Sex

Does Sexual Consent = Pleasurable Sex?

Why we need more Sex Esteem® skills beyond consent.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

September is Sexual Health month, and it is led by Sexual Health Day on September 4. In honor of this month, I want to focus this post on the critical topic of consent.

As a sex therapist who has worked with many clients who are survivors of sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, date rape, and sexual harassment, I am expert with the myriad symptoms that are aftershocks of attacks perpetrated recently and as far back as 40 years ago.

In the #metoo movement, many women and men have come forward to share their stories so society can create a culture of consensual sexuality. I want to consider the discussion among academics on what consent is and whether it’s serving the #metoo movement or actually disempowering women and men from a more equitable sexual agency.

According to Planned Parenthood the requirements for sexual consent include that it is:

  1. Freely Given
  2. Reversible
  3. Informed
  4. Enthusiastic
  5. Specific  

However, in New York state (each state has its own definition for consent which you can learn here), the law does not require "freely given consent" or "affirmative consent" when considering the charge of sexual assault. It does state the circumstances under which someone lacks the capacity to consent as one of the grounds needed to charge someone with assault.

What I hear most often from clients I treat for sex therapy when I review their sexual histories are narratives in which they were drunk while hooking up or having casual or at times romantic sexual scenarios. Many others may have been sober while giving consent to sex, but the consent may not have been what they would describe as enthusiastic.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

Why not? Because many people hooking up with someone for the first time are not quite sure what the sex is going to include. Or maybe it’s because they have never engaged in penetrative sex before and are unsure whether it will be pleasurable. Or they are totally in their head about giving or receiving oral without a barrier without having discussed past STI history. They describe feeling too embarrassed about appearing inexperienced or aggressive and avoid any discussion of a partner’s STI status or insisting on condom use.

From others, like the character in the short story "Cat Person" about whom I posted earlier, the desire to tell a hookup partner one has changed their mind after giving consent and sexual activity has begun feels too embarrassing, complicated, or anxiety-inducing. So they go through the sex scenario without really wanting to. It is at this juncture that many people (many of them female-identified, but I have heard this description from cisgender men as well), tell themselves:

deposit photos
Source: deposit photos

“Oh I better just go through with it and get it over with," “there’s no way I can stop them from moving forward," or “how can I stop this now that I set it in motion? It’ll seem so weird."

So where are people’s—specifically women's—agency? It’s the goal of sexual self-empowerment, agency, and justice for all people that many folks have been fighting for long before and since the #metoo era began.

In an excerpt of Joseph Fischel’s new book Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice, published in the Boston Review, he argues that recent requirements for “enthusiastic consent” rob individuals of the opportunity to be authentically anxious when trying something new or different. He also posits the idea that our society needs much more nuanced progressive languaging between the extreme binary of enthusiastic sex and assault. Although Fischel agrees that affirmative consent needs to be part of the legal definition, he feels affirmative consent alone “is a poor basis for progressive sexual politics” and advocates for what he calls “democratically hedonic sexual culture." Just because someone agrees to sex doesn’t move us forward toward a society in which all people enjoy the sexual experience to which they consent.

According to a recent American study by Herbenick, Schick, Sanders, Reece, and Fortenberry, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 30 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported pain during vaginal intercourse and about 72 percent of women and 15 percent of men reported pain during anal penetration. They also found that large proportions of Americans do not tell their partner when sex hurts. So a person may consent, but how are we going to get the majority of folks to be more transparent about the sex they’re having and want to have? How can one be enthusiastic about a sexual activity when one anticipates it causing pain?

Consent is currently not taught with sexual pleasure in mind in schools and colleges, but more with the intention of preventing assault. While we all know it’s critical to have consent, it’s only a minimum standard to teach humans how to have a pleasurable sex life.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

What I teach my clients is the ingredients of what I’ve termed Sex Esteem®, the confident agency to be aware of one’s own desires and experiences while superbly communicating these to a partner to co-create a mutually pleasurable experience.

I like to coach clients to practice describing what they DO like in detail since most people feel silly or self-conscious describing sexual acts and rehearsing the words can alleviate awkwardness over time. I teach them that specificity can be sexy and that many people like hearing their partner talking about sex before (and during) sex. 

An example of specific Sex Esteem® seduction might be:

  • I’m feeling less energetic today, but I’m up for deep kissing, gently stroking your arms, legs, and breasts with my hands, and we can check in after that to see if I’m up for giving you oral.  What are you up for?
  • I am feeling turned by your cute butt, and want to have sex. Are you up for a quickie? I’m not into your giving me oral today but would love to have you use my vibrator while we’re having sex.

So I propose folks begin our 2019 Sexual Health Month with a commitment to radical sexual honesty about what they want along with when, where, and how, and also what they don’t want. These are the first steps to real social change since the #metoo movement broke us all open.

References

Herbenick, D., Schick, V., Sanders, S.A., Reece, M., and Fortenberry, J.D. (2015). Pain experienced during vaginal and anal intercourse among male-female partners: findings from a nationally representative probability study in the United States. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(4), 1040-1051.

http://bostonreview.net/gender-sexuality/joseph-j-fischel-toward-democratic-hedonism