A bit ago I stopped practicing celibacy. Within the last week I’ve been reflecting on the relationship of consent work to pleasure within a sexual context. I’ve been told that at some point there was a debate between the phrase “consent is sexy” (meant to help popularize the concept of consent as a part of sex) and the idea that consent is a necessary requirement for sex. I imagine that the thought that “consent is sexy” can seem to minimize consent to a sexual technique and not an absolute necessity.
While I can understand this, I do think the understand of consent’s role in the experience of pleasure and intimacy shouldn’t be underestimated. I was listening to This American Life some months ago and one of the stories was a sexual consent training in a college and a lot of people in the training, seeming to be genuine, kept harping on this concept of “the mood”. There was a palpable fear in the training that asking for and receiving consent would destroy “the mood”. When I first heard the story I think my thought was “yea I can get that” and under closer scrutiny as of late I am questioning even the assertion that consent killing the mood is a legitimate fear.
When consent is clearly sought, clearly respected and reinforced as a crucial component of sex it reinforces two important feelings: trust and safety. Sex is, for most people, an experience that is vulnerable. The vulnerability of showing a naked or mostly naked body, of (especially in the anti-pleasure ethic of New England) visibly experiencing and engaging in a pleasure-seeking activity. Sex is so often a strong emotional experience that, if approached callously or viciously can leave lasting trauma on its victims.
When there is clear consent and a clarity that, if someone wants to stop, sex will stop, there is a sense of safety; you can quit at any time and that open exit door is a reassurance that you won’t have to tolerate or endure an unpleasant experience. Too often I think a lot of sex, especially in the casual sex scene, involves a sort of implicit understanding that someone can always so no but I’ve almost never seen anyone affirm to me that they will listen the second I say no. That saying yes is not forever and that consent can be revoked at any time. There is a difference between a potentially mutual intellectual understanding of the idea of consent and someone coming out and stating or restating that this idea is genuine and will be followed.
This willingness to be communicative about consent dovetails into the feeling of trust, that you are thereby enabled to explore pleasure fully because you can always back out or that you can stop where you are because you’re satisfied, with or without reaching hetero-normative conceptions of when sex is “finished”.
Consent is necessary, sex without consent isn’t sex, it’s rape. At the same time I do think the urban legend that consent kills “the mood” is just that, a legend, a myth whose effect is to often minimize and suppress pleasure. Consent is not only necessary, it’s sexy, it’s a turn on to feel safe and trust your partner(s).