I’m not enthusiastic about enthusiastic consent

In my guide to sexual violence terminology, I mention that “enthusiastic consent” is an unpopular model in ace communities. Why is that? And who else might have issues with it?

When I search for “enthusiastic consent”, the first result is Yes Means Yes (YMY), which emphasizes that consent is given “without manipulation, threats, or head games.” It’s a “whole body experience” and not just a verbal yes or no. It’s mutual and can be withdrawn at any time. I’m on board with all that stuff.

But when it comes to the “enthusiastic” part of enthusiastic consent, YMY describes it as both partners being mutually “excited”. And then it links to an old Feministing article, which talks about “the hotness of getting (and giving!) a ‘hell, yes!'” And here we have more of a problem. Because I can’t imagine ever literally shouting, “hell, yes!”

I need to give a crash course on what we call “sex-favorable” aces. It’s a small subgroup of asexual-spectrum people who are willing or interested in having sex in certain circumstances. There are a lot of different narratives behind this, and the thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these people may have very mixed relationships with sex. Maybe the interest is purely hypothetical, or maybe it’s a way of understanding a history of sexual activity that they didn’t mind. Maybe they like some aspects of sex but not others, or it’s only good under certain conditions.

And yeah, sometimes people have bad reasons for trying sex, leading to risky situations, that’s something I’m intensely concerned about. But if you say that ace-spectrum people are just categorically unable to consent, that’s so transparently wrong to the affected group that it doesn’t help anyone.

Anyway, when aces do have sex, they don’t always have the emotional reactions that are commonly expected. That’s how I feel. I don’t get “excited” about sex. I don’t feel the need to shout during sex. Also, despite consent being important to me, I don’t experience “hotness” at all, so framing consent as hot is super gross to me. Consent isn’t sexy, it’s mandatory.

I did a bait-n-switch by framing it as an ace thing. It’s not really an ace thing for me. I don’t get excited about sex, but I hardly get excited about anything. I don’t shout. I barely cuss. I am a very unenthusiastic person. For my entire life, expectations of enthusiasm have only ever been an expectation of inauthentic performance. I don’t believe an expectation of an inauthentic performance belongs in a model of sexual consent. The whole narrative of someone shouting “hell, yes!” to sex feels like it comes from someone who has never met an introvert before, or something. It’s head-scratchingly unaware of the different ways that people might experience or express the emotion of enthusiasm.

And I’ve definitely heard a few people respond with something like “well, if you want lukewarm sex then you can have as much as you want”, which is, um. It seems to be saying that even if unenthusiastic sex is consensual, then it isn’t very good.  It’s the “consent is sexy” trope, where if something isn’t meeting a consent standard, then they… demean the sexiness of it?  It feels like an insult to my entire life, which is pretty lukewarm in general.

I mean, I know what enthusiastic consent is getting at. I like YMY’s description of consent, mostly. I also agree that if you’re not familiar with a person’s communication style, it’s appropriate to err on the side of caution–although that strongly suggests that enthusiastic consent should not be universally applied. I’m guessing that the “hell, yes!” narrative isn’t literal, although I’m stumped as to why people keep on repeating it if that’s the case.

But it eventually comes back to “enthusiasm”, whatever that means. My sexual agency doesn’t depend on a particular emotional expression.

ETA: I decided to cross-post this to my other blog, where it will get more ace-centered discussion.


  1. Nomad says

    I’ve long been concerned with much of the talk about consent. I know, I know how this sounds… but I’m increasingly convinced that everyone has their own picture of what consent means, and they’re trying to apply their particular version to everyone. People promoting it talk about it as if everyone agrees, as if their particular picture of it is the most obvious thing in the world, but talk to someone else and you get different definitions. This is a bit worrying seeing as how some of these terms are starting to become law. It’s not just the enthusiasm part. There’s also the “constant affirmative consent” model. I’ve seen too many people say “well of course constant doesn’t mean constant”, but when it comes to explaining just what constant means we seem to end up in a “I recognize it when I see it” kind of place.

    I’m not asexual, but your description of not feeling the need to shout during sex still feels very familiar. As to my case, I’m guessing it’s a mixture of pretty stubborn inhibition plus I have a nagging suspicion that I just don’t experience it as intensely as others. So I can understand this objection too. My boyfriend has been trying to help me out with that, I can see him trying to help get me involved more, and sometimes it works. Sometimes I actually make some noise now, which is unusual for me. But let’s just say that if he subscribed to a strict requirement of enthusiasm we wouldn’t have had a lot of the encounters that we’ve had.

    The only conclusion I can come up with is something like what you said, if you’re not familiar with a person erring on the side of caution is good. But I’ve had to accept that I can’t treat many of these aspects of consent culture as requirements. Sometimes it has to be a starting point. I understand the intent behind them, and I know why people think they’re necessary, but they just don’t work for everyone. There has to be flexibility for people to have their own standards. Of course both partners should agree to those standards, but some guardians of consent don’t leave room for people who don’t feel the same as they do. Not even when both partners agree. And some of their concepts are becoming rule of law.

  2. says

    I think you’re maybe overanalysing. Even people who are pretty keen on sex don’t literally all shout “hell yes” all the time, though I will say that most sexual people consider someone telling them that what they’re doing is good to be a great turn on.
    I often compare sex to food*: If there’s more than one person involved there will necessarily be compromises. Meeting everybody’s needs means you don’t cook what the other one really hates or is even allergic to, or demand that they cook it, but it will also mean that there ill be things you aren’t that enthusiastic about but you know that your partner really likes. And doing things that you are personally “meh” about but OK with because the other one is “best thing ever” about it definitely counts as enthusiastic consent to me.
    *Big caveat that we all need food but not sex

  3. says

    @Gilliel #2,
    My feeling about this is that if you don’t think enthusiastic consent literally requires shouting “yes!” and you don’t think it requires literal enthusiasm, maybe you complain to people who are claiming precisely those things, instead of complaining to me? I know that’s not what people mean by enthusiastic consent, I would like to get people to say what they mean instead of saying things that they will immediately back off from when questioned.

    @Nomad #1,
    You might be interested in my guide to sexual violence terminology, which briefly describes different models of consent. Or my article on the felt sense model of consent, which is not a substitute for other consent models, but clarifies the goal of a good model of consent.

  4. JW says

    Hi, the link to “felt sense model of consent” points to the terminology link and a search doesn’t find the article here. Is it posted elsewhere? Thank you.

  5. says

    @JW #4,
    Oh, my mistake. I’ve corrected the link.

    I thought a bit more about Nomad’s comment at #1, and the thing about “constant” consent is that it makes sense if you think of consent as a felt sense–all parties should be willing for the entire duration of the activity. But it doesn’t make sense if you think about consent as a communication of permission–asking for permission “constantly” is just absurd. I hope that the felt sense model helps you disentangle the two kinds of consent.

  6. macanna says

    I also wonder, with the enthusiastic consent approach you described above, where would that leave prostitutes (and their costumers)? If consent where defined as all participants feeling “mutually excited”, wouldn’t a lot of payed sex be rape?

  7. says

    @macanna #6
    That’s a good question, although I would leave it to sex workers to answer for themselves. I would not be surprised if communicating enthusiasm was one of the things expected of them on the job.

    Another classic example where people are not necessarily enthusiastic, is the couple who just wants to conceive. Not that I know anything about that, haha.

  8. Nomad says

    Okay, I’ve read the links. The Felt Sense model one in particular kind of tied my brain up in knots because it was such a different way of approaching the issue than I was accustomed to. I actually found it quite hard to understand the distinction being made between consent and communication of consent, I’ve spent too long hearing specifically about the communication.

    Your definitions of the different kinds of consent still suffer from the problem that those are your definitions, others have their own. You say that an expression of consent doesn’t have to be verbal, but some colleges have made specifically verbal consent a requirement. You can get a different story depending upon who you talk to and you can be held to a different legal standard depending upon where you live. I’m just starting to get fed up with the inconsistent patchwork nature of the whole thing. We’re not talking about models or ideals or principles anymore, we’re talking about people who have a model that, presumably, works for them, but who are trying to make it so that everyone has to follow it. You’ve found one way in which a popular model does not appear to serve you, I’ve run headlong into a very different way a part of a consent model doesn’t work for my relationship. And that one has the force of law in a state that, admittedly, I do not live in. Even if I lived there I would be in no legal jeopardy, of course, I trust that my partner would not report me for something that he himself enjoys and wants me to do, but that’s what I’m starting to think of every time I hear a detailed discussion about consent.

    I do appreciate that your breakdown of the felt sense model attempts to acknowledge the gray area and individual differences and the focus on the wellbeing of the individual. But the legalistic nature in which this is being handled has meant that we have to lay down an arbitrary line somewhere. And I’ve had someone tell me that they’re completely okay with the line not working for some in order to protect the many, essentially self righteously kinkshaming my partner and saying that his desires aren’t worthy of protection because they’re not considered normal.

    If this rant is beyond the point then I can return to the subject of the post to try to conclude this comment. You mentioned the example of a couple having sex specifically to try to make a baby. That’s an excellent example of the general reservation I’ve always had about this concept. I certainly lack personal experience of that situation, but I know I’ve read that it can turn into a chore.

    I’ve talked this over with someone else in the comments of another blog. I don’t recall that discussion too clearly, but I think their particular take on it was that the whole concept was supposed to be a way to eliminate coercion, that a half hearted yes could be a sign that someone felt coerced and didn’t really want to. I just don’t think it’s suitable for that purpose. It’s roughly what I think about a lot of these different approaches. The ideal behind them is certainly valid, but they’re too simplistic an approach for a complicated world. On the one hand some religious groups consider perpetual enthusiastic sexual availability to be a wife’s responsibility. The signal of enthusiasm doesn’t work in that context because the enthusiasm itself is coerced. But on the other hand is it really that bad if one person isn’t particularly in the mood but wants to do it for the other?

  9. says

    @Nomad #8,
    I agree with the person who said the main point of enthusiastic consent was to eliminate coercion. I also agree with you that it doesn’t really accomplish that.

    “Inconsistent patchwork” sounds about right, and that’s ethics for you. Usually the different frameworks converge on the same conclusions–e.g. we tend to agree that coercion is wrong even when we disagree whether enthusiastic consent is sufficient to eliminate it.

    I observe that most people don’t get really anxious about wanting to follow all the rules of a bunch of different models–not even me who writes about it a lot. If this is a major source of anxiety, I would suggest that you might find the concept of scrupulosity to be useful.

  10. says

    It’s interesting that you bring this up in the context of Ace community & the experiences of Ace folks.

    Five years ago I wrote about similar concerns with Enthusiastic Consent in a Pharyngula comment thread. It sparked a long and productive discussion in that thread, and ultimately resulted in Caine shepherding the development of a document we titled “Crystal Clear Consent”.

    You can read that discussion starting with my comment here.

  11. says

    @Crip Dyke, #10
    Yeah, I think some commenters (you?) pointed out CCC to me before, often linking to the version on the Pharyngula Wiki. It seems like a decent model, although it’s kind of… maximalist is how I’d put it. A long list of rules, like it was designed by committee. That means a large surface area for criticism. I could certainly poke at it here and there. But it does get around my objection to enthusiastic consent, by explicitly stating that this part applies to hookups and new relationships.

    One thing I notice is that the wiki takes a rather accusatory tone, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. I guess coming from ace discourse, I tend to be more interested in writing for survivors, instead of potential perpetrators. So it’s less about rules, and more about casting a broad net of narratives so that people can relate.


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