How I Learned to Talk (In Bed): Why This Queer Woman Cares About Consent

I came into the consent movement almost by accident. It was a hot and sticky Washington, D.C. summer and I was 18, straight, and a feminist. I stumbled onto a conference about preventing violence against women and I went to it on a whim. And I met Nancy Schwartzman. One email later, I was her intern.

VINTAGE CARMEN, CIRCA 2009 IN THE LINE OFFICE

It was the summer of 2009, and I would wear sundresses to Nancy’s office around three times a week. I took the NJ PATH train after a NJTransit train to get there, and I was listening to a lot of Of Montreal at the time. We were working on THE LINE Campaign, an interactive campaign about consent. Nancy is an extremely brilliant sex-positive consent activist, and I was inspired and still am inspired by her work and her attitude. When we were working together, I was disarmed and awed by her idea of consent: that it was a universal concept for everyone, that women should have as much sex as they damn well feel like just like boys, that the question of “can we do this” could be asked by anyone of any gender or sexual orientation or background and in any sexual situation, and that consent was to be ultimately respected and never violated. That sex should, intrinsically, be about consent.

I was sold.

THE LINE Campaign is based around a short documentary by the same name, which was produced, directed, and filmed by Nancy. It asks its audience one seemingly simple question: where is your line?

A SUBMITTED CAMPAIGN STICKER FOR THE LINE

When it comes to sex, we all have boundaries. Seriously. I don’t care if your boundary is “no more than four girls at once.” It’s a boundary, and it’s worth talking about. When you’re having sex with someone, you are culpable for two things: your boundaries, and their boundaries. You need to make sure you’re comfortable, and it is just as important that they are comfortable. You need to ask for sex, and they need to ask for sex. That’s how it works. A healthy sexual relationship, even if it’s a casual one-time sexual experience, is based in that communication: being able to articulate desire, and being able to act on someone else’s.

“Enthusiastic consent” is about asking and listening. And it’s a powerful feminist concept that could change our entire world. The consent-positive movement is about more than “no.” It’s about “yes.” It’s about waiting for someone to verbally, enthusiastically, consent to having sex with you before you start having sex with them. No still means no. Violating that no is still wrong. But in addition, only “yes” can mean yes: not silence, or a short skirt, or the fact that we met you at Jello Wrestling and fucked you last week. Consent is about being able to say “I want this / I don’t want this” and being respected. It’s about expecting to hear some variation of one of those phrases when you begin to engage in sex. It’s about a completely safe, comfortable, and pleasurable kind of sex. Consent makes it possible for every single person in the world to have completely different boundaries and desires and still feel fulfilled and respected in bed. I liked that.

And so I took it home.

a (con)sensual poster

In August of 2009, I implemented an educational campaign on my campus called (con)sensual, which was based in getting people interested in the concept of consent and then prompting them to attend events where they could learn more and talk more about it in order to become more comfortable with it. I wanted consent to belong to everyone – not just to the feminist community. And as I returned to school, I took on the role of writing and, later, editing THE LINE’s campaign blog. I was talking to people on a personal and global level about consent, respect, and navigating the college hook-up culture. I had already committed, in my mind, to taking on this work for the rest of my life.

Then I came out of the closet.

When I came out, I felt disconnected from my work. By this point, I had been organizing and educating around consent for 2 years. I had been selected to speak at the SPARK Summit about that work mere days before I drank a 4Loko and took my best friends into my bedroom to tell them I was gay before going out to a party. It was then that my organizing came to a sudden stop. My writing ended abruptly. I didn’t want to talk about consent anymore – not because I didn’t still believe in the movement and its purpose, but because I felt like I was starting all over again. All of the work I had done on consent was based around my personal experience as a straight woman. How could I go back and touch that topic again now, as someone else?

Consent should belong to everyone. Because consent is not about preventing violence or fixing rape culture. (That’s a bonus.) Consent is about having sex on our own terms, no matter what they are in that instant. But globally, the dominant conversation about sex and consent is about men and women having sex and utilizing consent. Many times, the patriarchal gender norms of our world also dictate how sex and consent work in the bedroom. And all of these conversations may make you, as a queer woman, feel pretty excluded by the consent movement. And maybe you even think, like I did, that consent just isn’t for or about you. But it is.

And I know because when I started having sex with women, I started to ask.

Talking to someone is a great way to convince yourself that you actually understand how they’re feeling, and is extra helpful when you aren’t even sure how you’re feeling. In fact, it’s the only way to gather information on how your partner is feeling that’s accurate, unless you are a bona fide psychic. And so I started to talk. Let’s be honest: our first sexual experiences with women were awkward. Or scary – in the good way. Or clumsy. Or confusing. Or overwhelming. Right? It happens.

Talking made me feel more comfortable with what was going on, and allowed me to explore my sexuality more wholly. I started to ask, and suddenly it wasn’t that overwhelming. In fact, I really liked it. I really, really, really liked it. And I liked what consent added to the experience, too:

I started small, with basic consent questions.

“Is this okay?”

But sometimes life is a lot more complex than whether or not you’re having sex. Sometimes I had questions about feelings.

“Are you okay?”

Sometimes I had questions about the process.

“What do you want?”

Sometimes I was hoping to relieve my anxiety that I wasn’t doing too well.

“Did you like that?”

And I learned how to say yes, I did, or no, could you do this instead. But also: yes. I did.

“I really like this.”

Applying what I knew about consent helped me unpack my first sexual experiences. I felt present. Like I was finally living in my own body. I was finally enjoying sex, after a lifetime of waiting for that feeling. And I was finally learning to be comfortable with that.

You may have never been told before that you can initiate, desire, and seek out sex as a woman. But you can. And you may have never really envisioned yourself being in the driver’s seat of your sexual experiences. But you are. Consent fills us with a new power to talk about desire without shame, to talk about pleasure without fear, to seek out sex without danger. If we lived in a world where consent was the newest thing and everyone was doing it, sex would be an equitable and empowering and pleasurable experience – every time, for every person – and everyone would be able to ask. And everyone would also be able to answer. Because that’s how consent works.

My work around consent is, primarily, about getting people excited about consent and getting people to apply it in their own experiences. That’s easier said then done – because sex is not a simple concept or a homogenous experience. So I work on breaking down how it is people ask, and emphasizing why it’s important.

As a queer woman, I feel now that my experience with consent is varied and broad. I’m familiar with asking, and with being asked, with saying no, with saying yes, with being rejected, with being accepted with open arms. Consent is a process. It’s a thing you acquire and it becomes a lifestyle of making sure you respect boundaries, even if they haven’t been previously verbalized to you. If you want to become a part of the consent-positive movement, it’s as easy as 1-2-ask. You become a part of the movement in doing, not in learning or interning or talking about the doing. You become a part of the consent-positive movement when you seek out the yes.

So go get it.

Avatar of Carmen

Carmen currently serves as the Deputy Straddlerverse Editor for Autostraddle, mostly because she's in love with you crazy queers. She's mother to the most adorable dog on Earth and hates paying more than one dollar for a good slice of pizza. At times, she self-identifies as "the baddest bitch." You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr probably because it makes her feel good about herself.

Carmen has written 508 articles for us.

63 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for this great, great article. I had no idea this movement existed, but it’s genius. Honesty is the best policy, and knowing is so much sexier than not knowing. Here’s to awareness in the bedroom.

    Thanks Carmen

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    This is a fantastic article. We need more conversation in the bedroom (or backseat, broom closet, tent, phone booth, tree house, etc.).

    Also, does anyone sell panties with “consent” printed on them? That would be great.

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    Asking is the first thing I do with my mouth. (Besides drooling or blurting out “I’m new to the scene. Not because I’m a baby dyke. I mean I’ve been out a while. I’m just recently out of a long-term relationship.” True story.

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    This is really hot, Carmen. I like your questions and how you say you feel really alive and present and woo!!! I really like how you say that consent gives us ways to talk about and own desire without shame. That is something I am working on…

    One thing I have been wondering about is people, who for reasons of temperament or culture or whatever, don’t verbalize a lot of stuff. The “I don’t say I love you but I baked you this cake/paid for college” people. The “I won’t tell you I’m mad at you but I’ll avoid eye contact at dinner and if you catch on you will clean the kitchen and give me a back rub when we get home and then I’ll forgive you and everything and we will go back to normal without ever having a serious conversation” people. How does consent fit in to these lives? Is it possible to have non-verbal consent without falling back on the “well she was making eyes at me from across the bar so of course she wanted it” misinterpretation of visual/behavioral clues?

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      i think consent can come in nuances. but i still think and know that it’s possible to ask those people and start a conversation with them. i promise.

      (plus, talking in a language only you two understand still talks as a language.)

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    p.s. maybe this sounds crazy but I never thought of questions like “do you like this”, “is this ok”, “how do you want me to touch you” as being about consent! I thought that was just, like, how you have sex :p

    I was always thinking of these in terms of making sure my partner has a good time… but this article made me realise, that is what consent is all about, right… the other person affirming their desires and the boundaries of those desires. And creating a space for that affirmation to take place and being attuned and respectful of it.

    Ok this is great! Thank you for helping me think of consent in a new way. My background is law so I typically think of ideas about consent in a fairly narrow legalistic way… he didn’t consent, she consented etc. I am excited to have my mind broadened, I feel like I now fully understand the feminist slogan “there is nothing sexier than consent”.

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    so I have a question then.
    I’m a all about consent and everything that goes with it. I have no problems asking and figure out what others want, but I think I have a lot of trouble the other way around, namely, saying what I want.

    any advice?

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      I’ve found it useful to discuss boundaries ahead of time or very early on in the making out/fooling around times. As for establishing boundaries or speaking up during sexy times (whether it’s “more fingers” or “whoa, too far”) it helps to sort of practice knowing that anyone who would take that stuff badly or disrespect your wishes isn’t someone you want to sleep with anyway. I find that dirty talk is a good way to instruct someone, if we’re talking about the “more fingers” end of the spectrum. If we’re talking about ensuring someone respects a boundary you’ve set, that’s up to your judgment. Playfully admonishing your partner(s) for going to far or leaping up and telling them to fuck off… it’s all up to you and I’m of the opinion that nobody deserves judgment for how they chose to safeguard their sexual health and boundaries.

      In summary, I find that summoning the courage to be open about what you want out of sex is hard, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

      …that’s what she said.

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      One issue I have is actually defining what I want at a given time. Of course it changes with the interaction, so coming to terms with what that is at that moment is difficult to verbalize. And some people don’t even know how to verbalize or communicate what they want. Also, does consenting once mean consenting forever? Wants and needs change with each interaction, even with the same person. Consent seems to be the best way to get around each situation. That means consenting every time and always feeling like you are able to talk with the person you are with.

      Nice article, Carmen. Thanks for the advice and the discussion of what consent is necessary at a given time.

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    This was a really great article. I find asking for consent really sexy actually, and giving it just as hot.

    When I read the phrase “enthusiastic consent” above, a whole bunch of… issues, I’ve experienced in the past just clicked into place for me. I’ve hurt people I loved without meaning to because I didn’t understand that concept. Thank you so much for explaining it, for putting words to it. And even just for oneself, why would one want to have sex with someone who is less than enthusiastic about it at that time? We all deserve better than a semi-comfortable or semi-enthusiastic experience.

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    I loved this article! I like that the consent movement is all about the enthusiastic yes. Not “ok” or “I guess so” or passive acceptance/resignation or some variation of “well, she didn’t push me off when she said no so that meant she really wanted it.” Only yes means yes.

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    This is great, Carmen. I wish they taught this stuff in sex ed. I’m glad someone is talking about it in relation to queer people as well. I think because we often feel so disconnected from hetero culture, we forget that this stuff applies to us too. Yay for enthusiastic consent!

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    This is so, so, awesome and I love this.

    Here’s a link to a dude who is also in the ask for consent movement: http://www.datesafeproject.org/ He goes to military bases, high schools and even South Africa to talk about asking for consent.

    I wish this movement had been around when I was in high school in the late 1990′s. I overheard a lot of my female friends tell stories of dudes just going for it without asking for consent. Some of these dudes just thought a woman walking into the room meant consent or making out meant consent to anything and everything. There wasn’t a lot of asking going on just a lot of taking. The whole thing seemed wrong when I was a teenager; I just didn’t know how to articulate how and why. This article sums it up very nicely.

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    This is a really important issue for me, because my first (and only) sexual experience with a girl wasn’t consensual. Everyone who knew acted like it wasn’t a big deal, because she was a girl and no actual penetration occured. Also, I had a crush on her and she knew I was bi so I kind of felt as though I’d done something to initiate it, even though I said no. When I feel ready to do something with a girl I like, I’m definitely going to make sure we both are 100% consenting.

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    I couldn’t agree more. It is extremely important and vital to everyone’s health, safety, and happiness to understand and make consent part of their lives. The first time I had sex with a girl was with my first gf (we are still together) in between making out and having sex she asked me if I was ok with having sex and I asked her as well and also we asked each other (since it was our first time) what the other wanted or liked during sex. It made us feel so much more comfortable. It did not disrupt the mood or ruin the moment, it made us feel more confident knowing that we were respecting ourselves and each other and there’s no better sex than sex with respect.

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    I would also like to add that consent does not only apply to when you first begin to have sex with someone but it is something that is always applicable. Consent applies to trying new sexual experiences with same person, the use of sex toys, sexual positions, etc. Just because you’ve been with that person for however long you’ve been with them doesn’t mean that you have to feel comfortable doing things that you do not like to make your sex more interesting or to please that person. Being creative and trying new things can be very fun but one must always feel comfortable enough to say yes, no, or whatever is in between.

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    This was an awesome article! The discussion around the consent hasn’t been one to which I have been privy on this level. The nuances are interesting, and open avenues for great discussion and (hopefully) awesome experiences. Thank you for opening this up to me, Carmen. :)

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    This is an amazing article. I love it.

    It’s interesting to think about. We are so socially trained to be shamed by sex, to be bashful and silent….and that leads us to believe in a sort of passive content where we don’t explore the meanings of not-no.

    not-no can be “I don’t want to shatter this moment.”

    not-no can be “I’m not sure, what I want, let’s find out together.”

    not-no can be “I’m not sure I want this.”

    not-no can be a silent way of wishing No.

    I’ve never really thought about it in such direct terms. But this pillow-shyness? Yeah I’m thinking you’re right….you can be sex-positive and vocal….I bet rather than shattering a moment, you break it wide open and discover something rich and beautiful inside.

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    This really made me think about so many things and every aspect of my life. I feel like working to make yourself heard is important. Its so simple but so empowering. I think you can almost get addicted to getting what you want without asking for it, by manipulating the situation or letting others make the first move. You forget that it feels even better to have your needs met when you’ve communicated them. This article clarified a lot for me intellectually. Thank you so much Carmen!

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    hell yeah ! way to hit the nail on the head, carmen. more queer women need to speak up about consent to help break down all the het/norm-ness that surrounds the framing of the issue. grrls+grrls need consentin’ too !

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    “I felt present. Like I was finally living in my own body.” I know EXACTLY what you mean! I came out recently and this is pretty much a perfect description of how I’m feeling. Like I’m finally starting to see what everyone else sees, after being told for so long that I should be seeing it and secretly wondering if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t.

    On topic, consent is such a vital concept and it amazes me that some people take consent as given when it isn’t, but it amazes me even more that some people who don’t give consent just ‘go with it’ when a sexual encounter they don’t want is initiated. It happened to a close friend of mine and in her words “It wasn’t rape, he didn’t hit me or do anything violent.” As a culture we need to reassess our default definition of rape as something violent committed by strangers.

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    Excellent article. The nuances of concent should be familiar to each of us, a sexual experience can only be pleasureable to both when they are adhered to. But what of shyness, how does one get to “may I?’

    For quite some time, shyness made it an awkward thing, to achieve the complete sense of “in control.” Even though intimate contact was what I wished, the sense of being comfortable was only fully felt when suffused by desire; there was a strange sense of fear always near, a not knowing if it was ok to ask!

    Having read your post, I am a bit more confident, perhaps it will not be so uncomfortable in the future.

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    This is awesome! I never really thought about the fact that maybe you should ask and be asked…always thought it would just sort of happen and some how you would magically know. Haven’t had the experience yet but when the time comes…this article has definitely changed the way it will happen. :)

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    yes!yes!win! consent is super hot oh my god. Carmen keep it up! everyday girl! you are doing it everyday, no lie. here’s some love from afar. horrible shit certainly happens but we can be there for each other – speak up! we can repair, revive, or open for the first time with communication! “consent is super hot” would make some good tshirt too.. love you AS(k)ers

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    and girls, yes x yes = she will like it when you tell her what you want. start the dialogue, its ok things can be awkward at first accept that and continue. have confidence in yourself because its your life!!! breathe in the sexy air and jump off the cliff with her. breathe deep and change your world.

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    This article was amazing and inspiring. As a newly out girl I know i’ve already had my share of those slightly uncomfortable, usually fun and confusing experiences. I think i’ve asked a million for consent to do something and I think it’s super important to know it’s okay to do so.

  24. Pingback: Consent: Not just for straight people. | Consent is Sexy

  25. Thumb up 0

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    I totally agree with your sentiment here… but i am uncomfortable with conflating good communication during sex with consent.

    “I really don’t like how you’re doing that” is a very different issue to “I don’t want to have sex with you”.

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    I LOVE this post. It’s how I’ve always looked at sex but I thought it’s odd you find being queer disconnects you. I find when I’m with a woman I am more comfortable to talk and communicate and the last person I dated (a woman) was the first person to share a similar very communicative sex life. Ihave to say it worked out great. for everyone!

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    reading this article really put some clear perspective on a couple things, i myself have been coming out in a lot of ways recently and this whole consent and asking idea is really something i can grasp and make sense of during this crazy time. :)amazing

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