If Consent Isn’t Enough, Maybe We Should Talk About Enthusiasm.
Especially since we live in a culture where “No means no” isn’t enough.
In high school, if consent is covered at all, it typically sticks to the old platitude. A man should obtain consent from a woman before initiating sexual activities with her, and if he doesn’t, he should stop. This is a pretty simple rule in theory. It does take discipline, something that a lot of westerners don’t have, but it shouldn’t take anything more.
From media, if consent is covered at all, it typically sticks to a different story: No Means Yes. Every woman, as we all know, is socialized to be careful about who she has sex with; heck, she won’t even admit that she wants to have it! That old Christmas chestnut Baby, It’s Cold Outside actually demonstrates it if taken in the context of its 1940s morality: at the time, women were essentially forbidden from consenting to premarital sex, so the female singer makes a bunch of excuses that “accidentally” result in her being placed in a compromising position. These values long predated the song and have persisted for at least another 80 years since. And that’s the message that we deliver to little kids: “Men, you have to push. Don’t let her resistance stop you. Because the truth is that no means yes.”
We have a term for such words: “Auto-antonym.” An auto-antonym is a word which means both itself and its opposite. There are many auto-antonyms; something that is holding “fast”, for instance, is not the same as something that is moving “fast”; in fact, something which is fixed in place is quite the opposite of something that has a high rate of speed. Auto-antonyms, also called contronyms, are one of those weird features of language that we just have to learn to deal with.
Without getting into the chaos of rape culture, the #metoo movement and everything surrounding it, I think we can agree: pinning the entirety of consent on a word that can be its own opposite just might be a bad idea.
And yet that is the world we are raising our children in. No means no, and no means yes. If only there were some additional standard that could be applied to make sense of our nonsensical language of consent!
Thank God, there is. And it’s called enthusiasm.
The thing about enthusiasm is that it isn’t truly necessary for sex. I, like just about any married person, can describe a situation in which one spouse really wanted sex, and the other didn’t, really, but went along with it for the sake of their beloved. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. (It kind of depends on your definition of what “works” means in the context of sex.) But I can tell you this: while sex may happen when only one partner is enthusiastic, the resulting sex is rarely any good.
So if enthusiasm has such a big impact on sex, why don’t we talk about it more? I can name a few reasons off the top of my head.
- American culture is — for whatever reason — deeply invested in propping up intercourse as the apex of sexual pleasure. (I’ve written about this before.) Admitting that intromission can be anything less than mind-blowing is directly counter to this propaganda.
- If your partner is unenthusiastic, you can typically still have an orgasm; it’s just the stuff surrounding it that feels lackluster. But American culture is deeply invested in the idea that orgasm is the only part of sex that matters. Therefore, a lack of enthusiasm can be brushed off as non-essential.
- For religious reasons, American culture is deeply invested in pretending the sex drive does not exist. Sex is only for procreation, and it may feel good but you should still feel bad for having it. Admitting that people can be enthusiastic about sex is directly counter to this propaganda.
- The idea of wanting to have sex is something that requires scaffolding. (I think I touched upon this in my previous article.) Without the context of hormones, not to mention sexual pleasure, the idea of a man sticking his dirty bits in a woman’s dirty bits is disgusting, or at the very least unsanitary. “Why are there so many accidental babies? Why would anyone do this on accident?” Well, because sex feels good. But who tells kids that? Who is supposed to explain hormones and/or sexual pleasure? We don’t want our kids’ teachers to do it; and, for the most part, we don’t want to do it ourselves either. So enthusiasm gets abandoned because we don’t want to teach our kids that sex is something they can want to have — much less that, under certain circumstances, it’s something they should want to have.
- And of course there’s good old rape culture. If No means Yes, unscrupulous men can get a lot more poon.
And yet these are the bridges we need to build and the rivers we need to ford. Enthusiasm, after all, is how you differentiate between a No that means Yes and a No that means No. It is the secret to navigating sexual politics today.
With the added factor of enthusiasm in mind, we now have four possible answers to the question of consent. A person can still answer Yes or No… But now there’s the question of the enthusiasm behind it.
- Unenthusiastic No: the person says no, and means it. It is a little strange to be describing an emphatic and intentional No as being ‘unenthusiastic,’ but in this context I am describing enthusiasm as pertaining solely towards being interested in sex with a particular person. If someone propositions you and you didn’t return their sentiments, you would enthusiastically give an unenthusiastic no.
- Enthusiastic No: this is the scenario from the Christmas carol. It’s possible to say No in a way that is coy and flirting and makes it clear that you don’t really mean it. It’s possible to say No in a way that makes it clear that you do want to, you’re just not going to. It’s possible to say No in a way that indicates that the answer may change later.
- Unenthusiastic Yes: I encountered this one head-on. The words “All right, let’s get this over with” were uttered. Anyone with a brain would understand what this meant… but I wasn’t exactly thinking with my big head at that moment. It was my #metoo story… the one where I was Aziz Ansari. I have yet to live down the shame of this moment. I’m not sure I ever will.
- Enthusiastic Yes: Okay! This is what we’re looking for: someone who says yes and means it. The resulting sex will probably be pretty good, which is definitely a start.
The addition of enthusiasm to the mix does not by any means solve everything. In fact, it basically only works in a context when there is some sort of emotional connection between the two partners (which is how you learn what their enthusiasm looks like). It also doesn’t cover inebriation: a person who is drunk may enthusiastically consent to someone they wouldn’t look at twice while sober. It does, however, create a framework under which such regrets can be handled. A person who gave an enthusiastic yes while inebriated is someone who would give an enthusiastic no while sober; alcohol, after all, does not change who you are attracted to, it merely changes whether you’re willing to act on that attraction. Enthusiasm also doesn’t help you negotiate hookup culture, where people strike out to have sex with as many others as possible, primarily for the benefit of their own ego. (Megan Holstein wrote a good article on this mindset.) What do you tell such a person about your own hurt feelings? You might as well tell them that there are starving kids in Africa. They care about neither. But for situations in which all parties are negotiating in good faith, the addition of enthusiasm is a clear improvement over the old binary yes/no consent model, at least in terms of making sure you don’t end up where you aren’t wanted.
There is also one gaping hole in the enthusiasm + consent model. As mentioned, an Enthusiastic No (“I won’t, but I wish I could”) makes it clear that there are circumstances under which that person could, potentially give an Enthusiastic Yes. And, well, a partner could be forgiven for, thus, wanting to move matters towards that state. Of course, this grey area— whether or not the initial impetus is reasonable — excuses all manner of forced or dubious consent. Even though we have been talking about the importance of enthusiasm in interpreting the Yes or No, we… Well, No means No! It must mean No. And while the level of enthusiasm may shape your actions tomorrow, it should not shape your actions now.
The most obvious answer to this situation would be to simply flip the statement on its head. If No Means No isn’t enough, then maybe we need to stick with the idea that Yes means Yes, and nothing else means yes. The problem is that this doesn’t cover the Unenthusiastic Yes. And while you could make all sorts of legalistic arguments about the idea that a person shouldn’t say yes unless they mean it — and, as someone who has run afoul of an Unenthusiastic Yes, I wouldn’t complain if you did — it opens up a massive can of worms. It insists that only people with integrity are allowed to have sex — or, more accurately, it expands the definition of statutory rape, on people who are legally incapable of consent, to much larger swaths of people. And it opens up the possibility of coercion and power plays in a way rape culture will be happy about. Obviously, it is bad if someone is too scared to protest a rape, but focusing on that omission takes attention from the fact that the rapist did something worse.
I think the answer to this is pretty simple: to dismantle America’s restrictive attitudes about sex.
Sex is often described as a rite of passage, a gateway from childhood to adulthood (or at least adolescence). Therefore, it can be used as a source of ridicule against people who have yet to make that transition. And then there’s also all this stuff about how men are losers if they can’t score, but women are sluts if they allow men to score, and also how they are losers if they refuse to score, and blablablah. All of these pernicious attitudes raise a really important question: who describes it that way? And the answer is, “Nobody who actually cares about the person having sex.” American culture is so squeamish about sex that they just don’t want to talk about it. Therefore, children aren’t taught about sex by people who have those children’s feelings in mind. They are taught by their peers. They are taught by the media. They are taught by the church. They are taught by porn. They are taught, in short, by people with agendas. They are taught whatever attitudes will help that other party — their peers, the media, church, porn — fulfill their agendas. And when the lessons are themselves exploitative and damaging, it’s no surprise how many people end up approaching sex with dangerous, unhealthy attitudes.
And one of those dangerous, unhealthy attitudes is plain and simple fear. “If I turn down this opportunity… How will I ever get another? After all, I may only be — what, 17 years old right now? — but I’ve only had a couple chances to touch another person’s genitals, and there’s simply no guarantee I’ll ever have more. And this wait, these insecurities, the question of whether to move or whether to hold back, is something my parents have never discussed because it involves talking about (gasp!) sex — not to mention enthusiasm, which they are even less interested in broaching — and so I have absolutely no guidance on this matter. So far as I can tell, sex is just a series of coincidences. You either run into somebody who wants to fuck you on the regular, or you don’t. And just because my parents ran into such a person… that doesn’t mean it’ll ever happen to me. I have to take what I can get, when I can get it, regardless of the consequences. If not now, when?”
It’s easy for me, now — secure in my place in the world, writing articles on Medium, wife and child at home, a recent promotion in my pocket and a house in escrow — to scoff at the absolute, irrational fear inherent in that attitude. The truth is that sex is almost inevitable, if you have the patience to wait. But at the same time, I remember it very clearly. It’s hard to believe that something which has never happened to you before will just suddenly, miraculously, start to happen to you — and in that sense I’m not just talking about having sex once, I’m talking about accidentally colliding with someone who wants to fuck you on the regular. And it’s hard to hear everyone you know — your parents, your aunts, your uncles, your friends’ parents, your parents’ friends — say that they, too, once shared your insecurities… when it’s so hard to get them to freaking talk about it.
And that’s my point. We aren’t equipping kids to think about sex because we’re too scared to teach them. And while explaining the importance of enthusiasm is a good step in the right direction, it just shows how much further we have to go.
Still, one step at a time. I don’t know how many #metoo stories enthusiasm can help prevent. But I think it’s worth the trouble if it helps stop one.