One of my earliest posts on the blog was about responsive desire, the phenomenon of not being really interested in sex until sex (or something sexy) has already started. It’s crucially important to understand this, since the mistaken belief that “desire” is “supposed” to be spontaneous – like, you’re walking down the street or having lunch and you go, “Hm! Sex please!” – can cause a person to believe that if they have responsive desire they’re BROKEN. And if people believe they’re broken, then you get into medicalization of what is in fact perfectly normal, healthy, functional sexuality.
It’s also an important concept in the context of consent. In an ideal world we’d all be able to consent when we’re definitely into it, but it’s just true that sometimes you only get into it after it has already started. I tried out the idea of calling this willing consent, following Suzanne Iasenza framework of “wanting” sex (spontaneous) versus “willing” to have sex (responsive).
But that language often feels uncomfortable for people; there’s too much room for passive aggressive “YesokayFINE” in the word “willing.” Like, “if you MUST,” rather than, “Sure, let’s see what happens.”
But I was talking with a student who both is in my class and works in my office, about responsive desire, which I had just covered in class the night before. I was talking to her about this problem in the language of “willingness,” and she said, “It’s more like OPENNESS.”
And with that word, an entire world cracked open.
Being “open” sex is connotes a kind of readiness, appreciation, porousness, and connection that “willing” just doesn’t quite get.
If you’re a responsive desire person, if you mostly begin wanting sex only when sexy things are already happening, you can frame your sexuality as “open” – to possibility, to invitation, perhaps even to persuasion. And where persuasion enters the picture, my controversially tepid advice is Go. Slow. If you just maybe wanna do something, try it out, and go slow. Keep monitoring your internal experience for what feels good and what feels uncomfortable. And remember that just becomes something feels sexually arousing doesn’t mean it feels GOOD: when it’s right, it’ll feel both arousing and emotionally certain.
My main problem now, really, is finding a word for “wanting” that sounds AS GOOD as “openness.” Wanting is so much sadder and desperate than openness!
But surely you, dear internet, will help me find a better word?