Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Hey to the queer sex ed community! I’m going to give a *content warning* at the beginning of this post because we’re talking about consent, which is one of my favorite concepts to talk about. Consent is such a critical practice because it applies to most interactions we have everyday; we all could benefit from deepening our understanding of consent because negotiations of power are a part of so many aspects of our lives, not just sex.
Like most of these queer sex ed topics, consent wasn’t something that was included in my sexual health education before higher education. Fortunately the new national standards for sex ed are starting to allocate more classtime and resources to talking about consent (see the zinepost on National Sex Education Standards or NSES). Unfortunately that means for a lot of people my age or older (I graduated highschool in 2016, for reference) our sexual health curriculum may have had little to no time, resources, or seriousness dedicated to the idea of consent.
We tend to associate consenual and non-consenual acts with sex or sexual assault, but really anytime there is an interaction between people there are elements of power and accessibility being worked through in real time. Think about a boss demanding that you complete a task vs. a partner demanding that you complete a task. These circumstances have different power dynamics, and they will elicit different responses from us - specifically in terms of how much power we have to say yes or no.
A good way to begin to explore consent in your own life is to take a close look at a recent social interaction.
Who had the power in that conversation? Who was in a social position of power based on race, age, class, or gender? How was the body language? Who spoke more? Who was more assertive or forceful?
Even when social interactions are pleasant, these are important factors to consider.
When it comes to sex, the questions we need to ask ourselves aren’t much different. We still need to pay attention to power dynamics, body language, enthusiasm, and pressure - because consent is more than just an agreement to engage in sexual activity. Consent should always be voluntary and on-going, meaning that consent is not given under any pressures or persuasion, and it is repeatedly or continuously given. Consent should also be given enthusiastically, specifically, and with an informed mindset. Sometimes circumstances dictate whether or not someone has the ability to give consent. For instance if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unconscious or asleep, under the legal age of consent, or pressured or in a position of disempowerment - they cannot give consent.
As per usual, adrienne maree brown, author of Pleasure Activism: the Politics of Feeling Good, has created an incredible framework for understanding and indulging ourselves in the pleasure of consent. She calls these the keys to consent-based pleasure. Let’s explore them a bit.
Not only is consent necessary - it’s sexy!
We are often socialized to be uncomfortable talking about sex, even with someone who we are engaging in sexual acitivites with! Talking about consent can feel like a big step, and it can definitely feel awkward at first. That’s where the idea of consent-based pleasure comes into play. Consent based pleasure teaches us that consent is an essential component to sex, and that talking about what feels good can open doors to health experimentation and better sexual encounters.
Consent is self-care: It is always helpful to have a good understanding of your personal boundaries before embarking on sexual encounters. As amb says, “It is a gift to be in touch with our own desires” (p. 197). But this is harder than it sounds! For those just beginning to explore sexual desire, for survivors or victims of sexual assault, for those experiencing gender dysphoria, for those with chronic pain (and many other reasons) this can be particularly challenging.
Some ways to conquer this are to start and start slow. This typically looks like exploring your body by yourself for a while: discover what feels good and what doesn’t, and bring that information confidently into sexual encounters with others. No one knows your body like you do.
Consent has levels: Just because someone is saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean they are saying yes to everything. Consent can fluctuate during sexual encounters - ask for consent frequently!
Asking for consent is sexy! We aren’t really taught how to ask or give consent, so it’s important to practice this one, even outside of the realm of sex and intimacy. Try asking your friends if it’s okay to give them a hug or enter their personal space. The more we practice, the easier it becomes.
There are a ton of reasons why knowledge of consent is withheld from us. A lot of interactions and transactions that we deal with rely on non-consensual acts; in interpersonal relationships, in workplace relationships, in interactions between people and corporations, or between people and their government. It’s exciting to know that younger generations are being taught these lessons early, sometimes in school programs designed to reach kids as young as pre-school. For the many of us no longer in school, these are lessons we have to teach ourselves on our own time, but they are deeply essential lessons- for our own protection, and for the protection of people around us.
My sources for this zine and blogpost:
adrienne maree brown, pleasure activist. (2017, October 25). From #MeToo to #WeConsented: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Consent. Retrieved from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-pleasure-dome/me-too-reclaiming-consent
Parenthood, P. (n.d.). What Is Sexual Consent?: Facts About Rape & Sexual Assault. Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent