If you don’t understand this simple thing, don’t have sex

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

This might sound weird, but I’m actually pretty sick of talking about consent. As a fan of sex, what I really want to talk about is desire. Want. Lust. Need. Craving. But I can’t talk about all those cool things without also having to explain the basics of consent. Because some pricks still cannot drag themselves over this, the lowest possible bar. Consent! Fuck my life! It’s the most boring sexual basic! Consent is vital, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also dull. Like that bit at the start of a cupcake recipe where they tell you what temperature you should set your oven to – it’s not the most interesting part of the recipe, but without it you can’t make cakes.

So let’s talk about consent. Let’s talk about a very basic, very simple, easy-to-understand-unless-you’re-deliberately-trying-to-wind-me-up principle of consent: consent is revocable. That means if you’re initially up for shag, but five minutes into the shag you decide you want us to stop, we stop. If you ask me to stop, I am obliged to stop. Morally and legally. If we start having sex and I decide I want it to stop, you are obliged to stop. Morally and legally.

Consent is also revocable in a whole bunch of other situations, too. You ask to borrow my car for the weekend, and I agree. Two days before you’re due to borrow it, I realise I have an urgent appointment somewhere in the arse-end of nowhere and I need my car for my own purposes? I can revoke my consent. You can be annoyed or frustrated, but you can’t force me to lend you my car. You can’t just take my car either: that’s stealing (or technically ‘taking without owner’s consent‘).

Let’s say I ask your permission to take a naked picture of you and post it to Twitter because you’re looking awesome today and I want to show off how hot my mates are. You say yes, but after seeing the photo decide it doesn’t fit your personal brand. Guess what? You can revoke your consent! I might be sad that I don’t get to show my mates how awesome you looked and how great my photography skills are, but I cannot – legally or morally – make you agree to me posting the photo.

This is basic stuff.

Let’s meet Donna Rotunno.

Donna Rotunno’s views on consent

Note: Donna Rotunno is Harvey Weinstein’s defence lawyer, and the rest of this post will be talking about sexual assault. 

If you’ve not already heard it, tune in to the jaw-dropping NY Times interview between the brilliant journalist Megan Twohey and Harvey Weinstein’s defence lawyer Donna Rotunno. Seriously, have a listen. What you’re hearing is the sound of a woman gently holding Rape Culture by the hand and introducing it to all your mates, as if it is a friend. As if it is a misunderstood, sad and lost little boy, who just wanted all the girls to love him and has been hurt by the fact that women all turn out to be prickteasing bitches who won’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s gobsmacking.

I am not having a go at Rotunno for being Weinstein’s defence lawyer. It’s a disgusting job but someone absolutely does have to do it. I’m not frustrated with her for defending him, I am just genuinely shocked that she could have (or perform – we’ll get to this in a second) such an ignorant view of where the responsibility for rape and assault lies, as well as what ‘consent’ actually looks like.

“If I was a man in today’s world, before I was engaging in sexual behavior with any woman today, I would ask them to sign a consent form.”

Let’s unpack this.

What does consent look like?

Consent does not look like a signature on a dotted line. For the simple reason that a signature on a dotted line is a binary thing: you either have signed, or you haven’t.

In real life, consent during sex is something much more fluid. You might decide you fancy having a tumble with person X, but you only want to do oral, no penetration. Sure, you could write your consent form to specify that, but what if you change your mind later? Decide ‘actually, I think I’m OK with going a bit further, so I shall tell my partner I’m up for it if they are’? What if you decide you are up for penetration, but partway through the shag you realise that you’ve changed your mind, and actually you just want to swap hand-jobs then play scrabble?

Consent is revocable. A consent agreement does not in any way reflect this: you cannot unsign, once you’ve already put pen to paper.

Consent agreements, far from being a neat solution to rape and sexual assault, are in fact just a handy tool to ensure more people get raped and sexually assaulted. Once a rapist has got their partner to sign a document, they now have free rein to do whatever they like, because ‘hey! You signed the paper! I have written proof that you were up for this!’

Hands up anyone who’s ever been on a date which only started to go wrong after you took off your clothes?

Consent is revocable

If you want people to sign agreements before you shag them, you do not understand consent. You do not understand that consent is time-specific, act-specific, mood-specific, and a whole-bunch-of-other-stuff specific. The only possible way to make sure that you are having consensual sex is to communicate with your partner – check in, listening to their words and their body language. Ask them what they want.

ASK THEM.

And I don’t want a bunch of angry dudes dropping into the comments to tell me that doesn’t sound particularly sexy, and they’d feel ridiculous asking every time they escalate from kisses to gropes to fingers to fucking. Remember what I said at the start? I’m sick of talking about consent: I want to talk about desire. Lust. Craving. Those are the things you should be seeking when you’re taking someone to bed. Consent is the bare minimum. Although shoutout to Netflix’s Sex Education which has done some absolutely glorious, adorable, beautiful work weaving consent into some of the scenes in this latest series. But it’s successful because these teens aren’t actually looking for consent: they’re looking for desire and need and want.

When I have sex – good sex, enjoyable sex, filthy sex, fun sex – I do not ask my partner if he consents to it. I ask him ‘how do you want me?’ and ‘does that feel good?’ and ‘tell me where you want to stick your cock.’ He says ‘I really want to fuck you bent over the sofa’ with a dirty grin and the raised eyebrow that accompanies a question – because that is exactly what it is: a question. Or a suggestion. Or a request. Unspoken, here, is the clear and distinct knowledge that if I don’t want to bend over the sofa right now, then he does not want to fuck me. His desire, his craving, his lust, is conditional on my reciprocal desire. My lust for him, likewise, only exists if he responds with an eager ‘fuck yeah.’

Who are these people who genuinely are not sure, when they tumble into bed, if the person they’re sleeping with really wants to fuck them? What are they doing? Are they asking, once, ‘shall we fuck?’ and then turning off all communication from then on? Do they genuinely believe that once someone’s said ‘yes’ to sex they can never – will never – change their minds? Do they genuinely believe that sex is something they are extracting from another person, like a great deal on a refurbished iPhone? Or do they – like the gentleman who took issue with me on Twitter yesterday – truly believe that sex is akin to an invasive and dangerous medical procedure like surgery, and therefore it’s important to get a signature to show that this person has walked willingly to their nervewracking fate?

Beware: uncomfortable Weinstein thought experiment

It’s bullshit. No one genuinely believes consent works like this – that sex is something you agree to and must stick to, no take-backs allowed. If you believe that you might genuinely think this, please indulge me in a little thought experiment:

You’re having drinks with Harvey Weinstein. Harvey invites you up to his hotel room, where he says he has a lovely bottle of scotch. You’re just going up to have a laugh, and some drinks, but when you say ‘yes’ Harvey pulls out a consent form for you to sign. He asks you to write your name on a dotted line under the words “I am consensually going to Harvey’s hotel room in order to drink scotch and have fun.”

Do you sign it? Of course you fucking don’t.

No one – no one – thinks consent works like this. No one thinks a form will be helpful to anyone who genuinely cares about their partner’s desire lust craving want consent.

But it’s helpful – vital – for abusers and those who defend them to muddy the waters around consent. To make it sound like the problem is ‘women who changed their minds’ instead of ‘men who raped.’ If we’re going to maintain the existing status quo, where responsibility for sexual assault is dumped onto the victim rather than the perpetrator, it’s absolutely vital that we buy into the idea that consent is a simple tickbox. You agreed. You signed. You consented: job done.

If we do this, not only will perpetrators, their allies, and a whole bunch of misguided devil’s advocates who are ‘just asking questions’ continue to throw terrible idea after terrible idea at us – consent forms, apps, bLoCkChAiN! – but they will then (as they so often do) turn round and say ‘god, you women are so unreasonable! What, you want me to sign a consent form before I have sex now?!’

No. We don’t. We have never asked for that. Because no one who knows anything about rape and sexual assault believes for a single second that consent forms will do anything to stop people raping. If anything, they’ll be helpful tools for people who push boundaries, violate consent and – yes – rape, to do so after you’ve signed on the dotted line. And who among us would be able, the morning after, to haul ourselves to a police station and report someone who raped us, when we know that the perpetrator could just swagger into the station with our signed consent form tucked snugly in their pocket?

We cannot let this idea enter our discourse, because it’s such obvious and demonstrable bullshit. Even the people selling you this idea don’t actually believe consent works this way.

Consent is revocable. You cannot lock it down. If you do not understand this, you should not be having sex.

 

 

18 Comments

  • When I have to explain consent to my kid someday I will say this: “Be a decent and respectful human being, communicate with and listen to your partner and then act accordingly.” Then there would no need for consent forms and apps and legally binding sex contracts (I fear those will come soon).

    Responding to each others wants, needs and desires to establish consent in a fluid situation like sex is actually an exciting part of it. It also shows you are grown-up who can handle a complex social situation with verbal and non-verbal communication. These consent forms are at best a poor substitute for interpersonal skills and basic decency and at worst a kind of rape contract. Maybe we should call them exactly that….

    • Girl on the net says:

      Totally agree that at worst it’s a kind of rape contract. The very idea of having one completely misses the point of what consent actually is, and it’s so frustrating. I think your advice to your kid is bang on.

  • Golden Hare says:

    This. This. This.

    Thank you.

  • Sensational and important post, thank you, your fury and eloquence is perfect x

  • gry says:

    This is very important, thank you. x

  • Jon says:

    This is absolutely spot on. Thank you.

  • Phillip says:

    Something inferred is not consent either. Something like Marriage Vows that don’t really spell it out. ‘No’ DOES still mean no, but you can still be pissed off about it. Quietly pissed off.

    Damn! If it isn’t Valentine’s Day! ❤️

  • BadLuckCharm says:

    Very well written. I totally understand and agree that “rape contracts” are bad idea. However, posts about this topic make me revisit my past – have I raped anybody?

    Lots of years ago I agreed with a woman that she visits me and gives me a lingam massage. Her consent was about massage. She came and gave my one of my best sexual experiences of my life. I felt like she fancied me, so after she finished me, I offered to give her a massage and she accepted. At this point her consent was about receiving a massage. I started to massage her, eventually my fingers went to her pussy, my tongue to her ass and soon I was fucking her brains out. She did not say no, did not try to pull away and seemed throughly enjoying the fucking – we started to date afterwards (it didn’t last long, it turned out we weren’t meant for each other). However, later she mentioned that after that first date she felt bad – she came for a massage, but got fucked. Did I rape her?

    Fast forward couple of years. I agreed with a woman that she visits me and we chat over a cup of tea. Her consent was about chatting. I felt like she fancied me, so after chatting I offered to give her a massage and she accepted. At this point her consent was about receiving a massage. I started to massage her, eventually my fingers went to her pussy, my tongue to her ass and soon I was fucking her brains out. She did not say no, did not try to pull away and seemed throughly enjoying the fucking – we started to date afterwards (it did last long, we’re happily married ever since :-). Later she mentioned that she really liked my decisiveness, that I knew what I wanted and I took it, didn’t ask questions.

    I understand that I cannot expect women behave uniformly even in the exact same situation in the exact same bed – but you have to admit that it’s confusing and puzzling. I was doing my best to “listening to their words” (no words were uttered) “listening to […] their body language”(were laying still and enjoying the massage), yet it meant two different things: my (later) wife enjoyed my overstepping of the consent, the other woman kind of regretted it.

    I don’t have solutions for cases like this. I’m one of those people who on first date “genuinely are not sure, when they tumble into bed, if the person they’re sleeping with really wants to fuck them”. In the above two examples I was not sure the women wanted to get fucked literarily up to the moment I put my dick into them. In the end it turned out one of them might not have wanted to get fucked. I don’t know how to get sure – it’s always a risk I have to take. Had I asked my wife that “do you want to me to fuck you?”, we might have not got married because she liked my decisiveness, but asking that question meant that I don’t have the decisiveness. The “how do you want me to fuck you?” question also reveals my lack of decisiveness. My general experience is that woman do not want to get asked questions in bed, they want to get fucked and want me to figure out how to do it. Maybe it’s just my bad luck. Maybe I’m too autistic and just can’t read other people well enough.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “I don’t know how to get sure”

      You can ask. You can always, always, always ask. I get a lot of comments like this on posts where I write about consent and they seem to boil down to: ‘I want to have sex with someone but I am worried the communication bit might blow my chances of getting laid.’ In your comment: “Had I asked my wife that “do you want to me to fuck you?”, we might have not got married because she liked my decisiveness, but asking that question meant that I don’t have the decisiveness.”

      I just don’t think that this is the case. I know of no one who would, on the basis of ‘do you want me to fuck you?/ *how* do you want me to fuck you?’ decide that merely asking that question would be grounds for cancelling a fuck. Remember what I said at the start of the post: I don’t want to talk about consent, I want to talk about lust and desire and need. If someone lusts you, and desires you, you are not throwing a bucket of water on that just by whispering ‘do you want me to fuck you?’ – it’s actually incredibly hot. Likewise ‘shall we fuck?’ or ‘I really want you to fuck me.’ What those questions/statements *might* do though, is prompt someone who is unsure about fucking you to decide that now’s the time to let you know. In your first example, asking that question would have given that woman a prompt to say ‘actually I only came for a massage and I don’t want to have sex.’

      So when you say “I don’t know how to get sure”, it sounds to me like what you want is to do/say something which guarantees the woman you’re fucking is consenting *and also* does not hamper your chances of getting laid. That is an impossible thing, because any genuine communication where you’re seeking someone’s consent must always assume that ‘no’ is an acceptable answer.

      • Valery North says:

        Yes, this.

        I think a lot of people read “You can always ask” as some sort of [timeout] [lawyer mode] “Do I have permission to proceed?” [if “yes” then continue, else break] moment.

        But (for example) a superhot massage that is inspiring you to get sexual, and you lean forwards over your partner’s shoulder and murmur, with tension and desire dripping from every syllable, “Do you want me to fuck you?” is in the moment, it’s explicit about where you thin this is going to go, and it gives the partner the opportunity to respond either with their own sexual desire – or to respond in a way that sets where the boundaries are.

        Which could be to break the mood and say “NO, I think we’d better stop here” or similar. Or it could be an equally sensuous, in the moment, reply, “No, but please keep massaging me, I’m loving that” (or words, gestures and tone of voice communicating same). Or it could be “I don’t know”, which is still not consent but allows that decision to be changed if they get more comfortable with you and the idea, as things go on.

        A “statement of intent” that allows a person to respond is always good – and it can, sometimes, be non-verbal (like, gesturing to give a hug allows a person to back off or to move closer, depending if they don’t or do want one). Just be sure that what you intend is clear, and that their response is clear (and if it isn’t, check verbally)

        • Golden Hare says:

          OP, you are equating two things that are not in the least equal. And I suspect you know it, from the deliberate repetition of phrases across the two stories. But the fact that you care far more about the imaginary risk to you having a good outcome in scenario 2 than the very real risk in scenario 1 of the woman having a bad outcome says it all.

          Check in. Just do it. Always err on the side of caution – using some of the excellent suggestions above – because getting it wrong could be devastating for the other person, and you don’t want that. Do you?

          • BadLuckCharm says:

            Thanks for the thoughtful answers. I think at that time I had at least three reasons (excuses?) to not ask. One is that for example in James Bond films Bond never asks women, he just “gets it done” – this was the model I saw in the media, I thought this is how it should be. Of course, now I know this is not a good model, no need to tell me I was immature :-) An other reason is that I definitely didn’t want to hear no – I literally got thousands of rejections (on online dating sites), having a clever, talented, beautiful naked woman beside me felt like a “glitch in the matrix” and if I do something wrong, like questioning the whole situation, the situation will disappear, she won’t want me to fuck her (heck, once I was in a “friends with benefits” relationship with a woman, I never dared to ask her to give me a blowjob because I felt asking her for doing anything to me might make her realise she can get better man than me in 5 minutes, who doesn’t ask anything from her). Finally, I was never good with words. I’m terrible at small talk and talking while having nearly sex is a kind of hard for me (actually, talking generally is hard). I think for the above mentioned reasons consciously or subconsciously I never even thought to ask the women questions. On the other hand I’m absolutely 100% sure if either of them said “Stop!”, I’d stopped immediately. Once I was on a date where I tried to “get physical” by hugging her, she said no and I stopped it immediately.

            I’d like to get your opinion on an other situation. I met the girl online, somehow we ended up chatting on google chat. This turned into sexchatting, what and how I’d to her. Talking is hard for me, writing is easier. I eventually asked her about anal sex (it was “ticked” on her profile) and she did say “words are useless in this question, do it [she meant foreplay], do it skilfully, then try [the anal sex] and if it doesn’t work out, reroute”. This was the point I thought she gets angry with me, hangs up and I never see her, but I managed to reroute and we went on a date. It was middle of winter, outdoor hot water spa covered by mist, couldn’t see farther than 2 meters. In the water we talked, talked, talked some more (mostly she talked, I was listening), after about half an hour I kissed her without asking any questions. She kissed back and we spent the next half our with heavy petting under the cover of the mist.

            In the aftermath I was quite proud of myself that I dared to kiss a girl (previously I never turned a first “getting to know each other” date into kissing and petting, even though according to the books I read, teenagers do it all the time). I’m not sure about consent in this case. Is kissing sex? Definitely. Do I need consent? Definitely. How do I get consent? I mean Harry Potter didn’t ask anything from Cho Chang – is that a wrong role model? Shall I ask “How do you’d like to be kissed?”?

            I’d also like to add that our “house rule” for consent with my wife is that I have her generic consent to the stuff we usually do (so for example no throatfuck), but if she’s not in the mood or does not feel to do something, she’s a big girl and she’ll say no – I don’t actually need to ask.

            I’d like to add one more thing (this is a too long comment, sorry about that). For some reason (I need to think about this more) it feels weird, or even creepy to say things like “I want to fuck you bent over the sofa”. Take a look at this question (https://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/2oxu65/what_is_the_best_way_to_say_i_want_to_fuck_you/) and the first answer. Not only rejection is a possibility, but offending the other person. I do not want to offend the other person.

          • Girl on the net says:

            “I definitely didn’t want to hear no – I literally got thousands of rejections (on online dating sites), having a clever, talented, beautiful naked woman beside me felt like a “glitch in the matrix” and if I do something wrong, like questioning the whole situation, the situation will disappear, she won’t want me to fuck her”

            From my previous comment:

            “So when you say “I don’t know how to get sure”, it sounds to me like what you want is to do/say something which guarantees the woman you’re fucking is consenting *and also* does not hamper your chances of getting laid. That is an impossible thing, because any genuine communication where you’re seeking someone’s consent must always assume that ‘no’ is an acceptable answer.”

            What you are asking me/us to do is give you a way to establish consent which also guarantees you won’t hear ‘no’ – you do not understand consent, and I do not want to play this weird game where you tell me all the different ways you may or may not have violated someone’s consent, and I give you either condemnation or absolution. The only people who can tell you whether or not they consent are the people you are sleeping with. The only way you can know is to communicate with them. You are not communicating with them at the moment, because by your own admission you are trying to avoid giving them an obvious opportunity to say ‘no’.

            EDIT: if you’re really frightened of rejection, have a read of this: https://www.girlonthenet.com/2017/05/14/rejection-no-is-a-gift/

          • BadLuckCharm says:

            I’m afraid I could be misunderstood: I’m not looking for “this question will absolutely lead to consent absolutely every time” – I do know it does not exist. I’m looking for a question that does not ruin my chances anymore and does not offend the other person. On a second thought probably this doesn’t exist either.

          • Girl on the net says:

            “I’m looking for a question that does not ruin my chances”

            From my first answer:

            “what you want is to do/say something which guarantees the woman you’re fucking is consenting *and also* does not hamper your chances of getting laid. That is an impossible thing, because any genuine communication where you’re seeking someone’s consent must always assume that ‘no’ is an acceptable answer.””

  • Bravo! A brilliant and important article 👏👏👏

  • F B says:

    It’s crazy that something as simple as consent still needs to be explained to certain people…

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