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Consent Does Not "Ruin the Moment"

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree – a simple “Hey, can we do this?” or “Mind if I do *this*?” is a lot better than discovering than discovering that you’ve violated someone would be.

  2. says

    My husband is a salesman, and once in awhile he’ll spout the oh-so-charming line (when referring to work, not sexytimes) “Its better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” And, unfortunately, I think so many people really embrace that philosophy when it does come to sexytimes. Which sucks, and I don’t get it. I always like to err on the side of “making sure I don’t violate someone” than “getting my rocks off.”

    • says

      Mhm, I think people do have that mindset a lot. What they don’t realize is that asking for forgiveness for assaulting someone isn’t the same as asking for forgiveness for borrowing a dress without permission, or eating the last slice of pizza.

  3. danagb says

    I don’t understand why these people think consent has to be “Good sir, do I have your permission to commence intercourse now?” or something equally silly. “Let’s fuck”, “I want to make love to you” and “I want to (verb) your (adjective)(noun)” all count as verbal consent. It’s not like you have to stiff and robotic to not rape someone.

    • says

      That’s the argument, but I don’t think they actually think that. I think they know damn well that they don’t want to ask because the answer might be “no, actually I’d rather not do that.” And that would ruin their good time. I think “asking kills the mood” is just as much of a strawman as “well, fine, we might as well draw up a contract and consult lawyers before we hold hands!” hyperbole that comes up a lot during discussions of enthusiastic consent.

  4. says

    “Is this okay?” is one of the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard come out of a partner’s mouth, and I CAN’T EXPLAIN THAT, but I’m here to attest to it. It’s so fucking hot.

  5. A-is-laughing says

    HELL YES to your post. HELL YES.

    I once dated a guy who was a bit of an ass about never asking, just starting to do. I mean, one night he goes – “take off all your clothes” as if he’s going to do something super sexy, right? then he proceeds to shave me. Not sexy, simply patronizing. The dating/sex thing didn’t work out with him (no surprise, right?), but we became great friends, and a few years later, I ask him wtf was up with that? and he in the later and reflective mode say “I don’t ask because the idea of being rejected in that moment is so scary, I can’t stand the possibility.
    Well, He’s a generally nice guy, very respectful of people, would NEVER think of himself as controlling or an asshat. BUT his insecurity and his need for being safe HIMSELF made him completely unaware of how his actions were being received.

    So, question, how can we learn to be more aware of the POWER we are exerting even when we don’t intend to be doing so? How can we learn together and gently teach one another to be more aware of the disparity between our intentions and our impact?

      • Titfortat says

        I had a similar thought as you did. Wow, He started shaving her and she didnt say No. Hmm, no wonder the sex/dating thing didnt work, neither one of them could communicate with each other.

          • Titfortat says

            Well, how would he know he was doing something wrong if she didnt tell him? I think she was just as responsible as he is for the lack of communication. Exactly what I tell my daughter, people arent mindreaders.

          • says

            No, they’re not. But that’s exactly why they should ask for consent.

            In a situation where someone’s being violated (which I don’t know if that’s the case with this person), they often freeze up and can’t tell the person to stop. Also, especially with women, there’s often a sort of doublethink going on where we convince ourselves that it’s actually okay and we do actually want it because we don’t want to offend or upset the other person.

            I would say that if the two people are simply having a conversation about sex rather than doing it, then yes, each person is responsible for articulating their desires and boundaries. But in the moment, there are all sorts of psychological factors at play, and “just so no” isn’t always advice that can be followed. “Just ask for consent” is better.

          • Titfortat says

            Also, especially with women, there’s often a sort of doublethink going on where we convince ourselves that it’s actually okay and we do actually want it because we don’t want to offend or upset the other person.(Miriam)

            Im not sure if you realize how sexist this statement sounds. All kinds of people have “sort of a doublethink”. That is not especially exclusive to women. I know tons of men who do also. The facts are we dont know if he threatened her and he didnt know that he violated her because she did not communicate that. The only level of communcation that he received was that she went along with the shaving. I can tell you this, if my girlfriend or potential sex partner told me to take my pants off, I would eagerly await the BJ. If she then started to “Shave me”, even he she could beat me to a pulp I would say “Hell no” you aint doing that shit.

          • says

            Did I ever say it was “exclusive” to women?

            I also didn’t say that that’s for sure what happened. I’m saying that you can’t always blame someone for not saying no. And yes, that applies to men being pressured by women, too. I’m glad you have a partner that you feel comfortable saying no to, and that you were raised with (or later developed) the belief that saying no to a partner is acceptable. Not everyone has that, however.

          • Titfortat says

            All I am saying is that, like all of us, they both are responsible for their lack of communication. Agency, we all own it, regardless of where we come from, it is ours to own if we dont communicate properly. Victims are ones who dont have the option. In this case, from the information I read, she had an option that she did NOT use. You call that victim blaming, I dont see her as a victim. I call it as I see it, they both need to learn how to communicate better. Would you honestly see a man as a victim if he let his girlfriend/sex partner shave him and he didnt communicate that he didnt want it done?

          • Titfortat says

            I disagree. She is equally responsible. He suggested for her to do something, she didnt want to but did it anyways. How could he ever know that anything wrong happened if they never had any kind of discussion in regards to consent and non consent? Thats not blame, thats reality.

          • Titfortat says

            That doesnt mean she is free of her resposibility in her lack of “no”. Sometimes it just is as simple as two people not being very good at communicating what they want or dont want, really, simple.

          • Titfortat says

            Hi miriam

            I think one of my comments just got eaten, could you check it out for me please. Thanks.

          • Titfortat says

            @Aunolin

            You do realize there is no choice or option in not growing old. You may want to use a better analogy.

        • A-is-laughing says

          Yep,. to all the above and below – I WAS responsible for not saying no. However, this was admittedly one of my first ever sexual experiences, and it was a red flag in my life that I needed to LEARN to say no! I needed to learn to overcome that “Freezing up” barrier, and speak up for myself.

          but I agree with the sentiment that asking should always happen, and we should be patient with those who are afraid to say I like this, I don’t like that.

          @Titfortat communication wasn’t the problem. He ended up being a total control freak… friendship is possible (only) because I have way better boundaries with non-intimate relationships. (and honestly, I’m not dating today years later because I’m working on figuring out WTF my intimate/romatic boundaries need to look like). so, to all, be gentle, those of us who don’t speak up to but in a “no” probably shouldn’t be castigated for not doing it in a way more confident persons are willing to speak up. More Helpful would be recommendations for creative ways to feel confident enough to speak up.

          • Titfortat says

            @A

            The way your first comment was worded didnt leave the impression that you were not able to say no. Or at least my perception of it didnt see that. I disagree with you in regards to the communication thing because ultimately it is irrelevant if he is a “control freak” if you have the ability to say no. Obviously you didnt, but that is not his responsibility, is it? I have a quote that has served me well even though Im still working it through.

            “In life, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

            Im not sure if that is gentle but it definately fits my experience of life and trust me, Ive been on both ends of the spectrum more times than I care to remember.

          • Aunolin says

            Dear Titfortat,

            You have consistently shown a complete ignorance of the arguments others are making against your point*, the way that other people feel, and the way that other people respond emotionally to the incredibly insensitive words you use.

            This situation is analogous to someone running into a nursing home despite not knowing anyone there, and repeatedly yelling, “WHY ARE YOU SO OLD?! WHY ARE YOU SO OLLLLLLLD?!?!?!”, regardless of how anyone responds. In said nursing home, you would have been escorted out by security long ago.

            I am glad that you feel comfortable saying no to contact that you feel is unwanted, but not everybody just magically has that ability. Please apologize for being a smegmachunk to Miriam and A-is-laughing; failing the ability to realize WHY you should apologize, please GTFO.

            <2, your friendly neighborhood feminist

  6. Jennie says

    I’m sure this opinion won’t be popular here, but I was always taught that “enthusiastic participation” can constitute consent. Ie- if I lean in 70% and you lean in 30%, I can kiss you. If I run my hand up down your happy trail and you moan or arch your body to meet my touch, I can keep going. If I start moving my head downwards and you unzip your jeans, game on. If at any point you pull away, stiffen up (um, in the bad way, not the penis way), or stop/move my hand, then that’s a no-go. I’m not one for dirty talk- it always makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable and I don’t like it. Overly polite requests are annoying. Basically, anything verbal jars me out of the moment (at least, until you’re at the point where your words are just moans with structure, ahem.) I’ve only slept with one guy who kept asking “Can I do this? Can I do this?” and it absolutely drove me nuts. Obviously I’m not everyone- but I think expecting everyone to enjoy the same thing in terms of verbal consent is just as bad as expecting everyone to like having their boundaries pushed without it. If you’re taking it slowly and watching for signs of genuine enjoyment and encouragement, I don’t think it’s out of line to expect your partner to take responsibility for expressing that they don’t want to do something without your having to ask, verbally, for every.single.motion. A study at UCLA found that about 93% of the information we communicate to each other is non-verbal- don’t underestimate how much we can get across without words, and how clearly.

    • says

      No, I’d agree with that. The important part of that consent is established, and if body language makes that completely obvious, it’s all good.

      The verbal thing, though, is still important sometimes because many people just don’t have the social skills to read hints and cues. If you’re not into people who ask you explicitly for consent, then, obviously, don’t date those people. But we shouldn’t be telling those people not to ask, because clearly they need to.

  7. Aila says

    consent is sexy. Personal story to support this claim:
    Making out on the first date. Boy asks “what kinds of things do you like?” I tell him. His eyes get all wide and happy. Boy says “ok but I’m not sure how far you want things to go so if we end up starting anything you’re uncomfortable with, please tell me. I don’t want to do anything you don’t like.”
    we’re coming up on a 1-year anniversary of sexy consensual sex.

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