Jason debriefs with us today in response to my recent post on consent and sex frequency. Jason is 32 and has lived in Somerville and Brookline. His comments are part of our April series recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which this year includes a national campaign focused on healthy sexuality and young people.
A few weeks ago in this column Mimi Arbeit suggested that there might be a u-shaped curve for sexual frequency and consent. Her intuition was that as people practice consent, they start to say no to bad sex, start to hear more clearly when their partner isn’t interested in sex or interested in that kind of sex right now, and thus have less sex. But, she surmised, as they get practiced at consent they start having more sex, or at least better sex, as they are better able to articulate their desires and really hear the desires of others.
Mimi’s idea rang true for me because I am having more sex and more sexual relationships now than ever before. In fact, I’ve had more sex in the last three years than in the previous 15 combined. Want to hear how I did it?
I started at the bottom of the parabola. Aside from an awkward drunken encounter that ended with a search to find a prescription for the morning-after pill, I basically didn’t have sex until I was 30. More important, I had only a few relationships, and those often felt fraught or were short-lived.
A high school relationship with someone who thought all sexual contact was a sin, and who left me for another kid in our circle, built up a real fear of rejection. It took years for me to make another move, to indicate I was interested in someone. I spent all four years of college with lots of crushes on folks, but starting no significant relationships, nor did I really participate in the hook-up culture. Because I didn’t know how to make a move, I simply hung around “waiting for something to happen.” Asking someone out on a date felt so awkward. So I did (almost) nothing. Whatever hook-ups or relationships I did have were fed by a sense of scarcity and fear, not by an understanding of my own feelings and desires, and so they failed.
I have to say, it’s only in retrospect that I can see that my 10-year dry spell was the result of timidity and fear. At the time I thought that it was simply a conundrum of being a straight male feminist (hint: it’s not). You see, with only rom-coms and pornography as my models, I had absolutely no idea how to start a fulfilling romantic or sexual relationship in a respectful way. I knew from my anti-assault training during college orientation, my readings in feminist literature and from hearing horror stories from female friends that male privilege meant men often inflicted themselves on women in ways big and small. I certainly didn’t want to do that. I had learned that consent must be explicit, and must be obtained anew each time for each new sexual act or encounter, and that alcohol impairs our ability to give and receive un-coerced consent. I did, and still do, consider consent an important part of any sexual encounter. What I needed to learn, however, was that consent wasn’t the result of a transactional negotiation, but a heartfelt communication (sometimes verbal, sometimes not, but always attentive to both my own needs and my partner’s signals).
What changed everything was a set of experiences and relationships that showed me that I was loveable and desirable, and that when done right, flirtation, dating and initiating sexual contact are actually invitations for hearing and communicating about real needs and feelings.
I had to come to understand that women have desire, and that they might have a desire for me. Of course, the old patterns have not completely gone away. In fact, just the other day I was sitting on the couch with a date, and after she kissed me, she asked, “Why didn’t you kiss me first?” There are, I am learning, ways to take those first steps, make those first moves, with confidence, while listening very carefully for the feedback that lets me know how I am being received. As I get the hang of being able to convey and receive feelings of interest and desire, I have more and better sex.
What I had to learn was that starting a relationship was not about seeking “consent” to impose myself on women who really didn’t want it, but was about authentic and honest communication of feelings and desires. This meant coming to understand my own feelings, being able to communicate them verbally and nonverbally, and listening for, or even prompting, the same authenticity and honesty from others. I know this kind of intimacy can be hard for people (it’s certainly hard for me). Every step requires sensitivity and bravery. And yet I am discovering that this kind of communication is exactly what is needed to begin relationships and sustain them.
This communication is a kind of consent, of course, but it goes beyond the model of “no means no” that I took to be a part of feminism for a long time. I understand why such a clear focus on consent is vitally important in the face of an epidemic of sexual assaults on campus. And yet I know that our goals must go beyond that.
We need to be teaching our youth and young adults (and not-so-young adults) how to really know their feelings and desires and communicate them from the heart, from a place of confident vulnerability. From my own experience, I know that this will be much more effective and much more true to the realities of dating and sexuality.