In a novel by Frederick Forsyth, the protagonist longs to wake his girlfriend and make love to her in order to stave off the stress of his impending death. A pretty good reason to have sex.
‘Sex to wake someone up,’ said my boyfriend. ‘That sounds great.’
But hot in my new found feminist ire I replied, ‘How can she give her consent if she’s asleep? That’s not very considerate is it.’
Spontaneous sex sounded great on paper but lacked the explicit consent of a verbally given ‘yes’ which many feminist articles now told me was necessary. Silence, they said, does not mean yes.
Back then, I believed in an idealized romantic notion of sex. It started with foreplay, contained my orgasm and finished with his. It was all very equitable and considerate. Because like me, the men I was with were schooled to believe that being a good lover meant paying attention to me, before they could get their rocks off. God forbid that he should attend to his own needs without first jumping the hurdles of my desire because screamed Cosmo,
‘Considerate lovers are invested in making you feel good!’
We had to give them the opportunity to get us off, because their ego was invested in it. We were told that if we were not considerate lovers, if we did not get our partners off, we were not good in bed. Or as they liked to call it, frigid. But I liked considerate lovers who fulfilled my needs, as I did theirs. It was the backbone, I thought, to a loving relationship and great sex. I was wrong.
These notions proved problematic when I attended my first swinging party. It was obvious that the parties were far less about attending to someone else’s needs and much more about satisfying your own. How selfish. I called it a ‘meat market’ and quickly left because I believed that my idea of great sex would be impossible within such a context. One where more trust, depth and simply knowledge of the other person’s body was needed to be a considerate lover. The type of lover I would say ‘yes’ to. The type of lovers who were my boyfriends.
In the beginning of our relationships sexual desire had always been omnipresent, little consent was sought or needed. We fucked like rabbits. Yet over time as real life intruded and sexual desire waned, the expectations and obligations that my boyfriend and I put on each other to be considerate during each encounter meant that giving a ‘yes’ became an active decision and a duty.
Saying ‘yes’ was much more than simply opening my legs, it was the pressure to encourage my own orgasm (but without hands) within a specified period of time so that he could feel good about himself and continue to his own goal so that he felt like a ‘good lover’. I felt like I owed him that. It was the obligation to ensure his orgasm happened with my participation even if after my own, I wanted a break. I couldn’t be a selfish lover and attend to my own needs, because that wasn’t good for the relationship. It was the need for me to be sexually available on at least a semi-regular basis with all its accompanying baggage. Sex wasn’t fun and my position became a default ‘no’. Until having sex became more and more infrequent and after a while, the emotional weight of the ‘yes’ became so excruciatingly heavy that our intimate relationship ceased… and we broke up.
Then one day I met him. The selfish lover. The man who took pleasure in my body for his own sexual gratification.
‘Objectified,’ screamed the feminist on my shoulder. But strangely in this context I felt relieved and far more powerful than I had done before.
This man enjoyed my orgasms when they happened, but felt no obligation to make them happen, nor did he expect them. This man was fully responsible for his own pleasure and expected me to be the same. The sexual arc of our encounters became unpredictable and spontaneous. I learned that if I wanted my orgasm, then I bloody well had to make it happen, or tell him explicitly how I wanted his touch.
And one night I woke up to find him stroking my body, not because he expected anything of me, but purely because he’d found my curves glimmering in the moonlight and they excited him. He had no obligation to please me and if I wanted to, I could say no without any emotional backlash or ego bruising because his identity did not rest on being a considerate lover. He could get his kicks with or without me. Partnered sex was terrific but so was solo sex.
That night our spontaneous sex was fantastic, and neither of us had spoken a word.
It was the night I finally learned that consent is the context in which you build a relationship. It is not a one-off permission, but a condition which occurs naturally when you operate under the principles of ‘full responsibility’ and ‘no obligation’.
We do people a disservice when we tell them to be considerate lovers when what we mean is to put the needs of each other above our own. It means that you do not assume responsibility for your own experience. That you expect the other person to meet your sexual needs. It creates duty, obligation and expectation. None of which are conducive to great sex and all of which create a relationship structure more likely to be one where you have to verbally say ‘yes’ because you’ve created a default of ‘no’.
It’s hard for many women to say ‘no’.
But if you both operate under the principles of ‘full responsibility’ and ‘no obligation’, saying ‘no’ is easy because you’re not about to disappoint anyone or deprive them of pleasure. It means you’ve already created the underlying condition of consent and in those spontaneous moonlight moments your silence can be a big resounding yes.