Enthusiastic versus Explicit Consent:
When you first meet a sex partner, and you’re asking for clear and verbal consent, the last thing you want is a lackluster reply.
“Can I go down on you?”
“Uh, sure, I guess so.”
That response is technically a “yes,” but it certainly doesn’t sound like a person who wants to have sex with you! There are dozens and dozens of reasons to have sex, and that means that sometimes people agree to have sex without actually wanting it. That casual “yes” could actually mean “I don’t want you to leave me” or “I feel threatened by what you’ll do if I say no” or “I guess I don’t have a reason not to” or “I feel like I need to get this over with” or any number of other things. A passive agreement doesn’t say “wow, I really want this as much as you want this!” We want enthusiasm in our consent. Enthusiasm for the specific act you’re proposing,
Enthusiasm doesn’t mean you can’t also feel nervous or solemn, because sex can be a really serious and scary activity. I am a firm believer in peoples’ right to have casual sex, but sex can have a number of consequences, both physical and mental. Given that, you want to make extra sure that you’re both having sex for the same reason – you want to have sex, right now, with this person. So you can be nervous but excited – just make sure the feeling you’re having is enthusiasm, and not just appeasing a partner.
So, enthusiasm = important with a new sex partner. You’re learning their body and their mind, you don’t necessarily know how well you match up in bed, and you may even still be unsure about your dynamic. What if you’re excited to be having sex, and they’re saying “yeah, I guess so” because they think you’ll like them better if they do? The best way to avoid hazy motivation is to hold out for the best motivation: enthusiasm to have sex. It’s a great shortcut to see if their “yes” means “yes!”
THIS BEING SAID –
That changes in a long term relationship because your motivation changes. In long term, trusting relationships, more motivations are placed on the table. Reasons you might want to have sex now include things like relationship maintenance, intimacy rebuilding, attempts to get pregnant, or other motivations that can make sex feel like a bit of a chore. And some chores, even if they aren’t delightful, are still valuable.
Let me be quite clear – I do not think anyone should have reluctant sex, sex they use to try and patch a failing relationship, coerced sex, or non-consented sex (rape). But I do think that a person can EXPLICTLY consent to sex without necessarily ENTHUSIASTICALLY consenting to sex.
I’ll approach this from a slightly different angle: I don’t want to be a part of any sexual community that tries to dictate what emotions I’m feeling. When the sex positive community insists that ALL sex must be enthusiastic, they’re telling me that I can’t consent to sex when I’m tired, or have had a bad day, or simply didn’t feel like having sex when it came up. Whereas I feel quite comfortable with the following interaction:
“do you want to have sex?”
“well, I’m not really turned on right now, but sure, that’s something we can do if you want to.”
“yeah, I’ve been feeling distant lately, and I want to be physically intimate with you.”
“yeah, that makes sense. Sure, grab the lube.”
That passive “yes” simply means a very different thing when you’re in a trusting, long-term relationship.
Mind you, I’m sure people having casual sex, or sex in a newer relationship could communicate this explicitly, and possibly come to the same conclusion, but I’m honestly having trouble thinking up reasons that casual sex partners would want to have sex that they aren’t enthusiastic about. Again, I’m not here to dictate anyone’s emotional state, so I’m not going to insist that all hookups be mutually and explosively enthusiastic, especially if the less enthusiastic partner can explicitly consent, doesn’t feel coerced, understands the ramifications of their decision, etc. But enthusiasm is a great tool to make sure that both people are having sex that they want to have.
So. Consent 101 tells us that we need enthusiasm for sex to be consensual. Consent 201 tells us that there is motivation for sex outside of enthusiasm, and that dictating someone else’s emotions feels pretty gross. Also, that enthusiasm is a great shorthand or tool to use, to make sure that your casual (or serious!) sex partner has healthy motivations for wanting to have sex, but that if you’re great at communicating with your partner you may not need that shorthand, because your partner can explicitly state why they are willing to have sex with you.