Enthusiastic consent is a simple notion: a move beyond “no means no” into “yes means yes”. It means communicating about what you want in bed. It means checking if your partner(s) is into whatever you’re doing. It’s easy and it’s hot.
Most people tend to Get It. Some know the terminology, the principles, the politics behind it. Others just possess an essential skill for being a good fuck. These are the sorts of people I tend to surround myself with.
I forget, then, that some people don’t get it. It is most obvious when engaging as a feminist with rape apologists: when pointing out a sleeping woman can’t possibly give enthusiastic consent, the very notion of being able to say yes (rather than the absence of a no) is rejected. They might lash out by saying that that would somehow “ruin sex” (spoiler alert: it doesn’t) or that that would render a lot of sex non-consensual (spoiler alert: it does).
The rejection hums in the background like white noise. It crops up in jokes (“it’s not rape if you shout surprise!”) and advertising. I realised just how widespread it was when I read this piece of sex advice from Tracey Cox (self-identified “sexpert” with a good publicist) on Lovehoney (who sell mid-range sex toys generally aimed at the male gaze). A man wrote in complaining his wife wouldn’t give him oral sex after a bad experience. Cox replied:
Wow! This happened TEN YEARS AGO and she’s still using that as the reason why she doesn’t want to give you oral sex?
It’s one thing being a little miffed at your husband coming in your mouth when you aren’t expecting it. Quite another, refusing to give you oral sex for a decade afterward. I mean, really? It sounds like you have good sex but I think you’re within your rights to suggest, nicely, that perhaps it’s time she, well, got over it.
She then goes on to give some tips to help this man coax a woman into participating in a sexual encounter with which she was not comfortable including this:
At that point, she removes her mouth and continues using her hand to finish you off. If – shock horror – it happens again and you ejaculate into her mouth, have a box of tissues next to her. She then just spits it out. Easy. Course, she could try swallowing it and stop behaving like semen is sulphuric acid, but perhaps you could work on that later!
The trivialisation of the woman’s issues with oral sex and complete lack of any consideration that she’s not into that and that’s OK is a more subtle indicator of this wider societal rejection of enthusiastic consent.
In trying to elucidate why this belief is so prevalent, the misogynists are a good place to start: at least they’re honest about their disdain for sexual autonomy. They think it’s too hard, and that a shift in thinking would stop them being able to rape whoever they feel like. And that’s a gear the perpetual motion machine of rape culture.
It pervades thought, and leads to exactly the sort of ghastly advice given by Tracey Cox, who has internalised some deeply problematic beliefs (I am going to kindly assume she isn’t writing sensationalist crap knowingly repeating societal beliefs to make a few quid). The truth is, nobody has “get over it”, nobody has to do anything with which they are uncomfortable, and a “yes” is just as important to respect as a “no”.
It may feel difficult to fight something so thoroughly ingrained. But it’s a battle that can be won and must be fought.