Mapping the Gray Areas

Over at Asexual Agenda, queenieofaces wrote this week about finding new ways to talk about consent and sexuality that account for the gray areas between good sex and rape. The idea is to start mapping out more of the complexities of sexual experiences than simply consent=good non consent=illegal.

This is a big project that’s going to require lots of voices and lots of stories. It will probably create new words and new conceptions of what sex is and how to have a good sex life (I suspect this will include the idea that it’s not the same for everyone).

I’d suggest reading Queenie’s post first, as I’m going to be building from a lot of her thoughts. And similarly to Queenie, this will not be a clear, narrative piece with an obvious point. We’re still at the stage of musing and identifying topics, so it might be a little ranty.

One of the things that seems most fundamental to this conversation that is missing from a lot of conversations about consent is that people are capable of having sex that is non-coercive, relatively enjoyable, and entirely ethical for reasons other than being attracted to their partner (or feeling attraction in the moment).

These reasons can include but are not limited to: you like making your partner feel good, you find it physically enjoyable even if you’re not all over your partner, you expect to become aroused and interested once things get started, or you’re simply ambivalent about the whole thing and it makes no difference to you.

On the flip side, we also tend to forget that it’s possible to vocally consent to sex and still have shitty, traumatizing, painful, bad sex that is ethically dubious. This includes things like feeling pressured to have sex (not necessarily by your partner, but simply because of compulsory sexuality), having past traumas or PTSD that affects your enjoyment now, having self confidence or body image issues, or just fear of hurting your partner’s feelings.

There are a lot of societal attitudes or tropes that contribute to making sex a game of pressure and power for many people who just want to be able to say they’re not interested if they’re not interested. For me, one of the worst of these is the idea that your partner is keeping track (see: asshole spreadsheet guy). There’s this idea that people are keeping track of who’s orgasmed and when, how long it’s been since sex last happened, who’s reciprocated what. It’s as if everyone is supposed to keep a tally sheet in their head of whether they’re getting what they’re due.

It took me the better part of five years to learn how to say no to anything in bed, ever. Sure, I knew I was supposed to and that I didn’t have to do anything I wasn’t interested in, but the pressure that I would be seen as withholding or bitchy or uninterested or prudish, or that if I said no too many times my boyfriend would start to hate me (secret: this does happen and did happen quite a number of times) left me with no conception of how to actually enforce my boundaries, even when I still loved and cared about the person and would probably want to have sex with them again some other time.

Were those times coercive? Were they inappropriate? I said yes, but I wasn’t certain that no was an option. These are the kinds of situations that don’t get addressed as often. Now that I finally have figured out how to say no and have a partner who encourages me to do so and regularly checks in to see what I want (and then if I hesitate at all double checks because he’s awesome), I still have a background feeling that there’s a tally somewhere, so if I say no tonight, I am going to need to say yes tomorrow. Are there ways that we can dismantle the idea that there’s a certain amount of time you can say no for before you become selfish and relationship destroying? Can we make sexless relationships (or even temporarily sexless relationships) more ok?

In a recent post on Jezebel, a variety of experts weigh in on “maintenance sex”, or sex that you have when your partner is interested but you’re not quite in the mood. A lot of “gray” sex falls into this category, and we need more scripts talking about how to determine if your partner’s ok with it and if you’re ok with it. Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to know what you yourself are up for. Am I just not interested at this exact moment because I wasn’t thinking about sex or am I actually just not in the mood right now? Some people find that if they compromise and say yes to their partner they end up having a great time. Some people find the exact opposite. How do you learn this without trauma, how do you communicate it, and how do you consent or withdraw consent?

This is especially difficult for people who are somewhere on the asexual end of the spectrum, as determining what sounds like fun in the bedroom can often be a confusing and expectation laden endeavor that never actually gives us what we want. For me personally, my sex drive and even level of attraction to anyone fluctuates wildly at different times. There are no conversations about how to navigate this in a long term relationship beyond “find someone with a compatible sex drive,” “don’t have sex,” or “you owe your partner sex”.

One of the things that we don’t talk about very often that might be a really good choice is the ability to change your mind. Most people think it’s super rude to stop midway through sex (something about a point of no return), but I promise that if your partner respects you, they have the ability to stop. I suspect that opening up the ability to make changes to consent partway through would alleviate a lot of the shitty experiences that people have that don’t constitute rape. It might be as simple as deciding you don’t want to be penetrated but would rather do something else.

It’s been said before, but the disturbing focus on orgasm as the complete and utter point of sex gets in the way of all of this. It also tends to lead to a lot of performance anxieties for everyone involved (which happen for lots of other reasons too, something else to talk about). It’s possible that a lot of less than spectacular sex could be avoided if one partner just said “hey, I’m not feeling it, up for a blowjob instead?”

None of this is to say that sex always has to be mindblowing. None of this is to say that no sex is always better than eh sex. But in lots of other areas of life, we’re willing to have more conversation about how to take routine experiences and make them better. In sex, that often gets turned into “how to have mindblowing orgasm crazy awesome best sex ever” instead of “how to make this part of your life work for you”.

Sometimes “I just don’t feel like it” is a 100% acceptable reason to take things in a different direction. And as Queenie said, sometimes there are no right circumstances that will make you feel like it. You’re just not going to want to do that thing. Hard limits don’t have to be for kink communities only. They can be things like “touching my stomach” or “kissing that overly sensitive spot on my thigh” or even something as basic as tickling. Of course none of these things are on par with rape or sexual assault, but when we’re talking about sex we need to learn how to accept that our partners have a complete and total right to their preferences, and that they have no obligation to bend those preferences simply because we want them to.

There also seems to be a cultural paranoia around hurting someone’s feelings when it comes to their sexual performance. Of course we shouldn’t be jerks about telling our partner that we’re not having a good time, but sex isn’t some magical realm in which people are free from all criticism. You still get to say when things aren’t working for you. If people don’t internalize that fact, there’s going to be a lot of shitty sex that doesn’t need to happen.

If I could wave some sort of magic sex wand (hehe, dildo) and change one thing (other than rape) about the way U.S. society talks about sex, I would get rid of the idea that there’s only one script for sex. You have to come up with your own scripts each time, navigating what’s working for you and your partner instead of relying on assumptions that making out leads to handsiness leads to going down leads to penetration, and that you have to have a reason or excuse if you want to do it differently.

I don’t have any clear cut insights about when sex falls into the ethically dubious category or how to make sex into something that is generally a good experience for all the people having it. But if we can start talking about the ways that sex isn’t just about sexual attraction and intense horniness, that would be great.

5 thoughts on “Mapping the Gray Areas

  1. […] and “compatibility.”  Or, a bunch more grey things and too-much-brain things.Olivia brought up some excellent points about tally sheets, the background pressure of “balance” and […]

  2. […] recently read Olivia’s post in the gray area conversation (if you click the link, expect to see a large, close-up picture of […]

  3. […] were a few responses to Queenie’s post about sexual grey areas.  epochryphal discussed grey consent, had some more thoughts […]

  4. […] mapping of the gray area of consent brought up one of the factors that makes consent so complicated, and it’s one that I […]

  5. […] Queenie first proposed that we begin discussing it last week. I contributed my own minor thoughts here, and I’ve really appreciated the ways that others have built off or challenged those […]

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