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Building a Language of Consent

“It’s not like consent is this big mystery. It’s not about controlling young people… it begins with a sense of responsibility about our own sexual needs that does not hurt or compromise anyone else’s.” – Wendy Strgar

I remember last summer sitting in a room full of 20-something kids, many of whom I had known since middle school. We were working on a project that has since evolved into our Make It Good campaign and were trying to figure out how we could empower these young millennials in the issues of consent. I asked, “so what words could you use to check out whether you are in a consensual sexual encounter with someone?” The lone reply from one of the guys who had often come to me with sexual questions over the years was “Are you down with what’s going down?” I looked up, a little dumbfounded, and the nervous laughter from the girls in the room told me everything. Really, there are no words that these kids have to find their way into and out of sexual encounters.

Since the release of my new book, Sex That Works: An Intimate Guide to Awakening your Erotic Life,  I am frequently asked to interview and comment on all things sexual, but in truth, the single topic that I speak about with the greatest frequency is the importance of consent (a conversation which is actually more about dealing with unwanted sex than it is about finding pleasure in the sex that you are having).

Preventing sexual assault is complicated, and not because we lack understanding about the words yes and no.  Sexual conversations even among people who know each other intimately over time are challenging, and for many long term couples are often totally absent. Culturally, sexual education effectively came to a stand still with the abstinence-only education model some thirty years ago. We have effectively denied a whole generation of young people the ability to understand the importance of consent and talk about their sexual needs and behaviors. To the degree that we have no capacity to discuss what we want sexually, we also have no language to talk about what we don’t want. Preventing sexual assault takes practice and courage to talk about what sexuality means and try to situate it in relationships.

To make things worse, what has filled this sex education gap is pornography, now filling up 35% of internet traffic. What you see in pornography, which we know is fiction, is girls screaming “no” while having an orgasm. We see this kind of forced sex, and forceful violence, and that’s how boys learn what sex looks like. Combine this with the rampant use of drugs and alcohol during sexual encounters, and the sexual attention that the girls initially wanted in this encounter is no longer compatible with what the guys are after, which is to prove their masculinity sexually.

I heard this in our focus group after the laughter died down from the “Are you down . . .” comment. One of the girls spoke up saying, “there are a lot of times when you start out wanting to be with a guy and you enjoy the attention, the kissing or making out or whatever, but then things are getting out of hand, moving too fast . . . and there is no way to get out. There is no safe way to leave.”   All the girls nodded in agreement.

So how do we empower young men and women to find the words to build consent into their sexual encounters? I really believe it would help if we would begin by normalizing the subject.

What would it look like if we began a college sexual education talk with, “We know you want to have a sexual experience. We know that sex is best when both people want to be there. How can you ensure that you are both interested and excited about learning about each other intimately?” The kids would probably laugh out loud, but maybe this idea that sex is only good if it is good for everyone would become meaningful to them.

What if young women were educated to really value their sexual selves, as not just some sexualized version for someone else’s pleasure, but as a source of pride and power of learning what it means to be sexually responsible for oneself? That sex is not something you give away to just anyone or feel forced to comply with, but that it is a sacred gift you share.

Likewise with young men, instead of having sex that proves their masculinity, they maybe would want to think about having sex that proves their capacity for relationships, for listening. What if they thought about their sexual encounters as connection instead of conquest? It could change everything.

I was afraid for all the girls sitting there, telling me of the times they had no escape from a sexual encounter they didn’t want to be in, so safety issues are paramount. That’s why consent education has to be mostly about teaching people to listen. It seems like stating the obvious, and it has been said before, but if a girl is not awake enough to answer you, she can’t say yes. While this is obvious and has been said many times, it seems like we have to keep saying it. Is what you’re doing safe? If a stranger were to hear about this or see this, would this be considered safe?

It’s not like consent is this big mystery. It’s not about controlling young people. It’s about leveling up our sexual education models so that we all come to understand that consent is ultimately a reflection of our individual sexual freedom. It is not sexual license to do whatever you want, but rather is founded on a true sense of responsibility about our own sexual needs that does not hurt or compromise anyone else’s.