Pleasure and Consent
“Despite significant progress over the past few years, too many women and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse,” Joe Biden said in February at the 2016 Oscars. “We must and we can change the culture, so that no abused woman or man, like the survivors you will see tonight, ever feel they have to ask themselves, what did I do wrong? They did nothing wrong.” And the crowd of Hollywood A-listers erupted into cheers and applause.
America’s public consciousness surrounding sexual violence has expanded with breathtaking speed in the past several years, driven in part by a White House administration that has brought national attention to the issue, as well as high profile assaults such as the Stanford rape. That moment at the Oscars solidified how much more willing we are as a culture to acknowledge sexual violence as a reality: the biggest names in Hollywood, the Vice President, and a musical icon openly standing in solidarity with survivors.
But our cultural shift in finally talking about and working against sexual violence is only overshadowed by our complete inability to discuss the root cause of it. Many of the programs initiated by the Obama Administration focus on creating a culture of consent on college campuses, which is admirable and needed. However, in many cases it is also too little too late. On average, young people in the United States have sex for the first time at age 17 – often before college – and unfortunately many young people will have already experienced sexual violence in high school or earlier, with 42% of female rape victims first being raped before the age of 18. But perhaps even more importantly, by the time young people are entering college they have already spent about eighteen years of life internalizing unhealthy messages about sex, and are unlikely to change their minds with a quick orientation speech on consent.
This is all to say that if we truly want to see the rates of sexual violence on college campuses go down, we need to start educating our youth on consent and sexual violence sooner than college. And yet even this is not enough. If we truly have a commitment to fighting sexual violence, if we truly want to decrease the rates of rape and assault, Americans everywhere must collectively face one of the deepest, ugliest, festering wounds of our collective psyche: our deeply unhealthy relationship with sexual pleasure, and the ways in which we discuss sexual pleasure with youth.
The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that we cannot educate youth on consent without also educating them about pleasure. Youth cannot learn how to engage in consensual sex without also learning that consent is about both or all parties feeling good, feeling pleasure, and recognizing and respecting mutual desire. The core principle behind consent is that it is present when sexual partners desire pleasure, and value the pleasure of their partners.
Despite this, it somehow feels like current conversations about consent are detached from its root value in pleasure, as though somehow we can talk about one without talking about the other. This isn’t surprising; after all, it’s the American way to awkwardly sidestep any positive aspects of sexuality. It’s far easier, and more damaging, to try to create fear with graphic slides of STIs and messages that having sex lowers one’s worth than to simply tell youth that sex feels good and teach them to practice it safely.
We can’t afford to take this approach any longer. It isn’t enough for America to be anti-rape. It isn’t enough for us to be pro-consent. We have to become unabashedly, vocally, proudly, pro-pleasure.
What stands in the way
Right now, we are miles away from that stance when it comes to our sex ed curricula. Obviously abstinence-only curricula are guilty of vilifying sexual pleasure using shame and fear tactics, but comprehensive sex ed programs can be just as bad. When pleasure is discussed, it is often done so in the most biological of ways, and the most exclusionary of ways. As Peggy Orenstein describes in her New York Times op-ed, “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?”, “Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts... as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?”
Female pleasure is erased from the sex equation we teach our youth: male ejaculation into female body = sex. The erasure of female pleasure from sex, as well as our framing of male sexuality as rabid and uncontrollable, creates a cultural narrative that pleasure in sex only exists for certain bodies: namely, for cis men. So is it any wonder that women tend to measure their sexual satisfaction through their male partner’s satisfaction? Is it any wonder that young men rarely reciprocate oral sex with female partners, yet expect it for themselves? 1,2 And is it any wonder that we are raising an entire generation of young people to believe that when it comes to sex, women’s bodies exist for the sole pleasure of their male partners? That any pain or discomfort they feel is their burden to bear as women. That it is okay for men to inflict pain or discomfort onto them, because sex isn’t really for them anyways.
Sexual violence generally speaking isn’t about pleasure: it’s about power and control over the victim. But in our discussions surrounding sexual violence prevention, the way we talk about pleasure is key. When we teach youth that pleasure in sex is only for certain bodies, we’re creating a culture of sexual entitlement: that some bodies exist solely for the use of others; that some people are entitled to use other people’s bodies however they desire; that they have the right to enforce power and control over those bodies. This directly reinforces rape culture.
This is true not just for how we discuss female bodies in hetero-sex, but also in how we exclude and erase pleasure in LGBTQ sex. Refusing to acknowledge the existence of healthy, pleasurable, LGBTQ relationships paints them as the shadowy “Other,” something that is different and strange and perhaps even dangerous. LGBTQ bodies thus become targets of hate and ownership to heterosexual people, and that hatred can often manifest itself in sexual assault and rape. The stigmatization of LGBTQ pleasure leads to sexual violence within the community as well. As the Human Rights Campaign notes, “…the ways in which society both hypersexualizes LGBTQ people and stigmatizes our relationships can lead to intimate partner violence that stems from internalized homophobia and shame.”
What comes next
So, what can we do? For starters, we can teach young people communication and relationship skills that build confidence and increase their comfort to voice their sexual preferences and dislikes. This can be incredibly empowering, even for children in grades as early as kindergarten who can learn about consent in an age-appropriate way. After all, consent doesn’t only apply to sexual health: a five-year old can learn consent by sharing a toy with a friend, or learning that it’s okay to say no to hugs or kisses when they don’t want to be touched.
Additionally, sex ed curricula can more intentionally include content about the sexual response cycle (how the body experiences sexual pleasure), and anatomical body parts such as the labia and clitoris that are typically excluded from traditional reproductive classroom models. We cannot expect young people to advocate for their own sexual pleasure when they may not even know where their pleasure stems from anatomically.
It is also important to acknowledge that not all people experience sexual attraction. For example, individuals who identify as asexual may be excluded and shamed in conversations about pleasure (Be sure to check out next week’s blog on how to make sex ed more inclusive for asexual students).
And finally, as a society we have to shift the narrative around pleasure away from being a hetero-male-centric privilege. We are comfortable encouraging women and girls to advocate for themselves around issues such as the gender pay gap and workplace harassment, and we are comfortable telling LGBTQ youth that they have the right to respect. However, when it comes to something as deeply personal as the sexual health and wellbeing of women, of LGBTQ youth, of any youth who defy our traditional understandings of binary gender roles and exclusionary sexual orientations, we tend to collectively back away. We tell these youth to advocate for themselves in the workplace, but be submissive in the bedroom. We tell them they can dream of the best for themselves, but that when it comes to sex their needs come second. We tell them that there are more opportunities for them now than there have ever been, but at the same time we undermine their right to pleasure, to be in relationships that feel good.
We’ve come together as a country in recent years with a collective cry that sexual assault is unacceptable, and that the rates of sexual violence must go down for the sake of our youth. But until we address the root of this issue - until we dig deep into our discomfort surrounding pleasure - we will never be able to effectively teach our youth about consent. We can, and we must, do better.
For further reading
"When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?" By Peggy Orenstein
"Sex Acts That Don't Get Enough Play" from Queering Sex Ed, a program of Planned Parenthood Toronto