Mapping the grey area of sexual experience: consent, compulsory sexuality, and sex normativity

Content warnings: Discussion of dubious consent and coercion, compulsory sexuality, sex normativity, mentions of sexual violence; if you think this needs other warnings, feel free to tell me and I’ll be happy to add them.

A few months ago resourcesforacesurvivors got an ask:

I consented to sex multiple times with my partner. I knew I didn’t like sex, but I consented. It ruined our relationship because I didn’t have the information or the courage to say that I didn’t like it, so I grew afraid of seeing them in case we ended up having sex. I don’t know what to call this situation; it’s not abuse because I consented and they didn’t know (although they did question my responsiveness and body language) but it wasn’t enthusiastic consent. Please can you help?

Being the embarrassing nerd I am, I, of course, decided to tackle this problem by trying to find a model of consent that could help the asker.  A lot of you are probably familiar with Emily Nagoski’s model of consent, which breaks consent in enthusiastic, willing, unwilling, and coerced consent.  Elizabeth has added “cautious consent” as a potential fifth category, adventures-in-asexuality​ offered “reasoned consent” as an option, and slightlymetaphysical offered his own model.  More recently, ace-muslim suggested “informed consent” as a useful model for sexual consent.  As I very quickly realized, however, none of these models can really deal with the above ask.

There’s a lot of discussion of consent in the ace community, but most of it revolves around A. whether or not aces can ever truly consent (consensus is “yes, they can, what is your problem”), B. how to have sex as an ace/with aces, or C. the way we talk about compromise (jury’s still out on that one).  Despite all this discussion (and there’s a lot more that I didn’t link to), something must be missing, because every time I post something about asexuality and sexual violence, people send me emails or asks or leave comments saying, “I haven’t experienced sexual violence, per se, but I did have this weird experience that I don’t know how to conceptualize and don’t feel like I can talk about anywhere.”  (Take, for example, this spate of posts that immediately followed my last post about asexuality and sexual violence.)  I get the sense that asexuality and sexual violence is at the edge of this massive grey area of sexual experience that no one’s really exploring, so people who don’t have anywhere else to talk about their experiences glom onto discussions of sexual violence.  On one hand, I guess it’s good that those discussions are helping a wider audience, but on the other hand, it’s disappointing when people read your post and only want to talk about their own semi-related experiences, not the subject you were addressing.

I’m really not the best equipped person to lead the charge into the grey area.  I don’t have the experience or knowledge to even begin to guess at all the contours that need to be mapped, and my wordsmithing abilities are mediocre at best.  But even from my limited perspective, I can see that we need more words to talk about (or just more conversations about) the motivations behind sexual decisions (whether you want to call that consent or not), about sexual experiences (good, bad, weird, undefinable), about coercion and harassment, about regret and second-guessing.  What I’m mapping out below is only the tiniest corner of that grey area–specifically the place where consent, compulsory sexuality, and sex normativity intersect–because it’s the only corner that I feel I have enough experience and knowledge to talk about in a competent manner.  Feel free to map your own corners of the grey area of sexual experience in the comments section or separate posts (although I’d appreciate if you’d link me to other discussions, so I can add them to my list of resources).

When I first started dating, I made a list of all the reasons I shouldn’t have sex with my boyfriend.  I hadn’t known him long enough (I figured I had to wait at least a year).  I was underage (and he was over 18).  I didn’t have access to birth control.  The list went on and on, but nowhere on the list was “I genuinely do not want to have sex with him.”  Spoiler alert: I genuinely did not want to have sex with him.  But that wasn’t good enough!  “I don’t want to” wasn’t a reason not to have sex, because everyone wants to have sex under the proper conditions.  I could say no if I wasn’t ready, but there would come a day when the stars would align and all my necessary conditions would be met and I would be ready.  I was terrified of that inevitable star alignment, because I knew that when it happened I would have to have sex.  Unfortunately, this particularly story ended in trauma, but I’m sure there is some alternate universe out there where I broke down and consented to sex I genuinely did not want because I couldn’t think of a “real” reason to say no.

I’m obviously not the only one who’s had this experience.  In a post a few months ago, Aqua wrote about how she was pressured into having sex:

I kept telling them that I didn’t want sex at all with anyone, nor desire it, but it kept getting pushed on me. I didn’t have any religious reasons I could use, but wished I did, because religious celibacy seemed like the most legitimate way to choose life without sex. I was always pressured to justify my stance, and my justifications were never seen as good enough for saying no to sex permanently.

I’ve had countless conversations with other aces who felt pressured into sex before they discovered asexuality, not necessarily because their partner was standing over them saying, “You must have sex with me or the heavens will smite you with thunderbolts” (although that has happened to some people), but because they couldn’t think of a “good” reason why they shouldn’t want to have sex.  They loved their partner.  They had birth control.  They hadn’t experienced trauma.  What was stopping them?  Why didn’t they want it?

I think part of the problem is that there’s this idea that people’s natural state is wanting sex and wanting to consent to sex.  As myuglyone writes, “In the normal discourse, if one chooses not to have sex (i.e. to not give consent), it’s because the check-list of things that are supposed to be in place for a morally acceptable sexual experience hasn’t been realized.”  Once those obstacles to consent are removed, you’re gonna say yes!  You just need to find the right person in the right place at the right time, and you will want to consent to sex.  You don’t need a reason to consent; “you need a *reason* to opt out of sex rather than a reason to opt-in in the first place.”

When I first started asking people how to talk about agreeing to sexual activity because you don’t realize that saying “no” indefinitely is a valid option (because you want to want it, because there’s something wrong with you for not wanting it, because you can’t think of a good reason not to say “yes”), M. (one of the organizers of New England Aces) suggested calling it “uninformed consent,” because people who are uninformed about asexuality might not realize that not wanting is an option.  The problem with calling it “uninformed consent” is that it implies that once you know about asexuality, you are suddenly free from pressure and expectations.  (Plus, it implies that no allosexual person is ever affected by compulsory sexuality in this way, which I’m 99.9% sure is wrong.)  Last year I was in a really bad place, for a variety of reasons.  As I had six years prior, I came up with a list of all the reasons I should not think about entering a sexual relationship.  I have PTSD, and certain types of touch are very difficult for me.  I’m asexual, and my hypothetical partner may want a partner who finds them sexually attractive.  I’m sex-averse, and pretty squicked by the idea of engaging in a lot of sexual activities.  Etc. etc. etc.  Again, nowhere on the list was “I genuinely don’t want to have sex with anyone ever.”

Spoiler alert: I still genuinely don’t want to have sex with anyone ever.

But here’s the thing: I have had other aces tell me I’m defining asexuality wrong when I tell them I’m not interested in having sex, ’cause “asexuality is about attraction, not action, and aces can have sex!”  I’ve had other aces pressure me to sexually experiment, because “you don’t know it until you’ve tried it!”  If you’ve stuck around long enough, you know that the ace community has occasional weird bouts of sex normativity.  The pressure from other aces (whether explicit or implicit) often makes me feel that I don’t have a “good enough” reason for not wanting to have sex–if asexuality isn’t a reason for me to not have sex, if sex-aversion is something I just need to get over, if my history of sexual violence just means that I need to “really try” sex to “prove” that I’m not into it, then I have to have sex.  Someday the stars will align, and I won’t have any reason to keep saying no.

Not that this is an issue that only affects sex-averse/sex-repulsed aces or aces who have experienced sexual violence.  If the first tenet of compulsory sexuality is “When the stars align, you will consent,” the second is, “Once you have consented under a particular star alignment, you will always have to consent under that particular star alignment.”  I’ve spoken to grey-A and demi people who have felt pressured into having sex because “you feel sexual attraction, so you should be into it!”  I’ve spoken to asexual spectrum people who have felt pressured into having sex because they have consented under similar circumstances and “I’m just not feeling it this time, I dunno why” doesn’t seem like a “good enough” answer.  I’ve spoken to asexual people who feel pressured to consent to sex, because they enjoyed it in the past.  (That’s basically one of the main objections to “sex-favorable” terminology, isn’t it?)  I’ve spoken to indifferent folks who can’t understand why they don’t want to have sex–it’s not like they’re sex-repulsed or anything, so shouldn’t they be open to having sex?  (Shouldn’t they enjoy sex?)  It seems like almost everyone is dealing with this pressure in some way, but there’s a weird silence around the experience.

I don’t want every conversation about consent to be “Yes, you have the agency to say no forever” or “Yes, you can want and consent to sex.”  I want conversations that recognize that the decision to consent (or not) sometimes carries baggage beyond “do I want sex with this person right now?”  I want to talk about consenting to something not because you want it but because you want to want it.  I want to talk about consenting because you can’t think of a good reason to say no.  I want to talk about consenting because you don’t realize that saying no indefinitely is an option.  I want to talk about whether we can really call that consent.  I want to talk about coercion.  I want to talk about “social expectations.”  I want to talk about trying to convince yourself you secretly want to have sex, because everyone around you is saying that aces like sex.  I want to talk about second-guessing your own consent, because everyone around you is saying that aces don’t want sex.  I want conversations about consent to stop dividing us into sex-averse aces and everybody else.  I want conversations about consent that stop assuming grey-A and demi folks are having (or want to have) sex and asexual folks aren’t (or don’t).  I want conversations about consent that acknowledge compulsory sexuality and recognize sex normativity.  I want better words and better models, so the next time someone comes to my ask box in crisis, I have better resources to give them.  But I can only map the tiniest sliver of this grey area, so I’ll have to leave the brunt of the work up to others.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Sexual normativity. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Mapping the grey area of sexual experience: consent, compulsory sexuality, and sex normativity

  1. Pingback: Grey Consent | epochryphal

  2. Thanks so much for this post!!

  3. Sennkestra says:

    Great post! As for my thoughts on the issue, I haven’t fully fleshed out this idea, but here’s sort of how I think about it…

    Basically, in many conversations about “enthusiastic consent”, I find that there is this assumption that consensual sex is good, healthy, positive (and nonconsensual sex is bad, traumatic, and negative). But this leads to a conundrum: what about when people ‘consent’ to sex, but the experience is still unhealthy or traumatic? Standard models of “enthusiastic consent” that I’ve seen deal with this by saying “well, if it wasn’t positive, you must not have “really” consented, even if you think you did!” Which is for at least some of us a really unhelpful and unwanted response. And what about when people have experiences that they don’t consent to but still find enjoyable or a positive influence? (like, “he kissed me without my consent, but I actually really enjoyed it and it’s a fond memory?”) Do we just tell them they must be secretly traumatized and just don’t know it yet because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy?

    Instead, what I’d like to see is a sort of decoupling of the questions of “was this sex consensual*” and “was this sex healthy/good/enjoyable or traumatic/bad/negative?” I want an approach that recognizes that even completely ‘consensual’ encounters can be harmful, unpleasant things that shouldn’t have happened. I want an approach that can recognize that even good, healthy, enjoyable encounters can still be examples of poor consent.

    But I think part of the issue in trying to decouple these is that there are sort of two purposes for models of consent: The first is to serve as a sort of ethical guideline for when it’s appropriate to initiate sexual activity (i.e., is it ok for person A to have sex with person B?); but the other way I’ve seen them used is a sort of framework for understanding and discussing personal experiences with sex (i.e. to give Person B a way to frame their experiences – were these positive or negative experiences for me? were they heathy? did I really know what I was getting into?).

    The ethical-guideline model of consent is centered on Person A: How should they make decisions? What is/isn’t ok for them to do? Did they act in an ethically correct way? and perhaps most importantly: Should they be legally or socially sanctioned? This model of consent is useful for things like writing rape/sexual assault laws, criminal proceedings, college policies, figuring out how to deal with your peers, etc. etc. – the interpersonal implications of consent. However, it’s not very good for figuring out what the impact was on person B.

    On the other hand, I feel like the personal-experience model of consent is centered around Person B: how did they feel? Was this a healthy or a traumatic experience? Did they enjoy it or was it not that great? Did they know what they were getting into? Were they fully informed? Were there outside factors negatively affecting their decisions? This model of consent is useful for the figuring out one’s own emotions and reactions – the personal implications of consent. However, it’s not always very good for figuring out what the appropriate interpersonal social response from others should be.

    I think both of these approaches have their merits, but I think they are useful for different things. A personal-experience model generally is less useful for things like determining “consent” for the purposes of sexual assault cases. An ethical-guideline model is generally not useful for conversations about the effects past trauma on a person. We need to be able to talk about “was it a negative experience for Person B” without having to say “was it all Person A’s fault”; and we need ways to acknowledge things like “compulsory sexuality” that can negatively influence things but still be outside either individuals control.

    As to how to fix that…that’s a little more difficult. Finding a way to differentiate ethical-guidelines approaches from personal-experience approaches might help, but it’s only a little part of a larger mess (And how to do that is complicated – I personally prefer to reserve “consensual” for questions on the ethical-guidelines side of things, and use other terms for discussing the personal-experience side of things, but I don’t know that that’s a workable overall solution).

    One other thing that I think that there also needs to be is room for degrees of consent, and an acknowledgment of ambiguous situations. For example, there are perpetual arguments about whether someone who has had some alcohol can consent or not, but there isn’t a point on the blood-alcohol-level scale where you instantly jump from “able to consent” to “not able to consent” – there are degrees. Having sex with someone who is very enthusiastic but just a little bit tipsy is a lot different than having sex with someone who is flat out drunk and barely coherent, and there needs to be some way to account for that. And what about situations where say, you have two people who are both minors, or both drunk, or both otherwise theoretically “unable to consent”? Conventional practice seems to be “blame the man, unless they’re lesbians” but that’s hardly a good solution. But I’m still not sure what the best solution would actually be.

    ——
    (*Here, when I ask “is this sex consensual”, I’m approaching it from an ‘ethical-guidelines approach’, but as I’ll discuss later this is an ambiguous thing)

    **also, a note: you may also have noticed that almost all my examples involve alcohol as the factor complicating consent, not asexuality or sex-repulsion or social coercion, even though that’s the topic of the post…I guess it’s because it’s the easiest example for me to think of, as someone who was been well-informed of my options very early and who has never really cared much about peer pressure/expectations/etc. Part of my trouble with “theorizing” about consent wrt things like pressure from social expectations is that I still find it hard to wrap my head around what it’s like to even experience that kind of situation, let alone how it would affect decision making. Like, it’s easy for me to say something like “oh, social expectations shouldn’t affect discussions of consent, because they don’t really impact people’s decisions” – because for me, it’s true that that doesn’t really impact my decisions. The hard part is acknowledging that yes, for other people they do.

    • Gosh, this is such a useful set of distinctions to make! A difference between ethical-guidelines consent and personal-experience consent makes so much sense to me. And decoupling “was it morally justified?” and “how did you experience it?” is such a good idea. Thanks for your thoughts

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  11. cinderace says:

    I just read this article that discusses some possible reasons why people (mostly women) have heterosexual sex that they don’t actually want: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/sex-myths-impact-choices/. It addresses five gendered myths that contribute to people feeling like they have to initiate or agree to sex (one idea that’s included is that women are conditioned to be caretakers, which makes them feel that they have to put others’ needs first and causes them to worry about hurting/offending a partner with a “no”, similar to what Coyote wrote about in one post). The article is mostly addressed to people who definitely do want to have sex under some circumstances (asexuality is mentioned, but very briefly), but I thought it was relevant to this conversation.

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