A lot of feminists support ‘enthusiastic consent’ as a model for sex. If a person is not enthusiastic about the prospect of having sex, they argue, it is unethical. Sometimes this is expressed as “if it’s not fuck yes, it’s fuck no.”
First, I don’t think “enthusiastic consent” draws the lines properly around ethical and unethical sex. For instance, it’s possible that there’s a thirteen-year-old who’s very enthusiastically consenting to have sex with me. They’re horny and they want sex right now! However, I still think– knowing that the vast majority of thirteen-year-olds are not ready for sex, that early sexual initiation is correlated with a host of problems, and that there are serious power dynamics in relationships between adults and teenagers– that it is a terrible idea for me to have sex with a thirteen-year-old. Similarly, if someone who’s extraordinarily drunk is enthusiastically consenting to sex, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to have sex with me if they were sober, it behooves me not to have sex with them.
On the other hand, a lot of unenthusiastic sex is perfectly ethical. A couple that is trying hard to conceive a baby might not be feeling terribly erotic: “honey, my cervical mucus looks like an egg white!” is few people’s idea of dirty talk. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with planning your sex around trying to conceive. Similarly, a sex worker may not feel terribly enthusiastic about sex with her clients, but that doesn’t mean that her or her clients are doing something wrong.
Second, enthusiastic consent is androcentric. Sexologists sometimes distinguish between responsive desire and spontaneous desire. Spontaneous desire is when you’re walking along, minding your own business, thinking about the grocery list, and suddenly you’re like “man, I really want to get laid right now.” Responsive desire is when you’re not really in the mood for sex, but your partner is, and you start kissing and cuddling and touching each other and wow now you really want to fuck. People can experience only responsive desire, only spontaneous desire, or both. However, there is a gender difference in how likely people are to experience responsive desire: a minority of men experience responsive desire, while the majority of women do, and a significant minority of women only experience responsive desire and never spontaneous.
Some people have a tendency to equate ‘good sex’ with ‘being similar to the average man’– another example is the bizarre instance by many people that vaginal orgasm is absolutely necessary for a woman to have good sex. ‘Enthusiastic consent’, I fear, is an example of this– it sounds a hell of a lot like “only have sex when you are experiencing spontaneous desire.” But for a lot of women, good sex doesn’t begin with spontaneous horniness: it begins with a willingness to have sex even though sex doesn’t sound super-appetizing yet. A lot of them feel broken or like they’re doomed to an unenjoyable sex life, when in reality they have a perfectly ordinary variation.
Third, I feel like ‘enthusiastic consent’ is sort of disrespectful of people’s agency. If it is someone’s own personal body and their own personal decision, I’m not sure why sex-positive feminism gets to have an opinion about whether their motivations for consenting to sex are pure enough. I do not mean to adopt the full “if I say I want it, you don’t get to say I don’t want it” position. As I mentioned above, it is perfectly reasonable to say “you might want it now, but I’m not convinced you’re going to want it later” to young teenagers and the very drunk. And if I’m in a close relationship with someone, I think there are times it’s okay for them to say “I think you’re having sex with me because you feel guilty (or whatever), and I don’t think that’s good for you, so we’re not going to have sex now.”
Nevertheless, if I am a sober adult, I think my decisions should prima facie be respected. Certainly by casual sex partners, who definitely do not know me well enough to have an opinion about whether I am doing something wrong. But also by feminism as a whole! If a person says “I had sex when I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, and it was a perfectly fine experience and I don’t think it was morally wrong”, we should respect that and incorporate it into our understanding of sexual ethics. At a certain point, one must switch from “okay, everyone needs to do these specific things” to “everyone needs to figure out what works for them and then do that”– and I think whether or not you choose to only have sex when you experience spontaneous desire is well past that line.
My preferred way of discussing ethical sex is ‘affirmative consent’ (which, fortunately for me, seems to be winning out over ‘enthusiastic’). Affirmative consent means that everyone involved in the sex agrees to it voluntarily, noncoerced, and for the entire time the sex is happening. There are various ways to convey such an agreement. The most obvious and the most common is both people actively participating in the sex. You might make an agreement to keep going until the person says “no” or safewords. Or a person might convey with their body language that they would like the sex to continue.