How to ace sex: Why enthusiastic consent doesn’t cut it

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Nov. 4, 2014, 7:37 p.m.

Asexual Awareness Week is celebrated from October 26th to November 1st, and is a rare chance for asexual, or “ace” people to talk about their identities and experiences. Information exploring asexuality as a concept, identity and sexual orientation is widely available on the internet, and the basic questions that many people ask about asexuality are detailed and answered here.

While this column will not focus on basic Asexuality 101, I will quickly define asexuality as “the self-identity adopted by people who experience no to limited desires to engage in sex or sexual acts.” While this definition is not maximally inclusive, it is an attempt to contextualize my argument in a simpler way.

Asexuality and interactions between other sexual minorities challenge the model of enthusiastic consent, the idea that a certain set of verbal, emotional and physical cues are needed before consent is truly received. Enthusiastic consent is a theoretical ideal on paper, but a nightmare in real-life intimacy. Worse, the inability of the enthusiastic consent model to move beyond guesswork, cues and assumptions plays right into normative — straight, white, cisgender, middle-class — ideas about society.

I need to first acknowledge that the model of enthusiastic consent is an important safeguard to shield against the nonconsent rampant in our society. Coerced sex, drunken sex, unconscious sex — enthusiastic consent aims to stop them before they can happen. There is no question that preventing sexual assault from occurring is of the utmost importance. But because the enthusiastic consent model is so vague, determining whether or not a real interaction was “enthusiastic” or not becomes next to impossible.

Two people are in bed together, condoms littering the bedsheets like lurid buttons. “Well?” someone whispers. “Mm,” the other moans back.

Enthusiastic enough? Would it be preferable if the other sat straight up in bed, jovially shouting, “Yes, I would very much like to have sex with you!” with a grin plastered on his or her face? The answer is probably no. Real-life intimacy rarely matches up with the theory espoused by “enthusiastic consent” in clear-cut ways.  When we teach people that the only difference between “good” intimacy and “bad” intimacy is just another set of cues, we fail to acknowledge that the ideas of cues are themselves the problem. We can’t keep talking about “reading the signs” and “feeling the mood.” If we continue relying on a nebulous set of unspoken rules, we necessarily restrict the consent we can give.

When we say “enthusiastic consent,” our perception of “enthusiastic” immediately jumps to a stereotyped set of norms. For men, enthusiasm manifests itself as confidence, social aptitude and extroversion. So how do shy men express “enthusiastic consent?” Race is an even larger intersecting factor. How does an Asian man give “enthusiastic consent” when just about every depiction of Asian masculinity in media is desexualized and sterile? How can a black woman give “enthusiastic consent” when black womanhood is hypersexualized to the point where the idea of black women not enthusiastic about sex is shocking? How can queer and asexual people of any gender give “enthusiastic consent” when the standards of “enthusiastic” are structured around heterosexual sexuality?

The answer to all these questions cannot be satisfied with just “cues.” We’re all sick and tired of learning more unspoken rules and unspoken boundaries that can’t be crossed, anyways. Don’t do “X” because that implies “Y,” ad infinitum.

In an environment where everyone is exactly the same and wants the same thing out of sex, unspoken rules and boundaries are acceptable. However, Stanford most certainly isn’t like that — and neither is the real world. In order to move beyond this type of nonverbal murkiness, we can look to other communities — the kink community and the asexual community, most notably — for direction.

Because the identity of “asexual” is so variable, asexual people tend to interact with intimacy in different ways. Maybe I like long hugs but not giving head; maybe I’m fine with oral sex but not with penetrative sex; maybe I’m only fine with anything intimate or sexual when I’m in a certain mood or when our relationship has gotten past a certain point. And maybe my partner is just as complicated. No amount of “cues” could convey that amount of information.

What does work is explicit, detailed and honest communication — before intimacy, during intimacy, after intimacy.What this looks like is a series of conversations that allow us to talk about whatever intimacy we like best. State your boundaries. No pressure on your neck during sex? Great. A preference for anal but not oral? Awesome. A problem set you need to turn in by midnight? You should probably mention that. Check in with your partner the day after; ask them how they feel. Treat them like a person.

It’s much harder to violate consent when you’ve defined the terms of your intimacy so explicitly and created a space for conversations about race, gender, class, age, orientation and other identities to take place. If we can take down the barriers around communication, we can make all types of intimacy safer, more humanized and infinitely more fun.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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