By Cordelia Anderson, MA & Sara Mulholland, M.Ed, LPC
The response to #MeToo, ever growing reports of sexual harassment, and other harmful sexual behaviors, often includes responses that indicate the accused chose to see their behaviors as consensual and mutually desirable. Historic, cultural, and current mass media messages that perpetuate norms of male privilege and sexual conquest make it challenging for those who value equitable relationships and who crave mutual pleasure. In a society that values a system of deflecting responsibility for one’s behaviors or the impact those behaviors have on others, it is challenging to hang on the basic meaning of consent. As David Brooks wrote in his November 2, 2017 NYT opinion piece, “…in the public mind the line between unwanted sexual attention and force is growing indistinguishable.”
Consent is not a new term. We hear this term all the time in medical settings and research. Consent in these areas ensures participants are fully informed so they know what they are agreeing to. Additionally, they are aware of any risks or possible effects and the right to say no. A minor (under age 18) cannot consent to participation in these treatments or activities on his/her own. An adult who is incapacitated or in an altered mental state cannot consent to participate in these events either. However, too often such expectations are not considered for consent to sexual activities.
Why isn’t clearly getting and giving consent always considered to be erotic? Perhaps consent is perceived as interrupting the flow of passion in the moment. Perhaps consent sounds too tame or heteronormative. A less visible yet probable factor is the notions of sex and erotic being commandeered by the pornography industry.
In a pornified culture, yesterday’s porn is today’s mainstream media. The pornography industry has fueled the increase in hyper-sexualized mass media. The ease of access to today’s Internet pornography further packages women as sexual commodities and objects to be used by male consumers. Additionally, the porn industry portrays pain and degradation as sexy. In a pornified culture, women are said to be worthwhile only if they are sexy, and sexy is determined by how much degradation and pain they can “take” sexually. Alternatively, men’s masculinity is questioned if they are not consumers who, “get it,” “take whatever they want” and “get off.”
Without some very creative writing, signing consent documents is not likely to be a turn-on. So, how do we make sexual consent erotic? How do we make it a contingency for further action? Beyond basic education about consent, there needs to be a change of individual and societal mental filters. Sex is often portrayed as a performance or a trophy, creating a filter in which only a scoreboard matters, rather than considering a human being. Society needs to see the exploitive use of sex and pornified distortions for what they are, so society can see the frequency of this leading to people being harmed or causing harm. True, informed consent, is not present when one person has the power and control over another. Arguments such as:
they knew what was coming
they did it before
they’re making good money
they didn’t say no
they look like they liked it well enough
are cognitive distortions and justifications for persons to feel better about neglecting to care about another's pleasure (or lack thereof), pain, or humiliation. See it. Change the filter.
Getting and giving consent for a sexual relationship can and should be rewarding in and of itself. The process can be sensual and hot. Developing meaningful relationships that flourish takes time. It takes time to learn each other’s likes, wants, and needs. Discovering what each person desires and establishing boundaries paves the way to a depth of intimacy that brings unparalleled satisfaction. Being able to ask, “is this okay” or “would you like me to do [fill in the blank]” and respecting his/her answers heightens arousal by diminishing anxiety, allowing both partners to enjoy each moment.
Lessons tend to be very gendered as to the meaning of consent. Men learn to see consent as an event – hearing yes or no at the time of the desired activity. Women learn to view consent as an ongoing process, often on a more emotional and intimate level. (Beres & MacDonald, 2015). This disconnect can lead to misperceptions on what has or has not been agreed to – especially when any power differential or social norm is involved.
Listening is a big part of effective communications. In fact, Scott and Graves note selective listening often contributes to sexual coercion. In these cases, the one who manipulates or forces only hears what s/he wants to hear – something supporting the desire for a sexual encounter – and ignores anything negating the desired activity. Sometimes these issues lead to the one who does the harm attempting to make the one harmed believe s/he did consent, when this was not the case. This is just another example of someone using a power or privilege to harm another human being, then blaming those victimized instead of taking responsibility.
It would be much easier if no one ever wanted sex with anyone who didn’t fully agree to sex with them. However, when power over others is considered a turn on rather than honestly and fully being desired by the other person, the potential erotica of consent gets lost. According to the Merriam-Webster online site, the term “erotic” is among the top 20% of searched words. This site gives the definition of erotic as simply “devoting to, or tending to arouse sexual love or desire” or “strongly marked or affected by sexual desire.” (2017).
Having a meaningful connection with another human being fills the most basic desires of the human heart: being included, affirmed, chosen, blessed, safe, heard/understood, and touched. (Laaser & Laaser, 2008). When seeking erotic consent in your relationships, consider the following acronym: Caring and compassionate connection, Overtly attending to each other’s needs and desires, Never negating each other’s limits, Sensual/mutually satisfying and sexy, Effort – putting in the work to make sure all is well and enjoying the moment, Nibbling away at uncertainty, Timely communication.
When these are present, the relationship is richly erotic.
Anderson, C. (2017). The Impact of Pornography on Children, Youth, and Culture. Holyoke, MA: NEARI Press.
Beres, Melanie & MacDonald, Jo. (2015). Talking about sexual consent: Heterosexual women and BDSM. Australian Feminist Studies (30)86; 418-432.
Brooks, D. (2017, November 2). Lovers, Prospectors and Predators. New York Times. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/sexual-harassment-predators.html
Erotic. 2017. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved 12 November 2017 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/erotic.
Laaser, Mark & Laaser, Debra. (2008). The Seven Desires of Every Heart. Grand Rapis, MI: Zondervan.
Scott, Katie & Graves, Clint. (2017). Sexual violence, consent, and contradictions: A call for communication scholars to impact sexual violence prevention. Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee. (8)1; 159-174.