How do you make consent sexy? By talking about it.
Have you ever had sex with someone because it was easier than turning them down? Have you ever faked an orgasm just to try and wrap things up? Have you ever been choked, bitten, spat on, slapped, or anally probed without your permission?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be entitled to financial compensation.
I consider myself due compensation. I don’t want to brag, but in my time I’ve had my fair share of bad sex. Some of the fault lies with me. I’ve never been very good at asking for what I want when it comes to sex. I’m not sure how “10 minutes of oral - to completion - and then immediately fall asleep” would be received as a form of dirty talk anyway.
We talk about sex so much these days, and many people are learning about consent and safe sex for the first time. These conversations are vital. Just a couple years ago, people by the thousands adopted the short-lived motto “consent is sexy”. For a while, it was everywhere: on posters, t-shirts and tote bags. Then came the swift correction: “consent is mandatory”. Of course, no one who’d ever held a “consent is sexy” poster board had ever been in doubt about this. The correction succeeded in elevating the message from just a marketable slogan, but the significance of keeping consent sexy wasn’t going anywhere. The idea that these concepts may, in fact, be mutually exclusive revealed an anxiety about our own preconceived notions of sex. In fact, it’s more than likely that there are aspects of our own sex lives that fall short of the standards we hold for each other.
So how can we make consent sexy anyway? Cinephiles may recall the culturally formative scene in Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) in which the two leads hammer out the intricacies of an exhaustive sex contract: “Turn to page five. Appendix Three, ‘Soft Limits’. Find ‘anal fisting’. Strike it out. Strike out ‘vaginal fisting’ too.” Poetic cinema. Despite the well-earned criticism surrounding the series’ depiction of BDSM, this is about as literal - and simplistic - as consent can get. Obviously, consent is more complex than a pre-approved checklist of kinks. No one is contractually obligated to see sex through to its conclusion: consent can be revoked. In the real world, negotiating these boundaries can often be more difficult than it appears on paper. Perhaps we’re still not talking about sex enough, especially with our partners. Short of drawing up a sex contract then, we can learn to vocalise consent; when we make consent explicit, we refuse to take silence or compliance for a yes. This is something I wish I'd known when I was younger.
A couple of years back I found myself talking about the time I got fingered in a club. At the time I marketed it to my friends as a funny story.
The crux of the story was this: I was alone with a stranger - as alone as you can be on a dance floor - and my friends had disappeared after witnessing what was quite possibly the messiest kiss they had ever seen. I remember thinking the kiss was bad at the time, but I was drunk and I was inclined to let it happen. Then, I was backed up against a wall, and his fingers were under my skirt, trying to force their way inside my vagina. It hurt. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want this to happen. Part of me was worried the bouncer would see; another part was worried I hadn’t shaved.
I remember getting away, finding the toilets, and crying. When I eventually found my friends and told them what had happened, they laughed. I laughed too. Later that night I saw my friend with her back against a wall, and the guy I’d escaped from was pressed up against her. We’d later swap notes about what a bad kisser he was, and I never asked her why she hadn’t avoided him.
Looking back on it now, I’m struggling to find the funny part, but I guess I was relying on my natural charisma and my knack for storytelling to sell it. Well, my friends weren’t laughing, and that was the first time it occurred to me that maybe something bad had happened.
Was I traumatised by the experience? No. It still doesn’t seem like a big deal, and maybe it wasn’t. But I still remember it, and I doubt he does.
The reason I think about this story so often is precisely because I’m unable to simply classify it as a “bad experience”. I wasn’t held down, I didn’t say no, and I didn’t fight back. But I didn’t say yes, I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it.
But mainly I think about this experience because I don’t think it’s something I outgrew, at least for a very long time.
So yes, in the intervening years I had a lot of bad sex. Experiences vary. I once dated a guy who thought that spitting was some kind of sexy surprise and not an altercation I’d discuss with a lawyer present. I had a partner who’d bite me so hard I’d wince when they leant in to kiss me. I've been choked without warning by several partners, none of whom I trusted to do it safely. One time I was so bored during sex I discretely watched Leprechaun (1993) over the edge of the bed.
Sex can often feel like something that happens to you rather than something that you’re actively engaged in. It can feel like a space where you do what’s expected of you and don’t feel like you can ask for what you want. This feeling doesn’t just come from our partners - it comes from us as well.
So how do we re-engage with our sex lives? How do we make consent sexy?
We can keep talking about sex. We can learn to ask for what we want, learn to ask our partners for what they want, and remember that we can always say no.
I’d like to wrap things up by assuring you that I’m currently having the best sex of my life, and leading a masterclass of consent-made-sexy in my downtime. The truth is I’m on SSRIs and I can’t tell my clit from my elbow.
Maybe your sex life is much better than mine. Hopefully, it is. But we won't know how much better sex could be if we don't speak up. So let's keep talking about sex, and if you take anything from this article, let it be to always ask for permission before you spit on someone.