The #MeToo movement and the Aziz Ansari story have inspired much needed discussion about the boundaries involved in consensual sex. In today’s hookup culture, often sexual partners barely know each other, so they don’t have a longstanding, trusting rapport at the foundation of their relationship. They lack a deeper understanding of each other’s emotional, physical and sexual comfort levels and limits. This puts them at risk for having sexual encounters that may have started out as consensual, but then became uncomfortable, negative, disempowering, or traumatic on some level for one party.
Over the past 20 years of counseling clients at my practice, I’ve heard hundreds of clients (most often women, or men who have partnered with men) discuss these types of “bad sex” experiences. These events can trigger memories and feelings from previous boundary violations and traumas, as well as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or self-esteem issues.
In therapy, many people discuss challenges with setting healthy boundaries around sex. Some people report feeling concerns that if they say, “no”, they will leave their partner feeling sexually frustrated and dissatisfied (“blue-balled”). Others worry that if they don’t do what their partner wants sexually, they might lose interest in them or their relationship. Sometimes, they place greater value on the other person’s desires and satisfaction about their own feelings of comfort and worth. All of these dynamics are related to power and control. Some are related to aspects of underlying sexism in our male-centric sexual culture—the prioritization of satisfaction in sexual encounters and relationships.
We must understand that it is the responsibility of both partners to have an honest, direct and clear conversation about consent before sex occurs. We must understand that difficulty setting healthy boundaries is not an invitation to be sexually violated. Being sexually violated or assaulted is never the fault of the victim.
Frequently, clients report experiences where they did consent to intercourse, but were left feeling violated by other acts that they didn’t realize were going to happen which were imposed upon them as the sexual experience unfolded (i.e. anal sex, having a sex toy inserted into them, acts of dominance such as chocking or restraining, etc.) Because these specific acts were not consensual, the psychological impact can be akin to that of rape. This is unfortunately a very common and extremely serious issue that is now being brought out into the open, discussed and explored—an important first step in a cultural change.
Consensual sex isn’t merely giving a look of desire or a gesture (like taking off your pants) that may seem to imply a “green light” to proceed with intercourse. Non-verbals leave way too much room for misunderstanding. There must be verbal consent. However, consensual sex isn’t simply a “yes” or a “no”. It must be an ongoing dialogue about each aspect of the sexual encounter. This is something we need to be discussing with our friends and with our teenagers to help them know their sexual rights and give them tools to communicate about sex and protect themselves from harm.
Consensual sex involves ongoing dialogue about:
- Acts–which ones are permissible (“Is it okay if I do XYZ?”)
- Safe sex (“Do you have a condom?”)
- Birth control (“Are you on birth control? ”)
- Language–talking dirty, name calling, etc. (“Is it alright if I talk to you this way?”)
- Fetishes—S&M, etc. (“Would you be comfortable with my doing this?” “Do you enjoy these things as well?”)
- Use of objects—Toys, role play or porn (“Can we try using this?”)
- Photos or Video–(“Is it okay for me to record this?”)
- Other participants—observers, other partners, etc. (“Are you comfortable with this person joining us in this XYZ way?”)
The following are recommendations to facilitate positive, consensual sexual experiences:
- Have a preliminary conversation beforehand to clarify expectations and to express any limits (“I am willing to this, but not that”)
- Establish a “safe word”
- Check in at each step along the way (“Is it okay if we try XYZ? Are you enjoying this?”)
- Remember that your partner always has the right to say no, change his or her mind, to stop the act and to leave.
- Understand that being under the influence of drugs or alcohol impairs ability to communicate effectively and puts you and your partner at higher risk for there being an incident of sexual assault or non-criminal yet traumatic sex.
- Know that just because somebody consented to an act (i.e. intercourse) during a previous encounter does not mean they have consented to this encounter. Consent must be granted during each encounter.
Does having an ongoing discussion about consent take the fun out of being swept away in the heat of the moment? The costs of not having these conversations can be far to high; in worse cases, being the victim or perpetrator of sexual trauma. These discussions are vital for the development of a respectful, conscious and compassionate sexual culture for all men and women. When you know your partner and their preferences and boundaries, it is easier to stay within the lines that you know are there and simply be free to enjoy yourselves.
In therapy, clients work at owning their value and worth and understanding that sharing ourselves sexually with another person is an incredible gift and honor. We each have a responsibility to do our absolute best job taking care of ourselves—just as we would look out for our best friends or our children. We must hang onto our self-worth and know that our safety and pleasure matters just as much as our partners. We must empower ourselves to leave sexual encounters that might not just don’t feel right. Only share yourself with people who are deserving and with whom you feel safe and comfortable.
The #MeToo movement and the Aziz Ansari story remind us that we each have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that our partners feel emotionally and physically safe during sex. This requires communication to facilitate mutuality, reciprocity, equity in the shared sexual experience, which should be pleasurable for both partners.