I'll Try Anything Once: Enthusiastic Consent

Melissa Petro says Yes! Yes! Yes! to sex. (Or, a Portrait of a Relationship After a Major Sex Scandal).

Sep 19, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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I thought I’d do anything for the sake of a story. Turns out, sex with my boyfriend: one thing I could not do.

Given all the high-profile rape cases that passed through the media this summer, there’s been a lot of chatter about sexual assault, consent and personal responsibility.

It was amidst this chatter I first heard the term, "enthusiastic consent." Enthusiastic consent is a sex positive, anti-violence policy taught on many college campuses. My alma mater, Antioch College, is actually accredited for instituting the first of its kind in 1996, known as the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, or SOPP for short.

Enthusiastic consent basically means that you don't have sex or engage in any particular sexual activity with someone unless that person has given you an enthusiastic, unambiguous, verbally expressed "yes."

According to the SOPP, the person initiating the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent prior to each new level of sexual activity. Silence never equals consent. Neither do body movements or any non-verbal responses (such as moans).

While I like the idea of shifting the burden of responsibility for preventing sexual assault away from the potential victim and onto the perp, there are clearly some limitations to the policy’s practicality. When I suggested to Jane I do a piece weighing its pros and cons, she suggested I see what it’s like and report back.

"I don't see very many pros," said my boyfriend and reluctant participant, later that night when I told him of the assignment.

"It'll be like having dirty talk sex," I cooed. He looked at me, unconvinced.

While I believe, at least in theory, in the whole “consent can be sexy” argument, like my boyfriend, I foresaw some challenges.

The first and possibly biggest challenge, however, had nothing to do with enthusiastic consent: My boyfriend, who considers himself a private person, hates when I write about our sex life. It is a source of recurring, if not constant, angst.

My poor boyfriend is still reeling from an incident over two years ago when, at a literary reading, I compared our monogamous sex to my enjoyable though somewhat routine job as an elementary school teacher. Needless to say, he was less than flattered and more than a little distraught, even before the video went viral when I became the "hooker teacher."

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Perhaps you are wondering why a self-described "private" person would date the "hooker teacher." In his defense, I was neither a hooker nor a teacher when we met-- I was only a freelance writer with a lot of baggage and no full-time job (much like I am today).

In retrospect, I am beginning to see some irony in the fact that I took his ambivalence toward the assignment as complete cooperation and began straight away. Attempt 1 occurred later that evening and was, I readily concede, a complete failure.

Mark was on the couch in the living room, watching TV. I flicked it off and straddled his lap. Again, I see in retrospect, I’d already broken the rules. I should’ve gotten permission before climbing aboard. And what, I am thinking now, kill the spontaneity? (Eh, is that what all the rapists say?!) Sitting on his lap, I took off his hat.

"I don't want to have sex, honey."

"OK,” I said. “Let's just kiss."

I don't remember what he said then, but it was less than enthusiastic. I think he mumbled something about being hungry. We kissed for a bit anyway. When he tried to touch my boobs, I swatted him away. I reminded him of the assignment and he asked if he could stick his finger in my butt. I said no.

At that moment, the dog came over. Mark gave him a pet. I got up to check on dinner. When I’d come back, he had turned back on the TV. OK, not exactly Playboy material.

In our defense, Mark and I have been together just over 4 years and at the risk of insulting him yet again by comparing our sex life to work, we are well past that “steamy-hot I am dying to see what this person looks like naked” phase. Besides the probably statistically evident phenomenon that desire naturally diminishes in long-term monogamous relationships, for the lack of steamy hotness in our sex life, I take full responsibility. This was another challenge I had foreseen in the assignment. To put it simply, I can sometimes be a little weird about sex.

In high school, having bought into the mythical value of virginity, saying no to sex meant ignoring or repressing my desire for intimacy. Even worse, it’s meant using alcohol to give myself permission to act out. So I often said nothing. As a classic example of Satre's "bad faith"— the act of pretending something is necessary when it is, in fact, voluntary -- throughout college (despite the SOPP policy and any good sense), I more than once let my body be seduced step-by-step, pretending what was happening was not under my control.

In my twenties, I realized the cruelty of this and so began a period in my sexual development where I said yes, having sex whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted. Blame years of pent-up desire and sexual frustration matched with hurt and disappointment resulting from a recent break up, “whenever,” felt like always and “whoever” felt like anyone.

It was this inordinate appetite --  along with other reasons including, quite obviously, reasons economic -- that led me to explore the world of transactional sex.

The idea that a current or former sex worker would have fewer sexual hang ups than any other woman is, I imagine, simply not true. More importantly, what I know about pleasuring a man says little about what I know of receiving pleasure myself.

Sex for money was uncomplicated. The terms were agreed upon ahead of time. There was no awkward guessing. It was kind of like, come to think of it, enthusiastic consent. The men nearly always asked permission every step of the way. In my experience, no always meant no. If I didn’t like something, I could ask him to stop. Responsible for defining the interaction, I felt powerful and in control. Calling all the shots felt sexy and well, even if I didn’t enjoy the sex, at least I got paid.

These days, when it comes to "real" sex -- that is, sex not for money -- I am as baffled as the next. Transactional sex taught me nothing about intimacy, which I believe involves reciprocity and mutuality -- sharing power, a negotiation. It can be an expression of trust and love, two things I'm not so great at expressing. It's about communicating more than just "I want to get off." When it comes to sex as part of relationship instead of the be-all-end-all, you got me.

What I know for sure: Having sex for money, every impulse had become an imperative. Even though I was free to do so, I had lost the ability to say no. While I could say yes when it came to sex, what I wanted from men besides sex, I couldn’t have said.

Now that I no longer have sex as a full-time occupation, I seem to have reclaimed my ability to say no. Just ask my boyfriend, Mark: I say no a lot.

I say no for reasons that are complicated -- although I’ve discovering in writing this article, equally complicated were the reasons I said yes.

Mark, the decent guy that he is, doesn’t take it personal. At times it can be frustrating, but he lets me figure it out.

“Whatever happened to that article you were writing?” Mark asked me later in the week. He had come up behind me as I did the dishes, putting his arms around my waist.

“Is that your way of saying you want to have sex?”

“Is there a better way to say it?” The answer is no. There is no right or wrong way to give consent, so long as it’s communicated clearly and clearly understood. This, of course, is only possible when you’re being honest with yourself.

Like communism, picnics or (in my experience) sex for money, some things are better in theory than in practice. Add enthusiastic consent to that list. That said, theories are good. They make people think.

My partner and I didn’t have “enthusiastic consent” sex, but we thought about it and we talked about it. And getting people to communicate? I think that was the point.