Why Yes-Based Consent Makes for Better Sex
Written by: Cristina Graham-Dwyer
I vividly remember the first time a sexual partner asked me what I liked and didn't like. We were cuddling on the couch and had started kissing. As clothing articles were cast to the ground, he posed the questions. I was taken aback. I'd never been asked that before. Once I got over the shock, I answered his questions and asked him the same. My prior sexual experiences had been so methodical and assumed, the thought of dialogue about preferences and no-go's seemed as out of place as a loud fart during church. This instead felt collaborative. It felt like this was an experience centred around me (and him) being comfortable and being an active participant with autonomy. It challenged the sexual script that relies on me, someone who identifies as a woman, passively going with the flow and having things done unto me. Instead, it held us both responsible for ensuring each other's safety and good times. In other words, this was based on "yes" rather than "no."
Traditionally speaking, we've come to know consent in sexual situations, in both legal and cultural terms, as the verbal absence of "no" (that is to say, if there is no "no," it's assumed that it's a "yes"). This is an incredibly problematic way of viewing consent for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the assumption is that everything is a yes until it's a no. If we look at this against the backdrop of cultural, sexual conditioning that prioritizes male pleasure and discourages advocating for one's own boundaries, often women (in heterosexual sexual encounters) can end up feeling incredibly powerless in situations that make us uncomfortable.
In addition to it posing safety and well-being concerns, this "yes until it's a no" modality of sex undermines the importance of proactive communication, which undermines intimacy and connectedness in the grand scheme of things. Intimacy requires vulnerability; vulnerability requires a safe space to communicate everything from desires and requests to things that don't turn you on, and things that are absolute no-go's. It also undermines the importance of actively listening to what your partner is expressing. This "no" based modality of consent often goes hand in hand with the sexual script we've all come to accept as the default; I do this to you, you do this to me, we have sex (whatever sex may mean for you), orgasms are the ultimate end goal, then it's all over. This rarely invites opportunities for interjections (and therefore listening), both before, during and after the deed about desires and boundaries. If we moved more towards a "yes" based module of consent, our partners would actively have to be invested in both listening and responding to our verbal and non-verbal clues about how we're feeling.
"Yes" cannot be discussed without first mentioning the importance of reading and respecting each other's non-verbal language. Outside of sex, we rely on body language to communicate how we're feeling to each other. More emphasis needs to be put on doing the same in intimate scenarios. If someone is shying away, or hesitating, or seems distant or disinterested, or is saying some variation of "maybe later," that is unquestionably, without a doubt, a no. We need to move towards a culture and a standard of sexual etiquette that encourages us to actively and respectfully check in on each other if there is even a hint of doubt.
What if we turned this on its head? And came to view consent as the enthusiastic presence, through both verbal and non-verbal clues, of "yes." Recently through the relentless effort of many activists in Denmark and an Amnesty International campaign called 'Let's Talk About Yes', laws surrounding consent have shifted towards the presence of an enthusiastic "yes." Previous definitions of rape and sexual assault were based on whether or not violence was present (holy shit, that's archaic and dangerous!).
What if we started viewing expressing our desires and boundaries as sexy? I've often heard that talking about things that you like or don't like can "kill the mood"- I wholeheartedly disagree. And from personal experience and speaking to friends, I can say with absolute confidence that knowing my partner is invested in making me feel not only comfortable but is actively prioritizing my pleasure, is hot as fuck. And if my personal opinion can't convince you, Peggy Orenstein spoke to over 300 highschool and college-aged boys about sex. The individuals who have made the conscious decision to switch to yes-based consent during sexual encounters not only feel more confident but also echo my sentiment, saying hearing," 'Yes! I want you to do this.' And 'Yes! I want you to do that.' makes sex more exciting.
Yes based consent makes for safer sex. Yes based consent makes for better sex.
This piece was contributed by Cristina Graham-Dwyer. Cristina is based in Toronto and passionate about advancing the sexual wellness in Canada and around the world.