Are we bad at sex? The ridiculous pitfalls of the "murky consent" discussion.

Choosing to tackle the culture that allows for this abuse to continue instead of the most recent symptoms of it. With great reverence for the survivors currently under fire and all of those silently bearing witness to their own pain. Content warning: sexual assault.

By Erin Brown

Everytime another sexual assault comes to the forefront of the newsfeeds, along with it you can expect the same storylines handed to the accused and the accuser. It’s painful as it tugs at so many people’s darkest hours, the ones they were taught to shove down somewhere to avoid this exact thing they are watching flicker across their screens. This is what could have become of me if I spoke up.

It pokes at the kind of pain points you can’t wish away or shove somewhere. There are so many daily ways they come straight to the surface. And we have questions. Questions like: How do we know she didn’t really want it? How do we know she isn’t seeking attention or simply changed her mind? What was she wearing? Did she look available for sex? We are so very much confused about consent. We want it to be a contractual obligation. Where a notary public is involved and we can see so clearly that someone was “allowed” to have sex with someone else.

But doesn’t that sound like a terrible transaction? Because everytime I read (yet another) account of a rape where onlookers stand around supposing with one another as to whether or not there was really a crime- I read it with the lens of someone who really understands sex as a pleasurable thing. And I see, so clearly, that there was no “yes.”

We see this kind of sex normalized in media all the time, too. Probably because it’s normal. One person on her back, looking away, thinking of something else. Another pounding away on top of her. Where, in the context of the story, consent is present. But the people involved are not involved with one another. We don’t see as much of the big “yeses.” The eye contact. The intimacy even in just really fucking someone like you mean it.

We don’t see the moans, the heads thrown back, the actual euphoria of riding out an orgasm. Of answering to the question, “again?” readily and without hesitation.

As someone who has been doing work to eradicate what we call “rape culture” (a culture wherein sexual assault is not just a normal occurrence, but without consequence to the rapist and much consequence to those abused) for a couple of decades, It is the likes of me who folks are pointing at with “feminist killjoy” memes. I even have a hat with the phrase knitted on it. When ironically, what I’m advocating for is pleasure. And I’ve very little moral attachment to what that looks like between two consenting parties.

The entire argument of consent as a murky subject is turned completely on its head when sex is not viewed as a conquest but a mutual pursuit of pleasure. But that involves a level of respect, concern on impact and a concerted effort not just to get off or to perform but to actively seek the satisfaction of ones lover. To notice how they move when you touch them, what their face does, what each kind of moan means… when we are in this place there is no question as to who is consenting because it’s all so clear. Not in the way that sometimes people’s bodies begin to respond favorably to unwanted sexual touch, but a from the beginning, through the middle, all the way to that question lingering in the air “again?” YES. Yes all the way through.

If we aren’t seeking that, then can we at the very least begin to look at this aspect of our culture’s approach to sex? Are we bad at sex? So bad at seeking to fulfill the desire of our chosen sexual partners that when someone is so detached from their bodies that they will be in therapy about this moment for decades, we don’t even notice. Because it feels markedly similar to the last time one person laid on her back and the other person pounded away at them. Because the approach is not only heteronormative, it paints sex as something akin to a round of golf. But this one with less holes and significantly less thoughtfulness as to how to get to them.

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Ongoing consent between actively engaged partners is not necessarily a constant check in as to “Are you OK?” But rather a thermometer for pleasure. “Do you like it like that?” “Will you do this for me?” A response is less an indication of safety but of turning the dial. “Slower.” “Faster.” “Right there, just like that.” “Just. Like. That.”

No one saying “just like that” emphatically with her eyes locked on her partner is feeling that consent is a murky subject. Because she is arriving at her pleasure with a partner who has concerned themselves with how she feels. So much so that they were willing to communicate clearly, trust her to know her body better than anyone, and study the ways in which to play her like an instrument. And she is given the space to do the same. Lovers plucking on one another’s strings in ways that make you moan involuntarily when you recall it the next day.

I don’t think I’m a killjoy. I know it not to be the case in the moments when I sip my morning coffee and my cunny hums in the memory of the night before. I’m fully aware of my yes. The frigid killjoy narrative is another way to discount the multitudes we contain and why we might be angry. In this case, specifically, as to how we are touched and if we decided or were even asked to begin with.

So I don’t know what to do with the assholes. The people we know sought out to cause someone great harm in a violent way and did it (or continue to do it) with rape. It is damaging and terrible and takes away a sense of safety in ones body specifically around one of it’s most pleasurable opportunities. But with 90-93% of rapists being men, it can’t just be these jerks we think might fit the bill. It’s all these men we know, too. The good guys.

As I watch them defend themselves, I’ve begun considering the possibility that some of them truly didn’t know the difference. That while they very much inflicted painful trauma on to another person, they honestly didn’t know any different than thoughtlessly seeking a means to an end. Their eruption. Their conquest. Their bragging rights. Their rocks off. And because they at no point concerned themselves with the wellbeing, the emotional welfare, the body signals, the voice or the basic pleasure of the person they were hammering at- they didn’t notice they were raping them. Someone who was not going to hum about it the next day. Someone who now bears the weight of not being seen or heard or cared about in such an intimate way. And as I stare at that sentence rereading it, I wonder how long I can find new ways to ask for basic respect before we are clear that these are all crimes. Coming in at different costs, to different identities, weighing down the bootstraps we keep trying to pull ourselves along by. I don’t know how much lower the bar can be for decency. But I’m beginning to see the ways we don’t understand sex.

To anyone having the kind of sex where one party does whatever version of “aimlessly pound” that pertains to your sex life while the other stares into the distance, I wish for you a more juicy experience. One so clear, so vibrant, so delicious that consent is an embodiment you can possess. And at least one more person can see clearly. A hell yes is not only worth the pursuit, it’s the whole thing. Anything less respects nothing but ejaculate, at any cost. And doesn’t begin to show a basic appreciation for the pleasure capacity for anyone involved.

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But the most useful thing I can share with anyone choosing to spend their time looky-looing at someone else’s lived trauma, for clues as to if the circumstances were a little “murky.” If she was wrong about her experience. Is that the quickest route to avoiding trauma or consequence for it (which side you concern yourself with here is very telling and obvious, by the way), is to approach sex as an act to be shared with someone who truly wants to share it with you. Emphatically. To seek to provide pleasure to the person you are with and allow for it in return. An exchange so palpable, you buzz afterward, the lingering effects of hormones and blissful orgasm. Raise the bar that high, or no deal. You either care about how you affect others or you don’t. You either view others as holes or as beings also worthy and deserving of their sexual pleasure and delight. You either seek to play lovers like instruments, to the tune of the songs they most enjoy… or you seek to lazily get your rocks off. If you are the latter you might be causing more harm than you think. Time’s up.







*The gendered nature of this language reflects the statistical significance of who is most commonly affected by these narratives but is in no way meant to minimize damage caused by womxn or any other identity of abuser. All of these stories matter.

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Erin Brown

is an author, international speaker, and poet from Lawrence, Kansas. Her work focuses on women and autonomy. It includes themes of positive body image, eradicating rape culture, addressing white feminism, honoring the power of our voices, self-care over martyrdom, reproductive justice, intersectional thinking and inclusive leadership. With an activism history approaching two decades, the only thing she is sure of is how much more she has to learn.