“A consent culture is a society that values and promotes consensual sex, condemns rape and supports survivors of sexual violence…” – Siobhan Donovan, Building a Consent Culture

Almost every interview request I get these days begins with questions about consent; both what it means to say yes to sexual contact and what happens when initial consent goes away. The first thing that I say in these interviews is that to the extent that most young people (and even a lot of older people) do not have a language to talk about what they want sexually,  the same would be true for their ability to articulate what they don’t want. Decades of “just say no” sex education has left an abyss in our culture about almost every sexual topic, and in the absence of any real education or conversations about what sex means to us and how we want to relate to it, the most basic and essential aspect of our being has been usurped by an onslaught of pornography that fills up one third of internet content. It’s an odd juxtaposition – to be swimming in meaningless porn imagery while having almost no personal agency to define and create a truly erotic life.

We conducted a survey earlier this year to better understand the sexual conversation or lack of it on campuses nationwide. Among the most telling statistics we gleaned was the important gap between how men and women communicate about sex. When it comes to consent, the men surveyed were more likely to rely on non-verbal cues while women were more likely to depend on verbal cues. But the divide breaks down even more, when it comes to when and how often consent needs to be communicated and the awkwardness that both genders feel at the idea of revoking consent. It is no wonder that 35% of all respondents reported that they had non-consensual sex and between 65% and 75% of women described their sexual encounters as a combination of un-pleasurable, unsatisfactory and awkward. Another 20% of women said they have had encounters that they would describe as dangerous.

Universities are scrambling to try and deal with these insufficient communication skills and the consent issues they raise, which really should have been addressed in middle school.  Adolescents who learn and become comfortable with language to describe and trust their sexual response make better choices sexually, because their real questions about their emerging sexuality are handled. This is how sexual maturity happens. In the absence of this, any number of sexual missteps and formative mistakes could occur and by the time a student is at a university, their sexual doubts and fears are hardened. Too often, awkward conversations about sex are skipped entirely and sexual acts are initiated and swallowed up by alcohol and drug consumption. In our survey, 70% of women reported using alcohol and drugs during sexual encounters.

So the real question is, where and how do we begin to give young adults and even many adults the confidence and skills to engage in the conversations which are essential to creating a culture of consent?

Here are a few basic ideas to begin with and we invite you to explore our new Make It Good online portal with an extensive set of conversation starters and group activities to practice and learn the power of owning one’s sexual self and building a language that leads to pleasurable sexual encounters. Read about our first workshop, Building a Consent Culture here.   

  1. The source of consent is desire.

Wanting is the engine that moves us towards yes in all areas of our life, not just sexual desires. And yet, desire, especially sexual desire, is a capricious thing. For one thing, we always want what seems just out of reach and often upon having our desired object or person, wonder why we wanted it to begin with. Part of the changing nature of our desire is that it arises from so many different and often disparate aspects of who we are. Wanting to be wanted sexually is actually a very different experience of desire than wanting sexual intercourse with someone you barely know. Youth, inexperience and intoxication only add to the confusion and widen this gap where their initial desire fades as their intoxication builds and they end up in a space that is more often sexually unsatisfying and dis-empowering.

  1. The fuel for consent is vulnerable conversations.

Knowing what we really want and having the courage to go after it is a powerful place that moves our life towards our aspirations and goals. Often, in many aspects of life we struggle between the fantasy of our desires and the inner obstacles that keep us from achieving and embodying what we really want. This kind of confusion is endemic to unexplored sexuality, and not just in youth. It is almost guaranteed for young people who are just beginning to explore and experiment with the boundaries of their erotic selves. Ironically, it is the parts of our life that are most challenging that often get the least light of day through active questioning and dialogue. When it comes to sex, the avoidance of conversation and subsequent inability to express with words what we long for as well as what we fear turns desire on its head. Instead of fueling passionate exchanges, the unspoken and strongly felt emotions connected to our sexual selves turn consent into doubt or worse still, a now unwanted sexual encounter.

  1. The death of consent is no trust.

Trusting our desire to lead us is the most potent and life changing form of wanting.  But this is an impossible space to get to when we have little knowledge about what we want sexually and have no language to express it. This inability to trust is compounded by having sex with partners that are strangers. It is difficult to have authentic conversations about our sexual needs and desires, even with someone who has invested time and attention in our personal lives. Expressing these desires with a stranger that also has their own inability to know and articulate their sexual needs, often leads consent to a quick death. As with most complex issues, there is no easy fix to the complex and multilayered issues of consent. Rather, we can begin to come to know and value our desire by creating meaningful dialogue and navigating awkward conversations.