Enthusiastic Consent Should Honor Quiet Communication, Too

This is a response that I originally posted on Tumblr in response to a post on enthusiastic consent.  The quoted point was in a list of bullet points on examples of when someone about to have sex (or having sex) with a person should stop.

So in general, I really, really agree with this.  However, I wanted to bring something up about one of the points, because it is an interesting question, and it’s part of why I’ve struggled with the way enthusiastic consent is presented, while at the same time loving the model.

the moment she softly or UN-emphatically says “fine” or “yes”

It’s problematic that we require a “no.”  I have been in situations where I was silent when I wasn’t sure how or whether to say no, and while in context it wasn’t rape, it was a little dodgy.  We need to respect that often it IS rape in that circumstance, because someone is not able to speak for whatever reason, or decides not to because they don’t think the person would stop if they did and don’t want to go through that, or whatever else.  It’s also crucial to pay attention to a partner’s tone in sex.  I can easily imagine a tone in which someone could say fine, especially—fearful, resigned, etc.—that would to me signal “STOP.”

But at the same time, I think that sometimes enthusiastic consent is presented in a way that limits the sexual options of those who are shy, or experimenting, or trying something they DO want but are nervous about.  That’s why the communication piece of enthusiastic consent is so important, of course.  If you’re having sex where you’re not talking much, and that soft “yes” is the only thing someone has to go off of, it’s very difficult to know where your head is.  If you’ve talked, if someone knows that, for example, you’re shy and this is really hard for you and it’s a battle to speak up in sex but you’re trying and that soft yes is a triumph, then it’s easy to proceed and know everything’s consensual.

I have a problem with the idea that everyone must be loud, enthusiastic, unapologetic, and shouting from the rooftops about sex, because often we feel that way inside but it’s hard to vocalize.  Or maybe it’s easy in some cases, but hard in others—a submissive in subspace, for example, may find it harder to talk when hir head is there.  If that’s the case, then partners can talk in advance, come up with non-verbal ways to communicate, or just accept that a quiet “yes” is going to be all the consent a person can manage to get out of hir mouth.

I have found that enthusiastic consent in terms of communication, negotiation, and being specific about desires is pretty fucking awesome.  And so sometimes that quiet “yes,” even when you feel silly about your barely-audible voice, even when you’re shaking, even when to an outsider you might look like someone about to end up in a pretty dodgy situation, can be amazing to get out of your mouth.  That can be a real achievement, and I’d like to see that recognized alongside other means of consenting.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.

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