Those are hot-button words, but read them carefully. We live in a world where it’s seen as ok for women who want to have sex to be coy about their availability, yet expect men to pursue them in the face of mixed signals about desire.
N.B: this article might seem skewed towards advice for women. This is not a suggestion that women are more responsible for securing a culture of confirming consent than men are. It is acknowledging that change will only occur with a buy in from both ends of the gender spectrum, and indeed ideally, all points along that spectrum. I don’t want to encourage victim blaming. Rapists are wholly responsible for rape. But this is intended to encourage a contribution from both women and men, to help with the eradication of rape culture. I want to outline some steps both men and women can take to cultivate a culture of confirming consent, which I believe would ensure a healthier culture, less conducive to concealment, equivocation and exculpation of rape. (The problem that I have relates to straight heterosexual casual sex-courtships. Many exceptions to that normative model are also exceptions to my argument, but I don’t think those exceptions negate my argument for mainstreaming the practice of confirming consent.)
‘Playing hard to get’ is so common as to be a cliché, but it’s a dangerous one. The more women who want to have sex play games to obscure intent, the more difficult the situation becomes for women who don’t want to have sex. Their clear negative signals may be stupidly or recklessly misread as encouragement by guys who have been taught that ‘not saying no’ is the same as consent.
I was once in a situation where a man was making moves on me, and I smilingly refused. I said; ‘No thanks, I’m serious. You need to stop,’ and (laughing to take the edge off) ‘No means no, man. I’m really not joking. You need to back off right now or I’m going to flip the table over and start a fight.’ He said ‘I’ll stop when you stop smiling. I can tell you’re enjoying it.’ I didn’t stop smiling. I did explain the definition of sexual assault, and asked him whether he understood the implicit threat of violence that hovers over any woman alone with a strange man, and the socialised response of non-confrontational pleasantness with which we deflect the potential of a violently angry response to violence. I explained that once a stranger on a train in New York had punched me when I refused to give him my phone number, and then I asked him to leave. He left. Now, I didn’t take his advances as an insult. I’m not offended to be found attractive, or to be approached sexually. I was just saying no. I don’t think I should have to snarl and turn a pleasant conversation into a confrontation to say no and be heard to say no.
As a woman I am speaking more from and to my own experience, and so my advice to men is probably more simplistic. I think it’s also a simpler task that I have set for men – put the line for what you consider consent back a few yards, and you expand the gap between you and predators. This is a good thing, because it exposes predators, while making sure you are not mistaken as one. I want to argue for a move towards confirming consent as a matter of course.
Just as with the ‘If it’s not on, it’s not on’ awareness campaigns for condom use, we need to make the idea that positive consent and confirming consent is the gold standard for good sex into a positive norm in sex education… something catchy like; ‘if you don’t get a yes, then don’t have sex.’ I’m open to suggestions. As with condom use, confirming consent is a matter of personal safety, and community health. As with condom use, the risks against which you are taking measure are relatively small, but so devastating when they are realised that it’s worth a community effort to minimise those risks. As with condom use, effectiveness is not assured, but it’s worth the effort.
How does this work? It’s simple. In my model, guys make sure they have a clear affirmative in sexual situations, not pursuing mixed signals any time they occur. In return, women promise that if they are sexually available, they will say words to that effect. We move away from plausible deniability and towards a less nuanced sexual politics. Some of the peach fuzz might be taken off romance, but risk is drastically reduced.
Guys, why should you insist on confirming consent? I’m not saying to put pressure on the woman who you are sleeping with to say yes. I am saying, make sure you have consent, and confirm that you have sincere and genuine consent before you have sex. If you don’t get that green light, go home. If you go ahead without a clear, unambiguous sign of positive consent, best case scenario you’re rewarding a woman who is too cowardly or blinded by romance-novel rhetoric to take responsibility for her own desire. Worst case scenario, you are a rapist.
I’m not talking about a signed contract. A simple ‘are we doing this?’ and an affirmative ‘yes’ is enough. The bar we’re looking to clear is not that high, but I believe it’s a vital minimum standard for…let’s say an optimal sexually active community.
Women, why should you say yes? In one specific sexual encounter, you might believe your consent is clear because you’ve stopped saying no, or because you’ve invited a guy home, or because you haven’t said anything at all. You should take the time to say ‘yes’ anyway, because it’s worth confirming that consent. It’s worth it to affirm your own comfort and security, and it’s worth it for the security of every other woman in the community.
The pressures on women to be disingenuous about their sexual activity are manifold. It’s also true that a lot of courtship is an elaborate process of extending intimacy while maintaining plausible deniability to stave off hurt feelings. Even so, we need to step up. We live in a culture where it’s becoming normal for women to have sex and to seek sex outside marriage, and even outside long term committed relationships, but many of us are still conflicted about admitting to desire and even more, admitting to enjoying it. For most, it’s still seen as ‘better’ to be the object of pursuit rather than the pursuer, or the equal participant. We allow ourselves to be coy, leaning on fuzzy quasi-romantic ‘getting swept away’ narratives and vaguely gestural ‘evolutionary biology’ excuses to evade responsibility for critically examining our own disingenuous sexual behaviour.
It’s definitely not a good thing to be coy about how far along the road to intercourse you’re willing to go. Boundaries can be flexible, subject to mood and hormones and love and negotiation. What they should not be is invisible. It is not okay to say ‘no’ when you mean, ‘convince me’ or ‘I’m not sure’ or anything other than no. It’s always ok to say no, but no should mean no in order to protect its integrity.
If you are too discreet to expose your desire to have sex or too modest, or operating out of some sense that love and lust is sacred or inexplicable, you need to reconsider whether casual sex is for you at all. It probably isn’t – and that’s fine. But if you do want casual sex, refusing to be clear about those boundaries and that desire leaves your emotional and physical wellbeing to the judgment of another person. It also sets a dangerous precedent where you allow your uncertainty to be the excuse for another person’s wants to take priority over your own.
I have aired my theories on the following to a number of friends and colleagues. People are uncomfortable with the language I am using. They don’t like being told how they should behave sexually. Many believe we should be able to approach sex, and have sex in whatever way we want because it’s a personal issue between each individual and his or her sex partner(s). If you believe that your sexual behaviour has no repercussions for other men and women, you’re mistaken. If you are operating in the modern casual sex/dating scene, your actions in the bedroom will most likely have a direct knock-on effect for community sexual norms.
The other objection I hear is that it is insulting to assume that a man or woman can’t read human signals; you don’t have to say yes to be clearly consenting. But a lot of sex is had in less than ideal circumstances, while drunk or high or hopped up on sexy-hormones. Biology will sabotage the best of intentions, which is why things like condom use, and –I argue – confirming consent need to be an automatic and normal stage in the progression towards intercourse. People have told me that a normative requirement for positive consent may make them feel awkward, ‘breaking the flow’. If clear communication will entirely derail your affair, that’s an extremely good eject point.
I’m not victim blaming. I’m blaming a culture where men and women accept that it’s the norm for a woman to be available and alluring but passive, expecting a man to ‘win’ her from a state of presumed chastity through a series of smoke and mirrors; to confuse and overwhelm her into bed. There are some things, however, that need to happen in full clear light. Women bear the majority of risk in sexual encounters. To take a passive role in courtship, however romantic it might feel, comes dangerously close to abdicating responsibility for your own sexual wellbeing. Think about what you are comfortable doing, acknowledge that to yourself, and be clear about it with your partner. Be open about shifting boundaries and fluctuating desire.
Men need to step up, too. You don’t need to stop having sex. You don’t need to stop pursuing sex with whichever women you find attractive and from whom you receive positive and open signals that there may be reciprocity. You do need to withhold sex. Yes, I mean that. Men can take responsibility for their part of this culture of pushing and retreating. I’ve been told when floating my manifesto over lunch, that men won’t do this – that it’s just not how guys work. Man up. Do some re-wiring. If a girl says ‘maybe’, you say, ‘okay, let me know when you’d like to’. If she says ‘tee-hee, stop!’ you need to back off and say ‘Okay’. If she puts a line in the sand, you stop with your toe on the right side of the line. Don’t nudge the line. Leave the line undisturbed.
It is not to your benefit to question lines. If the woman who draws the line disingenuously, hoping you will push past it, finds herself left high and dry, she will have to change her operating tactics. If the woman who is drawing the line does so in good faith, then backing off the line is both a moral and a social good. If you push the line, and the woman who has drawn the line actually doesn’t want sex, your ‘convincing her’ even if successful is likely to lead to a bad result. I’ve had men tell me that they fear a false accusation of rape in muddy circumstances or a ‘false perception’ of consent. One way to prevent messy grey area uncertainty is to leave a wide margin. Don’t have sex with women who have to be drunk to be open to sex. Value yourself more highly than that. Don’t reward women who might want sex but can’t take responsibility for their own desire. Reward clarity and openness. Sex is not just a male urge. It’s not just a thing that a woman can offer and a man takes. It’s something we should at least agree on.
Can’t we agree on it? Can’t we do one another the credit of assuming that we are more than sex-blinded amoebic masses entirely subject to hormones? The politics of sex are fraught enough, with impossible gender archetypes, body image issues, the fear of rejection and the shifting constellations of love and lust. Let’s do one another the favour of confirming consent, so that we can all enjoy a little less fear.