Friday, May 17, 2013

A Shift in Focus: Why I've Chosen to Say "Consent-Positive" Rather Than "Sex-Positive"

This decision's been building for a long time. It's by no means final, absolute, or certain, only that it makes space for my own uncertainty (and hopefully the uncertainty and hesitation of others but more on that later). Like many things concerning love and relationships and sex, this decision and the conversations I've had surrounding it have resisted simplicity and can only be expressed in the messy progression that follows.

I'll start with my own experience. In the past when using the term “sex-positive” I, like many of my women friends, have had listeners assume that by saying I'm sex-positive I'm saying I’ll be into whatever kind of sex they’re into. And also that I am willing to do that kind of sex with them soon or immediately. "Sex-positive" is optimistically coded as consent, potential consent or some indication of how/what I will consent to. I can’t say I've had a full frontal "Hey! but I thought you were sex-positive" when I've refused such sexual advances but I have been coerced and "c'mon”d. On two separate occasions, other “sex-positive” (male) party goers suggested that because of my nudity at past events and my self-professed sex-positivity I should disrobe and “continue the tradition”. I first started to say “consent-positive” in an attempt to duck the possibility of the creepy interactions "sex-positive" had elicited.

It's not just self defense, but it was because of this and other like experiences that I slowly began to realize more reasons for this shift. I began to notice that whenever I talked about being kinky, poly, and/or sex-positive what I ended up talking about was consent. As much as I do enjoy talking about sex it felt much safer personally and more transgressive politically to talk about how powerful an experience I've found it to build language and rituals that ensure that my consent, and the consent of those I am sharing space with is consistently receiving attention. (Note I don't say that consent itself be constant or even consistent).

One of the main reasons I continue wanting to wrench focus onto consent rather than the sex is that when sex is the rhetorical focus of a conversation or the goal of a movement consent starts to look like a means (getting to yes) to an end (sex). Some of you may recognize this progression model as it is commonly identified in feminist circles as a way in which men are taught to and often do relate to women and women's sexualities. It's the same logic that tells folks that the ideal romantic evening involves a man romancing (the consent out of) the woman and him fucking her until he (or they both) comes. In this narrative sex is the happy ending and consent is the means. I want consent to be both the means and the end! I want consent without sex to be viewed as it's own happy ending.

I (optimistically) don't think sex-positive activists intentionally engage in or encourage a view of consent as a means to sex, but making sex the first and most visibly important part of our politics often activates this taught progression in the minds of those who hear sex-positive messages.

The shift in focus I am seeking is from sex to communication as a whole. This shift is not meant to slight or shame sex or even say that sex in an unimportant form of communication. I want to get clear on the fact that consent can and often is about more than just about sex. Making this shift in focus means that when we talk about consent as a whole what we're talking about is the practice of making our communications less violent towards the wants and bodies of other human beings. We don't have to just be talking about sex when we talk about consent.

Contrary to popular belief, consent exists to be more than just “sexy” (and yes, it can be very sexy). It exists so that we as humans can reduce the harm we do to one another in our interactions.
To me consent is more important and further reaching than sex, but wildly less visible and less trendy (more on this later). I have heard too many sex-positive activists talk about sex either without mentioning consent directly or merely tacking it on as a simplified footnote.

At the behest of her commenters popular sex-positive video blogger Laci Green recently made a video about anal play. Now to be clear I am overjoyed that people are getting more accurate and useful information on engaging more safely/comfortably in the kinds of sex/play they are interested in. But after watching her video on anal play I got the nagging feeling that something was lacking.
Before I could identify exactly why when beat me to it:

This is one of the big problems with sex-positivity. Laci Green says she received an “alarming amount of messages about people being pressured into anal sex”. I think we all know that by “people”, she means women (or at least people with male partners). Her solution is to make a video giving advice on how to have anal sex. How does that help those women? Her advice to commenters: “Just don’t do it if you don’t want to”. No shit, Laci, I’m sure that idea had already occurred to those women. It’s easy to tell women to just not do things they’re not comfortable with, but that doesn’t do anything about the GUYS PRESSURING THEM TO DO THOSE THINGS. They’re still in the same boat they were before, trying to figure out what to do with a guy who wants to fuck her butt in a world that says women will die alone if they don’t let guys fuck their butts. There’s not a moment in this video where she is reprimanding these guys or telling em’ to knock it off, because OMG THAT MIGHT HURT THEIR FEELINGS AND MAKE THEM FEEL ASHAMED OF THEIR SEXUAL DESIRES."

By keeping the conversation focused solely on sex and how to do it Laci dodges an important distinction. While having desires is totally valid, the ways we express them should not come from a place of expectation that those desires be met. For me the missing piece in Laci's video is her telling folks that want anal play that sometimes you can't always get what you want, nor should you expect to or continue asking after being served explicit refusal(s).

Refusing to give consent should never be framed as negative or any less exciting or valid a choice than choosing to give consent for sex acts. And while I’ll admit to rarely experiencing outright exclusion (entitled vibes notwithstanding) at refusing sex in a sex-positive community there is a disproportionate amount of praise for those who consent to participate and support sex/play in sex-positive communities. Saying “yes” is framed as empowering and to give one’s consent is “sexy”. Which can and often does imply that a “no” or hesitation is a problem or “less cool/liberated”. Hesitation and refusal are totally valid expressions of uncertainty and deserve respect. The framing of "consent is sexy" can, in some applications, invalidate this vital uncertainty.

This pressure and implied coolness/liberation of "yes" is similar to a popular consumer culture's advertising strategy in which the consumer is presented the “empowering” choice between an array of products. The choice to purchase one (the best) of these products is framed as so powerful that the option to choose no product is implicitly framed as less powerful or even erased all together.

Many sex-positive folks I've met are well versed in active consent practices which is awesome, but what is often forgotten is that this specialized education in consent is not a uniform privilege that not everyone has access to. In some ways the BDSM community provides an example of this privilege. It has lots of explicit tools and language for focusing on consent (not that this makes BDSM spaces inherently consent-positive spaces). The problem is that some kinky and sex-positive folks sometimes forget that not everyone they will interact with will have as well studied or uniform understanding of consent as they do. For example, saying “you can say 'no' at any time” is vastly different from actually negotiating trust with a partner to ensure that they will say "no" when/if they feel the need/want to.

For me even, after learning, writing, and studying about it, consent feels intuitive, hard to translate, and hard to talk about. But talking about consent is a must. Especially in poor communities, communities of color, non-english speaking contexts, and other marginalized communities, whose models for consent are often invalidated or overwritten altogether by priviledged sex-positive educators and activists. So yes, sex-positive activists and BDSMers have a lot of tools for consent but these tools aren’t useful or applicable for every context.

But worse than these decontextualized potentially erasing approaches to consent, the “racier” parts of sex-positivity and BDSM are now gaining pop culture currency with the distinct absence of consensual tools and practices. Important nuances are often left out in favor of what's blindly edgy and controversial. You need only to glance at 50 Shades of Grey and it's popularity for an example of important nuances being left out. The sex and powerplay of BSDM are becoming trendy but the consent parts, not so much.

Ad culture is right. "Sex sells". But when ad culture (and many people) say "sex" what usually comes to mind is the kind of sex had by heterosexual, white (or nonwhite and exotified), young, able-bodied, gender conforming, conventionally attractive people (with the assistance of the right products). Because of this prevalent and incomplete understanding of sex, the parts of the sex-positive movement that have caught on the strongest are those which feature these kinds of sex. Whether sex-positivists intend support it or not this specific and inaccurate cultural definition of sex (which leaves out both consent & the sexual experiences of so many) is what gets applied to sex positivity by the wider media. As with all things scooped up by the mainstream it's losing it's nuance. Unfortunately losing that nuance includes losing importantly intersectional conversations about sexual diversity and consent.

Recognizing and building sustainable consent and sex practices is especially crucial in sex-positivity's intersection with sexual violence. In the Ethical Slut, Dossie Eaton and Janet Hardy famously say that “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you”. This is true for many but incomplete and perhaps dangerously so. Swathes of broader culture and the medical & legal communities consider rape and other traumatic and/or nonconsensual sexual acts to be sex. This is especially true of rapes and assaults that go unreported and unrecognized. One of my worst fears around casually saying saying “I'm sex-positive” is that those survivors of unidentified/unreported rapes/assaults will hear me and get the impression that I am trying to encourage them to view their traumatic experiences positively. Or that I am implicitly endorsing the actions of rapists/assaulters. I do not ever want to suggest, even implicitly, that I feel any sort of positivity about rape or sexual assault.

I do honestly believe consent is the foundation for good sex, but also to a less harmful way of interacting with other people. Consent education can start as soon as kids start to realize that their bodies are in fact separate from the bodies of others. Imagine how much easier it would be to confront the harassment and assaults of bullying if youths understood how to articulate their boundaries. This reasoning is the least formulated of all because it requires a radical shift in how we relate to children and how we relate to each other. And quite honestly I believe it’s more radical than many of the co-opted and often limiting goals of sex-positive revolution.

I'm not saying the fight for sexual liberation is over (far from it!), but I am saying sex-positivity, like any kind of effective activism, needs to brach out and realize how it connects and intersects with other radical movements and ideals. I see consent-positivity as a start to that. If sex-positivity is all about bring joy and sustainable, harm-reducing practices into the sexual interactions, then consent-positivity is about bring joy and sustainable, harm-reducing practices into all interaction humans share with one another. Let's work together.

Special thanks go out rehearsalsdepartures who believed in me, my writing, and this concept and worked with me through multiple version of this piece.

Thanks buddy. You helped me to rock this shit.


  1. Hey Wendy,

    Obviously I liked this article. :) I especially appreciated the paragraph beginning, "Refusing to give consent should never be framed as negative or any less exciting..."

    I also appreciate your acknowledgement that most communities have some kind of "model of consent", even if not explicit. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts/experience/knowledge of when activists intentionally or unintentionally do things which overwrite those models, sometimes for the worst. The way you described it made me think of the kind of damage caused by colonisation/missionary activity. Is that what you mean?

    I was interested by your remark, "The shift in focus I am seeking is from sex to communication as a whole", because that's not at all how I see the problem. Perhaps we're talking about different problems, or different parts of a bigger problem, or perhaps we genuinely do have different takes.

    I tend not to see it as about communication, I guess, because my view is that communication is often not the goal of every party involved. It's difficult to make a "communication" message work with someone who just wants to get what he wants and will do what he wants to get it.

    If many men were to "communicate" what they wanted, I think they'd say something like, "I consider you a tool which I'm entitled to use, and one use I want to make of you is for you to convincingly pretend this isn't the case." It's not that they lack communication skills; it's that what they want is bad, and they're enabled to do it.

    If I had to describe the shift I wanted, it would be from an instrumental, power-over situation, to a situation where everybody involved in sex and other interactions genuinely, deeply valued each other's flourishing over the possibility to make instrumental use of each other.

    And, that being a "good faith" model, and us currently being far from that place being universal, to also work to challenge and block access to and use of the structures of domination which allow people to achieve that instrumental use of another person.

    1. People who've been taught to and choose to view others as objects will do so whether or not they are forced to say so explicitly.

      Communication won't directly save folks from the intentionally violent actions of others any more than screaming as someone throws a punch will stop that punch. But in the same way that that scream serve to alert those who might bear witness to and look to later prevent such violence, consent tools can make more visible the violence of perpetrators.

      Keep in mind for this piece (and in most of my politics) I am focusing on rhetoric. I don't think consent tools themselves will lead directly to less violence (only people's internal considerations for one another will do this), but it will generate a linguistic awareness of the dangers/threats we pose to one another. I don't think consent as a language tool will directly stop sexual violence, only that it will force such violence and objectification to be visible and more easy to confront (where appropriate)

      I accept that I personally can't directly change the thoughts and desires of others. But I can change my own relationship to my desires and more importantly my language. For me personally cultural shifts begin in language. It is my hope that this is true of others too.

      I don't think the objectifying jerks of the world should get what they want. I think they should get what they deserve. Exposure of what is about problematic their wants. This is what the shift in focus to communication can do. Their wanting that is not likely to change easily, but much less likely to change if we don't make (safer) space in our language to confront what is problematic about their wants.

      Also as a point of activist logistics, it is much easier an entry point to confront someone's use of language than it is to confront their desires. If our goal in confrontation is to reach resolution, starting with pointing out the wrongness of someone's intention is not likely to work. Confronting the desires of those who do not yet trust us often serves to alienate. Folks often don't realize what exactly their desires are or that their desires are/can be separate from their identities.

      And yes I do see some colonial parallels to some sex-positive, consent education in the sense that there are a lot rigid of ideas about “what consent should look like” being touted. These simplified ideas about consent while well meant often imply or outright say that other models of communication surrounding sex MUST be nonconsensual/less safe. I mostly included that section because I myself touted (and sometimes do still) these same sort of condescending & erasing consent models.

      Simplification ahead:

      It sounds like what you're saying is that the shift you want is for there to be less shitty shitty assholes & assholish ways of thinking.

      I see expecting folks to use consent tools in communication as disallowing the language of shitty shitty assholery.

      It won't stop the assholery or stop the assholes from finding new ways do shitty shitty stuff. But it's a start. It makes being an asshole a more visible and socially difficult thing to be. Which I am all for!

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  3. Thank you so much for this article, it's very enlightening and helpful. I do have one issue I want to raise: you say "I do honestly believe consent is the foundation for good sex." I find this problematic because campaigns that say "consensual sex is good sex" or "consent is sexy" make consent feel optional. Many rapists aren't looking for "good sex" they're just looking for sex, period, and the reason for this is based in the way masculinity is tied to how much sex you have. I believe that if it's not consensual, it's not sex, it's rape. And that's it.

    1. "if it's not consensual, it's not sex, it's rape" is the foundation of my ideal world. It is part and parcel of what will bring about a world without rape. Unfortunately due to miseducation and misunderstandings of consent, and the ways that legal and medical communities define sex, the current cultural understanding of sex includes rape.

      I believe we can move past a view of sex that includes rape, but not before we build a more nuanced cultural understanding of consent. When I talk about sex privately/in my own communities I'm able to assume that my audience knows that I mean consensual activities, but when addressing culture at large (like this essay does) I can't assume my audience and I have the same conception of sex (as a solely consensual act).

      I personally tend to believe rape is not sex, but I've been confronted by two survivors of rape who disagree with this belief. One of them cited the reason that the rape-is-not-sex distinction can be used to erase or minimize rapes/violations perpetrated by romantic partners which can include confusingly pleasurable elements (and are still rape, but also sex). I want to believe that rape is not sex, but the world I live in unfortunately provides me with information to the contrary.