Angela Chen is a journalist and science writer, and this is an adapted excerpt from her book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex.
In many people’s minds, it’s okay to say no to sex with a partner if you’re having a bad day or have come down with the flu, if your job is especially stressful or if they’re a bad partner who is hurting you. Those are some of the good-enough reasons to say no. Not considered a good-enough reason? “I don’t want to.” Especially if you keep saying it.
Nearly everyone agrees that there’s no reason to have sex with a stranger if you don’t want to, but add the context of a relationship, and this rule is suddenly weakened. Consensus is gone. It’s easier to support the person who always says no to a stranger than the person who always says no to a spouse, but understandings of consent will never be complete until we grapple with the realities of negotiating with partners.
“I don’t want to” is considered a “not good enough” reason because of the common belief that entering a relationship requires giving up a measure of consent and accepting a new standard for saying no. It’s not good enough because if all humans have a baseline of sexual desire, and nothing is currently wrong, saying no on a beautiful, happy day to a beautiful, happy partner means you are selfish and intentionally withholding.
You can give a “no” with zero caveats in each and every situation, full stop. You can say no if someone adores you and you adore them back. You can say “no” for the rest of your life.
But not all humans have a baseline of sexual desire. Not all humans experience sexual attraction. Aces don’t. For us, coercion doesn’t necessarily look like stereotypical images of inadequate consent. It’s not fraternity parties or pushy people at bars after heavy drinking. Aces can and do feel pressured to have sex with strangers, but coercion can also exist in the dynamic of the committed couple who get along well and like each other. Messages that everyone wants sex sometime make people feel like they have to say yes sometime. If you have to say yes sometime, better say it to a partner, because sex is supposed to be good when you’re in love.
The result is that many aces — especially before they start identifying as such — feel broken and judged for wanting to say no. The result is that aces make lists of reasons they can’t have sex but don’t realize that “I don’t want to” is the only reason they need. But every no is good enough, and that goes for every person. If we believe that people shouldn’t have unwanted sex with strangers and that strangers, no matter how good or loving, are not entitled to sex, we should believe that people shouldn’t have unwanted sex with partners and that partners, no matter how loving or good, are not entitled to sex either.
As long as people don’t know about asexuality — hell, forget about the label, so long as they don’t know that saying no forever and for any reason and in any context is okay — sex education, sex therapy, and popular depictions of sex are incomplete and people don’t have the relevant information to fully consent. Upon entering a relationship, sexual rights should not be assumed and self-determination must never end. You can give a “no” with zero caveats in each and every situation, full stop. You can say no if someone adores you and you adore them back. You can say “no” for the rest of your life.
The process of consent should be more like developing a friendship than signing a one-time, binding employment contract. Friendship takes many different forms. It is mutual and reciprocal and created over time. We don’t assume that if someone says yes to getting coffee that they’ll also say yes to attending an amateur improv show or that both people need to know (or can even know) beforehand exactly how the friendship will change and grow. We don’t think that being open to friendship means someone is obligated to be a friend forever, or that others are equally enthusiastic about every part of friendship.
Thinking of consent as a shifting process makes it easier to understand how it might work in long-term relationships, for aces and allosexual (non-ace) partners and everyone. Consent matters after ten years just as much as after ten days, but it rarely looks the same after a decade as it did on the third date. Checks and balances that are crucial earlier on become unnecessary for both people now that they can read each other’s cues. The form that consent takes will change, but the right to say no must always remain. If someone never wants to have sex, that is okay forever. For people who do decide to have sex, it is a choice each time, not a set of ossified obligations that are impossible to challenge or change.
Yet oversimplified framings — like “yes means yes” and “no means no”— can make it hard to understand and speak honestly about sexual experiences. These popular models of consent offer only two options: yes and no, which map onto the binary of sex and rape (which itself erases the enormous spectrum of sexual encounters that are simultaneously consensual and coerced). An overhaul to thinking about consent requires considering different levels of willingness instead.
One useful tool is a framework for consent created by sex researcher Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, and amended by aces. Nagoski suggests using the categories of enthusiastic, willing, unwilling, and coerced consent, although the last two are consent mostly in the extremely literal sense that someone did not yell out “no.”
When I want you
When I don’t fear the consequences of saying yes OR saying no
When saying no means missing out on something I want
When I care about you though I don’t desire you (right now)
When I’m pretty sure saying yes will have an okay result and I think maybe that I’d regret saying no
When I believe that desire may begin after I say yes
When I fear the consequences of saying no more than I fear the consequences of saying yes
When I feel not just an absence of desire but an absence of desire for desire
When I hope that by saying yes, you will stop bothering me, or think that if I say no you’ll only keep on trying to persuade me
When you threaten me with harmful consequences if I say no
When I feel I’ll be hurt if I say yes, but I’ll be hurt more if I say no
When saying yes means experiencing something I actively dread
Unlike “no means no,” this doesn’t suggest that anything short of rejection signifies approval. Unlike models that emphasize enthusiastic consent (“yes means yes”), Nagoski’s model doesn’t imply that aces who can’t provide enthusiastic consent are unable to consent at all, which would wrongly place us in the same category as children and animals. It expands the “yes means yes” slogan by pointing out all the possible varieties of “yes.”
Nagoski’s model has been popular in the ace community because it makes room for sex-indifferent or sex-favorable aces and takes into account the practical realities of aces who do have sex with allo partners. The balance between willing and unwilling consent can be delicate, but distinguishing the two is imperative. And that difference is not necessarily one of action, but one of intention and agency.
Willing consent means choosing to have sex with someone because you love them and will get something out of it. It’s “I don’t want sex for myself, but I said yes because I want to feel closer to my partner.”
Willing consent means choosing to have sex with someone because you love them and will get something out of it. It’s “I don’t want sex for myself, but I said yes because I want to feel closer to my partner.” Unwilling means believing that you have to have sex with someone because you love them, even if doing so harms you. It’s “I don’t want sex for myself, but I said yes so you’d stop pressuring me.” As one man, Hunter, said, having sex for his wife’s sake was completely fine — the awful part had been the pressure he put on himself to have sex and the constant questioning about why he didn’t love sex for its own sake.
Of course, just as one person has the right to say no forever, the other has the right to prioritize their own sexual needs. Sexual mismatch can be a source of real pain, and claiming that sex shouldn’t matter at all or judging someone for wanting to leave is not helpful. If sex is important, let sex be important. It’s okay to leave and have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you. Just remember that leaving for sexual reasons does not mean the other person was wrong.