Growing up in a religious Catholic family, there weren’t a lot of conversations about consent and sexual activity. In fact, the only conversation about sex at all was a one-note repeat: DON’T. When I hit puberty, my mom stuck a sticker on the bathroom mirror: “8 Ways to Say No to Sex”. The list included such gems as “just walk away” (whaaa?) and “change the subject”; actions that would guarantee no second date, since your companion would clearly think you were nuts. (I spent a lot of time in high school hoping none of my visiting friends would need to use our bathroom.)
The message was clear at my Catholic school as well: nice girls don’t. There was no space for good, sexy feelings; no acknowledgement of your agency to explore your own body; and always the sense that it was up to the girls in the room to, as we were once memorably told, “keep our knees together.” All conversations about consent between us and The Boys were to end one way: with a firm NO. (In this universe, of course, same-sex sex wasn’t even acknowledged.)
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to the whole idea of enthusiastic consent, and why I wish it had been there in that impoverished, crappy little Catholic school when I was learning about the wide world of adult sexual life. Enthusiastic consent is the concept that you do not move ahead with initiating sexual activity while waiting for a potential sexual partner to say “no” — rather, you pause, seek an enthusiastic “yes!” and respect that anything less means the activity in question is off the table.
Would this idea have actually made a difference to me, growing up in my little hometown? My friend, it would have made ALL the difference. It starts with the revolutionary thought that sexual activity is something to actually be ENJOYED, rather than endured (question to the nuns: if you keep telling girls that sex is something they endure, how can they even tell if they are consenting or not?). Enthusiastic consent includes the notion that sex is something created in the moment between happily consenting adults. It’s not an atomic bomb dropped onto your ever-vulnerable female “reputation”, nor is it a dreaded but necessary task for producing the next generation of miserable, guilt-riddled adults. It’s something you create right then, between you. Which is another reason it would have rocked my teenage world: the idea that sex isn’t something that girls give, and boys take, but rather an activity between equals, brought into being at that moment by each of your desires, needs, likes and dislikes. It’s not a one-time exchange of goods: you don’t hand sex over to the other person. You make it together.
My dear, I am here to tell you that this idea has magic in it. It has the potential to revolutionize how many, many people look at sex, and look at potential sexual partners. The world needs this. Won’t you do your part to bring sex out of the shadows and into the sunshine? I hope for your enthusiastic “Yes!”