I’m not enthusiastic about enthusiastic consent

This is an article I’m cross-posting from my own blog.  I wrote it with allo audiences in mind, but decided it’s good here too.

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 It’s mutual and can be withdrawn at any time.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

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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14 Responses to I’m not enthusiastic about enthusiastic consent

  1. Siggy says:

    Other possibly useful links:
    Elizabeth’s critique of enthusiastic consent, and the felt sense model of consent, which strongly informs my thinking about this.

  2. Talia says:

    I regularly use the model of enthusiastic consent so I appreciate you giving me something to think about 🙂 I talk about enthusiastic consent without thinking about how it would apply to me. It’s always about sexual behaviour in general or in theory, divorced from my experiences or practicality. As I think about this I’m wondering, maybe there’s a reason I’m purposely skipping the experiential part.

    Your statement “when aces do have sex, they don’t always have the emotional reactions that are commonly expected” really resonates with me. I’m feeling… something about sex but I don’t think it’s enthusiasm? Sometimes I play it up as if it were enthusiasm because I don’t want people telling me I didn’t really consent. I don’t want people thinking “oh poor Talia! They had an awful experience” when I describe something that was actually a good experience for me (which you might remember has happened before…). It’s as if I feel this pressure from ace and allo spaces and/or people that makes me want to perform enthusiasm so I don’t need to deal with being invalidated. Enthusiasm smooths over the differences and nuances in ways I consciously do to protect myself and unconsciously before I even realize it. I’m a bit sad about the latter.

    • Coyote says:

      I hope this doesn’t come off as intrusive, but this–

      It’s always about sexual behaviour in general or in theory, divorced from my experiences or practicality. As I think about this I’m wondering, maybe there’s a reason I’m purposely skipping the experiential part.

      and this–

      Sometimes I play it up as if it were enthusiasm because I don’t want people telling me I didn’t really consent.

      –reflect and represent really interrelated pieces for me. When I think about “enthusiastic consent,” as an idea which is supposed(?) to foster more ethical behavior through better communication, I think about how often people have misread my outward expression (ex. mistaking a neutral expression for a strong one, and vice versa), and I think about how thoroughly I’ve learned, consciously and unconsciously, to outwardly Perform certain outward forms of emotion-expression, for a multitude of reasons.

      On the one hand, having it drilled into me to literally “smile for the camera” (no matter what my interior state) taught me that “outwardly showing the behaviors of enthusiasm” is something that can be coercively elicited, just like a verbal “yes” can; it’s not enough to stop a truly motivated manipulator. But on the flip side, for someone truly consenting, I see the enthusiasm rule as soliciting that kind of performance that you described, even if a person’s inner state is more mellow, simply curious, etc. or anything other than “enthusiastic” per se. And I don’t think “making people exaggerate their feelings more” is supposed to be the goal of the model.

      If the mandate of consent is a principle that applies outside of just sex — and I think it does — then I think that basically the same definition of it should more or less apply across different scenarios. If you take another example, for instance, like cuddling and hugs and all forms of touch like that… I can think of tons of examples of consensual touch between me & other people that wouldn’t have looked or even felt “enthusiastic” per se. In my experiences, sometimes a hug is casual and chill, sometimes a hug is given in a moment of sadness, sometimes a hug is tentative and uncertain on behalf of both parties… And I think if we’re serious about consent models being something we apply in real life, not just in theory, then they need to account for the kinds of interactions and experiences we have in real life, too.

      • Talia says:

        Exactly the model can force some people to exaggerate their feelings and it doesn’t discuss (as far as I’ve seen) the coercively elicited enthusiasm you mentioned.

        I feel you’re completely spot on with your last sentence; we “need to account for the kinds of interactions and experiences we have in real life” and enthusiastic consent just isn’t doing it. There’s that whole theory/practice gap that should be permeable but academics often get so wrong. I wonder what a model of consent would look like that can account for all of that. Maybe it would just be more critical iterations of consent. Maybe it would need to have another name.

  3. Coyote says:

    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’s wild to me that people have actually said this in this context, although I shouldn’t be surprised. Were these same people advocates of the enthusiastic consent model themselves? –because, just saying, if so, and if the enthusiastic model of consent defines consent as containing enthusiasm, then saying “fine, keep it low-key if you want” basically amounts to “it’s fine if you have sex nonconsensually”…?

    Or were they also joining in with a rejection of the whole model there?

    • Siggy says:

      This post was inspired by a specific thread, and I’m paraphrasing an actual comment that someone made. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard it.

      And yes, this was coming from someone defending the enthusiastic consent model. But I think they were mostly in favor of using it for hookups and the like, and didn’t think it applied to established couples.

      • Coyote says:

        Yikes.

        And, huh. Admittedly I have gotten the impression that there were certain kinds of relationships people had in mind more so than others when talking about this model, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone acknowledge it or spell it out as such. I guess people are primarily concerned about the ethics involved for first-time partners and presume that, what, consent is less of an issue once a relationship has been going for longer?

        • Siggy says:

          Several people were explicitly taking the position that it mostly applied to hookups and new relationships. I wish they would tell that to other feminists who don’t appear to be making the same assumptions.

  4. Sennkestra says:

    Oh man, this reminds me of that thing back in 2013 where I made one hypothetical vaguepost about how I shouldn’t have to enjoy sex to consent to it and people got So. Incredibly. Enraged. [content warnings for explicit discussion of sex, hypothetical murky consent, and terrible treatment of sexual assault survivors, even if they are completely hypothetical ones]

    • Sennkestra says:

      Anyway, my takeaway from that is that a suprising number of people who presented themselves as enthusiastic consent proponents (if not in those exact words) decided the appropriate way to respond to someone [who was fortunately a hypothetical] who ‘consented’ less than enthusiastically was to basically send hate mail and blame them for their own [hypothetical] assault, which made me even more skeptical of the effects of this model than I already was. While most people are more sincere about their support for it, I worry that it becomes a moral judgement (you having the wrong/sinful kind of sex! shame on you for consenting improperly!) instead of an ethical guideline meant to actually protect people.

      • Coyote says:

        tfw people’s idea of combating objectification is to make sure they get their own word in so that they can do the objectifying first.

        I worry that it becomes a moral judgement (you having the wrong/sinful kind of sex! shame on you for consenting improperly!) instead of an ethical guideline meant to actually protect people.

        I think those examples do demonstrate exactly that potential, yeah. It’s like… for some proponents, enthusiastic consent becomes less about identifying instances of unethical choices and more about talking about what they, personally, want for themselves, and thus see a variety of sexual behaviors outside that sphere as some kind of threat to their shot attaining their own ideal. But consent models are supposed to be ethical models, not personal preference models. We don’t want a system that turns into “well I personally wouldn’t have done or wanted that, so it’s bad.”

        (Also, were any of those users radfems? In retrospect, the way they talk seems very radfem-y, but I don’t know if that’s the right impression. Just seems like a line of reasoning and type of talk with obvious swerf implications.)

        • luvtheheaven says:

          When you say “We don’t want a system that turns into ‘well I personally wouldn’t have done or wanted that, so it’s bad,'” I think you have hit on the key place where their logic is failing. They were putting themselves into the situation, imagining this kind of sex happening and how they would feel in that situation and how much they wouldn’t want it, and realizing that would be nonconsensual! They aren’t figuring out that it is possible for others to consent to things they never would??

          If a person wants to have a personal boundary of only enthusiastic sex or else it’s not something they want to do, no one is trying to change their personal boundary!! None of us thinking the enthusiastic consent model is not quite enough to encompass all the ways people generally might consent is trying to take that from these people. *sigh*

          Btw I love what you said up above about non-enthusiastic forms of things that are still consent for hugs, for instance. Good food for thought.

  5. Rachel says:

    Another great post Siggy.

    I too have mixed feelings about enthusiastic consent as a model. I agree with the spirit of the law, as it were, but dislike the way people actually practice it. On the one hand, I find the model useful in so far as it gives me a rhetorical bulwark to avoid sex all together (I am repulsed, so of course I’m not going to give consent per this model). If it gets feminist sex-pozzers to leave me alone about being sexually inactive, then yes, I will wield their own model as a tool.

    On the other hand… yikes. Other commenters have pointed out the problem of coerced and performative emotion, so I’m stunned by the lack of consideration for this obvious loophole (then again, maybe its only obvious to people who don’t benefit from White Feminism). And guess which groups are expected to perform positive emotions: your choices are women, women, and women (I’m sure other groups are hit with this as well, but none come to mind at the moment). And other aces have pointed out how the model ironically undermines their ability to consent in ways that people will buy. And models that undermine consent for asexuals have a way of undermining non-consent as well. And as a fellow introvert, have these people NEVER met someone who just doesn’t do high emotions?

    Last, is it just me or is the lukewarm sex thing kind of… simultaneously sex-shaming ans sex-normative? Sex-shaming in a “LOL, look at the weirdo doing sex in a way that I don’t approve of.” Sex-normative in a “Don’t you know that sex is GREAT and WONDERFUL? What is wrong with you that you treat it as low-key, ho-hum, or anything less than the pinnacle of the human happiness and experience(tm)?”

    • Siggy says:

      Haha, well this started as conversation between me and my husband, but most of the other people who joined in complaining about it were women, and gender was certainly a sticking point. But I don’t think I can speak to the gendered aspects.

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