Consent: Why You’re Still Probably Getting it Wrong

By Julia Hernandez

Since the rise of #MeToo, the term “consent” hasn’t quite abated as a sexual safety buzzword.

The notion that we should obtain unequivocal consent before a sexual encounter is increasingly pervasive. Responses to this notion, however, are mixed: while some embrace the buzz, others are resistant to its implications.

And honestly, I don’t blame them. Our narratives concerning sex glorify spontaneity and passion.

Consider the number of TV shows and movies you’ve seen where two characters, in the midst of an

impassioned argument, start maniacally fondling each other. In any such scene, inherent to the romance

of the encounter is the fact that it's not something negotiated or discussed beforehand. Attraction is so

obvious, so palpable, it needn’t be stated.

Further, the desire to have sex is presumed to be so ubiquitous, people who are attracted to each other do it on a whim, in whatever setting they happen to find themselves in - at work, in a car, in a fancy garden beside a ballroom...

That’s our model of romance. And it pervades our daily lives.

Thinking back on my own sexual encounters, it would’ve once seemed odd to me to ask someone if they’re in the mood to have sex. If someone is sending you clear signals that they’re interested, if you’ve had enthusiastic sex before, wouldn’t it kill the mood - the spontaneity! the passion! - to ask if they, like, really want to do it?

A lot of sexual fantasies are premised on ambiguity - will they/won’t they dynamics, unusual settings,

inappropriate relationships - they suggest that sex is always potentially around the corner, and it makes

life and romance that much more exciting. I get that.

Unfortunately, the unwillingness to discuss and negotiate sex beforehand because it might kill our notion of spontaneous, lustful engagement allows predatory behaviours to thrive. Clearly stating your sexual intentions seems awkward, uncomfortable, even creepy. Rather, we suggest and dance around the idea of sex until we find ourselves in the midst of it.

But, in this culture of sexual ambiguity, many of us have sadly had not-so-consensual experiences which

traverse the grey space between two neatly packaged narratives - clearly non-consensual experiences

(think crime shows, where most storylines include a strange, deranged man grabbing unsuspecting

women from shady locales) and clearly consensual ones.

In the grey space, many, especially women and sexual minorities, are left wondering if a certain experience was actually consensual. I have barely met another sexually active woman who doesn’t have a story like this to tell. And we haven’t really been given a label for the I-wasn't-really-feeling-it-but-he-was-so-pushy-that-i-didn't-really-know-what-to-do-after-a-certain-point experience.

In fact, these types of experiences are so ambiguous that the people engaged in them may

leave with totally different understandings. For one, it was a normal, routine one-night-stand. For another, it was a regrettable experience with a pushy stranger.

This is why our communication around sex really needs clearing up.

One of the most frequent consent mistakes I’ve experienced is the outright refusal to state sexual intentions - or, even more frequently, to couch them in other terms. I’ve been led into an empty room at a party by guys who “just wanted to talk,” only to have a hand in my pants a few minutes later. Even after having stated that I wasn’t ready for intimacy.

I’ve had a boyfriend take off his underwear while cuddling in bed in the morning, “just because

it's more comfortable that way,” only to have him grasping to take off my own pair a moment later. Even

after having informed him that I was tired and just wanted to sleep.

Why is dishonesty a fundamental part of our sexual vocabulary? Why is it much more common to say, “I just want to sleep over at your place because it’s too late to catch my bus home” than “I want to have sex with you”? Is it a deep-seated fear of sexual rejection? Is it our culturally ingrained sexual taboos? Is it our pervasive narrative of sexual spontaneity, passion, and ambiguity?

Probably all of the above. But that’s the issue.

These narratives aren’t serving us - especially women and sexual minorities. The very real power dynamics and safety concerns that underlie all of our social interactions have left many believing that sexual desirability is essential - and that rejecting others - especially men - isn’t really an


Beyond that, the cultural narrative that sex drives everyone all the time has us assuming that

people want to have sex with us as much as we want to have sex with them - which just isn’t always true.

Addressing this issue of sexual communication could help eliminate many of the experiences that cause

people regret, hurt, and mistrust. But it requires us to revolutionise our sexual behaviour - specifically, our sexual communication.

Challenging our sexual taboos and normalising an up-front and honest attitude toward sex is the main way we can avoid miscommunication. It’s the only way to ensure that someone is really interested - whatever you think their body-language or the fact that they allowed you into their apartment is telling you, the only way you’ll really know is if you just ask.