For the third day of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Beyond Yes or No: Consent As Sexual Process.” I can’t agree more with the main idea of this essay: that consent shouldn’t just be the absence of “no,” or even a simple “yes,” but a conversation between sexual partners about desires, fear, likes, dislikes, and all the rest. However, I did have some discomfort in parts of the essay as someone who doesn’t find it easy to ask for what she wants.
Bussel puts a challenge to her readers in this essay, suggesting that women need to take responsibility and be more talkative about what they do and do not want in bed. She also makes it clear that neither partner in a sexual relationship should engage in sexual relations without hearing an enthusiastic “yes,” so this essay is far from victim-blaming, but it does make me frown just a little as someone who, admittedly, doesn’t do well with bedroom conversations.
I think it’s important to do two things: one, to absolutely firmly advocate what Bussel is suggesting in this essay, and what I’ve jokingly summed up in the title “Why Checklists Are Sexy.” Sex should start with a conversation. For those of us who do have some talking difficulties, an actual physical checklist can be extremely helpful, especially if partners fill it out separately and then use the “index card method” to go down the list, looking for matching “yes” answers (or yes/maybes) and then checking to see what the activity was. (This takes away the embarrassment you might feel if a partner sees you enthusiastically saying yes to something they find repulsive.)
Then there’s number two, though, which I think is equally important. We have to recognize that embarrassment and silence about sex is a huge part of rape culture. It’s all well and good to advocate that women speak up and take charge of our desires, but for many this is not something that we can simply stand up and do. It may be, among other things, a healing process.
There is a lot more that goes on during sex than simply saying yes and no, and in the silences, unspoken doubts, fears, mistrust, and confusion can arise.
Absolutely true. Part of the rape culture, and a culture that is repressed about sexuality in general, is that silence is emphasized. Many of us have been in a situation where our default response to sexual contact, whether wanted or unwanted, was silence. Magazine articles focus on how to read a woman or a man’s “signs,” often ignoring the really obvious response of simply asking “hey, what are you trying to communicate?” We’re taught that sex and courtship are a dance, that it’s sexy to be able to read a man or a woman, that women especially are “mysterious” and that men must play a game to seduce them. These ideas can creep into queer relationships just as easily as heterosexual ones.
The bottom line is, you can’t assume you know what your partner is thinking. You may think you know what they have in mind, based on your reading of them, but that’s still only your reading until you probe further.
One thing the dominant culture teaches us is to yearn for the mind-reader. A lot of us fantasize about someone who is so good at “reading” us that he or she can tell exactly what we want without us ever even opening our mouths. We get the idea that an experienced lover is someone who “knows” what to do, who knows all the “tricks.” I’ve seen this idea especially applied to men, and also to dominant partners in the D/s (dominance and submission) context. This may be a sexy fantasy for those of us who have trouble opening our mouths, but it’s just not possible. Unfortunately for the shy ones, the only solution is communication.
I remember being with my college boyfriend, a relationship that took the “silence” model to some interesting extremes, and trying to ask for something in bed for the first time. This was a sexual relationship that was defined by silence to an almost ridiculous degree. Sex was basically just what we were supposed to do. He never kissed me anywhere but the mouth, and I never asked. After a few months of sexual intercourse and me performing oral sex on him, he did get around to manually stimulating me, but I didn’t bother to provide suggestions. I remember thinking how absolutely ridiculous it was that I, an outgoing and boisterous individual, became this meek, shy, silent person in bed. It took six months before I could ask for oral sex, and I did it with a stutter. I cried. He declined, and I didn’t ask again.
I was annoyed at myself for behaving in this way, but it didn’t necessarily change in leaps and bounds. When I had sex with a female friend I care deeply about, someone with whom I was able to talk about sexual preferences online at length, we both did the same sort of quiet thing. There would be a suggestion from time to time, but there was a lot of blushing and a lot of laughing about the blushing. It was definitely an improvement, but it still leaves me scratching my head and asking “what the fuck?”
I think it’s important to recognize that it’s okay to have difficulties breaking the silence. It’s important to recognize that it comes from some pretty strong cultural cues, and in some case some pretty powerful personal experiences, and not everyone has an easy time speaking up. If you’re someone who can speak up, then ask questions. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to answer a question than to volunteer. I absolutely agree with Bussel’s suggestion that when a partner’s reply to a consent question is to go silent or mumble a response, the key is to go slow. A quiet person might not be offended if you forge ahead, but sometimes it takes a few tries to get an answer out and the experience will be more rewarding if you do. Sometimes we just need to be patient when it comes to sex, talk it out with our clothes on, explore fantasies slowly, even write stuff down first if it’s hard to say out loud. But if a partner is constantly silent, mumbly, or dodges the question and goes on with sex as usual without showing much participation in the matter (20-year-old me, I’m looking at you!) that should be a red flag.
(And down with popular magazines. Goodnight and good luck.)