There are a lot of things you can say in favor of a norm of using affirmative verbal consent while having sex. It accommodates people who have a hard time reading other people’s body language, whether because of inexperience or an impairment. It lets people negotiate more specific desires and communicate their preferences more easily. For many people, it decreases ambiguity.
But the real reason I use it is that the alternative seems awkward.
I have a hard time imagining how one would even go about having sex without using affirmative verbal consent. I instinctively imagine it as being a game of Charades. “Three syllables… starts with S… rhymes with ‘duck by dock’…”
Setting that aside and genuinely trying to imagine it as best I can, I can’t help but imagine awkwardness. What if I put my hands down someone’s pants when they just wanted to make out, and then they have to say “uh, I actually don’t want that” and it totally breaks the mood? What if I’m not sure if my partner’s into it and I can’t check? How do I say when I want something? Do you just sort of pull away to get a condom, and how does your partner tell that apart from pulling away because you don’t want sex? Am I allowed to tell them that they’re sexy? For fuck’s sake, how do you ever get out of that state where you’re both cuddling on the bed together and you want to have sex but you keep getting distracted arguing about Star Wars?
(And yes, when I have had sex without affirmative verbal consent, it has been hella awkward.)
I observe that when people say they don’t want to use affirmative verbal consent, a lot of times they say they don’t want to use it because it’s awkward. It breaks the mood to ask the other person if they want to kiss. They’re not sure how often they should ask or how to ask without sounding creepy or supplicating. They kind of think the entire business sounds like signing a contract that says that the undersigned, being of sound mind, consents to seven (7) kisses and gentle caresses around the area of the left buttock.
I used to think “you people are crazy, obviously verbal consent is the only non-awkward way to do things.” But now I think we’re both right.
I am used to using verbal affirmative consent. Other people are used to using nonverbal affirmative consent. Either way, our default actions, our instincts, our ability to read others, is based on a certain set of norms. Of course it’s awkward to try to use a different set of norms! We don’t know what we’re doing, what’s acceptable or unacceptable, or how to tell if the other person is into it. It’s just like switching any other set of norms. There’s nothing inherently awkward about driving on the right side of the street, but you’ll certainly feel awkward if you’re used to driving on the left.
Sophia Kovaleva said:
I use both sets of norms depending on how well I know my parter and how much I trust them. The issue with verbal consent for me is that sex and even cuddles make me mildly non-verbal (or not mildly, if it’s sufficiently intense), and making myself talk anyway is a noticeable mental overhead and effort. So instead of doing that, I prefer to put up with the risk of having my boundaries accidentally crossed, as long as the risk is sufficiently low – i.e. when my parter broadly knows my usual preferences and trust them to try new things slowly and carefully. If, on the other hand, I’m only getting to know the partner, or I’m trying an entirely new thing with an established partner, then the risks are higher, and it’s better to communicate explicitly. Mixing also works: if I fail to communicate something non-verbally, I can fall back to verbal communication. Also, my desire is almost entirely responsive, so the most common verbal answer to “may I do the thing?” is “I can’t really predict how I would feel about it, so please try carefully, and then I’ll see if I want more or not”. It is sufficiently common that it’s reasonably safe to assume this by default and act accordingly. But again, using such norms requires a certain amount of mutual knowledge and trust that isn’t always available upon the first encounter.
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Doug S. said:
My wife sometimes gets annoyed when I ask for explicit verbal consent. She’s very much a member of the “stop wasting time talking and get to it” school of sex…
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Since I didn’t get around to commenting on the last several posts, I’ll take this moment to say welcome back, I’m glad to see new essays on Thing of Things again! 🙂
I imagine what this post is saying is right, but I suspect I fall somewhere in the middle (not that I’ve done anything sexual for a very long time, so I’m not completely sure of how I feel anymore). That is, on the one hand, I’m very timid of taking initiative with anything whatsoever unless I know to a very high degree of certainty that the other person wants it. This probably comes from both a rational (if perhaps exaggerated) fear of even a minor thing happening nonconsensually and more of a primal phobia of taking that kind of initiative, period. On the other hand, using common phrases in a matter-of-fact way (e.g. “Do you want to have sex?”, and let’s not even get into terms like “doggie style”) and completely explicitly specifying and agreeing on what to do really takes away a lot of the vibe for me, for reasons suggested in the post.
So I think the approach I’d most likely take if I found myself in a sexual situation again would be to make gestures and vague utterances like “May I?”, “Is this okay?”, “You sure?”, “Okay, so is this happening?”, etc. while keeping eye contact. But I really don’t know if this would be optimal, and what works best would probably depend on the partner and the situation.
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You also have the people who feel awkward bringing up the topic of sex verbally and non-verbally.
A related issue to verbal contesting being awkward to some people is that it many might believe it also comes across as non-sexy and mood killing. Its possible to be seductive when asking for consent verbally but it helps to have a particular tone of voice and emotional state. If you end up sounding whiny for whatever reason, it doesn’t sound so good. It can be nerve wrecking.
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Was talking about this with one of my partners lately and we realised that some kinds of D/s make this a lot easier.
I would probably find it a little awkward to just like, ask him if he wants a blowjob, but start that question with ‘please sir’ and suddenly it’s a lot easier. It’s a little harder at the top cause *asking* can be tricky (unless it’s in the format ‘you want [x] don’t you, you slut’) but you can ‘tell’ and wait for a reaction.
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