Creating a Culture of Joyful Consent

Part 2 in an Agency series: Confronting Sexual Assault on Campus

I’ve never called myself a survivor of sexual assault. What happened to me wasn’t exactly rape, but it wasn’t exactly consensual either. Somewhere around my senior year of college, I began partying a lot. One evening, I dropped acid with a male acquaintance. Things started out pretty great; we shared interesting conversation and enjoyed listening to music together. Then I started tripping pretty hard and things suddenly turned sexual between us. I don’t remember much about how it started, but I remember that he initiated it. I remember most vividly my ambivalence. I found my friend attractive, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to have sex with him.

I couldn’t think clearly enough to decide what to do. There was no pause, no break in contact, and no real opportunity to reflect on my desires. And by the time I was able to decide that I didn’t want to sleep with my friend it was already happening. I remember coming in and out of consciousness and eventually just “turning off” so that I wouldn’t have to face the emotional dissonance that I was experiencing. I don’t entirely blame my friend for this encounter—his decision making was also impaired—but I think it speaks to a broader cultural norm that we both had been taught: That it’s safe to assume that sex is on the table unless otherwise explicitly noted.

When I think back to most of the sexual experiences of my 20’s—this sentiment is echoed throughout. Sex just sort of happened—very rarely was I asked to explicitly give consent for my sexual behaviors. By my late 20’s, however, I began reading about feminist and anarchist politics and I learned that this cultural script was inherently problematic.

At the heart of anarchism are discussions about power—how we use it, how we share it, how we internalize systems of oppression, and play out those dynamics in our daily lives. Anarchism, as defined by Cindy Milstein, is a “philosophy of freedom.” It’s about finding better ways to organizing our lives and our social relationships without the coercion of the State. We ask each other to come to the table ready to negotiate and develop “voluntary social relations” that move beyond hierarchy and control.

This includes how we relate to one another in our most intimate connections. Consent and mutual agreements in our decisions about sex are key to this. This helps to eliminate dynamics of coercion, better ensure equitability between partners, and create the space for agency in relationships. In turn, it also enables cultivation of more fulfilling, liberated, and joyful lives—asking for consent strikes me as not only meaningful in the way it helps to create a healthier culture, but also because it builds intimacy between partners. Furthermore, anarchist feminism specifically, helps to illustrate the ways in which patriarchal dominance permeates cultural norms around sex and intimacy—not only among men, but among women, and even outside of heteronormative relationships.

With these new frameworks to draw on, I started noticing the assumption of sexual availability in my own life and in the lives of my friends. Get laid first, ask about feelings later.

In my early 30’s, I was interested in dating a female friend of mine. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and despite our age difference, we had a lot of chemistry. I sensed that she might be reciprocating my feelings and one evening, I leaned in and asked if I could kiss her. She responded by stating “No.” I thought that I must have misread her signals and backed off. She proceeded to tell me “that if I have to ask first, then I shouldn’t be kissing her.” She explained that she wanted to just be taken in a fit of passion and power. She wanted to be swept off her feet by lust and desire. I could understand wanting to be desired passionately, but what really struck me was how quickly she got turned off by my asking for consent.

I realized in that moment that we probably weren’t compatible and our politics perhaps too different for us to be intimate with each other. More broadly, I realized that even women internalize this message about the sexiness of power and dominance.

The first time I had sex with my current partner, who also identifies as an anarchist, I was stunned by the extent to which he asked for my consent. Even with my own heightened awareness, I was still surprised by this experience with him. Each time the ante was upped, each time a new level of physical intimacy was initiated by either of us, he stopped to ask me if “it was ok.” He’d pause, look me in the eyes, and ask how I was feeling and if I liked what was happening. Even after more than a year of partnership, he still does this. Many of these mechanisms for “checking in” are silent now, as we’ve learned each other’s body language and subtle non-verbal cues. But there are occasional moments when one of us feels like the energy is “off” somehow and will stop and check in.

One of the main problems with mainstream discussions about consent is the tendency to overlook the role of socialization in people’s lives. Given that we live in a world where cis-women hold less power and are taught to please others from a very young age, consent becomes synonymous with acquiescence. We give in, we give up, and we go along with cultural expectations around our gender performance. My story demonstrates this clearly—I gave consent passively, by simply allowing the sex to happen. But in order for consent to be meaningful, we must transform our culture and create space to honor women’s authentic desires.

We must create a culture where consent does not simply mean, “I am willing,” but “yes, please.” It is this same enthusiasm and joyfulness that are essential components in finding new ways to organize our lives. Anarchist understandings of the need to challenge norms that reify dominance and patriarchal forms of control in our private lives and that seek to create transformative, empowering, equitable, and voluntary relationships can help us to move towards building a culture that is not only consent-based, but that allow for this kind of joyful intimacy.

 

Further Reading on Consent:

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Rachael Goss
Rachael Goss lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an instructor at Point Park University and has been teaching for 8 years. She has an M.A. in Sociology, is returning to graduate school for counseling, and hopes to someday work with GLBTQ clients as a therapist. When she’s not reading queer theory, she enjoys practicing meditation and yoga.

 

 

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