Kesha’s Rainbow is Life

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this here on the blog before, but I adore Kesha. Her music was something my husband and I bonded over right away, and she’s held a special place in my heart since then. During the shit show with Dr. Assface (I refuse to write or say his real name), I grew to feel a particular kind of fondness for her. I was proud of her for standing up for herself and fighting for herself. And I was beyond sad when I thought that she might never release music again.

Last week Kesha released her first new album in 5 years. It’s almost unbelievable that she still has a career after that long away. And while I loved Kesha’s music before, her new album has brought something new and much deeper to the table, so much so that I have found the album as a whole to be completely transformative, an anthem for survivors, and honestly my favorite piece of media to come out in years. Beyond the album itself, Kesha has been releasing essays that go with many of her songs. She also has taken an interesting approach to the release itself, putting out 4 singles with videos before the album dropped, which totals a full third of the album available before the official release date.

As an intertextual piece of media, Kesha has created an amazing summation of the experience of healing from abuse. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really dug into a text and I am 100% obsessed with this album, so for this week, hopefully as a small spot of light in an otherwise dumpster fire trash pile of a time, I’m going to be breaking down the album, analyzing some of the lyrics, and talking about how it exemplifies the experience of a survivor.

Today I’m going to start by talking about some elements of the album as a whole, and for the next week or so I’m going to delve into specific songs. Let’s do it!

The thing that strikes me first and most intensely about Rainbow and the accompanying essays are not what Kesha says, but what she doesn’t say. Kesha’s album comes after a very long and very public trial with Dr. Douchecanoe, but nowhere in her album does she mention him, sexual assault, a trial, or anything else that could be seen as a particular that points towards the whole business. She doesn’t even reference the experience in anything that could be considered a “direct” way. The two places that stand out the most to me as Kesha pointing towards Dr. Luke are the entirely of “Praying” (which lyrically is simply a song about one person who feels another person has wronged them), and in the essay about “Woman”, when she writes “I really have to thank Stephen Wrabel and Drew Pearson for helping me through the past few years and making writing songs a beautiful thing again. Both of those men made my art/work safe and fun, and every session with the two of them was so healing.”

I’ll dig into deeper depth on that last comment when I write about woman, but what strikes me about all this is how careful Kesha is being. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but the whole business reads like a manual on how to avoid charges of libel, and that to me is such a deep part of the modern woman’s experience of sexual assault. The ways that Kesha talks around her assault are just as telling as what she says. Women today have more freedom to talk about sexual assault, but they are only allowed to do so in an abstract way. “I was sexually assaulted,” is an acceptable, poignant, personal story. “He sexually assaulted me,” is cause for a lawsuit. Within the context that we ALL know who Kesha is talking about, and the subject matter of much of the album makes it less a capitulation to these pressures and more an in-joke in which we are all aware what she’s really saying, but she’s playing by the “rules”. And for those women who have not been able to speak up about their abuse or assault, it feels to me like an affirmation: you still deserve your healing. There are still ways to heal. There are ways to move forward and those of us who have been there will support you.

This odd tension in the album exemplifies to me the expectations of how women are supposed to deal with sexual assault, and the challenges it can present.

Which brings me to the overall theme of the album: healing. It’s named after a song whose lyrics say that you will find a rainbow. By itself, that message seems trite and almost dismissive of the real pain of sufferers. But the reason this album is so successful to me is its diversity. Rainbow covers a surprising array of musical styles, from horns heavy “Woman”, to the simple and indie feeling “Dinosaur,” all the way through a country duet with Dolly Parton. Each of these songs alone does not paint a full picture of trauma and recovery. However that seems like an important recognition to me: no single emotion or reaction is enough to encapsulate someone’s experience of trauma. That’s why Kesha required a full album plus essays. Each piece is a very real experience, whether that’s forgiving the person who hurt you, hating the person who hurt you, feeling proud of yourself, or fulfilling childhood dreams. An individual person can feel all of these things, or different people could experience their trauma in all of these different ways, and nothing about any of these experiences in invalid or incorrect.

Everyone reacts to trauma or assault differently. It would have been easy for Kesha to create an album that spoke only about her experiences. However she created something that made space for all the reactions someone could have, and beyond that, it recognized the long path its taken for her to get to where she is. By opening up about the variety of her experiences, and not creating a pretty picture for us all to see now that she’s healthy again, she opened the door to validating thousands of other experiences.

The format and styling of the album overall give an important picture of sexual assault, but there’s one additional element that I think is important, and that’s Kesha’s choice to write and publish essays about four of her singles as well as short paragraphs on every track. I’m going to do a longer post just on how fascinating that is as a medium choice, but for now I want to point out how that experience of feeling, then stepping back and analyzing your feelings, is so common for people who are struggling with trauma, depression, or anxiety. The sense of distance from yourself, combined with the need to question everything and provide evidence for everything feels so familiar to me, especially when I think about my own experiences with sexual assault.

Again, I’m not sure that Kesha did that intentionally, but her choice of a dual medium is a brilliant mirror of what the experience of recovery can feel like. Interacting with an album that validates my experiences, talks openly about emotions, engages in a realistic way with assault and trauma, and ends feeling uplifting is so powerful to me. Seeing a woman who was supposed to shut up and go away come back and create amazing art that not only blows everyone away but also quietly thumbs its nose at her abuser is truly amazing. I can’t say enough about how powerful Rainbow is for me. I suggest you give it a listen.

Do I Get to Be Queer?

I am on the asexual spectrum. I’m not sure if there’s a great word for me. I’ve slipped in and out of demisexual, but it’s never felt 100% correct. My sexuality is a flitting thing: it comes and goes as it pleases, often with no rhyme or reason. One day I’ll feel sexual attraction to my fiance in a perfectly normal fashion, the next it will disappear for a month, two months, six months.

It’s stressful, and I have yet to encounter a community that describes quite this experience or gives a name to it. I find that particularly difficult. It makes it feel as if my sexuality isn’t real. I still have not entirely convinced myself that I get to claim the word asexual, even though it’s fairly clear when I look at my life and my patterns, I am definitely not allosexual.

Which makes it even harder to talk about the word queer, or about being in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I consider myself an ally. I don’t like to use that word very often because if I have to tell someone I’m an ally I’m really not doing it right, but I think it’s important in this context to recognize that I explicitly think of myself as an outsider when it comes to queer spaces. When I go to gay clubs or pride, I only go with queer friends, and actively identify myself as a straight, cis person: I try not to talk too much, and to be in the background. I think of myself as a guest.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have a sexuality that fits into the norm. My sexuality has very directly impacted my life in ways that led to sexual assault, breakups, and dismissal by the people I love most. I very much struggle with the idea that oppression is what makes someone queer: if a gay person grew up in an accepting family and never experienced bullying, harassment, or cruelty because of their sexuality, they would still be gay. They would still be a part of the queer community. So I struggle to understand what exactly defines queerness, and who gets to decide what groups are part of that umbrella.

The best I can understand is that queerness has to do with disrupting the status quo. And as far as that is concerned, my sexuality certainly fits. It fits enough that it has disrupted every relationship I have ever been in. It disrupts enough that I have had a therapist ask me if it was maybe actually just my mental illness not my sexuality.

So why do I not feel comfortable identifying as such? Why do I still feel like an outsider at Pride, or other gay/queer spaces?

The question of whether or not asexuality fits under the queer umbrella is fairly hotly debated, with some people suggesting that aces don’t experience enough oppression to count and ace people suggesting that they feel alienated by mainstream conceptions of sexuality and would like a safe space to come together, just as other LGBT folks do.

I see a few reasons why aces SHOULD fit in queer spaces, as well as a few reasons why many queer spaces aren’t a good fit. Because I am constitutionally incapable of letting any question about my identity be until I’ve driven it into the dirt, I’m going to spend some time detailing those reasons, and the best definitions of “queer” as I understand them, to better get to the bottom of why I feel like I don’t get to claim that label and to understand if I should.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back: what IS queer?

There isn’t a single, great definition of queerness. But most definitions are explicit in saying that queerness is political. Nadia Cho suggests “Being queer is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a worldview characterized by acceptance, through which one embraces and validates all the unique, unconventional ways that individuals express themselves, particularly with respect to gender and sexual orientation.” Under this definition, anyone who actively embraces alternative genders and sexualities or who identifies as an outside the mainstream gender or sexuality, could be queer.

The Unitarian Universalist Association gives a breakdown of quite a few potential definitions:

-being attracted to more than one gender
-not fitting cultural norms with regard to sexuality/gender
-non-heterosexual
-transgressive or challenging the status quo

Pflag suggests that “queer” means a nonbinary gender or sexuality.

Historically, queer was a slur, which means that for many people using it as an identifier today is all about reclamation. Some people focus on that element: on the oppression of it. I see three major definitions of “queer”: outside the norm (which some people define as heterosexual and cis), challenging the status quo, and oppressed with regards to sexuality or gender.

There are certainly some of these that don’t make sense with asexuality. Asexuality has nothing to do with being nonbinary, or with being attracted to more than one gender (although someone might experience romantic attraction or a gender identity in these ways and be asexual). I will suggest that these definitions don’t encompass all the identities we typically consider “queer”: for example we often include trans individuals under the queer umbrella, and that does not necessarily make someone nonbinary or attracted to more than one gender. However if we really do want to define queer by either of these definitions, then it would make sense for asexuality not to fall under that label.

Another reason that aces often don’t fit in queer spaces is that queer spaces can often be incredibly sexualized: Pride is often all about embracing sex and sexiness, queer people tend to gather in clubs, or at drag events. What aces need from their safe spaces isn’t always what gay, lesbian, bi, and pan folks need. Instead of wanting a place to express their sexuality, they often want somewhere that they can feel safe from sexuality. I’m not sure that this means aces aren’t queer, but it does mean that we need our own unique spaces.

The definition where the rubber seems to meet the road for many people is “oppressed with regards to gender or sexuality.” Many people who use the word queer have expressed frustration with the idea that aces could be part of their community when asexual people don’t experience the same oppression that trans, gay, bi, and lesbian folks do. And this is where we can talk facts instead of just debating which meaning seems or feels best to us.

Asexual people have and do experience oppression. Our identities are invalidated, called fake, mocked, and ignored, often by people who claim to be progressive. More often than not, asexual people are told they’re broken, sick, or need therapy (and yes, saying that someone’s sexuality is an illness is definitely oppressive). We’re erased from media, from sex education, from discussions of diversity. We’re told we’ll never be happy and that no one will want us if we won’t have sex. If you believe that oppression is only when someone’s rights are taken away, then I suppose aces aren’t oppressed, but if you think the systematic erasure and dehumanization of a group isn’t oppression I don’t really know what to do with you.

Worse, it’s absolutely an ace experience to receive threats, abuse, rape, or violence because of our sexual orientation. Saying no to sex can be dangerous, especially if someone thinks that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough. I know very few aces who haven’t experienced some form of violence or abuse because of their orientation.

Beyond all of this, no personal individual has to experience oppression in order to be queer. There are white, rich, cis, gay men who have never encountered discrimination in their personal lives but no one is denying their right to be a part of the community. Oppression simply doesn’t make sense as a litmus test.

So how DO aces fit into the queer community?

Well I’d say the biggest and most obvious way is that they’re a sexual minority, and just as non hetero or cis identities challenge the status quo, so do non allo identities. Compulsory sexuality is a huge part of how society today understands relationships and sexuality, and it is deeply tied to heteronormativity and monosexuality. When you live an identity that questions whether sex is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life, you challenge the status quo. Asexuality certainly fits outside the mainstream understanding of sex and sexual identities, I would suggest even more than gay or lesbian identities (many people still don’t even know what asexuality is or believe it exists). If queerness is about being different, well asexuality DEFINITELY fits.

And as an ace, the most important reason that I want to be a part of the queer community is because I want a community where I don’t feel like an outsider, where I don’t feel judged, or where I don’t feel that others think I’m broken. Obviously queer communities aren’t perfect and may still act negatively towards aces, but the idea of having a connection with other people who feel that their sexuality is different sounds very important and positive to me. Aces, as a minority community have said that they want to feel that sense of belonging, and that sounds important to me.

At the end of all this, I still don’t feel as if I should make a strong statement about whether asexuality fits within the queer spectrum, because I am cis and hetero. What I will say is that I can’t fully understand arguments against it, and I do see a benefit to including it. If the queer community wants me, I’d be happy to be a part of it.

What Would You Change About Perceptions of Sex?

I was recording a podcast last week (shoutout Hypotheticast!) and we got into one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard regarding sex: if you could change something about the way society perceives or approaches sex, what would it be?

If you want to hear my first thoughts, check out the Hypotheticast in a few weeks and listen to me talk about things! But because the ‘cast is supposed to be quick, fun type things, I had more thoughts and I wanted to share them here.

There are a few nice, obvious answers to this: virginity as a construct, the idea that sex has to be just two people or PIV sex, the idea that sex is something you can take from another person…but boy oh boy do I have a lot of thoughts about the ways that queer, kinky, polyamorous, and asexual communities can really expand our definitions of sex and I want to get all the way into it here.

The many problems with the concept of virginity have been discussed ad nauseum on other parts of the internet, but I do think that the pervasiveness of “virginity” points towards a larger attitude about sex that I truly hate. This attitude is summed up by the statement “sex is a threshold”. I touch on this in the podcast, but I want to get into more depth here, because I think that this attitude, that sex is a line and when you pass it everything changes, extends into almost every realm of sex.

It’s easy to see what I’m talking about when we look at virginity: there’s before you have sex and after you have sex. Supposedly (especially for women) this is a huge change in your life that makes you into a totally different person, or changes your worth or purity, or marks a big moment in your life. But the idea that sex changes everything extends far beyond that.

As I mention in the podcast there is something called the relationship escalator, so called because you can only go one direction. Sex is a huge part of this; once you have sex with someone, many people believe that it changes the relationship forever. You can never go back to NOT having sex without it being a big damn deal (a breakup or something similar).

In fact we’re so obsessed with how sex changes a relationship that we have whole stand up routines about when you should have sex for the first time (is it three dates? first date??), we make snap judgments about people who have sex on the first date, there are tons of tropes about men who will disappear once they get sex, and entire segments of our population are convinced that if you have sex before marriage then you have sinned. Many people who don’t think that are even willing to concede that you should be very very careful about who you have sex with, because having sex will create a deep, emotional bond or make the relationship inherently more serious. Wowsers, apparently one activity completely changes relationships in a way that no other activity does.

In addition to the way that we see sex within any individual relationship, we also see it as a bar that determines which of our relationships are important and which are not. Sex supposedly makes a relationship more important. Relationships in which we have sex are seen as more serious, and are supposed to take more of your time and attention than relationships that don’t include sex. It’s a threshold that determines whether a relationship is real or not.

Sex is seen as a threshold and once you’ve passed it you can’t go back.

Tied into this is the idea that romance and sex are inextricably linked, and in some cases even the same thing. When we’re talking about attraction, many people think that there’s just one type and that it encompasses both sexual and romantic attraction. In reality those are two different things. One is the desire to have sex with someone. The other is those happy warm butterfly feelings you get when you just want to be around someone. But for many people this threshold view of sex includes the idea that romance needs sex, and that until it includes sex it’s not real or legitimate. It also implies that if you have a romantic relationship with someone you WANT sex with someone, and your relationship will be aiming towards sex.

Unfortunately, none of this is really how human beings actually work.

Sometimes we have sex with someone and then realize hey, this doesn’t work for me, and want to go back to being friends. Some people are asexual and have fulfilled romantic relationships that don’t include sex. For some people, the most important relationship in their life is entirely platonic and will never include sex: it might be a friend. And in fact there are other elements of a relationship that will often determine how important it is than whether you’re having sex. Sure, for some people sex is a sign of commitment, but it’s a pretty limited view of humans to assume that all of us connect with each other in exactly the same way. I for example become far more committed if I have long conversations with someone than if I have sex with them. Some people even manage to have sex with multiple people without it becoming a big concern about who is their One (polyamory is real y’all).

People have all different reactions to having sex. For some people it can change relationships in a big way. But for other people it really doesn’t, and putting this hyper focus on sex in relationships rather than letting people figure out for themselves what really makes relationships for them can give people tons of hang ups. It means that sex becomes a huge, scary thing and we become VERY concerned about who is having sex with whom when really it’s nobody’s business. It also limits the ways that we can organize our relationships. People have the ability to have so many different types of relationships, but when we make sex a marker like this, we tell people that there is one type of relationship that should be the most important. In my experience, when society says that there is one way to live your life that is acceptable or “normal”, a lot of people who don’t naturally work that way end up screwed over.

We also have lots of weird ideas about how much sex people should be having. We assume that everyone wants sex, or that everyone SHOULD want sex (if you don’t then there’s probably something wrong with you, you’re sick or traumatized or repressed), but at the same time we seem to believe that the more partners you have, the less important each one is. There’s a lot to unpack there. First, not everyone has the same physical relationship with sex. Some people have low libidos, some people have high libidos. Some people have been raped or traumatized by sex and feel pretty uncomfortable with it. Some people orgasm a lot and others don’t. Not everyone wants sex, and the divide is not along gender lines as many people think. Asexual people are real, and they don’t feel sexual attraction at all. Some of them are sex repulsed, or simply not interested in sex. Many people assume that sex is always better than no sex: sex is inherently good. That’s just not true. Sex can be a negative or neutral experience for all sorts of reasons.

The other major problem with statements about how much sex we should be having and with how many different people is the idea that if you do something with more people, it becomes less meaningful. I have news for you friends: I could pet every cat in the world, and it would not make my cuddles with my sweet, dear, departed Sid Vicious any less precious. Giving your time and attention to someone isn’t diminished because you also care about other people. In some ways this harkens back to the threshold view of sex: you’re supposed to have one relationship of the sex/romantic type, and it is the most important one. If you move two relationships up to that point, then neither one is the most important. Neither is getting its due. But literally all of that is bullshit. There is no reason that sex is the one type of romantic that needs to be exclusive. There’s no reason that of all the things in the world, sex is the only one that gets worse if you share (no friends, that’s chicken pox). And let’s be honest, there is something weird and arbitrary about saying that everyone loves fucking but you should only love fucking one person or it’s BAD AND WRONG.

Basically if I could change one thing about how society perceives sex, I would make it less important. Sure, sex is cool. But we create this whole mythos around it. It becomes so intensely important to us: we make moral judgments about it, we want to know who’s having sex with whom, we worry we’re not having enough sex or about sex addiction. It’s just one activity that people can do together out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities. Let’s just all calm down. It doesn’t matter that much.

The Semantics of Rape

I’m baaaack! Sorry it’s been so long, but with GISHWHES and a week on vacation without internet, there was no way I was going to be posting. I’m happy to be back in action though, and so I decided to take on a topic that I’m sure will piss some people off. Hooray! I want to give you a basic template for determining if a rape has occurred, and who is culpable.

Let’s talk about drunk sex.

Or rather, let’s talk about rape, because drunk people cannot consent and people who have sex with nonconsenting people are committing rape.

Or rather, let’s talk about what it means to “have sex with” someone. That phrase seems really simple, but it can obscure quite a bit. When you hear that phrase, do you imagine that one person is acting on another, or that two people are doing something together? Sometimes I hear it used to mean one, sometimes the other. That is a huge problem for dialogues around consent and rape, because the difference between those two parsings is the difference between sex and rape.

Most of the time we can tell if one person is the active participant or if both people are actively participating in sex. We don’t always talk about rape that way. We don’t necessarily talk about the things that the rapist did. We talk about the things the victim did: did they run away, did they fight, did they scream. But we don’t talk about who is initiating contact, who escalates from kissing to touching, who removes clothing, who initiates penetration, etc. Those are usually pretty good markers of who is an active participant in an encounter (there are obvious exceptions, particularly in BDSM situations, but those exceptions almost always require pre-negotiation or a pre-existing relationship that uses non-verbal and mutually discussed cues to indicate if someone is consenting).

Where many people get confused is when alcohol comes into play. How does consent work between two drunk people? Aren’t we all raping each other because pretty much all of us have had sex while drunk?

I think things are both more confusing than many feminists want to realize (it is not just as simple as “consent is easy, any time a penis touches a vagina while people are drunk a man has raped a woman”) and less confusing than most other people want to recognize (we can figure this out, I promise). It hinges on those two meanings of “having sex with.” Most people want there to be a single metric to understand if a rape occurred and who did it. Typically that is consent: who was capable of giving it, who gave it. When alcohol is in the mix, I think we need to have a two step process instead. Step 1: determine who could consent. Step 2: determine who “had sex with” whom. Rape is not just the presence or absence of consent: it is continuing to engage in sex without the presence of consent. So we need to determine both pieces. That can be tricky when we’re not willing to talk about the nitty gritty of what it actually looks like to be an active participant in sex, and who was being active.

A big disclaimer: this DOES NOT mean victim blaming. It DOES NOT mean that if a person was active up to a point and then stopped being active, they were “having sex” the whole time. It DOES NOT mean that any prior sexual activity is relevant. What it means is using the actual facts to determine who was the aggressor. He took off her pants and she did nothing? He was having sex with her. She pulled him upstairs and grabbed his dick? She was having sex with him. While it sucks for victims to have to relive what has happened to them, it is also important to know the details of what happened, and that is true of any crime. This is not an excuse for cops or other officials to act as if a victim is a criminal or to force them to recount it over and over. A victim should give a detailed account once, and that should be good enough, unless they have left out a detail, or someone is confused.

I will in a future post discuss how we teach young people to both be active participants in sex, EVEN IF one person is more assertive or you’re doing a sub/dom scene, or one person likes receiving. But for now, let’s accept that we do a shitty job of talking about mutual assertiveness in sex, and recognize that who is doing what is an important part of discussing rape.

Ok.

So step one: if only one person can consent and sex occurred, their partner raped them. If both people can consent, then great! Go to step two to help determine IF both people consented. Can neither person consent? This is the situation that most people seem greatly concerned about, especially in college campuses. What happens if both people are drunk?

Step two: was this a mutual encounter and everyone could consent? Great! You’ve had sex, and no one raped anyone!
Could everyone consent, but only one person acted while the other didn’t reciprocate? This is probably a red flag. It could have been negotiated this way, but encounters that are entirely one sided should probably get you to look a little more closely at them, whether they’re your own or whether you’re an official trying to decide if someone was raped or not. Get some more information about who says they consented.

Now we get to the one that EEEEEVERYONE is interested in. What if no one could consent? What if everyone was drunk? Here’s where it becomes incredibly important who actually actively participated. If only one person was active, then they are the only rapist. It doesn’t matter that sex involves two bodies, if only one person is making it happen, EVEN IF both people are drunk, then only that person is culpable. We cannot assume that that person was the man because that’s bullshit. We have to ask who did what to determine who was the aggressor. Many people get caught up on step one (which really isn’t that confusing) and forget about step two (which sometimes can be confusing, and is awkward to talk about, and really sucks for victims, but is necessary).

If both people are drunk and actively participating, then they both violated each other’s consent and are both culpable. We can discuss whether it’s possible for two people to rape each other or what the harm is in this situation, but it’s NOT the same as when one drunk person takes advantage of another drunk person. These are the situations that I worry are obscured when feminists use metaphors or parallels to other crimes that someone can commit when they’re drunk: most other crimes do not also come with a high likelihood of the criminal being a victim as well. When a feminist says that a drunk rapist is still a rapist, just like someone who drives drunk is still culpable, they miss that sex always involves two people, and that we do need to take the time to ask if both people were actively involved.

This is why we can’t just say two that two drunk people had sex with each other. That phrase obscures that sometimes it’s a one sided action and sometimes it’s mutual. That’s why many people are so concerned that their child or friend or acquaintance is going to be held responsible for a mutual encounter, instead of recognizing that the majority of the time we are talking about encounters in which only one person was active. In fact, it’s incredibly common for rapists to intentionally get their victims drunk and themselves remain barely buzzed so that they can use the confusion around the phrase to defend themselves. Those situations are the reason that feminists and other activists are so concerned with alcohol and rape. So please, if you find yourself wondering why one person is being held responsible for “drunk sex” but not the other, look at who actually did things. You might learn something.

 

 

Sexual Ethics 201

It’s easy to say that the concept of consent is simple and easy to understand. Communicate clearly with your partner, if they say yes, continue. If they don’t say yes, then don’t continue.

Unfortunately nothing in life is ever quite so simple. This conception of consent is good when it comes to not raping people. But not raping people is a pretty low ethical bar. It’s basically the absolute base level we should be shooting for when it comes to our sexual ethics. But many people think about consent and sex and believe that if they didn’t force their partner to do something, or if they were open about what they wanted, then everything is fine. If the other person said yes, they’ve consented and everything is fine. Good to go, right?

Well, maybe not. Because even if you’re not sexually assaulting someone or pressuring them into sex or secretly springing things on them in the middle of sex, you can still be setting someone up for really bad decisions. You can put pressure on them without realizing it. You can ask for a lot and not give much in return. Your wants and needs can end up functioning as conditions for sex (e.g. I only want to have sex with people who will have sex with my partner as well because we are a couple).

Oftentimes these things happen when we are trying to be honest about what we do or do not want. That’s ok. One of the difficult things about being in relationships is that oftentimes just saying what we think or feel or want is not enough to make sure everyone comes out of an interaction feeling good.

Let’s think of consent like a contract, just as a hypothetical for a minute.

Sometimes people write really shitty contracts that put a lot more onus on one party than the other. It might be a job contract that works one party too hard for not enough money. They might provide all of the information about that contract to the other party, and make sure the other person isn’t intoxicated or manipulated into signing. But they still put the person into a bad situation by giving them an option forward that takes advantage of them. And especially if you’re entering into a contract with someone who cares about you, it’s easy for them to forget to make sure things are set up fairly. You might not be assaulting or violating someone by asking them to enter into an unfair or harmful agreement, but you’re still being a jackass. And when that person loves you, it’s far more likely that they’ll do it.

As my friend Miri said, “I think we need a more nuanced view than “if I didn’t force them it’s ok/if they technically consented it’s ok,” and part of that is acknowledging that shit can go kind of haywire when such strong rushes of emotion are involved and that if we care about each other, we should look out for each other. Not in a patronizing “let me decide for you because you’re not in your right mind” way, but in a caring “wow I am setting up a fucked-up choice for you to have to make, aren’t I” way.”

I think one huge barrier when it comes to clear consent is when the two partners have different ideas of what constitutes sex. It might be about the progression of intimacy. Many people assume that if you start making out, you’re going to progress to taking clothes off, and if you progress to taking clothes off, then you’re going to end up having penetrative sex. None of those things HAVE to be true, and it’s very possible and often very comfortable for someone to only want one of those things. I personally have had situations where I felt this pressure (if I do x, partner will want y) and have chosen to only consent to x when I am also willing to do y. But that doesn’t always mean that I’m very excited about y. It ends up creating a lot of bitterness in the relationship because I cannot consent to just the act I want to do, and while I can do the internal work of figuring out what I want, sometimes it just feels confusing.

Part of being a good partner is that when you are asking someone else for something, especially something that tends to prioritize your wants or desires over your partner’s, you need to be very good about communicating to them what it is that you’re thinking of, but ALSO that it’s alright for them to ask for adjustments to your request. If you’re asking your partner to try out a new kink that involves getting tied up and spanked, you’re actually asking them two things: do you want to get tied up and do you want to get spanked. They may have interest in one, but not the other. It’s good to pull apart the pieces of a request and make it easy to say no to any of them. The more work you put on your partner to figure out what you’re asking for and what they are allowed to negotiate, the harder it is for them to set and keep their own boundaries.

The other element that makes things muddy is when you put unknowing pressure on a partner. Telling them just how much you really, really want sex is providing them with true information, but it also means that if they care about you they may feel as if they should have sex with you. We all need to be aware that if we’re with someone who loves us or is infatuated with us, they may do things to please us. We need to take that into account when we’re asking for things and make sure we give them the space and time to take their own needs into account. And it’s ESPECIALLY important when you’re in a long term relationship to recognize that sometimes you force “consequences” on your partner when they don’t say yes. It isn’t really forcing them, but if your partner knows that you’ll be hurt and bitter or annoyed at them after they say no, you are putting pressure on them. If they love you, they’re also imbibing the strong drug of caretaking, and that can easily outweigh their own needs. This is one of the places that we need to be very explicit about taking responsibility for our own emotions. The script “yes, I’ll be disappointed, but that’s not a problem. I can handle it,” is a really important one.

So what does that actually look like?

The best thing a partner ever did for my confidence in saying no was say no to me. That might sound odd, but it normalized the whole process of saying no to me, and made me feel as if I wasn’t the gatekeeper for all things sex. It helped remind me that it might feel kinda bad for a little bit, but that I could get over it, and so could they. It helped to actually hear someone say out loud “I’m not interested right now,” so that I could copy that script.

I also find that it helps to ask a lot of questions. Especially if you’re trying something new or entering into a new kind of relationship, spend a lot of time talking to the other person about what they want and why. If nothing else, you then know your partner better. But there is a possibility that together you’ll tease out some different dynamics. It gives them some time to process their own wants and needs. It gives you time to ask yourself if your wants are going to be really tough on them. If you foresee a place where they might be sacrificing for your wants, ask them about it.

It’s also good to pay attention to your partner’s body language. If they say yes but are shying away or not really responding to your overtures, you can always check in. Ask what sounds nice to them. See if they want to talk for a little bit before you move into other things. There’s no rush.

Finally, if your partner has a lot of anxiety about saying no, reassurance is really helpful. It’s good to hear “thank you for being honest and telling me your boundary,” after you’ve said no to something. Positive reinforcement does wonders, so if someone says no or feels uncomfortable, it really helps to do something that feels positive afterwards to help remind everyone that you haven’t been pushed apart and no one has done anything wrong.

Now a lot of people out there might be getting defensive. This sounds like a lot of work. You’re right, it is a lot of work. A lot of people might say that this is going too far, that they shouldn’t have to do all of this. And you’re probably right, you could conduct your sexual life without assaulting or raping anyone without doing any of this. You could be pretty ok to your partners without paying attention to this.

But I at least want to do more. I want to be better than pretty ok. I want to work hard to make sure my partners feel good about what I bring into their lives. Sex has the potential to be really damaging to other people, which means that I want to take a lot of care to make it a positive experience for my partners. There is a lot more to sexual ethics than just rape. All of the things that we think about when it comes to healthy relationships apply to sex as well. It’s time to start talking about all the nuance of healthy and unhealthy actions when it comes to sex.

My Gray

Content notice: fairly graphic descriptions of sex. Mention of non consensual sex.

This is a post that has probably been in the works by way of rumbling around in my brain for quite some time now. I didn’t realize that it needed to be a post until I realized how important it felt to me to realize that there were other people out there who had similar experiences to my own, and that in this one element of my life I hadn’t read anyone who has experiences similar to my own. So I decided that I should probably be that person and write about it in case there are other people out there who are confused and frustrated.

A few years ago I started talking about asexuality, and identifying as asexual. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and working through what I want since then, and now am finding that I’m probably somewhere more in the gray asexual spectrum. I do feel sexual attraction, but it’s…unpredictable at best. I have read numerous accounts of what it’s like to be demi and to only feel sexual attraction when you feel a strong emotional connection with people, and that is an element of how sex works for me.

I have wondered and worried whether there’s something broken or wrong about me because one moment the descriptions of asexuality and even sex repulsion or fear ring true to me, but later I will happily have sex with my partner. I continually wonder if it comes down to my mental health or my eating disorder, if once I stop feeling depressed, or once I stop dissociating, or once I stop feeling disgusted by my body, then I’ll simply feel sexual attraction like “normal.”

I’m trying not to pathologize myself in those ways anymore. I want to just say that this is how I am right now. My sexuality is cyclical. This is probably true to a greater or lesser extent of many people, but I have rarely or never heard a description quite to the extremity of mine. When I first start to fall in love with someone (and yes, this is basically a requirement for sexual attraction in my experience) I have extremely strong sexual attraction to them.

However within a few months to a year, all sexual attraction for anyone at all dissipates. I don’t think about sex unless someone else brings it up, or unless I’m blogging about it. I find it very hard to put myself in the headspace of attraction and arousal. I feel for all intents and purposes like I am asexual during these periods.  Typically my sexual attraction will come back about 2 years after I have first started to date someone, although rarely does the relationship last through the drop in sex.

So while there are times that FEEL entirely asexual to me, I have been confused about identifying as such because there are also times that feel entirely allo. These aren’t a day or a few weeks at a time. This isn’t a question of relationship issues or losing my libido after being with a partner for a while. I will go from one day being in a relatively average sexual relationship to the next day not even being able to contemplate sex, feeling some fear of it, and not regaining any of that desire for sex or any attraction to any partner for months. During these times I don’t find myself attracted to other people, or wishing for a new or different partner. I am still very much in love, but all my attraction has basically turned off.

One of the most difficult things about this type of sexuality is that it’s not only confusing to me, it’s also very confusing to my partners, who often come to expect me to be allosexual and then get annoyed and frustrated and feel shut out or unwanted when the shift to ace happens. This has led to many situations in which I felt extremely pressured to have sex with someone and left me with a lot of hair triggers around physical contact in those times, because I have become used to the assumption that any physical contact is an entree to sex.

I have even had partners reassure me over and over that they didn’t want to pressure me, but would ask every day, multiple times a day, like a kid on a road trip “what about now?” They would constantly be trying to up the level of physicality. If I said yes to cuddling, they’d want to kiss. If I said yes to kissing, they’d want to make out. If I said yes to making out they’d want to take clothes off. You get the idea. This led me to the inevitable conclusion that any contact was dangerous.

It’s not all bad though! Here are some things that I’ve found extremely helpful as someone in the gray spectrum navigating a sexual relationship with an allosexual partner.

First, I have learned that I love being turned down for sex. When my partner sometimes says they’re not interested, it reinforces to me that they aren’t ALWAYS looking for sex from me. I know that for the allo partner there can seem like a lot of pressure to jump on it (literally) when the opportunity is presented, because who knows when it will come around again, but when my partner models saying no for me and makes that a more acceptable thing to do in our relationship, I feel safer.

Second, I have found that expanding the territory of what constitutes sex has been incredibly beneficial to my ability to feel comfortable. PIV is probably the most traumatic form of sex for most people who have any sort of negative feelings towards sex. Penetration in general is more likely to result in pain if the person being penetrated isn’t TOTALLY into it. But for some reason PIV with orgasms is the gold standard for male/female sex. Here’s something weird: that can be overwhelming. It’s a time commitment, it requires being emotionally present (at least for me. I can’t do sex that I’ve zoned out during or it becomes truly painful), it often requires work to get people off.

So here’s what works better for me. Sometimes I’m up for oral or digital stuff but not penetration stuff. Sometimes I think I’m up for PIV and it turns out I’m not. But it takes so much of the pressure off if I can make out with my partner for a bit and he can get himself off, or if I can start PIV sex and realize it’s just not working today so we switch to oral or something else. It gives me the space to decide how I want to sexually “hang out” with my partner in this moment, and to change my mind. WHOA. This is great for everyone, not just ace people. But my partner had to make it clear that there wasn’t a better or worse version, or that if he wasn’t getting off it wasn’t a problem.

None of these things are mind blowing, but what was mind blowing was how afraid I have been for so long. I was so confused of leading someone on, of never being able to find someone who loves me but doesn’t WANT NEED NOW sex. I’m perfectly happy incorporating sex into my relationship, and so what I want at this point is just some consistency in what I want and how I approach it.

For me, one of the hardest parts about the gray space has been my own internal attempts to figure out what I want and how to communicate that to others. The ace community has been booming and has started to provide some of these for ace folks, but the gray section hasn’t gotten too much love yet. Ideally this is a start at filling in all of that gray space, giving people an idea of some of the variation of the allo/ace spectrum, and giving more strategies and scripts for figuring out how to feel comfortable with your own sexuality.

 

Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.