The Untaught Lesson of Continuous, Enthusiastic Consent

A few weeks ago, I shared my initial reactions to the Babe article about the woman named “Grace” who went on a date with Aziz Ansari. The date progressed from one of sexual attraction to sexual consent to sexual misconduct. (To understand legal differences in sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, check out this Vox article by Alexia Fernández Campbell.)


Photo from Flickr

In the days following the Babe article’s release, people on social media spat out a range of opinions from saying Grace’s story strengthened the #MeToo Movement to claiming it weakened the cause. Some blamed Aziz, others blamed Grace, and another set of people held both of them accountable. The degree to which they were held responsible depended on whose posts you were reading.

This incident was not as simple for people to define as it was in the other cases associated with the #MeToo Movement. While it was relatively easy for people to label Harvey Weinstein a sexual predator, Aziz did not seem as worthy of that title. Recognizing that the public had a more divided or ambivalent response to Grace’s story, Emma Gray explored the need to renegotiate sexual scripts in the Huffington Post article On Aziz Ansari and Sex That Feels Violating Even When It’s Not Criminal. On a lighter note, Saturday Night Live poked fun at how awkward people were in discussing the allegations against Aziz.

Why does talk about sexual behavior have to be so awkward? If we as a society want to become better at addressing sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, we need to become more comfortable with talking about sex. I am not just talking about sex in the moralistic way people talk—or do not talk—about sex in their house of worship. I am not just talking about sex in the clinical way people talk about it in their health class. I am talking about discussing sex in a more holistic way. This holistic way understands that sexual pleasure is so unique and contextual for each encounter that it demands a nuanced approach to consent.

After Grace’s story became national news, I told several friends that it highlights why continuous, enthusiastic consent was so important. They did not appear familiar with it. When I asked if they had ever heard of the concept of “continuous, enthusiastic consent,” they said no. It blew my mind that my friends were so educated, yet had not heard of that term before. In fact, I had not heard of that term until six months ago. Given that my friends and I are adults, that is pretty sad.

For one friend, I had to explain continuous, enthusiastic consent to him by providing a context with which he was not familiar. My speech to him went like this:

People add “continuous” to that concept because it indicates that the terms of consent may change throughout an experience. The reason continuous, enthusiastic consent is more talked about in BDSM circles is because the stakes are higher. Even if two (or more) people agree to an activity beforehand, it may not actually feel as good or be as safe as originally anticipated. Therefore, what someone said “yes” to may quickly turn into “no.” Also maybe someone still wants to engage in an act, but perhaps they want it to go slower or softer and so forth. This is why it is essential to address enthusiasm in consent. In BDSM circles, partners are highly encouraged to “check in” throughout a sexual experience. This is why safe words (and non-verbal safe words if someone’s mouth is bound shut) and rules are so important to those experiences. When I read the Babe article, it was clear that there was sexual attraction … but he was driving on an expressway and she was cruising on an avenue. While Aziz’s and Grace’s experience was not BDSM, the concept of continuous, enthusiastic consent is important in any sexual encounter.

My friend responded by saying the BDSM example highlighted concerns he had not considered as a hetero male. After I asked him to elaborate, he said that he was a hetero male who was not into BDSM; therefore, he had not considered the thin line between pain and pleasure. As a hetero male, his idea of a “bad” sexual encounter was not having an orgasm, but a “bad” sexual encounter can be worse for a hetero female if pain is involved—even if the experience started out well. He needed an example of an experience beyond his personal comfort zone (i.e. BDSM) to understand why continuous, enthusiastic consent was vital.

Not long after this discussion with my male friend, the writer Lili Loofbourow wrote an article in The Week that covered women’s sexual pain in The Female Price of Male Pleasure. I read it and felt as if Lili had been monitoring my conversation with my friend. It underscored for me that we all need to talk about sexual experiences and all of their nuances from end to end of the spectrum. We have to become more comfortable having open, honest dialogues about the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. If we want to live in a world where people stop saying #metoo because sexual misconduct has in fact stopped, we need to start advocating for the #TeachConsent Movement. The movement already started. The question is if you are ready to join it.

One thought on “The Untaught Lesson of Continuous, Enthusiastic Consent

  1. Pingback: Too Busy to Play Telephone: Practicing Consent as a Lifestyle | Unfiltered Snapshot

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