Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexual Assault
Have you ever had the feeling leaving a sexual encounter where you’re unsure of exactly what just happened - maybe it didn’t feel good, or you’re left with a weird feeling in your gut? Afterwards you may feel like you don’t have the language or framework to process the encounter. Perhaps it was with a long-term partner and there’s the thought about why things seemed off or like there wasn’t a connection. Maybe it was a first-time hookup where it doesn’t feel like it can quite be defined as sexual assault, but it also didn’t feel like you wanted to be having sex, and your partner wasn’t in tune with your subtle (or obvious) hesitance. Possibly, it was just a gut feeling that something in the rendezvous was off and a bit of your dignity feels compromised.
Painful and confusing emotions around sex are often because of the issue of elusivity around what constitutes consent. According to the Association of American Universities' Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, 33.1% of women and 8.6% of men experience nonconsensual sexual contact during college. I’d dare to say that this statistic is much higher when we get into the gradations of consent. There’s an epidemic in the U.S. of sex riddled with harmful miscommunication and the solution is to integrate the concept of enthusiastic consent into discussions and sexual interactions.
I want to highlight three parts of this discussion: what enthusiastic consent is and what it is not, trauma and reoccurring non consensual sex, and the greater context of this issue for all genders. There are endless rabbit holes to begin down discussing rape culture, consent, and sex, but for the purpose of this piece, I’m not going to go into further nuances when alcohol is involved or even the more distinct cases of rape.
Enthusiastic Consent 101
Enthusiastic consent is not just “no means no,” but it also isn’t solely “yes means yes.” It’s a fluid experience, based in building mutual trust and continuing to check-in with our partner. The absence of enthusiastic consent may take the form of pants coming off, but there wasn’t a verbal approval to proceed. Or, maybe it looks like everything's going smoothly, both partners are into it, then when one asks the other if they want to have sex, the person whispers a dull “uhm, okay.” Enthusiastic consent is about more than the words and more than the body. It’s a multi-dimensional conversation and both parties need to be in tune with themselves and the other.
Enthusiastic consent highlights the importance of touching in with the shades of human feelings, which we are not taught how to do as a society. Although the phrase sounds like it may mean that someone has to be jumping up and down saying yes, it’s more that all of the green lights are on. Dr. Nerd puts it beautifully when they say "The idea of enthusiastic consent is all about making sure your partner is genuinely into having sex... that you are getting clear and unambiguous signals that he or she wants to fuck."
The key words here are “genuinely,” “clear,” and “unambiguous.” In order to ensure that these terms are seen through, we have to be aware of intonations in our partner's voice, nonverbal communication, and their emotional state. Otherwise, the effects are grave. What nonconsensual sex looks like is often asking questions after the fact like:
- Why do I feel like my bones have been dragged through the dirt?
- What exactly is this sense of being a stranger in my skin?
- Is it normal that I feel wildly unsatisfied?
What often arises from not knowing how to talk about sex are symptoms like confusion, miscommunication, silence, awkward feelings, and emotional pain. Beyond the everyday tribulations, trauma can occur. For myself and so many other women, trauma can become a part of the mix before we can discover what safe and lovely sex is supposed to look like, propelling the whole issue of messy sex forward further down the wrong path.
Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, that "Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become an expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside."
As I’ve been discussing, being able to touch into and communicate feelings is central to safe, enthusiastic, and consensual sex. When we become numb and disassociated from our center that tells us what is going on in our thought and feeling-body, we are at risk to be in situations where we are not respected. As a young girl, I was never taught to speak up for myself. I wasn’t taught to slow down, check in with myself, and ask how I’m doing and feeling. Instead, I learned to check-out. I learned to cut myself off from my body and and as a result I continuously found myself in situations where consent was nonexistent. I didn’t understand consent myself.
Due to disconnecting from my basic goodness (all that makes me a loveable and worthy human being), I believed some harmful notions about myself, that I think many people, and women in particular, experience:
- I’m unworthy and unlovable. I don’t deserve respect, anyways.
- I need to push my boundaries for this person to like me.
- Maybe the gut feeling I’m getting isn’t true or this person will change.
- I need to be a cool girl and not make a big deal of things.
- My feelings don’t matter or are irrational.
- [insert excuse for the other person's inconsiderate and harmful behavior]
These beliefs were the foundation for low self-esteem and continuing to attract people who met me at my level or took advantage of my uncertain state. I had an experience where I was interested in a guy on a retreat and I was chasing and flirting with him. When I had a chance to get him alone, I asked him if he’d like to go for a walk. It was getting dark, but it was New Year's Eve and the last night of a retreat. Right before we were to return, I suggested we stop and make snow angels. It was obviously an excuse to stay away longer and I hoped he’d kiss me if I didn’t muster the courage. Quickly, he moved towards me and we began intensely kissing. It wasn’t a question, but more of a thought, he said: “We aren’t going to do it in the snow, are we?” I giggled and said “No!”
But, next thing I know, clothes were coming off. Thoughts were going through my head like oh wait, really, I don't think I want to do this. Still, he hadn’t asked, and my hands were assisting in unbuttoning my bottoms. That was signal enough for a go-ahead, maybe? Or, perhaps it was my giggling. I felt hazy and adrenaline-filled, but also my hands were shaking. Wasn't this what I wanted? Oh god, but I was scared about what he’d feel like and it had been over a year since I had intercourse. Yet, next thing I knew, he was inside of me, and I felt searing pain. Thinking Okay, maybe this will get better. This is fine. He's incredibly attractive and charming, maybe it'll get better. Breathe, Ginelle. You're okay. Right?
I wasn’t okay, and experiences like this compounded. I kept finding that neither myself or those I was interacting with sexually knew how to ask for consent in a way that kept both of us safe and heard. I grappled with blame. I am the common denominator here, is it my fault? Or, is it that all men will rape or assault if given the chance? What is going on here?
Again and again, I couldn’t understand why I found myself in these situations. I wish I could say there was a pivotal point where I put my finger on exactly why nonconsensual sex kept happening, but instead, it’s been a slow journey to finding my voice and to beginning to use it. I have been unraveling the lies I believed about myself and the way sex was supposed to happen. I’ve been building a loving and assertive foundation for healthy consensual sexual relations. I’ve started to attract people who also understand the importance of enthusiastic consent. Now that I’ve found some peace and healing, I’m turning my attention to the conversations (or lack of) around me about consent.
The Big Picture
Women are bombarded with messages in society about making themselves smaller (literally and figuratively). Shrink our bodies and our feelings. Don’t make too many waves. We are told that our emotions are blown out of proportion and that we shouldn’t be so dang sentimental all of the time. This sort of invalidation of feelings can lead to that dangerous place of disassociation, of being cut off from the source of truth deep inside us that tells us what we need to be okay and to thrive.
Culturally, being cut off from what keeps us safe, we have to find guidance somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re taught to defer to men for the answer, which means we all lose because men are encultured to suppress and reject emotions. An article in The Good Men Project describes it well:
"From boyhood, men get one lesson drilled into them over and over. Their peers, their parents, their toys, their television, every joke and jibe and playground game tells them one thing, the single most important thing they must do to perform masculinity, to be a big boy, to be a real man: men must at all costs never show, or if possible, never even feel emotions."
So, where does that leave us? The issue of being disconnected from communication, compassion, and understanding each other isn’t just reserved for the bedroom. It’s a societal plague that infects all of our interactions and reactions. Look at the state of the world. Police are reactionary and it is resulting in endless killings, disproportionately affecting people of color. Terrorists continue to incite fear across the globe. Our presidential campaigns are filled with fear mongering instead of talking about what we can do to solve actual issues.
I’m not proposing that I know exactly how to solve this issue of a society that is disconnected from our source of quiet center that guides us and speaks to us when we listen, but, I do know that the process of integrating enthusiastic consent into my own sex life and everyday being in the world has been revolutionary.
What I’ve learned and begun to integrate into my life is that my feelings do matter and they are perfectly valid, always. I’ve begun to hone that feeling deep in my chest that warns me when something is off. I’m starting to listen to that quiet voice inside of me that guides me towards safety and dignity. I now talk at length with close female friends as I’m embarking on new romantic journeys and I determine with their support if someone is worth trusting.
I tell myself that my boundaries deserve to be honored and I walk away when someone is not able to respect them. I discuss enthusiastic consent with people I trust and I share the intimate details of my experiences with those who need to hear it. I am learning to be my unabashed self and to exist as a woman of grace in the world. Perhaps most importantly, I’m honest and straight-forward about my feelings with (prospective or otherwise) partners. I am learning to respect my process and theirs. I expect kindness and gentleness from them and I return in-kind.
Healthy enthusiastic consent now takes the form of my new partner and I discussing sex before the first time I slept over his house. We were both sober and open about our fears, insecurities, and excitement. He shared that he was relatively inexperienced in bed and nervous and I shared that I was historically impulsive and was fearful of ruining things. I cried a bit early on in the night because being vulnerable is a scary thing, but I had decided he was worth trusting. When the time came, we spent a few hours making sure that the other was OK with it through lots of talking before we actually had intercourse.
The process was gentle in the sense that we had a heightened awareness of the other person's’ emotional state, beyond the words that were coming out of our mouths. By the time we had sex, we were both laughing and had a sense of ease, mixed with some nervous excitement about the new romance. What distinguished this experience from others was the varsity-level communication, care, and intention that we each brought to the experience.
This is a tremendously important conversation to keep having. I don’t want to fear living in a world where my 16 year old sister is beginning to come into herself as a young woman where she is not taught how to have a voice and where my 19 year old brother is becoming a man in a world where rape culture is alive and well.
I’m proposing that we reconnect; that we slow down and become willing to lean into and touch what’s really going on inside ourselves and inside our loved ones. Let’s remember that all of our feelings are valid and that these tough conversations about desires, wants, needs, fears, and insecurities are what will lead us to greater contentment and fulfillment in our relationships and in our lives.
What have your experiences been around consent? Do you have a homosexual, trans, or other point of view that I did not touch on here? Email me or comment below. With love, Ginelle.
Editor: Dan Bosco
Originally published on 8/1/2016