Is a Yes Always Consent? What is a No in a Sex-Negative Culture?
When I started on this path of doing sexuality education, I made a conscious decision to be sex-positive. Therefore, a very large part of my work for almost twenty years has been affirming self-pleasuring or masturbation as healthy, normal and a desirable sexual activity. Yet I could not forget the context that many of us have lived in or are living in, and the real need for sexual healing many of us have. Even if I don’t need healing because of incest, rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment, I may need healing because of the lack of information about sexuality in the United States, living or growing up in the midst of the taboos around self-pleasuring, healing from homophobia, biphobia, sexphobia, healing from either/or thinking. So when I talk about “sexual healing, I usually mean healing in a broad sense\’that is, healing from all the subtle ways that sex negativity can exist in a culture and affect anyone living in that culture.
I started out my sexuality education career doing unlearning homophobia, biphobia and sexphobia education. I mostly talked to predominantly heterosexual groups. I found in the years of doing that education work that there often was much curiosity about what gay, lesbian or bisexual sexual practices might look like. I also found there to be a lot of discomfort not only with same-sex sexual practices but any alternative sexual practice including masturbation.
Being the same in our sexual practices, identities, relationship orientations or desires was never the goal in my presentations. However, I was advocating for us all to have the right to self-define every aspect of ourselves, given our unique differences, and for the truth about who we are to come from within and not from outside ourselves. I argued that we should know ourselves and define ourselves and not let our peers, society, homophobia, biphobia or anything else define us.
I also argued that same-sex sexuality is a beautiful thing and that sex is good and for there to be an appreciation for all the levels, forms and varieties of intimacy (physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual), even if different from what we would choose for ourselves. In fact, I argued that if we got really specific about how we love and how we experience physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy, we might find we have more in common with each other than we might think even if our label choices are different.
When learning about sexual assault as part of my sexuality education training, I learned the very important point that if someone is not in a position to say no, they really can’t say yes. For example, if someone is intoxicated and not fully able to say no, they can’t give their consent, or say yes. I think the opposite is true as well: if we are not able to say yes to sex and sexuality, then a no in regards to sexuality cannot be freely chosen. Saying no is most likely influenced by whatever prevents us from having the option to say yes in the first place.
For example, if we live in a society that is homophobic and being gay or lesbian is not okay, then if I say I am not gay or lesbian, is it because I am not gay or lesbian, or is it because internal and external homophobia is preventing me from identifying as gay or lesbian? If there is biphobia, is my saying I am not bisexual because I am not bisexual, or is it because internal and external biphobia, or negative judgment from both the heterosexual and the gay communities, affects my ability to identify bisexuality within?
If we live in a society that tells us that the only relationship possibility is monogamy, is my choice to be monogamous coming from within me, or do I choose monogamy because that is all I know or all I believe to be possible? If we live in a society that judges masturbation or minimizes it as a legitimate sexual practice or calls it a sin, do my feelings on the topic come from within, or are they a reflection of what is going on outside of me, or both?
I used to say to women I counseled at a clinic that offered abortion services that if they judged abortion negatively because that was what they really believed, then that was one very important thing to pay attention to when deciding whether to have an abortion. But if they took on the judgment from the billboards or the protesters, or if they were worried about what someone else might think, I encouraged them to stay firm in what they truly believed and not internalize what someone else believes is right or wrong.
It does not matter to me if someone is gay, bisexual or heterosexual. It does not matter to me if someone is monogamous, polyamorous or something in between. It does not matter to me in any way how someone identifies or expresses their sexuality as long as it is deeply consensual. For me, what that means is our yes or no does not come out of guilt, obligation, outside pressure or fears of what people may think. It also means that our yes or no does not get unduly influenced from living in a largely sex-negative world. I truly believe that we will have our most wonderful lives, relationships and sexuality when our yes and our no come from our internal knowing and truth rather than being affected from outside ourselves.
In my life, I no longer want a yes from anyone about anything if it is not deeply and fully offered, even if it means disappointment for me. And I would encourage us all to find where the yes or no within ourselves is truly ours and not influenced from someone else or coming out of guilt or obligation. I believe our interactions will feel good only if they are fully wanted on both sides of the exchange, the giving and the receiving, in whatever way that is co-created. I fully support us going within ourselves to define what feels good and does not feel good to us. And for me the ultimate goal is to have consent with such deep intentionality in all of our human interactions (whether involving sex and sexuality or any other interaction such as dinner, conversation, a hug or a chance meeting with someone out in the world) that we can barely imagine the experiences we can have when all involved intentionally choose the interaction.
There are so many times when it can look as if we are freely choosing something, but deep inside we know we would rather do something other than what we are doing. With the complex mixture of all that can affect our decisions, only we know when it is really a choice freely chosen as opposed to being influenced by fears or pressure from outside. Believing that we can live most fully while being intentional in all our actions, I strive to put the message out there in every way I can for all of us to affirm our self-awareness, self-identity and self-naming first and foremost in relation to everything in our lives, but especially when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Saying yes. Saying no. Both are important as we pay attention to what we need and want. Both need to come from what truly exists within, rather than from outside ourselves, if we want to live and experience our lives fully.