The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.

~~~

* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

“Women Just Want Men To Take Control.”

[Content note: sex/BDSM]

One trope I often hear about women’s sexuality is that “women just want men to take control.”1 I encounter this everywhere–in pickup artist how-to’s, in pop psychology articles, in Cosmo magazines, in Sigmund Freud’s theories. At its best, it’s a harmless meme that simply reflects the gender roles that our society has. But at its worst, it’s rape apologetics.

In a rather old Newsweek piece, Katie Roiphe (she who claims that date rape is just bad sex that you regret) uses the 50 Shades of Grey series and the TV show Girls as evidence that, well, women just want men to take control. She also goes on to make a terrible argument that the reason women just want men to take control is that they have too much power in the workplace now, or something. (She also seems to think that the reason people are ashamed of these fantasies is because Feminism Has Gone Too Far, not because, newsflash: non-vanilla sexuality is really stigmatized, and so is all sexuality, actually.)

Anyway, I could write multiple articles about why this piece by Roiphe pissed me off so much a year ago and continues to piss me off, but for now I will focus on one reason: her implicit assertion that women ultimately just want to be dominated.

Some women want men to take control. Some women don’t want men to take control. Some women want men to take control, but only under certain circumstances. Some women want men to take control, but only in their fantasies. And some women aren’t interested in having sex with men at all. And that’s important to point out, because when you say things like “women want men to be X/do Y in bed,” you’re completely ignoring the fact that some women don’t give a single flying fuck about what men do in bed.

First of all, statements like “Women just want men to take control” are wrong because, well, plenty of women don’t. I don’t have the statistics on me, but any cursory conversation with women who trust you enough to talk about their sex lives will reveal plenty of these mythical women. And no, don’t say that they’re “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want.”2 Yes, people are, at best, mediocre judges of their own selves. But they sure know themselves better than you do!

Second, now that we’ve established that some unspecified percentage of women don’t want to be dominated: even if there are many women who want men to be dominant in bed, that still doesn’t excuse not asking. Many women also like oral sex, but that doesn’t mean they want it ALL THE TIME AT EVERY MOMENT THEY’RE WITH YOU. Ask! And it doesn’t have to be something like “Do you grant me permission to forcibly hold you against the wall while I remove your clothing without your aid and perform acts of my own choosing upon your sexual organs?” It can be, “I really want to take control tonight. Is there anything you don’t want me to do? Just say [safeword] if you want me to stop.” Better yet, though, would be to talk about this beforehand, at some point when you’re not naked or about to be, and ask your partner if they’re interested in this and what boundaries they have about it.

The reason this is important, aside from the consent part, is that we use the words “dominant” or “take control” to mean many different things. For some people, “take control” may just mean initiating everything that happens that night, choosing what stuff you do, being on top, etc. For some people, “take control” may mean tying their partner up and shackling them to the bed and doing whatever they want to/with them unless and until they say the safeword. And for some people, “take control” means that your partner is your 24/7 slave who does absolutely anything, sexual or otherwise, that you demand. If you’re someone who uses the former definition while your partner uses one of the other definitions, you might find yourself having an unpleasant miscommunication unless you talk about these things.

And that brings me to my third point: even if you’re 100% sure that your partner wants you to “take control,” you don’t know what they want that to look like until you ask. If you don’t ask and just do and happen to do something they want, good for you. But most likely you’ll do something they don’t want, which means they’ll be bored, annoyed, or even upset and violated.

Fourth, even if your partner wants you to take control, and even if you do happen to be on the same page about what you want, getting explicit consent is still a really good idea. Why? Because it sends the message that you care about your partner’s comfort and agency.

As one of those infamous women who want their male partners to be dominant almost all of the time, I’ll tell you this: I would be appalled, disgusted, and turned off if a partner just assumed that I want them to be in control and started doing it without having asked me or heard from me that this is what I want. Of course, it’s different with long-term partners because they know each other’s quirks and desires, but if we’re just starting out, you’d fucking better ask first. If you don’t, I might enjoy it at the time, but I’ll be left with the really uncomfortable feeling that you actually didn’t really care whether I wanted to do that or not. These tend to be the people I do not see again, because I can’t trust them not to cross my boundaries in the future.

Sure, they got lucky: they didn’t get explicit consent, but it turns out I wanted to do that anyway. But what about when they fail to get explicit consent for something I don’t want to do? How are they going to know what I want to do and what I don’t? Why should it be my responsibility to stop them from doing things I don’t want once they start to do them, rather than their responsibility to ask first?

Fifth, what Katie Roiphe and others who try to understand Women’s Sexuality from romance stories fail to grasp is that sometimes fantasies are just fantasies. Many people think that if you fantasize and get off to something, that must mean that that is Who You Really Are Sexually and you must want to act out that fantasy ASAP. Actually, no. (Sometimes I hesitate to tell partners about fantasies because then they’re immediately like OH OKAY LET’S DO THAT I’LL GO TO THE SEX STORE AND BUY THAT THING when I might not actually want to.) But there are plenty of valid reasons you might choose not to do something no matter how hot it is to think about: it’s unsafe, you have physical limitations or disabilities that make it impossible, you’re worried about how it’ll make you feel, you can’t afford to buy something that you’d need for it, you don’t really want to do it with any of the partners you currently have, you don’t want to go through the hassle of negotiating it, you don’t think it would be as fun in real life and you’d rather just keep it as a nice thing to think about, and so on.

Finally, another thing that Katie Roiphe et al. don’t get is that women who have fantasies about submission aren’t necessarily having them for some reason like Men These Days Aren’t Aggressive Enough or Women Have Too Much Power In The Workplace And Feel Too Powerful. I can think of many reasons fantasies about submission might be fun. Submitting to someone requires a degree of trust that many find sexy. The idea of being so into someone that you’re willing to let them control you is a powerful idea to many people. Submitting means being vulnerable, exposing yourself, and some people find that hot. There’s also something about relinquishing control that’s comforting–especially, I might add, to women, who often find themselves stigmatized for being dominant and upfront about their sexuality. Being dominated is a way to enjoy sex without having to open yourself up to the possibility of being shamed for expressing your desires.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that the reason we’re seeing all these stories about female submission but not male submission is not an accident. It is extremely taboo for men to express a desire to submit to a female partner–perhaps even more taboo than it is for women to want to dominate. If someone wrote Fifty Shades of Grey with the gender roles reversed, would any man want to be caught reading that book?

But men who want to be submissive, sometimes or all of the time, are not rare. If you date men and you’re open-minded and supportive of your partners’ sexualities, you have probably met them. If you are Katie Roiphe and you spew outdated gender stereotypes like a broken toilet spews…you-know-what, then men are very unlikely to “come out” as submissive to you.

I think that the dismantling of gender roles would bring about an increase in the number of men who are openly submissive, and an increase in the number of women who are openly dominant. But dominant men and submissive women would obviously still exist, because playing with power can be fun.

The science of sexual desire is still quite nascent, so we don’t really know what actually causes people to like what they like in bed. But, honestly, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to figure out, and that doesn’t really bother me. The most important thing is to not make assumptions about what someone likes based on their gender, or based on anything else. As humans, we have been gifted with the ability to communicate our desires clearly rather than relying on clumsy guesswork. Let’s use that ability.
~~~

1 When I typed this phrase into my phone at like 3 AM one night to remind myself to write this blog post, I initially typed “men just want women to take control” by accident. HMMM.

2 Remind me to write another piece about why people who claim that others are “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want” really creep me out and raise a bunch of red flags.

[interview] Greta Christina on Writing Dirty Stories

[Content note: BDSM]

Greta Christina has a new book of kinky erotic stories out. It’s called Bending and I read it and it’s great. So I interviewed her about the book and the process and ethics of writing porn.

If you’re curious why I refer to them as “dirty stories” and not “erotica,” Greta herself explains in the introduction:

These are not ‘erotica’ — except in the sense that ‘erotica’ has become the term of art in publishing for ‘dirty stories with some vaguely serious literary intent.’ These are not tender stories about couples in love making love. (Except for that one that is.” These are not sweet, gentle, happy stories about unicorns fucking rainbows. (Except for the one about the unicorn fucking the rainbow.)

Here’s the interview!

Greta Christina's Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

Greta Christina’s Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

1. What’s your favorite thing about writing dirty stories? What’s the most challenging thing about it?

I have two favorite things. The first is the challenge as a writer. Can I shape my sexual fantasies into writing, in a way that other people find compelling? Sexuality can be so personal: our own fantasies are so exciting to us, but just describing them doesn’t automatically make them exciting to other people. Even if our fantasies overlap with other people’s fantasies, even if what pushes our buttons pushes other people’s buttons — just a description of what happens in the fantasy isn’t enough to make it exciting. Not to me, anyway. I have to find the real core, what exactly it is about this fantasy that makes it hot for me. That’s really interesting. It’s like therapy.

The other favorite thing is that it gets me off. Sinking deep into a sex fantasy, spending hours with it, closely examining it to find out what makes it hot… it makes my clit hard just thinking about it.

The most challenging things are very closely related to my favorite things. It’s very difficult to write porn that really captures the essence of what makes a fantasy exciting. Often, when I first flesh out a dirty story, I find writing it totally exciting and compelling… and then when I come back to it later for revisions, it just seems flat. I could feel the emotional and psychological resonance myself when I was first writing it, but I didn’t get it onto the page. So I have to look at how the characters are feeling about the sex they’re having, what it means to them, whether their lives will be any different because of this sex. I have to find a way to convey what it feels to be this person, or these people, having this sex.

Plus I have this thing about wanting my porn to be interesting and exciting… even for readers who don’t share my kinks. That’s one of my favorite things as a reader/ viewer of porn: if porn can get me off even when it doesn’t push my particular buttons, if it get show me what’s exciting and intriguing about sexual acts that don’t normally interest me, that is pure win. I want to give that to other readers. But it’s hard.

Also, getting back to how writing porn gets me off: If I whack off too early in the process of writing a story, I lose my momentum, and have to come back to it later. It’s a challenge to hold off on masturbating long enough to get a good chunk of the story out.

2. That story about the unicorn and the rainbow. What inspired it?

“The Unicorn and the Rainbow” was totally written on a dare. I perform in this regular erotic reading series in San Francisco, “Perverts Put Out,” and a couple of years ago I read a fiction piece, which I prefaced by warning the audience: “This is something of a disturbing story, it has elements of borderline consent and other content that some people may find unsettling.” And then I added, “But when do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and *not* say that? When do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and say, ‘This is a really sweet story, this is a gentle, happy, loving story about unicorns fucking rainbows?’”

And at the break, about a dozen people came up to me and said, “I really want you to write the story about unicorns fucking rainbows.”

Challenge accepted!

3. Do you believe that writers of erotica have any ethical obligation to encourage consensual sex and to discourage sexual assault? If so, what is the extent of this obligation? How can writers balance it with their desire to write stories that express fantasies that many people have, including fantasies about non-consent and manipulation?

That’s a very large question, and a tricky one. I don’t think I can give a complete answer to it in a brief interview. But I’ll do my best.

I’m not sure if I think other writers have that ethical obligation. But I certainly feel it myself. Especially since so much of my porn fiction is about non-consent, borderline consent, manipulation, abuse of power. I actually wrote an entire blog post about this, while I was first putting the book together: On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture. do think artists — and not just creators of erotica, all artists — have a responsibility to try to avoid contributing to culture in a toxic way. But I don’t think that all art has to represent a Utopian ideal. Bor-ing!

Here’s how I dealt with this in Bending. I talked in the introduction about the difference between fantasies of non-consent and the reality of non-consent. I put a consensual SM resource guide at the end of the book, reiterating that these stories are meant to be fantasies and not a how-to guide, and directing people towards actual how-to guides. And I made the non-consensual content very clear, in the description of the book and in the introduction and in all the promotional materials… so people who don’t want to read about that stuff know to avoid it.

As for other writers… I don’t know. Did the creators of Ocean’s Eleven have an obligation to open the movie with, “This is just a fantasy, we do not recommend that you knock over casinos in real life”? That seems silly. But then again, rape and sexual abuse of power is very widespread in our world. Knocking over casinos isn’t.

4. Has writing dirty stories changed how you think about sexuality, kink, consent, etc? What have you learned from the process?

Again — large question! I could talk about that for pages. I promise I won’t, though. I’m just going to pick out one thing.

Before I started writing dirty stories, I was very interested in acting out non-consent fantasies in real life. (With consenting partners, obviously!) I was pretty blithe about it, actually — “la la la, I have fantasies about this all the time, why wouldn’t I want to act it out?” — and it was one of the great frustrations of my sex life that I hadn’t found a partner who was willing to do that with me. But writing kinky fiction has given me a lot more respect for the potential landmines in acting this stuff out. It’s important to me that my porn be believable, that it feel like it could be really happening with real people… but it’s extremely hard to write non-consent porn that’s realistic and believable, and that isn’t a horror show. Struggling with that made me realize how hard it is to translate some fantasies into reality — even just in the form of fiction. And that made me more cautious about venturing into those waters in my sex play, and gave me more respect for my partners who didn’t want to go there. I’m not saying I never would do that — but I would go in very slowly, and tread very cautiously, if I did.

5. Do you think stories like yours have the power to destigmatize kink and BDSM? How so?

I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. And I would hope that these stories might also help destigmatize porn/ erotica as well. I would hope that people reading these stories would recognize that smart, thoughtful, insightful, non-fucked-up people can be into this stuff. But I suspect that people who stigmatize kink — or porn, for that matter — aren’t going to read these stories.

6. One of the sections of Bending has stories in which religion is used to manipulate and coerce someone sexually. How did your own views on religion shape these stories, if at all?

Again — a very large question! I’m actually doing an entire guest post on this topic on JT Eberhard’s WWJTD? blog later on in the blog tour, on June 10. The tl;dr: I didn’t write religious porn at all until I became an atheist. Being an atheist writer and activist put religion much more on my radar — including the darker, more fucked-up elements of religion, and its huge potential for abuse of power. Which, of course, I passionately oppose in real life… and which, of course, my fantasies and my sexual imagination immediately began lapping up.

7. Which story is your favorite? Yes, you have to pick one!

“Bending.” No question. “Bending” is the novella that makes the foundation of this collection — and I worked harder on it than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life. (With the exception of Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Funny thing, how hard work pays off. Not always, of course — there are writers who have struggled for years over work that never came out right — but often.

And I think the length made a difference as well. Having the space, in the novella length of “Bending,” to really get into the depths and the details and the richness of my characters’ sex lives and sexual feelings, I think made it more powerful. Plus, in a novella, there’s space for the characters to really change and evolve. In many of my short stories, the stories end when the main character is about to make a change in her life. They end when the main character is about to open a new door, or close one behind her. In “Bending,” I was able to take the main character, Dallas, through that change. I think that gives it a richness, an extra dimension, that’s hard to get across in a shorter piece.

8. Which one was the most difficult to write?

And again — “Bending.” For all the same reasons that it’s my favorite. I worked harder on that piece than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life.

If your interest has been sufficiently piqued, Bending is available for purchase on Amazon, Smashwords, and Nook, and will soon be available as an audiobook and a paperback!

Also, if you want to see the other stops on Greta’s blog tour, here’s the ongoing list.