The rejection of the notion of enthusiastic consent: a facet of rape culture

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.

8 thoughts on “The rejection of the notion of enthusiastic consent: a facet of rape culture”

  1. Sadly the world of BDSM has many of the same apologists, I listened once with horror to a good friend recount a beating where she ended up curled sobbing in a corner, clearly in distress. The dominant in question afterward berated her for forgetting her safe word, the distress was her fault according to him! This is one of the reasons I don’t have a safe word, they should be unnecessary for any sane thinking person.

    1. That’s absolutely horrific, I hope she got support and the dom was dealt with (though, sadly, I suspect none of this happened)

      As for safe words, I think they have their place in certain types of play (where it’s been pre-agreed by everyone involved that “no” and “stop” might constitute part of the fun). Checking in and using the green/amber/red system also provides a useful shorthand (and the inclusion of “green” gives an added dimension of “fuck yeah”), but again, needs talking about first.

      What a safe word definitely isn’t (and, unfortunately, how they are often treated), is the only way of ending an unwanted encounter, the magical passkey which, if forgotten, is entirely your own fault.

      1. Exactly, and your second suspicion is correct. The parallel with apologists who claim that a woman has to make her no loud and clear, without ever asking for the yes is really striking to me.

  2. I must be one of those that doesn’t understand what you are saying.

    I understand the concept of consent perfectly – I think. It seems to me to be any easy concept to understand. But consent can still be half-hearted without an offence having been committed.

    It may be helpful to give a non-sexual example. – If my partner asks to go to the shops to do some shopping for clothes and I voice my concerns that I don’t have enough money and I don’t want to spend any more at the present, If my partner still persists in trying to persuade me to change my mind – and as a result I then indeed reluctantly agree – and the partner is aware of that I am doing so reluctantly – then I have still consented. Any money that I then spend is not theft. And I think that a vast majority of CPS case workers and jurors would see it that way.

    There is no need to add a gloss to the concept of consent by adding the qualification of ‘enthusiastic’ – not matter how ‘hot’ you consider it to be.

    1. Using your example, the partner is in the wrong, and their is coercion at play and that’s not cool and that’s not OK.

      Let go of your dated notions of a thoroughly inadequate court system and maybe you’ll start to understand consent and social relations a lot better.

      1. I think we may be narrowing this issue down nicely – I completely disagree that my example was one of coercion. One can try to persuade without getting anywhere force or intimidation ( ie coercion).

        I think its in fact you that needs to understand social discourse more. You appear to be only willing here to see things in the extremes of black and white – there is a lot of grey out there in the world of ‘social relations’.

        Understanding such greyness and their social context is why we have a jury system – 12 of one’s social peers coming to a verdict based on shared similar life experiances they are very likely to have with the complainant and defendant.

        Was the ‘jury’ part of your concerns with the court system ? if so what is your alternative ?

    2. Sex is not shopping. Women aren’t items to be bought or sold.

      Whining, wheedling, saying “You’d do it if you really loved me “, and pouting and nagging until your partner gives in is also coercion.

      Frankly, you’re coming across like the people who insist that it’s only ‘real’ rape if a masked stranger drags a modestly dressed virgin into an alley, then rapes her at. knifepoint.

      The lack of a shouted “NO” is not a yes, it’s not a green light to jump in and pound away at someone.

      That’s what enthusiastic consent is about, checking in with your partner. If you don’t understand that, then stick to having sex with yourself.

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