This was supposed to be a steamy piece about getting to second base, a follow up on the making out piece, but I am now writing this column in the wake of the latest wave of #metoo storytelling, and I wanted to address pleasure in this context.
In 2004, Tarana Burke started the Me Too movement, centered around women telling the stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of men. With the recent expose of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviors and the infrastructure that supported him, the hashtag was used by Alyssa Milano and other actors and people in the Hollywood realm who have been hurt by Weinstein.
Then millions of other people from other walks of life began to come forward. For days now I have been reading the stories of childhood sexual abuse, molestation, sexual harassment, disrespect, sexual assault, rape. Stories where boundaries were transgressed, where power was abused, where secrecy was demanded, where protection was given to the perpetrators of harm.
On the heels of this hashtag have come other angles on rape culture, including that while it is rooted in toxic masculinity, it is not limited by gender, it’s not just men hurting women. People of all genders have been harmed, and have caused harm. Men are assaulted and raped in astounding numbers which get swallowed by the shame and homophobia of masculine culture. The dynamics repeat in same sex relationships and communities.
Sexual aggression is a malfunction of masculinity that is not bound by genitalia.
Some have questioned why we are sharing survivor stories, when the people who need to step forward and take responsibility are those who have caused harm. I’m sure fear and shame are major factors here, but I also think we are still in such early stages of learning to practice transformative justice (justice that goes beyond calling for punishment, or even restoring the original conditions, which were often imbalanced and unhealthy in the first place. Transformative justice asks us to dive deep to understand and transform the underlying conditions that allowed the harm to happen). I am not interested in exposing names, in exposing the most harmful moments of people’s lives. I am interested in how we transform the underlying conditions that generated the harm in the first place. I think the truth will continue to shake loose in these kind of waves, stories that map our pain and show where we are as a species in terms of being able and ready to face rape culture and end it.
It is humbling to realize that the majority of us are trying to reach pleasure through the complex trauma of transgression. In the onslaught of unveiling, I thought it would be useful to take a step back and address something crucial: the pleasure of consent.
Consent means saying yes on your own terms. Giving permission or agreement for something to happen.
Many of us had our boundaries crossed before we learned anything about saying yes and no. Crossed when we are young, by adults we trust. Crossed when we are coming into the realm of desire. Many of us were truncated in our sexual liberation by these transgressions. We were taught to act cool, even when others were doing things to us that diminished our power and safety. We were taught in sex ed programs that sex is scary, that sex means babies and disease.
I want to uplift another way. If we focused on teaching consent and boundaries instead of trying to scare people away from the most common and natural activity of our species, I think we could make major headway in the effort to turn our collective story from #metoo and #itwasme into #notme, and even #weconsentedanditwasdelicious.
The pleasures of consent are multitudinous. Here are some keys to consent-based pleasure.
It is a gift to be in touch with your own desire, to know when you do and don’t want something. For survivors of molestation and assault it can be really difficult to get in touch with our own desires. We can go along with things because we don’t believe we have a choice, because we want to seem normal, because the depression of survival is isolating and touch can temporarily ease the loneliness, or because we have been misdirected into deep insecurity and think we should be lucky for sexual attention.
The first step of consent is tuning into your own desire, being able to feel a distinct yes or no in your system. For me, I had to engage in a period of intentional celibacy, get really still and clear of other people’s attention, in order to hear my own longings. You might be able to get there without that celibacy, but the key is that you can identify and point to three different physical and emotional signals that you are feeling a yes for a potential lover. Signs like quickening breath, flushed face, pressure in the groin, sweat on the palms, tingling up the spine, weakening of the knees, and so much more.
This self-awareness will help you navigate giving and receiving consent.
Consent has Levels
Consent can cover a lot of ground. It isn’t just about the consent of a certain touch or sexual act. Consent can cover the ground of boundaries and communication—can we flirt? Are you actually available for us to build an intimate connection? Can I send you pictures? Can I take pictures of you? Can I share our connection with others, in public, on social media? Can we fuck? Are you open to ass play? Disclosing sexual history and risk is a part of a consent conversation. For some people, disclosing relationship and parental status can be part of a consent conversation. As I have gotten more in touch with my shifting abilities, I also bring into consent conversations things like, “Can you be careful with my knees? I tore my meniscus a while back so don’t just throw me around.”
Asking for these things helps build a space of trust. Eventually you may get past needing to ask for consent on each of these things, because you will have developed a space of trust, where you know consent matters and can be navigated as needed.
Asking for Consent
This one takes so much practice. Many of us are taught anti-consent practices as children, to hug and kiss whatever adult comes around asking for affection, that it’s rude if we don’t make the demanded contact. This culture of access based on power grows with us. Power gives an assumed total access of older people to younger people’s bodies, white people to people of color’s bodies, men to women’s bodies, cis to trans bodies, those with resources to those with less, those with more physical strength to those with less. It’s the way systems of hierarchy, domination, patriarchy, misogyny, and capitalism converge in the realm of flesh.
Self-awareness helps us begin to see that everyone has sovereignty over their own bodies, their time, attention, boundaries and desires. But practice makes this awareness transformative—asking if someone is open to physical contact, to a hug, to intimate touch, to sex, begins to create a foundation of consent, a path to grow beyond the sick system we’ve been shaped by.
The pleasure that comes from knowing that you are offering someone something that they wholeheartedly say yes to is sacred, it acknowledges that we are each walking miracles, we each have power, and we each have the responsibility to share and grow power in ourselves and others.
No is a Complete Sentence
Your strong and solid no makes way for your deep, authentic yes. I was taught this late in life: “No is a complete sentence.” You don’t have to say no apologetically, and you don’t have to explain your no. By practicing your no, you will cultivate a yes that is rooted in having agency, having power, and having respect for your own boundaries.
Even if every single thing you have been told and shown has taught you that you do not have the right to give consent, to navigate the boundaries of your body, you do. The culture of access that says someone can exert power over your body for any reason other than you saying yes is a lie.
When you want to say yes, when you choose to give consent, you are in your power.
Your consent isn’t made of stone. You might feel a yes for attention, or a kiss, but then feel a boundary that says slow down or stop when it comes to the next steps—touching, sex, etc. You get to be in touch with that consent.
Consent that is shored up by the real option of a strong no, by respected and well worn boundaries, and by a visceral yes that floods the entire body, is a pre-orgasmic experience. It lays a foundation for thrilling intimate connections that are clear of the shadows of manipulation and abuse.
Hot and Bothered Homework
Choose one physical activity that you might take for granted right now—hugs, handshakes, flirtatious touch, blowjobs, sex, and track your consent in this activity for a week. You can keep doing what you normally do, but start to really pay attention to the signals in your body—are you a total yes to this contact? If not, why are you doing it? If yes, give yourself an internal high five. Learn your own landscape of consent.