Sexual consent isn’t gendered – at least, it shouldn’t be. If you’re chatting someone up in the hope that you’ll get to have sexy fun with them later, you shouldn’t be putting pressure on them to do things they don’t want to do, no matter what your gender or theirs. So apologies to everyone who knows this already, but I just wanted to pick up my sledgehammer and really slam this point home. Men: your consent matters too.
This week I got an email from a dude who was in the process of arranging sex with a lady. He quite fancied the idea of shagging her, but the shag that she was planning in their back-and-forth messages became quite a lot more intense than the one he’d initially agreed to. He wasn’t averse to what she wanted, but he’d have preferred to start things off slowly and escalate gradually from there. She, on the other hand, wanted to leap straight into things with some intense BDSM and roleplay of the kind that even I would baulk at doing with someone I’d never even shared a pint and a packet of crisps with. In his words:
“I think I like the notion.” But “the lady in question says if I don’t go into it full heartedly it could totally ruin the night.”
[Note: I’ve got his permission to reproduce a few quotes from his email here]
Men: your consent matters
There’s a pernicious myth that men will always want sex, no matter what – and the more extreme/kinky the sex, the better! Men are dogs! Men are automatons! Men are only after one thing! It’s horseshit. Horse. Shit. But like so many pernicious sex myths, it can form the basis for uncomfortable exchanges in which one person puts pressure on someone else.
In the example in my email inbox, the guy in question explained that he thought his nerves means he may not be ‘enough of a man for the job.’ My response to this would be that your status as a ‘real man‘ is not dependent on you doing sexual things that make you uncomfortable, or anything that you’re being pressured into doing. There are as many different ways to be a man as there are men in this world. Men are people, and like all people, they have complex needs and desires which wax and wane over time.
One of the issues with this particular scenario, I think, is that the woman in question had started off with a suggestion of sex and then when he said ‘yes’, had gradually escalated from there, leading to her message that it would ‘ruin the night’ if he didn’t do things exactly as she wanted. This is a bit like asking someone for a date and only after they’ve said ‘yes’ explaining to them that the date will consist of two weeks’ wild camping in the mountains of Scotland. In December. With no tent. Men: your consent matters, and consent is specific. Just because you say ‘yes’ to one type of sex, doesn’t mean you give blanket consent for any and all other suggestions. If you’re not into it, you don’t have to do it.
Dominant men: your consent matters
Another complicating factor is that the scenario in question would have required the guy to be dominant. The woman wanted to fulfil a fantasy in which she was extremely submissive, and he would take the dominant role. Because consent is often about power, and BDSM involves power exchange, there are many people who see consent as something for the dominant to seek, and the submissive to grant. After all, the sub is usually the one getting spanked/fucked/used etcetera.
This is wrong.
An understandable mistake to make, but wrong.
The reason we use safewords sometimes in BDSM, or other agreements for how each of us is going to indicate that we want a scene to stop, is not just to protect the submissive in the event that they get spanked too hard or get cramp while in bondage: it’s also to protect the dominant. Protect them from feeling pressured into performing a more extreme role than they’re comfortable with; from accidentally crossing a boundary that they didn’t know about; even to protect them from boundaries the submissive may cross. This last one might seem weird if the dominant is the one ‘in control’, but it’s worth highlighting that the dominant is never in control of everything, and shouldn’t ever be expected to be. How about in situations where a sub may use language which makes the dominant uncomfortable, or make demands that they don’t want to carry out? Consent isn’t just something that travels up the power-chain: it needs to be a two-way thing.
I have done quite a few interviews about BDSM and more ‘extreme’ power play during which journalists have asked me about my consent – how can I be sure I really want to consent to this? Aren’t I nervous about trusting my partner to know when to stop? But rarely (and possibly never) have I been asked how I ensure that my partner – the dominant one in this exchange – is consenting too.
Sex is not a ‘gift’ from one person to another
When I – a woman in a straight relationship – talk about the importance of consent in sex, I don’t just mean that it’s something a guy should ask for and a woman should give. As I explained above, this skewed view comes at least partly from the idea that sex is something men want and women begrudgingly give them. Likewise in BDSM – those who don’t practice it often see ‘submission’ as a gift that I’d give to a dominant rather than an enjoyable experience that we are both equally keen on.
This myth – and it absolutely is a myth – is one of the main reasons why I started this blog. As a woman on the dating scene, it was so fucking boring to have to weave through this obstacle course of assumptions before I got to have sex – to reassure guys I fancied that the sex was of equal value to me as it was to them. Telling them: ‘Look, we don’t need to wait for a third date in order to fuck. Fucking is fun. Fucking is why I’m here.’
I follow a Twitter account which occasionally retweets messages from men who are angry about feminism. It’s usually a good way to recalibrate my Twitter bubble, lest I end up labouring under the delusion that everyone in the world is like the friendly, nerdy, sex-positive folks that I follow. Recently they shared a tweet from a man who wanted to explain to women why we shouldn’t have sex too easily:
“I think it has to do with the fact that if you give it out willy nilly you clearly do not respect yourself. So why should we?”
This rests firmly on the assumption that sex is an imbalanced transaction: sex is something that a guy values more than I do. If this assumption were true, then yeah sure it would absolutely make sense for me to withhold my shag until he’d offered me something I actually wanted. If he wanted to arrange a trade – my gold necklace for his empty crisp packet – I would definitely be wise to hold out for something of higher value.
But sex is not a crisp packet to me, it’s a gold necklace. It’s what I want from a guy, if we’re having fun and enjoying each other’s company and I fancy the actual pants off him. I’m swapping my gold necklace for yours, and hopefully we’ll both walk home delighted.
I think the myth that sex is this imbalance is partly at the heart of the issue of men and consent. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write this post. I think it’s important to point out where our assumptions about gender harm all of us, and although the examples I see and understand on a daily basis are usually ones which harm me, as a woman, there are plenty which cause serious trouble for men too. A woman could easily pile pressure on a guy to do sexual things because she mistakenly believes that what she’s offering is something no straight guy could refuse. In turn, that guy feels pressured to say ‘yes’ to sex because society has told him that he should always want it. It’s valuable to him in a way that it isn’t to her. She’s offering him a gold necklace, FFS, and he wouldn’t be much of a man if he turned it down, right? But actually, in the scenario described by the dude in my inbox, this woman wasn’t offering him a gold necklace, or even a crisp packet: just an experience that made him feel nervous and unsure, and which he was pretty certain he wouldn’t have enjoyed.
Men: your consent matters too. Women: don’t do this shit. There are good reasons why our consent-based discussion is often very gendered: men tend to have more power in many situations, and so historically more power abuses tend to happen that way round. But that doesn’t mean that we have no power whatsoever, or that we’re immune from abusing it. If a guy wants to fuck you, and you want to fuck him, make sure that the fuck you’re planning on having is based on what you have both said you want, rather than what you assume the other person should want based on your prior assumptions. Ask what the other person likes, listen to their answers, communicate and discuss and look forward to it together. Plan a fuck that’ll be gold-necklace fun for both of you.