TRIGGER WARNING: Occasional reference to scenarios of sexual assault. (But mostly just sex talk.)
Three years ago, when I was only a sophomore in college, I published a piece about positive consent and the “silence is sexy” date script. Much to my surprise, it was shared over and over again around the world as people everywhere reacted to the radical idea that, rather than having to constantly put the brakes on in sexual situations going too far, women should be given the opportunity to move it forward, say yes, and ask for what they want. I was glad to see people starting slightly new discussions about consent and gratified to see the conversations continuing on my blog and on other blogs over the years.
However, despite these conversations, I am still–constantly, it seems–reading headlines and hearing accounts of women and men who have suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of a rapist, either by “accident” or through malicious intent, and in many cases I see the public outcry in defense of these rapists, and sympathy if and when they suffer the consequences of their abhorrent decisions.
It is clear that discussion and debate is not enough to make real change. Even those who claim an understanding of consent and an abhorrence of rape still fall prey to arguments of intoxication and confusion, promiscuity and ambiguity, good intentions and well-meaning attempts. Even the most educated, kind-hearted, liberal-minded people seem to think that the delineation between sex and sexual assault is a gray area where anybody might misunderstand or make a mistake.
This is incorrect. There is no gray area. Nada, zip, none whatsoever. Do not misunderstand, do not pass “Go,” do not collect 200 dollars. The difference between sex and sexual assault is as obvious as night and day and as simple as ABC or 1+1. It is not complicated. It is not ambiguous. Anybody should be able to understand in any situation, regardless of their age, criminal history, or intoxication, as long as they remember and follow these three simple rules:
1. Sex only happens between fully functioning adults of equivalent power and status.
We call sex “relations” because it is a relationship. I don’t mean that it happens in a relationship; it doesn’t always necessarily. I mean that the act of sex is about connection, about people coming together (apologies for the pun), about a blending of energies and feelings. It is a ritual of equality and mutual sharing.
Sexual relations cannot happen without the full awareness and active participation of everyone involved. That means body movement, eye contact, speaking directly to each other, or otherwise reacting to sensations. Unconscious people cannot have sexual relations, even if they consented before becoming unconscious. People who are so intoxicated that they cannot keep their eyes open or speak coherently cannot have sexual relations, even if they consented earlier or are consenting now with slurred words. If they won’t remember it tomorrow, it is not sex. If they are not fully functioning at 100% awareness and 100% participation, it is not sex.
Sexual relations cannot happen between you and your student; it cannot happen between you and an employee you supervise; it cannot happen with a minor, no matter how precocious or mature. It cannot happen with anybody who is afraid of you or who depends on you for their livelihood, reputation, or survival. These are not relationships of equality and mutuality. They are inherently imbalanced, and imbalance is a steep and slippery slope to breaking rules #2 and #3.
2. Having sex is a choice made independently by all parties involved.
When two or more people decide to have sex with each other, that decision must happen separately in each person’s mind. Maybe it happens at the same time and maybe at different times, but there is no time when it is justifiable to manipulate, coerce, or guilt someone into making that choice. If you’ve been dropping hints all night and they aren’t showing interest, drop it. If you ask once and they say no or hesitate nervously, drop it. If you make a move and they don’t respond with 100% participation, stop it and drop it. Even “playing hard-to-get” comes with a flirtatious smile here and there to clue you in. Without that, drop it.
If you know or suspect that someone is uninterested in having sex with you, getting them drunk so they are easier to coerce is not foreplay. Getting them drunk because it might make them horny is not foreplay. Getting someone drunk is never foreplay. If somebody chooses to have drunk sex with you, they will make that choice on their own and tell you about it before they get drunk, and then they will get drunk in whatever way they choose. Whining about how infrequently you have sex is not foreplay either. Complaining that they have changed their mind after saying yes earlier is not foreplay. Let them choose on their own time and in their own way. And learn to live with disappointment sometimes. That’s what masturbation is for.
You won’t always get to have sex when you want to. It is not something you deserve; it is not something to which you have any “right.” It is not a prize or a gift to be given and taken. It is an experience to be shared, and in order to share an experience, all parties have to truly and honestly want it.
3. Sex is a positive experience, at all times, for all parties involved.
We often talk about relationships, including sex, as a “give-and-take.” But what we don’t say is how and when that give-and-take happens and what it feels like. During sex, you never lose what you give of yourself and you simultaneously give back whatever you take. If sacrifice is an element, it is not sex. If tolerance with gritted teeth is an element, it is not sex. If at any point someone feels like you are taking something from them that wasn’t given, it stops being sex. If at any point you feel like you are losing something that you are giving, it stops being sex. The “give-and-take” of sex is a mutual sharing. At the same time. A positive, gainful experience, always, for everyone.
And no, I don’t mean that everyone has to always feel pleasure, or always have an orgasm, but everyone has to be enjoying the experience for some reason and gaining something from it. If at any point they stop enjoying it, for whatever reason, it stops being sex. Check in regularly. Pay attention. Actively engage in a relationship of mutual sharing and it will be completely obvious when someone is not really feeling it, for whatever reason. Communicate. Change or disengage. “Bad sex” should have an expiration date of immediately. If you’re only having “bad sex,” you might as well just masturbate and/or turkey baster that baby.
Why would you ever want anything else, anyway? What’s the point?
So there you go. You’re welcome. If you use these three simple tricks, you will never have to worry or wonder if you have become a rapist. Nobody will ever accuse you of sexual assault. Nobody will ever doubt your good intentions. And most importantly, you will never force anybody to become a victim or a survivor. You will never put anyone through the horrific torture of being sexually violated, threatened, disrespected, ignored, injured, objectified, made invisible, made powerless, or made to feel unsafe. It will simply never happen. And you will have much better sex.
Those of you who are used to viewing sex as a spectrum of experience and think sexual assault is pretty cut and dry may be thinking, Really? When I haven’t enjoyed myself, it wasn’t really sex, but assault? It was your experience and your body; you can call it whatever you want. It is not my goal to make you view your sex life as a series of assaults. But for your future sexual encounters, these are steadfast, proven rules for preventing sexual assault. Everything outside of these rules is a short step away from some form of assault. If you feel comfortable having sex with someone who gave consent but is not that interested and not really enjoying it, you probably aren’t thinking about sex as an experience of mutual sharing, which means you probably aren’t thinking about your partner’s humanity or subjectivity, which means you are probably objectifying them, which means you may have trouble recognizing consent, which means you are inches away from becoming a rapist.
If these rules seem strict and limiting, you may need to reevaluate your view of sex. I don’t blame you for this. Our society is structured around an understanding of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold, traded and hoarded, withheld and gifted, lost and won. We are not taught to view everyone’s subjectivity and humanity equally; women are objectified constantly and men’s subjectivity reinforced again and again.
But we can change that in the choices we make. We can follow these guidelines. I do it all the time and you can too. For the love of God, please give it a try. I’m heartsick and angry and tired of living in a real-life horror movie. If you hate rape and sexual assault as much as I do, be the change you want to see in the world. It starts with all of us.