We were at a party the other weekend when the conversation swung to consent. Specifically, it turned to one particular question: Do you actually have to ask—verbally, explicitly—every time you do anything sexual?
The jury was out. Some people were adamant that yes, of course you had to ask (and be asked!) for everything, every time; others couldn’t remember the last time somebody had asked them in so many words for their consent, even though everything that had happened was perfectly consensual.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken to members of the community, all of whom are committed to practicing consent, about their conventions.
After all, common slogans sometimes fail to provide sufficient complexity. The popular slogan “Consent Is Sexy,” for example, which is meant to promote consensual sex, may not be doing its job as well as it should be, according to President of Students for Consent and Communication (SFCC), Sarah Lurie ’17.
“It’s a phrase that a lot of people have criticized, rightly, as dismissing consent as not a necessary thing, but as a sexy thing,” Lurie said. “I struggle, because I think that really good, comprehensive, affirmative consent is really hot. But that’s because it’s good communication and not just because it’s consent. Communication is a really sexy thing, but consent is a 100-percent necessary thing. You can do it in a sexy way, but hailing it as a sexy thing in a slogan is problematic, in my mind.”
A working definition
Michael Ortiz ’17 defines practicing consent as cultivating an atmosphere of comfort. Although he doesn’t always explicitly ask about performing specific actions, he checks in frequently.
“When I’m hooking up with a boy, I don’t ask, ‘Is this OK?’” he said. “I ask, ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ because when I first started hooking up with people, people would just be like, ‘Do you want to hook up?’ But that kind of meant different things, and I would want to make out, and all of a sudden I’d be getting groped up. But I’d said yes, so I was like, ‘I can’t be angry at you.’”
During hookups, Ortiz continues to ensure verbally that the encounter remains consensual.
“I’m like, ‘Is this comfortable? Are you OK? Do you want a safe word? Are you still comfortable?’” he said. “Some people are like, ‘That’s annoying,’ but I’d rather be annoying than cross a line.”
For Kathleen Radigan ’17, consent usually functions nonverbally, although she does often rely on verbal consent to clarify when there’s confusion.
“I think there’s a code shift when you start being sexual with someone where you’re communicating mostly with your body, but in a lot of cases, verbal consent is in addition to what is happening with interpreting other people’s body language,” she said.
Lex Spirtes ’17, the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) intern, complicated the popular slogan “Yes Means Yes, No Means No.” Even when verbal consent has been elicited and granted, she said, coercion can still factor into the equation.
“‘Yes’ doesn’t always mean yes, although ‘no’ always means no,” she said. “I hear people say, ‘Well, I asked,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, but the way that you asked didn’t really give space for the other person to give an honest answer.’ Shame becomes such a big part of it.”
Language and body language
There was consensus among consent-conscious University students that it’s important to incorporate verbal communication into sex.
“I think it’s nice to be asked,” said Evelysse Vargas ’17. “I think I do a good job of working in asking. I don’t think it’s awkward….When I hook up with people, I like to make them feel cared for and comfortable, so asking to me is just a part of that.”
But body language also plays a part in deciphering desire. Radigan explained that she prefers partners to ask for some things but not for others.
“I don’t think it’s weird to ask if you can kiss someone, because that’s usually the first step of initiating something like that, and I don’t think it’s weird to ask if you can have sex, or something, because that’s another level,” she said. “It can often be ambiguous as to what the person wants. It would be weird if you were like, ‘Can I use tongue?’ or ‘Can I touch your boob?’ Something like that would be weird, and I don’t know why; it sort of seems next.”
A sophomore whom we’ll call Maurice agreed.
“If I’m making out with someone I’m not going to be like, ‘Do you like it if I touch your hips?’” he said. “Like, I wouldn’t do that. That sounds crazy to me. If somebody did that, I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ That would freak me out.”
Radigan believes that explicitly asking for sex is important, but she can in fact be put off by certain phrasing.
“I think people asking, ‘Do you want to have sex?’ is always sort of gross to me, because it’s like, ‘I want you to be asking me for consent, but it’s really taking me out of the mood,’” she said. “It’s kind of clinical.”
But President of SFCC Sarah Lurie explained the merits of asking explicitly.
“A lot of people make fun of ‘asking for everything’ style of consent, and I see that critique, but also that comes from a weird contractual idea of consent where you have to check this box off, which is not in the true spirit of consent,” they said. “The true spirit of consent is creating a situation where everyone is constantly, mutually agreeing on what’s happening. All the methods for doing consent are ways to get at that spirit and should not be a contractual check box.”
When it comes to hooking up, many students explained that they tend to mirror their partner’s actions. If one person sets a standard of verbal consent, for example, the other will often follow suit.
“I think it really depends on the vibe of the person that you’re with because if they’re actively checking in with you, you feel like you want to check in with them as well,” Ellie Donner-Klein ’19 said.
“I personally don’t think that it ruins the mood at all,” she continued. “I think it depends on your wording, and if you think it’s awkward and you make it awkward, then it will be awkward. [Verbal consent] is not about making sexual situations awkward; it’s about being comfortable and enjoying it more.”
Maurice explained that he expects to be asked, or to give, consent only when something deviates from the norms dictated by the type of hookup it is.
“If someone’s coming over to my room, 90 percent of the time, it’s a Grindr hookup,” Maurice said. “And if that’s happening, it’s expected they’re going to be taking their clothes off. But if they’re like, ‘I just want to make out,’ or something, they’d tell me.”
According to Lurie, one of the biggest misconceptions around consent is that most hookups look the same.
“We have a set of scripts for how a sexual encounter is going to to go, especially at Wesleyan,” they said. “They’re not scripts that everyone follows, but scripts that everyone thinks everyone follows. This is what a hookup looks like: I go out, find somebody at a party, we’re both drunk, we do this thing, and that kind of sets up consent to be in a linear form where if you consent to one thing, you consent to everything backwards in that timeline, but that’s not how consent works. If you’re going to practice good consent, you have to begin to unpack what the things are in that script that you want and what are the other things.”
In Ortiz’s experience, gay male hookup culture comes with its own set of practices surrounding consent.
“In the gay boy world, definitions of consent are kind of blurred in a weird way,” he said. “There’s this huge trope of ‘gay boys just want to hook up with each other,’ so I think for a lot of queer guys on campus, consent is eye contact or a nod. It tends to be very based on nonverbal body language. It’s been my experience that a lot of guys won’t be verbal with it. They won’t say, ‘Is this OK? Can I touch you here?’ They won’t even ask that. It’s just assumed that as soon as I made eye contact with you and decided to dance with you, I agreed to hook up with you.”
Dick, a straight man, said that long-term relationships can rely on physical consent, but getting consent in hookups should always involve verbal communication.
“What we should do to prevent rape and sexual assault is educate people on when [verbal] consent is required and when it is not because a blanket demand for expressed verbal consent is unrealistic, and it can sap the fun out of what should be a release of impulses, not an avenue for further repression,” he said.
Spirtes also cautioned against relying too heavily on body language, particularly with new partners.
“I hear a lot of times people without knowing somebody at all thinking they can just go off somebody’s physical cues,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t know this person. Why do you think you can understand their physical cues?’”
When there are significant discrepancies in social power—existent in identities that range from gender identity to race to class year—between sexual partners, consent becomes all the more important, and sometimes all the more complex.
When a senior whom we’ll call Susan hooks up with men, she finds that her partner generally does more of the asking and confirming. With women, though, she often experiences a democratizing shift in responsibility.
“You’re not following a social script as much, at least I haven’t been,” she said. “I’m always less sure about where the onus lies, but I do think there’s more equality with who has to ask and who’s doing what.”
When Susan is in a relationship with somebody, however, she often has felt a sexual debt to her partner, especially if the two have been distant.
“I guess if I’ve been dating someone, and I have a personal relationship with them, and I’m tired, sometimes I feel like I should make them feel good because I have been distant, and it’s a way to be closer,” she said. “So the only time I’ve felt that way is when I’ve felt indebted to someone the same way I might feel like I have to pick up someone’s shirts from the dry cleaner.”
Spirtes explained that those who might be younger could feel pressured to pretend they’re more sexually experienced than they really are.
“There’s this myth of experience that you shouldn’t be verbal because you should know what to do,” she said. “That you’re only talking if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s so not the case because even if you’re somebody who’s had sex a million times, each body is different, and you don’t know what that person likes.”
When Wren, a queer senior, was a first year, age differences between her and her partners sometimes made her feel slightly disempowered.
“Freshman year, I was hooking up with older people, so I didn’t really feel as in control of things,” she said. “I don’t know that there was ever a sexual or romantic interaction that I didn’t want. But I did think that there were times when people might have been a bit presumptuous with me, thinking that I wanted to have sex when I didn’t really want to have sex. There were definitely times that my going back with somebody to their room meant that I was going to have sex with them.”
Ortiz explained that racial power dynamics can influence the ease with which consent is requested and given.
“Except for one guy, I’ve never had someone ask me if I was comfortable bottoming or topping,” he said. “Most guys, because I’m smaller than a lot of the guys I hook up with and I’m brown, so there’s that exotic erotic, and they just assume that I’m okay with being submissive to them. In certain situations, yeah, that is what I’m feeling, but it’s never articulated: ‘Are you okay bottoming? Is that cool?’ There’s that level of assumed comfort with things. It’s very nonverbal.”
For Ortiz, the conversation around assuming certain sexual positions can be fraught.
“It is discomforting at times because for me that is just rooted in colonial structures of power between races,” he said. “It’s always just working through that. There’s an ‘OK, maybe I want to bottom this time.’ That may be what I want, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it because I know it’s rooted not in a physical desire but in a social desire to control bodies that look like me. So it gets really weird because even if I’m consenting, I feel iffy about it.”
“Everyone is afraid of being a perpetrator.”
A part of the conversation that’s sometimes left out, according to Spirtes and Lurie, is that even the conscientious sometimes mess up. And that, according to Spirtes, is okay.
“Everyone is so terrified of being a perpetrator that they don’t recognize the little behaviors in which, yeah, maybe you’re not the most consensual,” she said. “None of us are consensual one-hundred percent of the time. It’s really important to recognize our own harmful behaviors and be like, ‘Yeah, I probably do some not-great shit sometimes.’”
Lurie pointed out that although everyone makes mistakes, what’s important is how we respond to them.
“I’ve never assaulted anyone, but I’ve crossed people’s boundaries,” they said. “What’s telling is your response. If your response is ‘I’m sorry; I’m not going to do that again; how can I make you comfortable?’ that’s a good response, versus delegitimizing their concerns, gaslighting them, and defending yourself.”