A Reply & Some Reiterations

I’ve recently read Olivia’s post in the gray area conversation (if you click the link, expect to see a large, close-up picture of two people lip biting), and I had too many things to say for a single comment, so instead y’all are getting a post.  Same warnings apply as usual for this conversation: talk of sex, consent, rape & rape culture, etc.

Olivia wrote:

One of the things that seems most fundamental to this conversation that is missing from a lot of conversations about consent is that people are capable of having sex that is non-coercive, relatively enjoyable, and entirely ethical for reasons other than being attracted to their partner (or feeling attraction in the moment).

These reasons can include but are not limited to: you like making your partner feel good, you find it physically enjoyable even if you’re not all over your partner, you expect to become aroused and interested once things get started, or you’re simply ambivalent about the whole thing and it makes no difference to you.

There are two things I’d like to highlight out of this section.  The first is “you like making your partner feel good” as a reason for having sex.  While I’m sure that plays a part in some people’s motives, and I’m in no way arguing that you have to be attracted to someone to have consensual-and-good sex with them, it’s also vital that we remember that listing such a reason in such a context implies that partnered celibate people (whether ace or otherwise) don’t like making their partners feel good.  This rhetoric has dire consequences as Jordan wrote about here (tw for sexual coercion).  Let’s not perpetuate it.

On a different note, ambivalence is probably a valid reason to a degree, but that item on the list also made me think of Sara’s post that asks why sex-indifferent asexuals are assumed to be open to sex.

Moving on:

Are there ways that we can dismantle the idea that there’s a certain amount of time you can say no for before you become selfish and relationship destroying? Can we make sexless relationships (or even temporarily sexless relationships) more ok?

I sure hope so.  One idea I’ve been mulling over recently is whether this “you can say no, but not too many times” idea is primarily based on the idea of sex as necessary emotional-physical healthcare to satisfy a partner.  In the ace community, at least, I think a good majority are of the opinion that sex may not be pleasant or necessary for an individual & that’s fine, but we’ve got a lot more headway to make in combating the urge to prioritize a partner who desires sex over a partner who doesn’t.  Deep down, a lot of us seem to believe that denying sex to someone you’re yoked in a romance or primary partnership with will cause them suffering, and that suffering is supposedly worse than suffering through unwanted sex.

So I think this is the roadblock we’ve come up against, and that to make any further progress on assuring people that you always, always have the right to a “no” (and that no one, not even your partner, is entitled to sex), we’ll have to reckon with the idea that saying “no” to sex is an undue infliction of pain.

One of the things that we don’t talk about very often that might be a really good choice is the ability to change your mind. Most people think it’s super rude to stop midway through sex (something about a point of no return), but I promise that if your partner respects you, they have the ability to stop.

Heartily seconded.  Asexual people exist; the point of no return doesn’t.

Personal aside time: this stuff — more specifically, the fear that a future partner won’t respect a change of mind/withdrawal of consent — is the reason why I’ve thought about how, if I ever date someone, I plan to deliberately cut off physical interaction at various unpredictable points to see how they react and, essentially, make sure they’re safe before exploring further.  Which sounds like a terrible plan, but better to get out sooner rather than later, I say.  Because I’m that afraid — that unconfident that my voice in these matters will be respected.

I’ve met people who talked a good game about consent and then displayed… questionable consistency on the matter, in practice.  I don’t want to wind up dating one of them, and I don’t know how else to suss them out, and that’s terrible.

If I could wave some sort of magic sex wand (hehe, dildo) and change one thing (other than rape) about the way U.S. society talks about sex, I would get rid of the idea that there’s only one script for sex. You have to come up with your own scripts each time, navigating what’s working for you and your partner instead of relying on assumptions that making out leads to handsiness leads to going down leads to penetration, and that you have to have a reason or excuse if you want to do it differently.

I think this paragraph should be looked at again in context of the earlier statement, “I suspect that opening up the ability to make changes to consent partway through would alleviate a lot of the shitty experiences that people have that don’t constitute rape,” as well as The Thinking Asexual’s explanation of the physical touch escalator.  The thing is, the idea of “there’s only one script for sex” is part of the rape culture in the way US society talks about sex.

I’m writing this post pretty stream-of-consciousness, and so far, I’ve noticed that the escalator metaphor and the conveyer belt metaphor (from earlier) have some obvious commonalities (especially since they’re more about ideas/sentiments than a specific behavior on anyone’s part), which got me thinking about additional metaphors and models, and what I’ve come to, largely based on the “no wasn’t a (viable) option” that Olivia also expressed, is:

Imagine, instead of verbal/explicit “consent,” you have a paddle.  You’re in a boat, and the paddle allows you to steer and accelerate the boat, should you choose, or even return to the docks and get out of the boat altogether — but you can also remain idle, if you prefer, and see where the water takes you.  Sometimes there are rough waves and even storms at sea, but as long as you have the paddle, you have some ability to direct the course of your boat or engage in crisis management.  When you don’t have the paddle, that means you have no control over what happens next, no ability to insert your own will into the situation.  This can happen because someone has taken the paddle from you, or because you were triggered by something and dropped it, or because you never had one in the first place.

This is not an ethical model or a “how to have sex with someone” model.  This is a “describing an experience” model.  I hope it might be useful to someone out there, but I’m also interested in elaborations and improvements.

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