving consent” isn’t enough. There were plenty of times in my abusive relationship where I’d technically consented. Technically, what he did wasn’t a crime. But most of the time, when I technically said yes, everything inside of me was screaming no, no I don’t want this. Afterwards, I’d be left feeling used. Manipulated. Torn.

But … I’d said yes. So, that meant that everything was ok, right?

Last week, though, I read an article titled “Let’s Talk about ‘Consent‘” by Freya Brown. It’s long, and slightly academic, and I’m not sure I agree with all of her conclusions (and am also frustrated by the fact that she never offers an alternative model), but something she said in the middle section got me thinking. She’s discussing how some studies indicate that many women feel sadness, depression, or regret after sex, and that it happens often enough for us to ask why.

Growing up in the purity culture camp, I already knew what studies she was referencing. They’ve been cited in practically every sermon or book on the subject, and used to prove that sex outside of marriage is intrinsically bad for women– that without the comfort and security of marriage, a woman will not to be able to fully enjoy sex, and in fact, could suffer emotional and psychological harm. This interpretation has always set wrong with me, because I always thought why do these studies only show that it’s bad for women? Why do the same studies say that the only regret men have is not having sex more often?

Of course, the gender essentialist answer will be something along the lines of “duh.”

But that’s a blithe answer, and gender essentialism doesn’t really stand up under a microscope. So … why?

The answer Freya Brown gives is “patriarchy,” in a similar sense of how I think of makeup and shaving. I like wearing makeup– I enjoy the experience, the artistry. But one of the reasons why I like it is that it helps my face conform to Western beauty standards just a tad more; my eyes appear larger, my lips poutier, my cheekbones and jawline sharper.

In my life, I rarely wear makeup. I don’t feel any pressure at all to wear makeup when I leave my house, and anyone who thinks I look sick or dowdy or tired or unprofessional can go fuck themselves with a cheese grater. Same thing with shaving– sometimes I like the feel of smooth legs, but if I want to go the beach with hairy armpits and legs, then that’s what I’m going to do.

Sex, just like everything else, takes place in a culture, a system– a system dominated by misogyny and the subjugation of women to male desire and expectation. Personally, I only have it when I want it, but just like many women don’t feel comfortable leaving their home without “war paint” on (or are punished at work for not appearing “professional”), many women have sex under pressured circumstances.

For example, a little while ago I was reading a webcomic, and two of the characters started having PIV sex. It had been established that these two had an ongoing sexual relationship and that she’d happily consented to everything they’d done prior. In this scene, though, he initiated anal without asking (similar to what Danny did to Mindy in a Mindy Project episode). The character seemed hesitant at first, but then went along with it after some cajoling.

The comment section exploded into a discussion of whether or not what happened was technically rape. With all the givens, some said absolutely yes it was rape, and some said hell no it wasn’t. What bothered me about that whole fiasco was that it happened along such divided lines– to these commenters, there seemed to be a mile-wide gap between sex and rape.

An article on a sex-ed website calls “grey rape” a “myth,” and says that “consent or lack thereof is really clear and intuitive.” In a sense, I agree. The difference between legal consensual sex and what will get you thrown in prison (if you’re reported and convicted, a big If) is clear. Couldn’t be clearer. If they didn’t agree, then you’re raping them and you’re committing a felony.

But there’s plenty of other times where someone says “yes,” especially in the bounds of a long-term relationship, but the sex that happens isn’t ideal, healthy, or what it should be. The biggest example that comes to mind is pretty much any woman in a typical Christian marriage.

One of the consistent messages evangelical women get is that they owe their husband sex, that his sex drive must be satisfied at any and all costs– that if she doesn’t fulfill her “wifely duties” her husband could fall into sin, either through pornography or adultery. She must give him sex under pain of a ruined marriage and destroyed family.

Even if any particular woman living under this framework says yes, and even seems to have a healthy, enjoyable sex life … how consensual is it, really? Under these circumstances, does she have an unfettered choice? Could she say “no” and escape the consequences of a manufactured penalty? Could she refuse without pangs of guilt, making her wonder if she had any right to say no?

Maybe. Maybe once, or twice, or rarely, or as long as he still seemed reasonably satisfied. As long as she felt assured she was performing her “duties.”

That is not what sex should look like. A long time ago, I watched a movie (I think it might have been Sunshine Cleaning?) where one of the main characters has sex with her boyfriend, and eventually gets so bored that she flips on the TV and starts watching something banal until he finishes. What I saw happening there wasn’t rape, but what I did see was a guy being a complete and total asshole.

Our culture, and especially Christian culture, is set up to make it deadly certain that male sexual needs and fantasies are consistently gratified. Female pleasure, and even female consent is broadly secondary– making sure we want it, that we’re invested, that we’re enjoying it, that we’re having orgasms, that we don’t feel pressured or coerced in any way … is immaterial to an awful lot of people. As long as he gets to orgasm, as long as she’s willing to “go along with it,” there are a staggering number of men willing to accept that. In fact, some numbers say that 58% of men would “force women to have sex.”

Sex should not be a “duty.” It shouldn’t be an act we feel obligated to perform for other people. It should never be manipulated or coerced. It’s hard for each woman, individually, to operate inside this system where we’re beaten down into thinking things like I have to have sex with him or he’ll leave me.

But we shouldn’t accept this status quo. As the magnificent and wonderful Nicki Minaj put it: “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that.” That’s the attitude that should be accepted and normal. Consent is only the absolute minimum baseline, not the goal. It should be so commonplace for women to be comfortable, and happy, and trusting, and respected during sex that anything else would be as incomprehensible to us as building a bicycle seat out of a cactus.

Update 9/8/15: There has been some confusion over the term enthusiastic consent. As a concept, it is not a description of a person’s emotional state or libido, it is intended only to describe the nature of the consent given. Enthusiastic consent is consent given without any pressure or coercion, that’s all. The opposite of enthusiastic consent would be “grudging consent.”

All individuals have autonomy. This means that it is possible to give unpressed, uncoerced consent no matter your libido or current level of arousal. This applies to anyone on the asexual spectrum, as well. The point of the post is simply to examine some of the various ways our misogynistic culture or unhealthy relationships can apply pressure and make it harder for uncoerced consent to be possible.

I believe it is important for every woman to examine the reasons why she has sex, and if “because I’ll ruin my marriage if I don’t” or “he’ll leave me” or “he’ll make me miserable” or “it’s my duty” or “I owe it to him” are among those reasons, than that is something we should actively fight– in our own relationships and more broadly in our culture.

Photo by Darin Kim
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  • Catherine Martin

    Samantha, I’m a 48 year old woman who was raised in a rather “mild” purity culture. I also have chronic migraine, so I have lots of headaches and terrible fatigue. My husband would have sex at least once a day, if possible. We have enthusiastic sex maybe once a month. But, because I love him, we have some kind of sexual activity (where I rarely climax) once or twice a week. I don’t do this because of my “purity culture” upbringing, but because love is sacrificial. My husband does so much for me. He cooks dinner when I don’t feel well. He takes out the trash, does the snow-blowing, etc., etc. And he makes it “OK” that we don’t have sex as often as he’d like. I don’t think I need to limit sex to just when I feel like it. I don’t feel used, because I’m giving him something he needs, just like when he gives me something I need when he vacuums the living room. It’s this kind of sacrificial love that keeps marriages healthy.

    • I’m in a similar situation. Personally, I hate sex. I didn’t get married just so I could have it; I got married because I love my husband. He sounds a lot like your husband: has a normal libido and is very helpful around the house, all-around considerate and respectful. It is an act of love on my part, and I don’t mind doing it for that reason. I remember what it’s like to have a sex drive, and I understand the feeling of want – I don’t think he should suffer just because I’m never in the mood for it. But this is after long, extensive conversations about our wants, needs, and expectations, which every couple should have.

      Also, I have a problem with Minaj’s statement “I demand that I climax.” Not saying you are doing this, but our culture in general puts way too much emphasis on sex as a pursuit to orgasm, and it’s still possible to have “good sex” that isn’t as physically satisfying as it could be. Part of the fun for many couples is exploring what “good sex” means for them, which means lots of not-so-physically satisfying encounters along the way – but they’re bonding and learning about each other. Let’s not forget that sex is an emotional and spiritual experience, too.

      • I quoted Nicki not necessarily because I believe that orgasm is the only way for sex to “end” positively, but because study after study routinely confirms that women’s pleasure is not treated as a priority during sex– only male pleasure is considered important to both parties for around 60-80% of people, depending on the study.

        Yes, not every single time we have sex is going to result in screaming orgasms, and that’s ok. However I’m dubious that “our culture puts way too much emphasis on sex as a pursuit to orgasm.” Porn culture, maybe. Sex and the City culture, maybe. But female orgasm and female pleasure is not, culturally, important to men– or to women, much of the time.

        Christian culture buts the emphasis on “sex is an emotional and spiritual experience,” frequently to the exclusion of “sex can and should feel amazing.” This post is offering a corrective for Christian culture, not porn culture.

      • Sheila Warner

        You & Catherine are brave, so I’ll chime in. I’m 60, with both physical & psychiatric issues. I’m on a boatload of meds to get through the day. My husband & I will celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary this month. We’ve had lots of talks about who needs what in bed, and we have learned how to compromise if either of us isn’t in the mood. Or, the inevitable failure to climax, which happens more often as we grow older. I agree with Samantha that neither partner in a sexual relationship should feel taken advantage of. Communication is key.

    • To be honest and possibly a little blunt: I’m disturbed you read a post about coercion, manipulation, pressure, and sex where the women are sad, depressed, and feel used– sex that happens under the circumstances of if I don’t he’ll leave me or if I don’t I’ll destroy my family and thought “yep, that at least somewhat describes my sex life, I must defend it.”

      Love is sacrificial, yes. I’m not saying that every single time we have sex it has to be dear-God-I-must-have-you-right-now-I’m-going-to-tear-your-clothes-off. That’s unrealistic, and while it happens, probably atypical for most long-term relationships.

      However.

      Internalized misogyny is real. We have imbibed messages about sex being for men, sex being performative, sex being treated like an exchange since we were practically infants. This is worth examining. If you examine your sex life and walk away saying “yes, I am happy and respected and comfortable and my needs are being met,” then that’s great, and I’m very happy for you.

      But you’ve put sex here on the same level as chores. As taking out the garbage and using a snowplow. That’s a part of the problem. Sex is not a duty, sex is not a chore. Sex is an intimate, beautiful, wondrous, mystical, powerful thing, and it deserves to be thought of in those terms.

      • Sheila Warner

        OMG, I hope that part came through on my comment! NO one should end up feeling taken advantaged of. it’s important to have ongoing communications about respect, needs, desires, and consent.

      • Catherine Martin

        When I was first married, sex was amazing and powerful and wonderful all the time. I had a normal and healthy sex drive. Nowadays, the meds have lowered my sex drive to almost zip, so, yeah, sometimes, sex is a chore. But, sometimes, it’s beautiful. And it’s always loving. But, I never feel like I’m doing it to protect our relationship. It’s a normal part of our relationship. I think I wanted to convey that sometimes, 23 years into marriage, making my husband sexually satisfied is a chore, albeit a pleasant one (always better than laundry). But that’s OK. If we wait until my sex drive catches up to his and we have great sex . . . . well, that’s about once a month. But this is the life God has given us to lead right now. If the migraines only give me once a month to have some great sex, then so be it. And the rest of the time, I just do my best for my hubby, even if it’s not wonderful and amazing. This is how we have to live our lives.

  • Elin

    I think we would never have sex if every single time we had sex both of us would had to be enthusiastic about sex. Having a small child, jobs and all the rest I feel more that I must grab the opportunity to have sex if I am even slightly interested in it the times we have available. If we just get to it, I usually develop an interest.

    • “Enthusiastic” in the context of “enthusiastic consent’ doesn’t necessarily equal must-rip-all-your-clothes-off-NOW or something like that. It simply means “consent given without pressure, coercion, or under duress of any sort, consent given with full and complete willingness.”

      • Elin

        No pressure or anthing like that but as I said, it might be down to “have sex now or we have no idea when it happens next”. I assume what you describe should still involve at least a hint of longing to have sex/sexual closeness. I do have sex because it can happen at this point. It is nice but it might still just be because we can. I don’t feel bad about it though.

        • I have several debilitating chronic illnesses, so I do understand situations where having sex at all consistently is difficult.

      • Kathy Ray

        Thank you for this. I sometimes feel as if the anti-purity-culture crowd (which I heartily agree with on most points) thinks there’s something wrong if I sometimes have sex with him just because I love him and he wants it, and I like to give him pleasure. I usually end up getting pleasure too (because he’s committed to that for me!), but it’s not always orgiastic.

  • Danny Gluch

    This is great Samantha!
    I have struggled to find conditions for healthy sex that extends beyond consent. The liberal feminist stance of only needing consent never sat right, but neither did the radical feminist position. Hence the “Sex Wars” and all of the attempts to find a middle ground. I think you’re on a good path, patriarchy definitely changes how men and women experience sex and we can’t ignore that. I’ve been working on a paper if you’d like to read it, I’d really appreciate any feedback, comments, and criticisms.

  • That_Poly_Gal

    Thank you for this great post, Samantha! This is something that needs to be discussed, but often gets overlooked.

    The topic of consent is something that I’ve been working to get a firm grip on. I only recently left purity culture and, as a result, had no idea of how consent should work. Thankfully, I started off with a cyber-partner, who taught me the idea of enthusiastic consent by his example. I’m actually very glad I started off with him, unusual though it may be to go from never having a boyfriend to having a cyber-lover. He taught me to expect my comfort to be given a high priority and that my enthusiastic consent should always be sought.

    Perhaps it’s just my experience, but the kink/non-monogamous community seems to put a great deal more importance on enthusiastic consent than the monogamous/vanilla community does. I’ve gone out with a handful of monogamous men and was consistently met with consent issues and lack of respect when I said “no.” My cyber-partner has an open marriage. And, now that I have a boyfriend, he is polyamorous, and the level of importance he puts on enthusiastic consent is wonderful. He has never pressured me in the least and the one time I said “no” to something, he immediately backed off and was incredibly respectful. Even now that we are having sex, he puts a big emphasis on my pleasure and on continuing to seek my enthusiastic consent each time.

    My experiences with monogamous men has been entirely different. None of them made it past two dates because they could not respect my “no.” One guy even blamed the lack of hugging (I hate being hugged, unless I feel very comfortable with someone) on the fact that I told him I didn’t want to continue seeing him after the second date. Another asked me repeatedly to go over to his hotel, even after I told him very clearly that I was not comfortable with that.

    Again, this is just my experience, but I also have had several friends tell me that my experiences with my boyfriend are not how things go in the monogamous dating world. This makes me think the lack of enthusiastic consent/pressure to have sex is not just an isolated problem with the 3-4 monogamous guys I went out with.

    From the comments so far, it looks like you may take a fair amount of flak for this post. I, for one, thank you for making it, though. This is something that desperately needs to be addressed.

  • Quinapalus

    […] can go fuck themselves with a cheese grater.

    [standing ovation for this image]

  • Ginger

    My first year of marriage was sexually frustrating. We had no concept of consent, mismatched sex drives, and a lot of smashed expectations. I didn’t exactly mind having sex when I wasn’t in the mood but I kept thinking, “What is wrong with you? You are supposed to be enjoying this!” And that was not a good way to bond with someone.

  • Joy

    Interesting. Due to life experience, I know you have a completely different take on this. Personally my husband ALWAYS makes sure I get my needs met before he does his. Sometimes he takes care of just me. I guess I’m lucky. He has told me that guys fall Into two categories–the ones that care about their lady and the ones that only take for themselves in real d-bag style.

  • MadameMatisse

    A very interesting, thought-provoking article. Your updated comments about libido and emotional state and its connection to enthusiastic consent were especially important. I always thought the advice to go ahead and have sex (even if you weren’t feeling up for it) was good advice, but NOT for the reasons of purity culture (satisfying the man’s needs to keep him happy and prevent him from “straying”). I have found (in my 18-year marriage), that even if I wasn’t initially in the mood, I knew my husband would get me there (usually before any intercourse even took place) and that I’d be satisfied. So, I guess yes, I’ve given my enthusiastic consent, even if wasn’t feeling especially sexually enthusiastic at first. I have a strong libido (maybe even stronger than my husband’s early in our marriage), of course it has decreased over time and after having and raising kids. But I still really enjoy sex and want to have it regularly. In fact, I’d say our sexual compatibility has made up for deficiencies in other areas of our marriage and that having a really satisfying sex life has helped us both address these other areas.