Often we talk about consent in terms of power: who has it and how are they wielding it? What if we thought of it in terms of attention?
Since the short story Cat Person was published in the New Yorker late last year, my friends and I have spent a lot of time talking about bad sex. If consent is a spectrum with an enthusiastic, joyful yes at one end and sexual assault at the other, bad sex lives in the middle. There are lots of reasons why so many women have had so much bad sex: an impulse to please, the shame or discomfort of acknowledging your own needs, a misplaced hope that if you just go along with it, a bad experience might eventually get better. We are women in our twenties and thirties and forties and the question underlying these conversations is the same for each of us: what is the value of my desires?
We’re getting better at talking about consent when it comes to sex. The #metoo movement has encouraged people of all genders to really imagine what an enthusiastic, joyful yes can look like—and to understand how prioritizing mutual pleasure makes sex better for everyone. But we’re missing an opportunity to consider how these more sophisticated ways of practicing consent might re-shape our relationships—and our entire culture.
One way I’ve tried to reimagine consent in my romantic life is by creating a relationship contract with my partner. It’s not a legal contract and there are no penalties when one of us doesn’t do what we’ve agreed to. It’s really an opportunity for the two of us to sit down together and discuss our expectations about everything from chores to date nights to sex. When I first wrote about our contract, I was surprised by the strong responses it elicited. Some people – often young straight women – loved the idea. Others accused my partner and me of being “robots” or “unromantic nerds.” But these readers are missing the point: being heard is the most romantic thing I can imagine.
Of course these critiques sound a lot like the complaints of those who think talking about sex beforehand – and actually asking the person you’re with if they’re into whatever you’re doing—ruins the experience. At the heart of these accusations of “ruining romance” is the notion that you shouldn’t voice your needs or desires: mutual understanding should happen all on its own—in sex and in love.
When I was young, I assumed that once I found the right person, I wouldn’t have to ask for anything—he would just understand me. I probably don’t need to say that this approach didn’t serve me well. For one thing, the assumption that the right person would know what I wanted – intuitively, telepathically – prevented me from ever bothering to figure it out for myself. In this fairy tale model of consent, mutual understanding requires nothing more than the machinations of fate to bring partners together. This promise of being uniquely and perfectly understood is seductive—and it’s baked into our language: the right person “completes you”; they are “the one,” or “your other half,” or your “soulmate.”
There’s some interesting research on “implicit theories of relationships” – which is really an academic way of describing the metaphors we use to think about love. One study found that those who thought of love as “perfect unity between two halves” (an idea as old as Plato) were less satisfied with their relationship after a conflict than those who framed love as “a journey with ups and downs.” Another study (charmingly titled “Great Sexpectations”) found that partners with high “sexual destiny beliefs” experience lower relationship quality. In other words, we are happier with our relationships when we assume that sex is something we get better at together.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that straight women are the ones most eager to reject the fairy tale of effortless mutual understanding. Same-sex couples tend to be better at communicating, which means that women in same-sex relationships are having (significantly) better sex than straight women. And same-sex partners distribute domestic labor and caregiving responsibilities more fairly than those in different-sex relationships. Maybe it goes without saying that women do more of the housework and childrearing in heterosexual relationships—and that this decreases their relationship satisfaction—but I’ll say it anyway.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions of the word “consent”: to “give permission for something to happen” and to “agree to do something.” The first – giving permission – is essentially what sex educator Jaclyn Friedman calls the gatekeeper model of consent. This model requires the person with the least power—the most vulnerable person in a relationship—to be the one to set boundaries. It also normalizes the idea that the one with more power will maximize that power in an attempt to get what they want. The second definition – agreeing to do something – sounds more mutual, but only slightly. Both definitions are the equivalent to checking the “terms and conditions” box on a new software download and hoping for the best.
But consent hasn’t always been so one-sided. The etymology of the word gets closer to the culture of consent I’m imagining. The Latin consentire literally means “to feel together.”
Often we talk about consent in terms of power: who has it and how are they wielding it? But we might also think of it in terms of attention. One reason romantic idealism is so appealing is because it suggests that love is an adequate stand-in for attention; if you are perfectly matched with someone, you don’t have the obligation of really bothering to know them.
What would it look like if we built a culture around the idea of “feeling together”? If we began with the assumption that we should shape our relationships – sexual, personal, even professional – with another person, bearing both our experiences in mind?
“Feeling together” requires us to acknowledge that privilege is, by definition, an imbalance of attention, an absence of care. And it implies that it’s the responsibility of those with privilege and power to offer more attention, to give more care. What I love about this version of consent is that demands intimacy. It ties us more tightly to one another by suggesting that empathy is not a burden, but an opportunity.
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