The Richmond rape and the general public reaction point to our misunderstanding of consent. For the most part, we understand the phrase “no means no” as the primary aspect of consent, but this is a flawed assumption that excludes positive communication during sex and other partner play. Within the feminist community, “yes means yes” is a much more popular banner. What’s the difference?
“No means no” implies that a verbal denial is the only way to withdraw consent, but think of all the times you’ve had sex because you felt you had to, because you felt you owed it to your long-term partner, because you kinda sorta maybe wanted it. Consent should be a verbal affirmation, freely issued and without mental, physical, or emotional constraints. “Do you want to fuck?” “How do you want it?” “Show me where to touch you.” “Does this turn you on?” Asking for consent doesn’t have to clumsy, and it can become a natural routine between partners or a sexual tease.
Alcohol and other drugs muddle consensual sex. It’s your prerogative to drink, take a hit, etc. even if you are underage or the substance is otherwise illegal. That’s your choice, but that never means that you deserve to get raped or you had it coming to you. That doesn’t even make sense. California law says that when you have sex with someone who is intoxicated (and therefore unable to consent), that is sexual assault. Is that one drink? Two? Three? A tab, a hit, a line, a pill?
Different people have different limits on when they’re too drunk to have sex. The hard-line solution is to never have partner sex when one partner partakes in drugs or alcohol, and if that works for you, good. For other people, especially those with long-term partners, established boundaries and communication are key to preserving consent. For some couples, one drink is OK but two means no-go. Or they communicate their intentions before they start drinking. “I am going to drink responsibly tonight, but I want to have sex with you. Let’s check in with each other later tonight.” Of course, this sort of planning can go awry if you drink too much. Also, consent can be withdrawn at any time and prior consent does not always equal current consent.
For people without partners who want to mix alcohol and sex, it helps to have a friend who knows your intentions. “I want to hook up with someone, but not if I’m too drunk. Don’t leave the party without finding me first.” Keep an eye on each other, and if you see your friend doing something questionable, don’t be afraid to cockblock. Pull him or her aside: “How are you feeling? Are you sure you want to be with this person? Would you do this is you were sober?” Alcohol or other drugs, however, should not be used as crutches for sex. If you need either substance to feel comfortable having sex (with your partner or with strangers), that’s another issue for another column.
When I went to school, I was very fortunate to live within the Berkeley Student Cooperative system, a community with a no-tolerance policy for sexual harassment/assault. The BSC issued a few sexual violence zines that were informative and thoughtful. If you’re interested in the discussion of consent, download (all links are PDFs) the notes on a consent workshop and the first sexual violence zine (with a piece on consent on page 8). We live in a culture where sex is assumed but not discussed, but asking for consent and communicating intentions will lead to a more satisfying experience for all partners involved. Plus, talking about consent with your partners and learning about their sexual boundaries is essential to maintaining a safe and healthy relationship. Sex is about giving and sharing pleasure (or pleasurable pain), not about coercion or hurting someone else.
The Sexual Manifesto is Christine Borden’s weekly column on sex in the city, sex and culture, and, well, sex. Got a tip for Christine (and it’s not in your pants)? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image from korafotomorgana.