A while back I was giving a workshop on "enthusiastic consent" with fellow sexual ethics researcher and writer, Rachel Hills. During the workshop we met a young woman who provided some interesting and intelligent insights into consent based on her experiences in the BDSM community.
She explained that in BDSM sex (which involves bondage and discipline as well as domination, submission and sadomasochism) there is often a fine line between pleasure and feeling violated. And it's not always easy or straightforward to tell how other sexual partners are feeling or thinking.
This is one of the reasons why "safety words" (words which when uttered halt proceedings) are often used in the BDSM community. But as this woman explained, safety words are not helpful in circumstances where a person is gagged and unable to speak. She then detailed a "traffic light" hand signalling system where green meant go, red meant stop and orange meant either slow down or change tack.
A "good dom" (or dominant sexual partner) she stated, understood the importance of effective communication and would never roll their eyes or consider a sexual partner overly cautious, prudish or precious for wanting to spend time working out effective communication strategies.
Listening to her I realised that members of the BDSM community know something that not all non-members know: that one of the keys to good sex is good communication.
After all, looking back, how many awkward teenage sexual experiences could have been avoided or improved with better communication? And how much better is it (as a male or a female) to have sex with a partner who is willing to tell you what they like and when they are enjoying themselves?
So often discussions about consent are framed in the negative as debates about sexual assault. The moment you even begin discussing consent through a positive framework (such as through the concept of "enthusiastic consent") commentators such as Charles Waterstreet are quick to turn it into a negative, by whinging in hyperbolic terms about written legal consent contracts serving as "wet blankets" for sexual romance.
This is unfortunate as it stifles what could otherwise be an important discussion about developing better communication and ultimately better sex. Long term couples already know this. They know that you don't need a legal document or any such nonsense to have consensual sex, but they also know that the longer you know a partner and the better you can read them (and they, you) the better the sex. Being able to communicate about both pleasure and boundaries in sex is important.
Though not all see it this way. Following a recent post on rape and consent I received the following comment: "If I get invited to a banquet and yummy food is laid out on beautifully adorned tables for the taking, then I assume that I may freely gorge myself on any and all of the delights on offer. One thing is for sure, I certainly don't expect, at this banquet, to be required to ask the hostess for permission to taste or sample each and every morsel on offer. To do so would be tiresome and destroy the flow and spirit of the occasion. And so too it would with sex."
The implication is clear. If you're a woman and you want to engage in any level of sexual contact, be prepared to put everything on offer.
Of course very few men see it this way. In fact all the men I know not only realise the importance of making sure a girl feels good during sex, but they actually want the girl to feel good.
But what about the issue of communicating about sex with a partner who is asleep? In his article, Waterstreet questions why one has to get fresh (conscious) consent for penetrative intercourse, or as he flippantly puts it, "one for the road", if one's partner has fallen asleep. He mockingly suggests that "in future, young lovers should wake their sleeping partners , get them to ring Legal Aid HelpLine for independent advice as to giving consent . . ."
To be clear about this, within some relationships people enjoy waking up to a person performing a sexual act on them. And there is nothing wrong with that provided all people are happy. But it is problematic legally and ethically to assume that it is OK, in general, to have sex with an unconscious or sleeping person. It is also problematic to assume that the default position is that most women would be "cool" with it.
And here is why.
Consent to sex once is not consent forever thereafter (if it were, rape in marriage would not exist). But more than this it can be highly traumatic for a woman to wake up to another person having sex with them, even if they have had consensual sex before.
For starters it changes sex from something enjoyed between two people, to something done to a woman. It also reduces the woman to a masturbatory aid. More than this though, women who experience this often go on to have anxiety sleeping in places where there are other men (such as on planes or hostels) for fear of being raped in their sleep.
The point is not to put a wet blanket on sex but to simply emphasise that communication in sex is not daggy or uncool. Improved communication actually improves sex and good sexual partners know it.