A woman once told me pointedly something that has stayed with me to this day. We were kissing. Lying on the cold wood floor, my hand traveled across her stomach and she whispered, “I think we should take it slow.” I agreed immediately. Before moving in to kiss her again, I said, “Just tell me when to stop.”
This, I thought, was considerate. Respectful. Sexy. But she quickly corrected my mistake. Pulling away from me, her face took on a serious expression and the words she spoke illuminated a misunderstanding I had long nurtured, even as I knew myself to be a thoughtful feminist with much respect for other women.
In essence, what she said was, “Women are not given enough opportunities to say ‘yes.’”
Oh, I thought. Huh. What a wonderfully radical idea. But I mean, isn’t it strange that this idea is so radical? Women saying yes. It’s not radical because women never want sex or agree to have it, but because the typical “sexy” date script society expects and encourages from us usually involves a man trying whatever he wants and a woman either putting the brakes on, or consenting…by not putting the brakes on. Sound familiar?
We’ve gotten the idea from movies and magazines that silence is sexy. Ultimate romance means fireworks and fairy dust sprinkling down from the heavens and instilling in us some magical intuition where both people suddenly just know what the other wants. Speaking out loud in full sentences would break the rhythm, ruining the mystical thrill of the spontaneous moment. And GOD FORBID you ask permission to do anything. I mean, come on, major boner killer.
But here’s the thing. The “sexy silence” model is based on two stupid and outdated assumptions: 1) that a man’s pleasure takes priority over a woman’s, and 2) that a woman’s pleasure must be expected and assumed, because how could she ever resist a man? The “just say no” part of the rule didn’t always exist. That developed later when society realized that women should have some say in the matter. Duh.
But “just say no” isn’t enough. Imagine this: since men are expected to make the first move in the majority of sexual situations, where does that leave women if they’re not yet sure what they want? This “sexy silence” standard makes saying “no” or “stop” even harder for women who want to feel sexy but don’t necessarily want to do what their partner wants to do; who want a hug goodnight, but not a kiss; who are excited about kissing, but uncomfortable with petting; who are enthusiastic about making out, but aren’t ready for sex. Being forced to say “no” or “stop” will invariably make the experience end sooner than it might otherwise, and on a rather negative note, even if it started positively with both people excited. Come to think of it, I can’t think of anything less sexy or romantic than making an enthusiastic move and being pushed away, or having to tell someone whom I like to stop what they’re doing.
Even more troubling is the possibility that a woman might not know how or when to put the brakes on, and by simply hesitating for too long, could end up doing any variety of things against her innermost wishes. Oh wait! That happens all the time. It’s called rape. That’s right. The “silence is sexy” model is a big part of how we created rape culture.
Soooooo what alternatives do we have? How do we keep sexy things fun and respectful without placing the heavy burden on the woman to be a killjoy (and in a hurry) in order to maintain her boundaries?
Here’s an idea. Give women some agency by pausing now and then and allowing them to say YES and ask for what they want! I swear, it is sexy as hell to give somebody exactly what you know they want, without wondering if you’re guessing wrong.
Silence is only sexy because we like to assume that everybody is on the same page! Imagine how much sexier it would be if you didn’t have to assume, if a woman said, “Yes, please do that. I like that.” To have a woman actively pursue what she wants, and not just passively receive what someone assumes she wants, guarantees more fun and more pleasure for both parties. Just think of all the pornography that depicts women screaming “yes!” Consent is sexy; giving someone what they want is sexy; knowing without a doubt that your partner is satisfied is sexy.
What if you pause or ask and she says “no” anyway, you might wonder? Wouldn’t that kill the mood just as much? Well, look at it this way. It’s hard to say “no” in a sexy way if somebody is already trying to have sex with you. If you try that it will probably be misunderstood, so firmness is somewhat necessary. On the other hand, a question or a request for permission can be a sultry whisper, and “no” can be a shake of the head and an alternate suggestion. Boom. Sexy.
And it doesn’t have to impact dominance or submission either. A woman with agency doesn’t necessarily have to kiss someone; she could ask someone to kiss her. Either way, the positive agency is what is important. That is, being instrumental in the action, instead of only reacting, and focusing first on what she wants, instead of what she doesn’t want.
For example, when this woman (the same one) and I first discussed our interest in each other, I exclaimed desperately how much I wanted to kiss her, and even though she had already told me she wanted me, she expressed hesitation about the kiss, saying, “I’m not sure…”
Turns out, she just needed to think about it. The next night I asked her, “What do you want?” and she boldly kissed me for the first time. Later she told me that she had been pleasantly surprised when I didn’t immediately kiss her after she said she wasn’t sure. “I honestly thought you would anyway,” she said.
And these are just two examples out of a dozen. In those beginning days, we both solidified our mutual understanding that consent doesn’t mean not saying no; it means YES!
And guess what? Almost two years later, she is still my girlfriend. Shazam.
- Patriarchy is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. (queerguesscode.wordpress.com)