Apr 302011

This a post about consent, so insert trigger warning here, as appropriate.

I have a student who…


That phrase, “I have a student who…,” indicates a quantity of work and thought and conversation and reading by both me and the student that I can never adequately express. “I have a student who” means that we’ve been deep in the throes of radical new thinking.


I have a student who spends a lot of time thinking about consent, and she frequently uses this term “enthusiastic consent,” which I *love* but which I find… not problematic, but complicated due to the issue of responsive desire.

Willingness, as Suzanne Iasenza calls it, or “agreeing to” as figleaf once mentioned in the comments, without active WANTING, is what I’m talking about here.

I live at an intellectual/professional crossroads between promoting active consent (“Yes means yes!”) and encouraging people to recognize responsive desire and not feel broken if they don’t just WANT sex out of the blue (“Willing can mean yes!”).

So I’ve got a new phrase, an alternative to “enthusiastic consent” or even just plain old “consent.” Willing Consent. Yes when you’re willing.

It’s a problematic concept. Under what circumstances is a person willing, though not necessarily wanting? I’ve tried thinking about it this way:

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 fear or dread the consequences of saying no and I don’t fear the consequences of saying yes.
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 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.

Now it’s perfectly legitimate to say that coerced consent is no consent at all, and even that unwilling consent is not consent. There was a case a decade or so ago where the jury had to decide whether or not it constituted “consent” that a woman who had been raped had asked the perpetrator at least to use a condom. “(Of course that’s not consent,” you think, but it is a complicated question, legally.)

But I wonder about the edginess of willing consent. So often people – especially young or relatively unexperienced people – say yes to things when they’re not sure what they want, and from my way of thinking here it seems that a great deal of the difference between “willing” and “unwilling” as to do with anticipated consequences, which can never be known until after the fact, rather than the desire felt in the moment.

Perhaps it is the question, “Do I want to want this person?” that best distinguishes between willing and unwilling. If I don’t want you now, do I at least WANT to want you?”

Mind you, I’m not at all sure that I would use any of this thinking in the way I talk to students about consent. Is it not better to keep it SIMPLE rather than strictly accurate?

Apr 272011

Now here’s something you might not expect me to feel ambivalent about: it’s the New York Times reporting about vibrators being sold in drugstores.

Ya’ll know I am, like, ALL ABOUT women’s sexual pleasure. Totally. And vibrators are outstanding because they provide an intensity of stimulation that organic contact just CAN’T. I advise women women who have trouble with orgasm to buy a vibrator.

And yet.

1. There’s the issue confronted in the article about “discrete” packaging. How far have we come if a woman can buy a vibrator but doesn’t want it to LOOK like it’s associated with sex? “We want pleasure,” women say with their wallets, “But we don’t want anyone to know about it and we don’t want it to be, you know, dirty.” It’s already not dirty, friends, and it’s nothing to hide.

2. I want women to touch their own genitals. I can’t help but wonder how much of women’s acceptance of vibrators is their relief at having a way to create orgasms for themselves without having to put their hands on their pussies. I want to live in a world where women get pleasure from touching their bodies. I’m not convinced that vibrators are helping to create that world – I mean maybe they are but I’m not seeing it.

3. As the article notes, there’s no profit in manual masturbation, and I know that profit is an important part of this process – indeed, I believe it’s the engine of change here. It’s a thing I’ve been wondering about for a year now, since I first saw Orgasm, Inc: where is the profit it helping women to feel healthy just as they are?

I’m all about women’s sexual pleasure. I’m all about helping women to enjoy living in their bodies and experiencing sensation through their bodies. I’m all about releasing women from cultural shackles of shame and self-hatred, which are themselves driven by profit motive. And all it takes is some information, just a splash of knowledge.

But I know that that message doesn’t sell products – can’t sell products, SHOULDN’T sell products. And therefore its place in the media will be minimal, and therefore it will always be an alternative to the mainstream, not the mainstream itself.

I want women to love their bodies and the glorious things their bodies do. Proctor & Gamble want women to feel broken, to motivate them to buy things to make them feel repaired. Who wins?

Urgh, I didn’t intend for this post to be so bleak, but I have been struggling lately to feel satisfied with the tiny pockets of change I can create, the handful of lives I can touch. I know I ought to feel good about what I *can* do, but oy, there is so much more to do, so much pain people are living in just because of plain old lack of knowledge.

In 10 minutes, I can change a woman’s understanding of her sexuality, but she has to give me to the 10 minutes.

Maybe I’ll get a stall at the farmer’s market and, like Lucy in Peanuts, for 10 cents give out advice. There’s a plan.

Apr 222011

I mentioned once that there was something important to say about risk and perception at the individual level versus the population level. Let’s try saying it this way:

Every time I put my shoes on, my dog gets excited.

“No, Mr Pants, I’m just going to work. What’s the matter with you?” I say.

Why does he get excited when I put my shoes on? I mean, he only gets to go out, oh, definitely less than half the time that I put my shoes on.


Me putting my shoes on happens EVERY TIME he goes out. Only my touching the leash is a better predictor of getting to go out.

So from one perspective, my putting my shoes on only predicts his going out less than half the time. But from another perspective, going out is predicted 100% of the time by my putting my shoes on.

When you think about this concept in terms of sexual health, it’s kind of inside out. Like, suppose you use a condom maybe half the time, and yet you still don’t get an STI. What that teaches you is that NOT using a condom is just as predictive of getting an STI as using a condom is. Dig? You may know intellectually that condoms prevent lots of STIs, but as far as your direct experience goes, condom use isn’t associated with prevention.

Maybe the dog isn’t a helpful example. Taking drinking. Now, on my campus 80% of the drinking that happens is beer and wine, but 100% of the medical emergencies related to alcohol are related to liquor. So at the population level, you vastly increase your chances of having things go seriously wrong if you drink liquor.

But look at it from the individual perspective. If something like 500 students each weekend consume liquor (these are imaginary but realistic numbers). And about two students per month end up at the hospital (fictional but realistic). So you’ve got 8 nights, 500 students each night and maybe two emergencies. That’s a VERY low correlation, right, so from the individual point of view it’s easy to think that the risk is very low. Which it is – except in comparison to not drinking or drinking only beer or wine. This other group is much larger and has zero emergencies.

It’s about perspective, and we humans are deeply irrational when we’re deciding how to assess risk. Somehow we believe we will never be struck by lightening but, you never know, we might win the lottery, even though the odds are similar.

The odds of getting an STI from any individual sexual event aren’t terrifically high – something like .004% for HIV, if I remember correctly (which I might not). But when you add a condom, the odds go way, way, way, way down. And the thing is, once you have HIV, you, like, have HIV. Which changes your life.

But it’s not compelling for me to stand in front of students and say, “You’ve got a minute fraction of a percent of chance of getting HIV, if you have intercourse, so use a condom every time in order to make it a vastly smaller minute fraction of a percent.”

It’s a problem, friends, this deep inability we have to understand the nature of risk.

Apr 212011

A student who is becoming a sex educator asked me how to cope with the problem of people perceiving a sex educator as sexually available just because they talk about sex in public. This is what I told her:

So, to understand the actual problem, consider this: remember SIS and SES? Sometimes people misunderstand TALKING about sex as “sexually relevant information” that engages their sexual gas pedal. It’s just going to happen sometimes.

Being direct and kind is my approach. “No” and “never” do not in any way imply that there’s something wrong with the other person, it’s just a clear statement of your boundaries. It’s also fair to say, “Sometimes people hear about my work and they perceive me as sexually available, and that’s a misconception.”

But the biggest thing to remember is that YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS. Being comfortable talking about sex is public is a rare and attractive trait. People will want you. They will knock on your metaphorical door and ask to be admitted. Know where your boundaries are and be clear with other people about them; that’s the only thing that’s your responsibility.

Like, you’ll notice I didn’t start the women’s sexuality class with an announcement like “Because I’m going to be talking about sex in a straightforward and positive way, you may perceive me as an object of sexual desire and you may even feel that I’m more sexually available than other faculty members. But no. Under no circumstances will I ever, ever, ever consider any kind of sexual or romantic connection with a student, current, past, or potential.” I don’t need to because other people’s misconceptions are their own problem, as long as I know what my own limits are.

Hope that’s helpful!

Now I do realize that not everyone will agree with this particular approach. Some people think, “If I interpret something you say as flirting, then it IS flirting.”

Which… no, sorry, that’s just fuckin’ stupid. That’s saying, “Your short skirt is an invitation because I perceive it as an invitation!” and that’s rape culture is what that is. The fact that something I did made you experience desire somehow makes me responsible for managing your desire? That’s completely fucked up.

And some people think, “If something you do hurts me, it’s YOUR JOB to make me feel better!”

Which, again, no, that’s just fuckin’ stupid. That’s saying, “You said something that triggered my personal history of pain and now it’s up to you to fix my pain!” Which is just childishness. The process of becoming an adult is the process of taking on responsibility for meeting your own needs. (This is David Schnarch’s work, if you want to know the why’s and how’s of it.) YOU and ONLY YOU are responsible for dealing with your own pain. In adult partnerships, we choose to help each other manage our emotional stuff, but it’s always a choice.

Therapists are objects of transference all the time. They have a responsibility not to take on the role dictated by the client’s feelings but to notice the transference, bring it to the attention of the client, and explain how it can be a barrier to treatment. Sex educators, similarly, have no responsibility to take on the role dictated by a student’s feelings, but they don’t have any of the responsibility for explaining the transference to the student.

(I should write a post about sex surrogates, for whom all this is particularly problematic.)

(As I write, I’m realizing that this problem may actually be central to parents’ resistance to sex education: if by talking about sex, an educator could make a PARENT believe that educator is sexually available, what fears might that parent have about their child’s response to the sex? Hm. )

But ultimately this is all good news: if I or any sex educator am not responsible for your feelings of desire or emotional attachment, then I or any other sex educator am not responsible for the personal insight, revelation, or liberation you experience in the class. Just as you must own your feelings of desire/attachment/whatever, so you can and ought to own your own growth in the class – the growth that you may be inclined to credit to the teacher.

What I’m saying is that when someone is attracted to or desires a sex educator, what they’re actually attracted to is the part of their own psyche that resonates with the educator’s message of sex positivity. So rather than trying to connect more intimately (and inappropriately) with the sex educator, you should connect more intimately with that part of yourself. Dig?

Apr 192011

It’ll tell you something about how my life is going lately when I tell you that on Friday my computer broke and then I went to a memorial service for someone almost young enough to be my daughter, almost. It’s been rough. But that doesn’t stop me noticing blog material!

At the service, we said Psalm 23. For those not familiar, here is the text:

The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the lord for ever.

My first thought as I considered these words was actually, “Wow, it’d be nice if my dog felt like that about me.” Really, for a rescue dog the idea of having a house that you dwell in FOREVER is a big fucking deal.

I went so far as to imagine what it would be like on the other end of the leash, clipped to a collar, to follow and trust that yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Crikey. A tug on the leash, and I follow with absolute trust, without fear, without question. I would love for my dog to feel that way.

And of course my thoughts went from there to BDSM relationships. Please don’t take that the wrong way.

When I talk to students who are unfamiliar with the kink community, they tend to wonder if there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with a person who eroticizes pain or who enjoys being humiliated or who wants to be controlled. I’ve tried explaining it in a variety of ways, but I think the next time it comes up I’ll try using Psalm 23 to explain it. Like:

Who could fail to feel something compelling in the notion that you could be safe and loved FOREVER, and all you have to do is follow the source of the safety and love? All you have to do is submit to a will stronger than your own, and your cup will run over, you will not want for anything.

I mean, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” This might mean a physical correction or it might be plain old authority, but it definitely means something about how the ways you control me make me feel safer.

I’m convinced that a great deal of this dynamic has to do with attachment and our essential desire to connect deeply with other people. Because our experiences of sensation are contextual – what in one context might hurt in another context may arouse – we can put nearly any sensation in an erotic context and experience pleasure. And what could be more obvious as an erotic context than one where you’re asked, as the submissive, to abandon all control, relax into absolute trust (ie, turn off the brakes) and experience sensation? Or where you can allow yourself to tune in your partner and create a context SO erotic that even the burning sting of a whip or a paddle feels sexy, treading that precarious line between pleasure and pain, so attuned to your partner’s mind and body that you know exactly what to say and do?

Of course some students might feel, uh, a little uncomfortable with the comparison of a psalm to a kinky relationship.

My sister went to a memorial service on the same day – a different service. Her choir sang this, which I think is very nice:

Apr 132011

This is something that has come up among students a lot lately, so I figured I should write a post about it. It’s this: hatred and anger do not amplify lust.

For example… well. There are a LOT of things that bother me about the Kiera Knightley “Pride and Prejudice,” but chief among them is this scene in which Elizabeth Bennett apparently wants to kiss the man who has been the primary cause of wretched emotional agony to her sister. It happens around 3:30:

In the novel Lizzie tells him:

Had not my own feelings decided against you, had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

She fuckin’ hates him. Therefore she doesn’t want to kiss him.

Not even a little bit.

The whole romance novel/romantic comedy conceit of two people hating each other and that hatred living right next to desire, indeed enflaming the desire? That only happens in fiction – in mediocre fiction, at that. Jane Austen knew better.

It’s not just a correlation; there is actually a causal mechanism I can point to here: the process of arousal is a combination of turning off the offs and turning on the ons.

Assume that the object of hatred is quite attractive on some level. Very nice to look at, a beautiful voice, great intelligence, superb charm, etc. They turn on the ons. And then add to that the fact that they PISS YOU RIGHT THE FUCK OFF because they are, on some fundamental level, cruel, without remorse, and incapable of believing they might be wrong about something. That’s turns ON the OFFS. It puts on the brakes. It prevents you from desiring them. It turns you off.

Lust? And hate? Mutually exclusive. There is no feeling that is in both Set hatred and Set lust.

Now, this is different from being drawn to a person with whom you disagree. Darcy himself experiences the titillating pleasure of attraction to a sparring partner. Elizabeth actually teases him about this very phenomenon, during the book’s denouement:

“…The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable, you would have hated me for it; but in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just; and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There — I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”

(This is also among the best examples of why Elizabeth is among the greatest heroines in the English language.)

And while they were sparring, Darcy was growing increasingly attached, while Elizabeth was growing increasingly contemptuous. That can happen too.

What doesn’t happen is (what the kids call) “hate sex.”

In real life, no one that I have ever talked to (and I talk to a LOT of people) has actually wanted to have “hate sex” or been sexually attracted to someone they hated. Mostly people are actively repulsed by the idea of having sex with someone they hate. And for good reason. Hate slams on the brakes; no matter how superficially attractive they are, it can’t withstand the de-eroticizing power of hate.

So whence comes this myth? Well, I suppose it comes from the conflating of intensity with valence. If you feel one thing STRONGLY, surely it must be adjacent to everything else one might feel strongly! No. No. Intensity is one axis, valence (direction) is another. Hate and lust are on opposite ends of the diagram, and not in a wrap-around spectrum kind of way but in a THESE THINGS ARE VERY FAR APART kind of way.

Personally I think this kind of misconstruction of emotion could only happen in a culture as afraid of intense emotions as modern western culture. So really the whole thing is a product of the emotional constipation we inherited from our Puritan forebears. That’s my hypothesis and I’m sticking to it.

Apr 122011

In the comments related to my last post, Ian said:

…if a woman took sex off the table up front, as you [Emily] are advocating, my interest in cultivating her as a friend usually diminished dramatically afterwards. I think that runs true of most men. If I went on a date with a woman who let me know up front that there was no way she would consider sleeping with me, then even if I wasn’t particularly interested in her sexually the chances that I’d invest time in that relationship would be scant.

Let’s bear in mind that Ian is happily married and this is all hypothetical or, at best, post hoc, so let’s not holler at him please.

But. This… would mean… a woman who wants a straight man to get to know her as a person has to create an environment where sex is perceived to be at least a theoretical possibility. And…

(1) Nearly all of my closest friends have been men, and it never occurred to me that this might be true.

(2) This is exactly the sort of thing I tell my students is a cultural myth but isn’t actually true – men, I want to tell my students, are not actually dick-driven simpletons incapable of recognizing a woman’s personhood in the absence of sexual access to that woman.


(3) Well, if this is true, it goes some distance in explaining why I’ve been single since 2005. When I used to the “let’s have sex to get the question out of the way” strategy, I had relationships – relationships that ENDED, let’s be clear, but relationships. Since adopting the “we’re not going to be having sex anytime soon because I really do need to get to know you first, no matter how attractive you are” strategy, I have not had one relationship.

Now, I have no trouble creating an environment where sex is viewed as a possibility – all I have to do is NOT say “sex is not going to happen in the foreseeable future,” and my job takes care of the rest. So perhaps my best potential strategy is to say, “We’re not going to have sex in the foreseeable future UNLESS you successfully seduce me, and I am a challenge to seduce because I know so much about the game that I am the fucking Magister Ludi of seduction; in order to play with me you have to play a META-game, you have to improvise a new game with me, in the moment. Go.”

So. I ask you, readers of all genders: if a woman takes sex off the table, will a straight man be less likely to want to get to know her? If not, why is this a cultural narrative? If so, does the same hold for gay men getting to know men? And if it is true, what’s a girl to do?

Apr 102011

So I was at a bar getting slightly squiffy with a friend this past winter when the subject of dating came up.

“Here’s a puzzle,” I hollered over the cheesy Christmas music and the laughter of many drunken residents of western Massachusetts. “Imagine you start dating someone. You’re sexually attracted to them and they’re sexually attracted to you, and when you spend time together there’s this question mark over your heads, this sexual question mark that changes how you behave with each other.

“Now, if you have sex with them right away, to take away all the worry and pressure about whether or not the two of you will have sex, then they might start thinking of you just as a source of sex,with the potential for unequal attachment and the nightmare that brings. But if you wait to have sex, hoping that it will create space for the person to get to know The Real You as you gradually increase emotional intimacy WITH physical intimacy, then your time together is obfuscated by the noise and wondering and worrying and maneuvering to have sex. So how can you ever have sex… or not have sex… with someone without the question of sex interfering with your getting to know them?”

I believe my friend’s response was something along the lines of, “Dude don’t ask me.”

We all know (or we all SHOULD know) that part of getting to know someone is getting to know them sexually. But somehow that part seems to affect getting to know other aspects of someone in the way that, say, getting to know them intellectually just doesn’t.

There’s basically two ways to get rid of the question mark: have sex OR make it explicitly clear that you’re not going to have sex (which is awkward, but turns out to be more necessary than anyone ever warned me about. The number of times I’ve had to say, “We’re not going to have sex tonight,” boggles the mind. What is the DEAL with men [and it's always men, never women, in my experience] assuming sex is going to happen, just because we’re making out or because we’re in my home or because I teach about sex? That assumption is the psychological equivalent of bad breath. Go home and fix that, and then maybe we’ll talk. Maybe.)

So when I meet David Mitchell – you know, like when I write a book and go on a book tour to the UK and do a radio interview at the same time as… whatever. It could happen. Shut up. I was saying, when I meet David Mitchell, it doesn’t matter how firmly *I* know we’re not going to have sex or how firmly *he* knows we’re not going to have sex; there’s still the cultural question mark of two unmarried people, neither one painfully unattractive, and whether or not they’ll get naked together.

If he gets married between now and then, that’ll be taken off the table. (This is arguable, I suppose. People have sex outside their nominally monogamous dyads all the time. But the cultural question mark is gone.)

This is EXTRA-important since what I want is to drink beer with him and answer his questions about sex and women, and talking about these issues can too easily raise the cultural question mark.

When *is* the right time to have sex? That’s another post. I’ll work on that.

Apr 092011

Not feeling up to critical thinking today, so how about some internet video time wasting?

A student sent this to me:

Julia Sweeney recounts the dangers of bringing a biological perspective to sexuality. Possibly the funniest thing ever.

And then Andrew posted this on facebook:

Tim Minchin does pseudoscience busting as a Beat poem. “Throughout history/ every mystery/ ever solved/ has turned out to be/ NOT MAGIC.” Christ I love this man.

And Stephen Lovely Fry helps solve the “condom on cock crisis,” with help from Craig Ferguson, Hugh Laurie, Emma Freud, and my favorite Rowan Atkinson:

I did a fellatio workshop last night and this came up as an issue; I thought this video might be a helpful contribution.