How To Negotiate Better Consent: An Asexual Perspective

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.”

Enthusiastic consent:
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

Willing consent:
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

Unwilling consent:
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

Coerced consent:
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.

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Angela Chen

Angela has written 1 article for us.


    • Ahhh this was so affirming to read!

      Over the past year I’ve been coming to the realization that I’m on the ace spectrum (gray-ace!) and my partner and I have had to have a lot of conversations about the role of sex in our relationship. It’s been difficult to articulate how I feel about sex and the description of ‘wiling consent’ is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you so much for this; I look forward to checking out your book!

  1. I’m reading Angela’s book right now and it’s blowing my whole mind wide open. So happy to have this excerpt on the site! I’m always grateful for more ace stuff on AS.

  2. I haven’t been involved in much ace community discourse, so this is the first time I’ve seen such a clear exploration of how consent intersects with a range of asexual experiences. In particular, the idea of “willing consent” is a revelation for me. I’m familiar with the concept from my own experiences, but I had trouble articulating all this to myself (and others) in the past. More specific language helps so much!

    Thank you for writing —and publishing!— such excellent ace content here at Autostraddle. I hope we can see more of your work here, Angela! I’m eagerly looking forward to reading your book ☺️

  3. Wonderful article, I love reading ace perspectives on anything. Can’t wait to read your book!

    • Just wanted to say thank you for articulating this so well. I’m asexual and this made me feel relief to read.

  4. Thank you for this great article! It’s very clear and I learnt something about the experiences of ace folks.

  5. asexual representation/discussion in a visible queer space. I want to cry because I feel seen and this never happens

    also a very good article and an interesting discussion that I haven’t really seen much before

  6. Thank you so much for discussing this with such clarity. I am grateful that this is here for my ace-spec young adult kids, and desperately wish this had been available to me before I married 20+ years ago.

    • As long as aces are upfront about their orientation from the very beginning (allowing their partner to consent to that type of relationship), this article is wonderful.

      When people consider how some aces misrepresent their sexual orientation to their partner, not allowing for consent to that type of relationship, this article can read as highly manipulative. Creating a consensual space in a relationship requires that it was consensual from conception.

      It is akin to how cheaters will usually not tell their partners that they cheat, frame the relationship as monogamous at conception, then coerce sex based on that nonconsensual relational frame. The partner don’t know where they keep getting the gonorrhea from, maybe it’s the public toilets?

      That’s why self awareness is so important, first, before entering a relationship. Know that you are an asexual and be upfront. Know that you are not capable of monogamy and be upfront. Create a consensual frame for the relationship FIRST, before considering consensual sexual dynamics proposed in this article.

      If you find yourself stumbled into a relationship without the consensual frame, then try to apply the type of consensual sexual dynamics described in this article to that relationship, you’re going to have some problems. People are going to feel hurt. Strangeness will occur. Rape lines risk being blurred. Do yourself a favor and know thyself well, and develop the courage to tell others about it from the start even if it might drive them away.

      • Okay, I know this reply is months old, but it bothered me so much when I first read it last night I had to come back and comment.

        The idea that certain aces are intentionally misreprsenting themsleves before entering into relationship is a problematic framework for me. I’m sure there are some ace people who do this, possibly out of fear of the person they’re dating not wanting to be with them due to their sexuality, but to bring this up in response to an article that’s intentionally centering an ace perspective feels kind of odd and unsympathetic.

        This reply also seems to put all of the onus on the ace person in a relationship to fully know themselves before entering into a relationship, which feels really unfair. So many people enter into relationships before they fully know who they are, what they want, or what their sexuality actually is. This comment seems to be implying that aces who enter into relationships with allos before they fully understand the type of relationship they want are somehow worse than people of other sexualities who do this.

        Which, ultimately, comes back to this very allo-centric idea that sex is the most important thing in a relationship, and that there’s nothing crueler than a person “witholding” sex from someone else.

        Kind of a disheartening thing to read in response to an article that’s intentionally trying to flip the script on the idea that the worst thing a person could do in a relationship is say no to sex.

  7. As an ace person in a relationship with an allosexual, and with whom I very recently started sexual experimentation with, this was quite the eye-opener! I just couldn’t understand why with her I was completely at ease and could actually have fun with, when previously anything sexual had repulsed me. I cannot stress how much I appreciate that this article is available online for all aces to read! Seriously, thank you. This is amazing!

  8. As someone who enjoys sex but doesn’t always want sex, I found this article really wonderful and eye-opening. I can definitely say that now I know what I have experienced and can put it into words. Thank you!

    • She says “the last two are consent mostly in the extremely literal sense that someone did not yell out “no”.” So basically, no, not consent in the sense that the person is fully on board.

      But if someone is emphasizing “no means no,” they might miss that these are also not yesses, so it can still be helpful to put them on that spectrum between ENTHUSIASTIC YES and EXPLICT NO

  9. For a delicious, light take on ice cream, try this amazingly simple dish: freeze a banana solid, then put it in a food processor or blender and whip until it turns creamy. It will have the consistency of ice cream or custard.

  10. I’m not interested in partnered sex and will likely never be put in a situation where I was pressured to have it, since I’m also not interested in having a partner. However, this was still a good article for me to read, since now I have better vocabulary to explain myself if I’m ever in situation where I need to do so. I feel like I can also be better support for my friends who are in sexual relationship. So, thank you!

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