This has been a year filled with headlines and social movements (#MeToo) about sexual politics, so it isn’t much of a surprise that we’re now reconsidering our feelings about the holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Rather than rehash what’s already been said about a song that could easily be interpreted as inappropriate, I’d rather address the larger issue: consent.
Sexual consent is a tricky topic. Each state has a different definition and our approach to consent is still evolving. Gone are the days of “no means no,” thus paving the way for the new “only yes means yes.” Many colleges and universities have adopted policies based on this model, called affirmative consent. The State University of New York has defined affirmative consent as “a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity,” and goes on to stipulate that partners must verbally agree to participate in any sexual activity, each time, regardless of past behavior or participation. Consent cannot be given while intoxicated or unconscious, and “silence or lack of resistance” is not implied consent – everyone has to say yes. Most importantly, consent can be revoked at any time for any reason.
While this may seem obvious, it’s also problematic. Critics, both men and women, have said that verbally discussing consent before sex isn’t practical or realistic, and that it turns an act of passion, romance, and fun into a legal negotiation. The real problem, though, is that we as a society don’t talk about sex, which is necessary for consent to be given; instead, some rely on nonverbal cues and body language, which is implied consent and therefore potentially dangerous territory because an explicit agreement has not been made.
Enter enthusiastic consent, which builds upon affirmative consent but adds that participants should be actively enjoying what’s going on. This is important because if someone isn’t comfortable talking about what they enjoy, they may not feel comfortable saying what they don’t enjoy. If your partner(s) seems unenthusiastic, that’s your cue to check in and ask how they’re doing. Be prepared to offer options, like changing activities (or techniques), taking a break, or ending the activity.
The LGBTQ and kink communities are playing an interesting role in our conversations about consent. Rather than positioning consent as something that occurs before or outside of sex, we approach it as something that is part of sex. This reinforces that consent can be revoked and encourages enthusiastic consent by making sure that everyone is ok with everything that is happening. It’s a good approach, and now it’s being used by the straight and non-kink communities to teach about consent and how it works.
Ultimately, consent is about communication, which can be tricky because sex is a delicate and personal subject and not everyone is comfortable talking openly about what they do and don’t like, especially early on in any kind of relationship. One of the rules of the kink community is to ask permission before touching anything, be it a person’s hair, their clothing, and especially their body. This shows respect and also increases the comfort of your partner(s).
Another tactic is to introduce consent early in a relationship. A casual statement like “I think consent is important, so let’s agree to talk about what we like before anything happens,” lets your potential partner(s) know that it’s ok to discuss sex, and it makes it easier to broach the subject later because everyone has already agreed to the discussion. There are plenty of resources if you’d like to learn more about consent. If you’re still on the fence and thinking that consent is complicated and not at all sexy, think of it this way: Would you rather have someone you’re into enthusiastically tell you they want to have sex, or shrug their shoulders and say okay? For me, I’ll always opt for the former.
- Brian George Hose has been an advocate for LGBTQ persons and issues all his adult life. He holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Shepherd University and looks forward to pursuing a Master's of Social Work with a focus in mental health. A former musician, Brian served as minister of music for New Light MCC for several years and incorporates music into social work practice. He lives in rural Western Maryland where he has amassed a sinful number of books, yarn, and books about yarn. He has been writing for Baltimore Out Loud since February 2016.