When it comes to sex and consent, let’s stop playing the guessing game.
When Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault by a woman referred to as ‘Grace’, many rallied to his defence. The ensuing backlash against the #MeToo campaign has been eloquently countered by multiple writers and social commentators who have highlighted the victim-blaming tropes Ansari’s defenders have fallen into. These allegations have forced the discussion on sexual assault into a far more convoluted area, and the result has made many uncomfortable with their own understanding of consent.
The fact that Ansari has publicly endorsed both the #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaigns has created further controversy. For someone who purportedly understands the nuances of consent, it is deeply disappointing that he appears not to have noticed physical indications that consent was not given. What I find even more disappointing however, was that at no point does he seem to have asked or cared about it and instead chose to act on the assumption that Grace was consenting.
Assuming consent is a huge problem in our understanding of sex. While significant progress has been made through campaigns of acknowledging and respecting situations where consent is not given, not enough emphasis is being placed on the necessity of actively gaining it. Asking our partners if they want to continue with a sexual act has been framed as a “mood-killer”. Fully communicating with our partners is seen as embarrassing. The idea that sex would become bad by asking who we are with if they are comfortable and enjoying themselves is quite frankly ridiculous, and often dangerous. Even though we might think they are consenting due to their noises or other actions, the only way to be completely sure is to ask.
If you’re not asking your partners if they are enjoying themselves because a negative response would stop what was working for you, then you should really be riding solo
The assumptions we make about our sexual partners are far-reaching and begin before we have even started a sexual encounter. These are made based on someone’s gender identity and presentation. The idea that women are less willing than men to have sex has created a dangerous stereotype that women need to be “convinced” into having sex, so their refusal is interpreted as initial reluctance they can be seduced out of. Just as problematic is the assumption that men want sex all the time, a trap that I admittedly have fallen into more than once. The emphasis of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have quite rightly focussed on sexual harassment of women by cis-men, however the damaging impact of assuming men will never say ‘No’ should not be ignored. Rather than assuming a person’s libido is determined by their gender, let’s acknowledge that it is far more personal and requires communication with every individual to determine.
A further problem with assuming consent is that you might consciously or unconsciously be prioritising your own enjoyment over your partners’ experiences. This is completely illogical when you consider that the purpose of sex with other people (beyond reproduction) is to enjoy the experience with them. If you’re not asking your partners if they are enjoying themselves because a negative response would stop what was working for you, then you should really be riding solo. Masturbation exists so we can be self-indulgent in our sexual pleasure. Partner or group sex exists so you can experience pleasure together.
Of course, fixating solely on your own pleasure is not something we are all guilty of doing. That does not mean however, that we still can’t create situations in which our partners are uncomfortable and as a result, potentially not consenting. It is too common a problem that, during sex, we will decide our partners are enjoying themselves without having asked them if they are. Often this is because it is easier to assume that we know how to please someone, either because it has worked with them previously or a different partner has enjoyed it. To assume this though, is to assume that every sexual situation is the same. At the very least it is a lazy stance to take and at its worst, it crosses the boundary from bad sex to rape.
There is no one way to ask your partner(s) for consent; it can be as simple as asking directly, being incorporated into dirty talk, or deciding a safe word in advance. What is important though, is that we start asking for it. According to Grace, Ansari did not ask for consent when initiating a sexual encounter. Though we shouldn’t absolve Ansari of blame, we should also make sure that this is not portrayed as a unique flaw of his personality. Doing so would ignore how we have socialised verbal, affirmative consent out of our sexual interactions. We should not construct consent as something that is to be taken away or absent, but as something that we should actively seek to achieve.
Image: David Shankbone