Negotiating Ethical Sex #ThoughtProvokingThirstTrap
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
I had an interview recently with the wonderful people at Unbound (@unboundbabes) and they asked me, “what is missing from the Consent conversation?” I began discussing how the Consent convo typically revolves around, “no means no” and the importance of an enthusiastic, verbal “yes.” While these are vital parts of the Consent convo, the CONTEXT of “yes,” what informs that “yes,” and what comes after that “yes” are pieces missing from the discussion.
What really made this exploration of context more tangible was reflecting on my most recent sexual encounter with someone I’d dare say I’m falling in love with. For the past few months I’ve been getting to know a cishet man in a reciprocal, gentle, caring and empathetic fashion – something I’ve never experienced before. Ever. We discuss our feelings. We discuss what safety and support look like. We explore our triggers and how we can be better people, individually and for our partnership.
We discussed how we plan on handling conflict, ways we agree need to look differently than we’ve approached conflict with past partners. Talking about handling conflict is easy when things are going well. The true test lies in the moments you feel triggered; when all the shit you promised is in the back of your head and exploding with rage feels easier. And so, during our first few conflicts we witnessed how we would actually function when feelings of hurt or annoyance or dismissal vetoed cute convos about accountability.
But, surprisingly, we did it.
We gave each other full permission to feel hurt AND prioritized approaching difficult conversations with integrity. In our upset, we managed to productively say exactly what needed to be said keeping in mind we wanted to end the conversation with “thank you’s” and “I hear you’s” and “I’m here for you’s” as opposed to “fuck you’s” and “I hate you’s.” We were, and are, creating the safest space we’ve both ever been in to ensure we can be vulnerable and show up as our authentic selves for as long as we choose to engage with each other.
That MUST translate into a safe sex space, right? All this work, all this accountability and feelings exchanged are worth something, right?
Our first-time having sex didn’t go how either of us thought it would. We were rushed and tired but neither of us wanted to leave without experiencing each other. Halfway through, I thought to myself, “this isn’t how I wanted this to go but I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to disappoint him and I don’t want to ruin this moment or his orgasm or potentially damage his attraction to me.” I had spent so much, reciprocal, time building a safe space with this person and I still didn’t feel safe saying what I was thinking.
So, then what? What does this mean?
The context of this “yes” was not one informed by (direct) coercion or threatened safety or intoxication. However, this “yes” certainly wasn’t my most enthusiastic and ongoing and fulfilled. The after included internal dialogue about where we went wrong. What was I feeling? Regret? Disappointment? Was it his fault? Was it mine? Should I say something or should I say nothing and hope next time will be different?
I realized all of this, my thoughts and hesitance in the moment, my subsequent internal dialogue, ALL was informed by trauma. And not so much rape and sexual assault, trauma (although, that was a small part of it). More so, it was the general trauma of being a woman. The general trauma of navigating sex, sexuality, my body and this world as a woman. My awareness that I am secondary. My awareness that my discomfort is inconsequential. My awareness that, in voicing my discomfort, I’m likely to be ignored. Laughed at. Or worse, put in my place.
I started to reflect on other scenarios where I said “yes” AND had feelings not typically associated with “yes’s.” Sex Work scenarios where I agreed to activities but half way through changed my mind. Sex Work scenarios where cameras were pulled out and I was unsure of how to manage that. Past relationship scenarios where my partner wanted sex but I wanted a different kind of sex. One-night stand scenarios where I was eager to participate but hesitant to give directions that prioritized my orgasm.
All “yes’s.” But with footnotes and asterisks and conditions.
This topic can’t and won’t be resolved in one discussion.
This is just one of many opportunities to reflect on how this shows up for you. And to ask yourself, “what’s next?”
For me, I recognized I need to address that it doesn’t matter how much work I put into creating safety; both me and my partner(s) need to be patient. This takes practice and care. This is layered: I exist as a woman; I will always face violence moving through the world in this body and that will always inform how I approach sex, with cishet men or otherwise, and my relationship with my body.
However, what I do have control of, what I can dedicate myself to, is me.
I can, and will, continue to reflect on what is showing up for me when I’m hesitant to communicate my needs. I can, and will, continue to interrogate how I’m internalizing things, what’s real versus perceived, how I can be realistic (eg. all scenarios won’t be opportunities for me to be vulnerable), and how I can hold myself accountable for communicating my needs when it’s safe to do so, instead of holding them in and placing blame where there is none.
After talking to myself about our first encounter and my hesitance to communicate out of fear (even though the space was safe) I decided I needed to share this information with him. If my, and our, intention was (and is) to create a vulnerable, safe and authentic foundation for our partnership, this information could not be withheld. I would be de-prioritizing myself and doing the partnership an injustice by not honoring it with my truths.
I told him my “yes” wasn’t as enthusiastic as I may have portrayed it. That I’m so used to moving from a place of trauma I had no idea how to say what I was thinking. That even though he had done the work to make me feel safe, I’m not there yet. I told him I want to learn how to communicate my needs even if it is at his disadvantage, that I’m not willing to sweep my feelings, as it pertains to sex, under the rug to not disrupt whatever dynamic (I think) we’re creating.
And he said, “okay.”
While he wished I had communicated in the moment he knows why I didn’t. He affirmed that sex has not been safe for me and that perhaps it hasn’t been safe for him either. And we both decided that, though it will be work and maybe awkward and new territory, we’re dedicated to making sure our sex is ethical, reciprocal and full of love and empathy.
This dynamic may not be one you’re currently in. Certainly, this isn’t one I am used to and recognize its rarity. So, how can we still prioritize navigating sex from an ethical place?
I think, first, reflecting on and recognizing what informs how you move is important. For me, saying out loud, “I don’t think I’ve ever had sex that felt safe, sex that wasn’t from a place of trauma” was both terrifying AND freeing. Sometimes the truth is ugly but that doesn’t negate its accuracy. Starting there helped frame the rest of the conversation and my ability to make sense of my past, patterns, and how I would like things to be different.
A reality I chose to include in my reflection is that I only have so much control over this and, unfortunately, every sexual encounter may not be one I can be vulnerable in or attempt to negotiate ethical and reciprocal sex. Not every partner is going to patiently make space for me to make demands. And so, how will I navigate those situations (ie. how will I leave those situations, if I choose to engage in them, feeling whole?)?
Along with being realistic, understanding that this is a skill-building task is helpful. Communicating, generally, and especially as a marginalized person is a SKILL – learning how to do it is radical as it deviates from our socialization and the assumption that we will exist quietly and for the benefit of others. And like most skills, it will take time, trial-and-error and patience to perfect.
Be kind to yourself during this process.
Another thing I recognized that prefaced a pattern of unethical sex encounters is moving from a place of need. “Need” in this context can vary; you can think about how it may fit for you. For me, moving from a place of need meant wanting to protect whatever was serving me in that particular dynamic even if that meant doing so at my expense. Maybe I needed money. Maybe I needed intimacy. Maybe I needed proximity/access. Although this is not a direct breach of consent on behalf of my partner, it absolutely affects the context of my “yes.” Moving from a place of deficit and fear of loss does not, and will not, create ethical sex encounters. And, again, in being realistic, this may not be something that can be eradicated overnight (or ever), however, at the least, having insight on what is serving you and how losing that may affect how you approach sex is useful internal dialogue to have.
My goal is to have the kind of sex that feels good to me (that sounds so simple but I think so many of us agree that it is not). So, in 2019, I’m going to do the work to make that happen – even if that means the least I can do is raise my self-awareness.
Things to think about:
How does fear inform your decision-making? (as it pertains to sex or otherwise, if you’d like)
How often have you had the sex YOU want to have?
What needs to exist for sex to feel safe for you?
How can you be accountable for making that happen?
What does ethical sex look like to you?