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 It’s mutual and can be withdrawn at any time.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.