Bringing Sexy Mac! Exploring the Contours of Consent

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*Whether it be within race, goodness, gender, sex, success, or just about anything else, I do not put much weight behind binaries. Learning about the gray areas in even my most fundamental of dichotomies has been humbling, and the hardest challenge has been reading about consent culture in this way. As I shared in my Minnesota Nice piece, the way I previously constructed consent as directness through “yes/no” may not support those who might have been socialized differently. It terrified me to know that I read someone’s polite “yes/no” incorrectly, even outside a sexual or romantic context. I realized that by making consent into a binary, I might be pushing out people who are still learning to be assertive or who don’t want to be assertive as I imagine it. So in this way, I had to broaden how I read representations of consent and consenting to something that was slightly more ambiguous, but that ultimately included and supported more people.

I am still working through how I can balance any kind of ambiguity in consent culture without falling to the likes of a “Blurred Lines”-esque support of rape and rape culture. I do not know if it is possible, or even if it is ideal. But to support me and my questions, I have asked Bailey Roberts ’15 to speak about this confusion in Sexy Mac this week. While she also does not give definite answers, I think at least raising these concerns and insecurities is a valuable exercise to start more meaningful, more educational practices within the movements we all care about. – Ariel Estrella*

Around Mac, there are plenty of workshops for teaching us why consent is important and how to get consent without ruining the sexy mood of the moment. The phrase “Consent is Mac” gets thrown around liberally, albeit often in a half-joking way, but all the same it’s there in our general consciousness. Consent is definitely a topic on the table at Mac, and for that I’m grateful because I know there are plenty of campuses and workplaces where consent isn’t talked about and those places are less safe for it. But even at Macalester there are important conversations that fall through the cracks in our rush to make sure everyone understands that consent is law in the land of sexytimes.

One of these important conversations is the ambiguity possible in seeking and giving consent. Now, I can hear the immediate responses to this possible ambiguity that say we always need clear, affirmative, informed consent (I even got a preview of it when I told my girlfriend I was going to write this), but I’m NOT saying that “maybe” is a reasonable answer to settle with when you ask someone if they’re into sexing you up. It’s not. I’m just sayi ng that things aren’t always as clear as a lot of consent educators would like to hope.

Humans are messy, indecisive creatures. So all human interactions, including sex—especially sex—are loaded with miscommunication and hesitation and uncertainty of varying degrees. It is possible, at least in my experience, to know for sure you want to do something and then decide to do it, but still be uncertain how it will affect you and maybe nervous while you’re doing it. When my girlfriend sees me pause and giggle nervously in the middle of doing wonderful naughty things with her, she always worries for me. She interprets my response as a sign I might no longer be consenting, which is reasonable, but the thing is she’s wrong. And while I’m happy that she asks, that she cares about me and wants to make sure I’m having fun, it also makes me even more uncomfortable that she calls attention to my nervous floundering.

Nobody warned me about that when I was learning that “Consent is Mac.” They told me to check in with my partner frequently, so I do. They told me that it’s okay to say no at any point and to try to not let pressure dictate my actions, so I try. But they never told me I might be totally into something and still feel nervous and not have a clue what to do. I think it’s important to acknowledge this possibility, because I know there have got to be more people like me out there feeling just as isolated and weird when they realize their responses to sex don’t match up with what consent workshops describe. Consent can look different for different people. That’s why checking in is so important, not just because a person might change their mind, but also because one person’s nervousness could mean nothing while another person’s means they’re starting to feel unsafe. But this also means that knowing your partner is important, at least if you’re planning to engage in more than one sexy encounter. I don’t want my girlfriend asking if I’m okay every time I giggle for the rest of forever; it would get old, and it would mean she never learned to recognize the way I interact in intimate situations.

For me, consent is about more than asking “Do you want me to…?” It also means, at least in the case of longer-term relationships, maintaining steady communication about each other’s desires and comfort levels, even outside of the sexytimes. It means understanding each other’s non-verbal signals and knowing what’s relevant. It gets a lot more messy and difficult than we like to talk about at all of those trainings. Consent isn’t just about an affirmative “yes” to a particular act, though that “yes” is of prime importance. Consent is also about trust and mutual understanding, and it takes work to create that kind of space. So, while I think the trainings we get at Mac are useful and necessary, a lot of the discussion in them is more applicable to one-time encounters and short-term sexual relationships than to longer-term situations. Navigating consent in that kind of relationship is a lot different than navigating consent after a Kagin dance. That discussion, I think, is still missing at Mac.