Trigger warning for discussion of rape and consent. Behind the link.
You have likely, by this point, heard about the Steubenville rape case. Two boys rape an unconscious girl; the media spend more time lamenting how ruined the perpetrators’ lives are by their guilty verdict than on the consequences to the victim herself. That much has been thoroughly covered–what’s on my mind is some of the conversation that’s happened since.
One of the topics that’s surfaced in reaction to it all is the “enthusiastic consent” concept, and in particular the need to teach young people that a prerequisite for sexual activity is a clear, unequivocal “yes, I want to do this with you.” This cool parent-son dialogue is a great example. There’s been some backlash against that, though, and that’s what’s got my blogging fingers itching.
There’s this worry in some corners that teaching youngsters to ask for consent before sexy times will make them more scared, awkward, neurotic about sex, and only make the problem worse. (I have a particular post in mind, but don’t intend to quote or link it here, because [a] it wasn’t public, and [b] I suspect I’m not reading the author very charitably. So it’s best to consider this an independent post rather than a reply.) I think that fear’s a load of crap. Here’s my bullet-point list of why.
It sounds an awful lot like weaksauce objections to condom use. Yeah, maybe sometimes pausing to ask “is this okay?” might cause a blip in the mood, just like pausing to put on a prophylactic might. You roll with it and move on. Sometimes we’ve got to accept these little inconveniences for the sake of avoiding harm–be that harm disease, unwanted pregnancy, or the trauma of sexual assault or rape.
For that matter, where is this non-awkward sex, anyway? Sex is awkward. It’s messy and silly and a little embarrassing, even when it’s really good! Let’s not pretend it isn’t. Assuming the action-movie vision of sex where it’s all hot breath and ripped clothes and total lack of ambiguity does us all a disservice, especially the young people we’re talking about in these education discussions.
Consent looks different as a relationship progresses, but the “checklist” style is still super important. I don’t think any proponent of enthusiastic consent would say you need to stop at every move in every sexual encounter for a scripted check-in. As you get comfortable with a partner, you’ll likely say “yes” and “no” in more subtle ways. But at the very start, when you don’t know the other person’s tells and triggers? As a sanity check to say, oh wait, this person isn’t clear-headed enough to say this is okay? Absolutely friggin’ essential to have a timeout.
Teaching consent is only one piece of the conversation, but it’s a foundational one. Similarly, nobody’s saying that educating kids about making sure to get a “yes” is the end of the story. There’s plenty of other nuances and hard questions and good advice to convey to get anywhere comprehensive. But the idea of always getting consent is so crucial to the broader virtue of respecting your partner’s boundaries, to understanding they’re a person too and can want or not want things at different times–you know, those things so utterly missing from the behavior of the Steubenville perps–that you can’t skip it. If your kid rolls his eyes and says “of course I know that, Mom,” then great! It still helps to start with such basics.
“Do you want this?” “Yes, yes!” If you can’t make that sexy, that’s the neurotic part, not the asking.
It’s not about you. It’s not about your kid, either. It’s about the person who might get terribly, horrifically hurt if we don’t teach these things. So get over it.