Queer Eye for the…Affirmative Consent Debate?

credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons
credit: Avl Schwab / Flickr Commons

Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders Are Students Really Asking? for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.

As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).

There’s no obvious sexual script to follow in queer sex (e.g. “man pursues woman, begging to put his penis in her vagina”). Even what may seem like the most obvious case—sex between two gay men—is not obvious. The majority of sexual encounters between gay men in the US don’t involve penis-anus penetration but they usually involve 5-9 different sexual behaviors that occur in over 1,300 unique combinations. Even with anal sex, we still have to talk about who wants to “top” and “bottom.” So for us, communicating about what we want is less of a strange new requirement imposed by decree—Keenan’s word—of state legislature or university president than a normal matter of course.

Lest you write us queers off as weird and complicated, straight sex isn’t as simple as Hollywood would have us believe. Research on women’s orgasms by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty shows that straight college students also perform a wide variety of sexual acts in a wide variety of combinations. And, importantly, they highlight how un-communicated sexual expectations among straight partners lead to misunderstandings, unsatisfying sex, and even sexual assault.

One of the men Keenan interviewed was initially defensive, as if affirmative consent were an attack on men categorically as sexual abusers of women. Again, from my queer perspective this seems a bit silly. When two men have sex, we still need consent, and it has nothing to do with one of us being a “vulnerable woman” or the other being a “predatory man.” Even in heterosexual encounters, men are sometimes assaulted by women (albeit less often than the reverse). This highlights the real target of consent campaigns: people who feel entitled to sexual activity without regard for their partner’s willingness. (Entitlement and willingness are, of course, deeply gendered.)

I’m not trying to say communicating about sex is easy at first or doesn’t need to be learned/taught. But it’s really not so strange or new once we step outside strictly scripted heteronomative roles—roles that are too narrow even for most straight sex (let alone things like pegging). Likewise, concerns that consent campaigns are an attack on men only make sense within those narrow sexual scripts as well. If queer sex has taught me anything, it’s that communication, far from being an onerous burden, is a part of the fun.

Jeffrey Lockhart is the principal investigator of an international study of LGBTQ college students and a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He can be found tweeting at @jw_lockhart.

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