One thing that really drives me crazy is when people say that consent is simple. Consent is actually an aspect of interactions that rests at the intersection of many many factors. These factors include power differentials, differing socialization, systemic inequity, miscommunication, and of course poor modeling, and the proliferation of popular myths and misconceptions.
Recently I saw a post that said that there is no such thing as “unwanted sex”. They claimed that any and all unwanted sex is by definition sexual assault, since it is unwanted. I’d like to talk about why this just isn’t true. There are many many instances when people have unwanted sex that is not sexual assault, and if we look more closely at the various reasons why, we will get closer to understanding the extent of the unlearning that will be needed to truly get to a culture based on consent.
Here are some examples of what unwanted sex that is not sexual assault could look like:
A teen girl decides she must have heterosexual sex to “prove” to her friends that she’s not a “prude” as she’s been taunted, or to “prove” that she’s not a lesbian after rumors have been spread. She picks a boy that she feels safe with to help her meet this goal, probably a friend. Without comprehensive and trauma-informed consent education, how could we expect that that young man will know that he is a means to an end, and that she is going through the motions because of societal expectations? He needs to be taught how to ask open ended questions and to look for and recognize a lack of enthusiasm. They both need to be taught the reality that people may say yes to - or ask for - sex even when they don’t want it, because of various forms of coercion, including peer pressure or exposure to scripted stories and myths about sex.
Another example of unwanted sex happens when a teen boy is assumed to be ready and eager for sex no matter how he’s feeling about it. The girl who wants to have sex with him, and his friends, may all make him feel as if there is something wrong with him if he doesn’t take the opportunity when it’s offered, and so he complies. Everyone involved in this scenario needs to learn that all genders have a right to say yes or no, and that your gender doesn’t imply consent. The boy and his friends need to unlearn the myth that “a real man always wants sex, no matter what.”
Perhaps a non-binary teen really wants to impress their first ever girlfriend, and so goes farther than they are ready to, because they don’t want to risk displeasing her, or making her think that they are inexperienced. Even though they feel more and more uncomfortable, they fake enthusiasm and pleasure, because they are so thrilled that they finally have a girlfriend. These young people need to learn more about checking in with themselves and others as things progress, and understanding that sex should be about connecting authentically and mutual pleasure, not about impressing someone.
Perhaps two young men are too shy to speak about what they want, and kissing quickly escalates to silently acting out something they’ve seen in porn online, without either of them considering whether they might want to do something else instead. They both feel nervous and uncomfortable, but neither is brave enough to say anything. Both of them felt that once they started kissing, they couldn’t change their minds, and had to fulfill the script they had seen and learned. These young men need to learn about checking in with themselves and each other, asking questions, recognizing a lack of enthusiasm, and avoiding miscommunication. They need to learn that when it comes to their bodily autonomy, it’s always OK to change their mind, no matter what. They need to learn that porn is not reality, that healthy sex involves taking care of each other, and that finding their own pleasure may look and sound very different than what they’ve seen online.
As you can see, there are many many ways that unwanted sex can happen, without anyone being guilty of perpetrating assault. However, if we teach our young people about collaborating for consent, and how to recognize enthusiasm, or a lack of it, as well as how to make others around them feel more comfortable to express their true boundaries, we can help them have the skills to recognize and navigate these experiences and learn how to avoid unwanted sex.
I often talk about consent accidents. Consent accidents will result in unwanted sex, but unwanted sex can happen without any kind of consent violation, accidental or not. Unwanted sex can often be an expression of damaged boundaries and low self esteem, as well as a manifestation of the belief that people can be obligated to have sex with others. Consent accidents happen when the people involved mean well, but because they have misunderstood each other, or read each other wrong, they’ve crossed a boundary without meaning to. This can be as simple as hugging someone without checking, and then finding out that they were not interested in the hug but didn’t want to make a scene, or it could be as serious as someone misinterpreting a young woman’s offer of oral sex as enthusiastic, when in reality she felt scared and thought she had to offer something in order to get out of the situation safely.
So, consent accidents and unwanted sex overlap, but they are also not always the same. However, they can both be avoided by learning consent skills. Skills like knowing what to do when you’re unsure, being able to check in with yourself to notice if you are a yes or a no, asking for what you want clearly to avoid miscommunication, listening and hearing no graciously, and recognizing a lack of enthusiasm or a freeze response.
The way many people want to simplify discussions around consent, or teach consent with a “just say no” approach, can actually lead to more harm. Without looking at all the reasons why people struggle to understand what they want or don’t want, or why they couldn’t say no even when they wanted to, victims of sexual assault will be left confused and even more likely to blame themselves when they are assaulted. After all, if everyone says it’s simple, or if they were taught in school to “just say no”, and then they couldn’t, this can create even more shame for them as they navigate life after an assault.
And when there was no assault, but the sex was unwanted, the causes of this can be so insidious and hard to see if they are not spelled out. Societal myths, media scripts, discrimination, pressure to conform, damaged boundaries and more can all be factors that lead to unwanted sex. If we don’t teach young people about all the myths and scripts that can lead to unwanted sex, or feelings of disappointment and regret after sex, they may be confused about the difference between negative sexual experiences, and actual sexual assault.
Consent is not simple. Unwanted sex is an example of how complex it can get. And because consent is not simple, consent education cannot be simple either. We need to give young people the skills and knowledge they will need to feel confident in the face of so much mis and disinformation about sex and relationships.
And we need to give them the skills to navigate this complexity. In the Consent Culture Intro workshop and the book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, we focus on preventing harm by learning to have better interactions. We don’t specifically address sexual assault, except when talking about the freeze response. This is because we want to aim so much higher than just preventing harm, we want people to learn skills for healthy, respectful, and enjoyable interactions. But of course we want to prevent harm as well, and part of this is understanding and deconstructing the myths that underlie bad interactions, recognizing the barriers to better interactions, and then learning the skills to overcome those barriers.
To learn more about the trainings and workshops available, visit www.creatingconsentculture.com
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