I'm a Man, and I Commit to Making Sure All My Sexual Encounters Are Fully Consensual
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The Consent Pledge
(for men who have sex with women)
I'm a man, and by signing here, I am publicly making this “Consent Pledge” going forward:
I commit to making sure all my sexual encounters are fully consensual. I commit to getting a clear verbal or non-verbal "yes" from my sexual partner(s) before sexual escalation. I commit to not pressuring her to say "yes," to stop if she says "no," and to ask if I'm unsure. I commit to stopping if--in my most honest assessment--I don't believe that she is sober enough to give full consent.
All Men Below
- The Consent Pledge is a publicly-made commitment going forward. Signing it does not mean one has or hasn’t followed it in the past. If you’ve never violated consent in the past, great, keep going--and please sign this pledge, as a public show of support for clear, unambiguous consent. If you have violated consent in the past, then find a way to take responsibility for your past behavior--and please still sign the pledge, as a commitment going forward.
- While you are welcome and encouraged to talk about the Consent Pledge with your sexual partner(s), that is entirely optional; it is a public, non-legally-binding pledge of commitment, not a contract or a “consent form” that needs to be shown to individual partners.
- You are welcome and encouraged to sign the Consent Pledge no matter your relationship style or status: single, dating, coupled, married, divorced, monogamous, polyamorous: consent is important for everyone!
- Our initial goal is to get 10,000 men to sign this by June 1, 2018--and onward from there. Once you've signed, please spread the word by sharing on social media, and also personally recruiting at least 5 of your male friends to sign as well. (Of course, people of all genders are welcome to spread the word, thank you!)
Please stay in touch, and receive updates, via www.ConsentPledge.com
Frequently Asked Questions
[Note: The long chunk of writing below is additional optional reading for those interested; I recommend that men read and absorb the ideas below, but it’s not necessary before signing the Consent Pledge above. Men who sign the Consent Pledge are only signing on to the main paragraph above--they are not necessarily agreeing with anything else I write or say, here or elsewhere. Below are my own interpretations, suggestions and opinions alone. --Michael Ellsberg]
1. Why the “Consent Pledge”?
#MeToo has shown us--with a breadth and depth we men can no longer deny--just how unsafe many women feel around us men, collectively.
In the #MeToo movement, women have spoken up loudly and courageously about what behavior by men is NOT OK with them, and just how widespread this behavior is. They have told us how they want us to change, and what behavior needs to stop.
The ball is in our court now. It’s time for us men to listen to women, to act differently as a result of that listening, and take the lead in encouraging our fellow men to listen and act differently as well.
It’s our responsibility as men to take the lead in creating a culture in which all women feel safe sexually around us.
We can make this change, easily, if we just decide to do it. All we have to do is decide that making sure we have full, unambiguous consent--not half-assed "I thought she consented" consent--is the new norm among our male peers, and that anything less is no longer tolerated among ourselves or our friends.
2. What does “fully consensual” mean?
“Fully consensual” sex is sex with zero pressure.
The recent allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari have sparked a necessary, and long-overdue, culture-wide discussion about the following question: to what degree does verbally pressuring someone to have sex (without physical force, or the threat of force) violate consent?
Ansari is alleged to have intensely verbally pressured a woman for sex while on a date, while ignoring her repeated verbal and non-verbal cues indicating that she was not comfortable with the pace of the encounter and wanted it to slow down. She performed oral sex on him at two different times in the night, and afterwards felt that her sexual boundaries were violated. She came to view the incident--due to his intense pressuring, combined with his lack of attunement or care for her verbal and non-verbal cues to slow down--as a sexual assault.
Large swaths of commentators in articles and on social media could not agree as to whether Ansari was being just a boorish asshole that night, for pressuring her so intensely--in a way that is unfortunately all too common among men on dates--or if he was he was also guilty of a sexual assault.
To an unusual degree among #MeToo discussions, the sides of this particular debate did not fall along totally predictable gender or political lines; the debate raged vociferously among women, and even among women who specifically identify as feminist. The Internet simply cannot seem to come to agreement on this issue yet: can a sex act be considered consensual, if it came about by persistent verbal pressuring, but not by physical force or the threat of force?
It is not my intention to try to resolve this debate here. But here’s what I will say: even if sex that occurs after persistent verbal pressure (but no threat of force) is sort of consensual, by outdated yet still widely-held standards of consent, it can no longer be considered fully consensual.
Fully consensual sex is sex that respects the autonomy of all parties to make their own decisions on their own terms, without pressure. Fully consensual sex is sex in which each partner is clear on what their own sexual boundaries are and what their partner’s sexual boundaries are in each moment, and those boundaries are respected by all. Fully consensual sex is sex with zero pressure.
This model of consent--called “affirmative consent” or “enthusiastic consent”--is widely and rapidly becoming the new norm. We men would be wise to adopt this new standard for ourselves ASAP. For the safety of women, and for our own safety as well.
3. Why are you focusing on men who sleep with women? Isn’t awareness about consent important for women and LGBT people as well?
Of course awareness about consent is important for all human beings. Anyone who has been a victim of a sexual violation, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, and no matter the gender or sexual orientation of the assailant, is one victim too many. (I have created a version of this Consent Pledge with gender-neutral language here: http://tinyurl.com/yb7vwebd
However, in my opinion--and as #MeToo makes clear--the most widespread crisis in our culture is around (cisgender) men’s disrespect for women’s sexual boundaries. So I am taking it upon myself to focus on that group--the group to which I belong--in my wording of this Consent Pledge and in my outreach around it.
4. But I’ve never pressured a woman for sex, violated a woman’s sexual boundaries, or committed any kind of sexual misconduct. Not all men are predators. So why are you encouraging me, and all men, to sign this?
First, if you’ve never pressured a woman for sex, violated a woman’s sexual boundaries, or committed any kind of sexual misconduct, thank you for doing the right thing. I hope you take leadership in encouraging other men to follow your example.
I also hope you’ll still sign this pledge, as it is not a commentary about the signer’s past behavior, but rather, a commitment and show of support for creating a new, positive standard for men around sexual consent. And a tool for raising awareness with other men.
However, even if you feel confident that you’ve never pushed past a woman’s sexual boundaries in the past, I would like you to consider the following:
One of the most notable aspects of the online dialogue around the Aziz Ansari incident, was that virtually all women who wrote articles about it--even women who were defending him and did not believe he had committed an assault--stated that they’d had many experiences while on dates with men along the lines described in the original article about Ansari. The widespread consensus among the women I read--including among who were disagreeing with each other about other aspects of the case--seemed to be this type of intense sexual pressure from men while on dates was all too common among them:
Experiences in which a man has been extremely pushy and aggressive about his sexual desires during a date. Experiences in which a man just wasn’t paying attention to (or didn’t even care about) all the the subtle and non-so-subtle verbal and non-verbal cues she was giving him that she was uncomfortable, and that she wanted him to slow down.
Experiences in which the woman ended up feeling objectified by the man, and used as a means for his own sexual gratification, without concern for her own comfort, desires, preferences, requests, or boundaries--even if technically no law was broken.
The consensus among women commenting online seems to be that the way Ansari is alleged to have acted is extremely common among men when on dates with women. (Note: I am not speaking for any women by saying this; I am merely reporting my own sense of what I’m reading among a wide range of women’s commentary.)
If aggressive pressure for sex by men on dates is as common as women are saying it is--and I believe them when they say it--then it is statistically impossible that this behavior is being perpetuated by just a few “bad apples.” (Note: I’m not talking about violent, forceful, criminal assault here. I’m talking about persistent verbal pressure that does not necessarily rise to the level of a crime.)
Yet few men seem to believe they have ever acted this way. So, there’s a disconnect somewhere. And I believe that disconnect is in our own self-image as men. We may believe we’ve never pressured a woman for sex in a way that made her feel uncomfortable or that disrespected, pushed, or crossed her boundaries--but it’s actually very likely that we did, and she never told us how she felt about it afterwards. (Or she did try to tell us how she felt about it afterwards, and we wouldn’t listen.)
I believe we men need to give ourselves a good hard look in the mirror and listen to what women are telling us, ASAP.
And I believe that if we do that, and are really honest with ourselves, then most of us will indeed have to admit that, on at least one occasion in the past, we have done one of the following: badgered, begged, bothered, bugged, cajoled, convinced, demanded, goaded, guilted, manipulated, nagged, needled, pestered, pleaded, prodded, pressured, or pushed a women for sex… until she finally “gave in” and said “OK”--or at least, stopped saying “no.” In short, we’ve engaged in hard-selling our hard-ons, to women. This needs to stop.
Guys, in a business context, do you feel good when another guy tries to do a high-pressure, hard-sell on you? High-pressure, emotionally-manipulative hard-selling is not illegal. But even if you say “yes” after being subjected to such a hard-sale, you don’t usually feel good about it afterwards. Usually, you feel at least a little used, objectified (as a walking human wallet) and taken advantage of. And you resent the guy who pushed you so hard.
Well, that’s what I believe most of us men have done, at least once in the past, in the sexual realm: high-pressure sales. And we’ve been doing this high-pressure sales towards a group of people who have been socialized to give in to men’s pressure, even if they weren’t sure they wanted to. The reality is that most women have been socialized, since the time they were little girls, to act in certain ways when in the presence of a man.
Of course, they don't always act in these ways--thank goodness--but this is how women have been told to act when in the presence of a man: to be charming, delightful, pretty, available, and pleasantly flirtatious, yet also demure, indirect, and coy. To not speak up for herself in front of a man; to listen to to him closely--without interrupting or inserting too many of her own opinions or objections. To be selfless, needless, desireless and supporting in the face of other people's needs and desires--especially those of men. To caretake and placate a man’s emotions, which often take a turn for the worse when he doesn't get what he wants. To cheerfully and pleasantly give him what he wants, without "putting up too much of a fight." To base her sense of self-worth and self-approval on the sexual approval she receives from men. (Once again, women don't alway act in these ways--but that’s how society has tried to get them to act.)
Add to this, the reality that--as we’ve seen from #MeToo--many women are carrying around trauma from past sexual violations. This trauma has been made worse by the fact that there’s been no safe legal or therapeutic resolution for this trauma en masse for women, which makes many women feel generally unsafe among men. Given that environment, if you as a man then hard-sell your desire for sex--even if you’re not close to committing a crime--it can activate past trauma and trigger a traumatized person into what’s called a “freeze and fawn” response (the counterpart to the more widely-discussed “flight or flight.”)
In a “freeze and fawn” reaction, a person carrying trauma, when triggered, freezes up, dissociates from their body, smiles and “plays nice” with whoever the source of the perceived threat is, placating and going along with their demands peaceably, so as not to put themselves in further danger by arousing the perceived aggressor’s anger or force. As online discussions around cases like Aziz Ansari demonstrate, some version of this “freeze and fawn” response, when under stress or fear in a sexual situation, is vastly more common among women than we men realize.
And then add to all of this alcohol or other drugs--which often are taken by women, and/or offered to women openly by men, in social and sexual settings, specifically in order to lower inhibitions. Put all of this together and you have a potent mix of factors that can lead to the woman feeling that her boundaries were violated, pushed, crossed, disrespected, overruled, disregarded, and just basically run over with a truck--even if the man didn’t do anything that fits strict legal definitions of assault or rape.
This kind of hard-selling of sexual desires on the part of men, often mixed with alcohol, aimed (consciously or subconsciously) at wearing down a woman’s sexual resistance and getting her to give in and have sex, may not be illegal (or in some cases, it may be.) But “not illegal” is not a good enough standard. Not anymore. Not after #MeToo has revealed to us men--in a way we we can no longer deny--just how utterly unsafe so many women feel around us.
Anyways, why would we want to have sex that is merely “not illegal”? Why not wait until a woman is truly excited and enthusiastic about the idea of having sex with us? And if that time doesn’t come with a particular woman, then why not wait until we find a woman who is enthusiastic about having sex with us?
There’s a saying in sales-- “The sale doesn’t start until the prospect says ‘no.’” In a business context, that’s a workable, optimistic, ambitious, rah-rah attitude. In a sexual context, that’s a predatory attitude--but one that many men hold nonetheless.
If we’re desperate for sex in a particular encounter, and we’ve got a “one-track mind” in that instance, and if she says “no” to our desires, we convince ourselves that if we just keep persuading, pressuring, and convincing her verbally, maybe we’ll “get lucky” and she'll “change her mind.”
Or maybe we think she might be “playing hard to get,” in which case we convince ourselves that deep down, she really “wants it,” that her “no” is just some “game” she’s playing, and that her “real” yes will come around in due time if we just keep making our desires and intentions known again and again. Or, we keep pressuring because we’re afraid to find out that she “just doesn’t feel that way" about us--and we just can’t bear one more rejection, and don’t want to hear it.
I’ve been that guy--the guy that kept pressuring and pressuring. I regret it deeply. I will not be that guy anymore.
Signing this pledge is a commitment to not being “that guy” in the future.
5. What about women's role in all of this? Shouldn't women take responsibility and exercise agency to make sure their their own activity is consensual while on dates? Shouldn't they just leave if they don't like something?
If we're talking about a scenario where there is no force, or threat of force, then of course, everyone should be responsible for communicating their own sexual desires, preferences, and boundaries clearly--and making sure these are understood unambiguously--by their partner. And everyone should be responsible for exercising their own sexual agency, to make sure they are comfortable with all sexual activity happening. And anyone should exit a situation ASAP if they feel someone is not respecting their clearly-stated boundaries.
That said, I'm a man, and I'm having this dialogue with fellow men. This isn't about how women should change their behavior; it's about how we men should step up and change our own behavior.
6. Will following this Consent Pledge result in less sex for me?
The only way following the Consent Pledge will result in less sex for you is if you’re having sex that isn’t fully consensual. Any sex that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, had you not pressured her or pushed a boundary, was not fully consensual sex. In which case, you need to stop having that kind of sex anyways, pledge or not, ASAP.
7. But won’t following this Consent Pledge ruin erotic and romantic tension, kill spontaneity and passion, destroy the mood, and make sex formulaic and contractual? And anyways, most women don’t want to be asked “Can I kiss you?” “Can I touch you here?” etc. They want to be ravished passionately, just like in the movies. They want us to know what they want, and they think we’re weak, unsexy, and less of a man if we have to ask.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to read each other's desires, intentions, and boundaries, wordlessly and intuitively, just from each other’s body-language, right upon first meeting them. We would all be able to give each other that "in sync" feeling of "reading each other's minds."
Lovemaking, at its most attuned, is like a form of partner-dancing: in the middle of a good dance, the leader doesn’t stop and ask the follower, "May I spin you?" In a good partner dance, the turns "just happen," and the the leader just knows when and where and how to touch and turn the partner in a way that the follower loves and is most pleasurable for all.
However, even if you already knew how to dance well, would you expect to be able to dance perfectly and gracefully the first time you danced with a new partner?
And how about if you didn’t even know how to dance well yet--if you were new to dancing, and/or your partner was new to dancing, and also you were both dancing with each other for the first time? Would you expect to be able to read your partner’s mind, and execute the most beautiful turns flawlessly and gracefully, the first time, without any verbal communication whatsoever?
That would be an insane expectation in the context of partner dance, and dancers do not generally expect that (that’s why they practice with each other so much!) Yet, it’s a very common expectation in the context of hooking up. And it’s equally insane.
True, no major Hollywood romantic or erotic movie, to my knowledge, has ever featured the question, “May I kiss you?” before the hero and heroine kiss for the first time, or the question, “May I touch your breasts?” before they rip each other’s clothes off and have sex.
But we need to understand that the kind of perfectly synchronized, mind-reading, dance-like, wordlessly and effortlessly graceful and hot lovemaking we see in romantic films on the big screen, is a destination we can get to with a particular partner, over time, with practice.
If you and your sexual partner both have the goal of getting to smooth “dancing” with each other, without having to memorize the steps, or stepping on each other’s toes, you’re almost certainly going to have to talk through it at first. And those conversations may be awkward or unsexy. (You could possibly even get there in one night, as long as you’re practicing.)
The point of these conversations is to get to know your sexual partner well enough so that you don’t have to have keep having these conversations with them. So that the only time you speak during sex is when talking enhances the interaction. Because what’s OK with her and what she likes are already established, so you don’t need to keep talking about it.
But if you don’t know each other, the probability of you being right about what you’re wordlessly assuming about each other's sexual desires, intentions, and boundaries is very small, and the cost for being wrong is very big.
What's more dangerous? The possibility of giving up a bit of the "heat of the moment" passion with a new partner, while we stop and make sure we clearly understand what their boundaries are? Or the possibility of assaulting someone, by not knowing for sure (or not caring) what their boundaries are?
If talking about sexual boundaries and consent before having sex is truly going to bring all your eroticism, hotness, and romance to a screeching halt, never to be recovered, then the problem is simple, and relatively easy to remedy: you need to get better at having consent conversations. Practice makes perfect.
Just like if you don’t know how to put on a condom--it’s going to be really awkward. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear condoms--it means you should learn how to put on a condom, if you don’t want it to be awkward.
Our culture already has a clear precedent for interrupting hook-ups with unsexy but necessary conversations (and still re-sparking passion afterwards.) There is basically no way to make an STI or birth-control conversation sexy. Yet many of us have STI and birth-control conversations before intercourse, and still somehow manage to keep the sex hot. Conversations about sexual boundaries are exactly the same--and just as important as conversations about STIs and birth-control.
A totally different cultural precedent we have for talking about sexual boundaries before sex is the BDSM community. In BDSM, it is extremely common--and in fact, widely treated as an iron-clad requirement--that all aspects of sexual play, including desires, preferences, and boundaries, be explicitly “negotiated” before play commences.
The word “negotiate” is probably one of the least sexy words in the English language. And yet, BDSM practitioners routinely negotiate their sexual acts, preferences, and boundaries in the “scenes” they perform, in extreme detail, before any physical contact whatsoever or even any seduction. And, though this may be controversial, I would venture to suggest that the average BDSM player is having much hotter, wilder, and more eroticized sex in their scenes--after having explicitly, verbally negotiated every sexual boundary, desire and preference in minute detail beforehand--than occurs in the average non-negotiated “spontaneous” hookup among strangers on Tinder.
It’s simple. Talking about sexual boundaries doesn’t need to take away from sexual pleasure, and in fact, often enhances sexual pleasure.
If we're not absolutely 100% clear about someone's sexual boundaries, based on body-language alone, or based on previous discussions and agreements, then we need to stop, ask and make sure. Or risk we risk assaulting someone. It's really not that complicated.
8. How do I put this into practice, in the real world?
By signing the Consent Pledge, we are committing to actively checking in with our partners, non-verbally and/or verbally (as needed) before and during sex.
Non-verbal checking in means being honest with ourselves regarding questions such as: Does her body-language suggest she's into this? Or does her body language seem reserved, neutral, frozen, or even aversive? Is she moving towards me, and melting into me? Or is she passive, and just “going along with it”? Or is she moving away from me, and tensing up? What do her eye contact and facial expressions suggest?
If your partner’s body language is screamingly, obviously stating that she’s totally into it (eye contact, moving towards you, hands on you, etc.), then you may need to ask less with words, or not at all. However, as discussed above, be careful thinking that you can rely on body language alone to intuit someone’s sexual boundaries, when you’re with a new partner. Especially among men who sleep with women: science has proven that we are prone to being highly “over-optimistic” in interpreting non-verbal cues from women that we’re attracted to. It’s just too easy for us to be wrong in our reading of the situation--especially if we’re in the heat of the moment and desperate for it to escalate sexually. And there’s too much at stake when we get it wrong.
Thus, I believe we men--for a long while--are going to need to supplement the body-based intuitions we have about women's desires and boundaries, with explicit, verbal checking-in. Especially when we're with new partners, and especially if one or both parties have been drinking or taking drugs.
We can ask questions such as: “Do you like this?” “Is this OK?” “How is this?” “Is this working for you?” “How is this pace for you?” “Is this feeling good to you?” "Would you like more _______?” “I want to _____. May I?” Or... “I want this to be just right for you. So if you want anything different, or want me to stop, will you let me know?”
An awesome question, suggested by sex educator Philippe Lewis, is "How do I know if you're into something, or not into something?" If both partners asked this of each other, and got clear on the answers, before hooking up, it would get rid of the need for most of the other questions above. Is this really that hard?
Sure, it would be great if you already knew the answers to these verbal questions without having to ask. But the truth is, you probably don’t already know the answers to all these verbal questions about her desires, preferences, and boundaries. At least, not all of them.
Collectively, we’re wrong a lot, and we usually don’t know that we’re wrong. As discussed, most women online are saying they’ve been on the receiving end of behavior much like that which Aziz Ansari is accused of: intense, persistent verbal pressure and persuasion by the man to have sex, combined with him not paying attention to (or not caring about) her verbal or non-verbal cues suggesting that she’s uncomfortable with what is happening.
If we believe women on this--and I do believe them, and I encourage you to believe them too--then it’s statistically very unlikely that these boundary-violations they are describing as widespread are being caused by just a few “bad apples.” Rather, it’s more likely that this pushy, demanding, aggressively-persistent high-pressure sexual persuasion on our part has become so normalized, that we men barely even notice we’re doing it. It’s like breathing to us. That’s terrifying. For everyone.
In response to the allegations against him, Ansari claims that he thought that “by all indications [the sexual activity] was completely consensual,” and that “everything did seem OK to me” that night. And it is quite possible that he is being sincere when he says he believed these things. But just because he may have thought everything was completely consensual, doesn’t mean that everything was completely consensual. Just because everything may have seemed OK to him that night, doesn’t mean that everything was OK.
(In a different domain: one survey found that 93% of American drivers think their driving skills are above average. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone’s driving skills are above average, even among those who think otherwise.)
If you’ve have more than a few sexual partners, it’s likely that you’ve pushed past or overstepped a woman’s sexual boundary in the past, and you didn’t even know about it, because she didn’t do anything about it or say anything about it to you at the time. (Before #MeToo!) Or because you were just not paying enough attention to or caring enough about the verbal and non-verbal “soft no’s” and redirections she was giving you all along. She probably made these “no’s” softer more pleasant and kind than she might have, so as not to offend you or hurt your feelings, or arouse your anger--but these “soft no’s” should have been screamingly obvious, if you were actually intending to look for her signs of discomfort. )
“Soft no’s” are verbal or non-verbal cues, short of a full-out “NO!” or “STOP!” that indicate she is not comfortable with what’s happening, and would like something different. According to the account of the woman who accused Ansari of assault, she was giving him tons of these “soft no’s” throughout the night, and he just kept overruling them and steamrolling right past them. Dudes, that’s the wrong move.
Women are giving us these “soft no’s” all the time, either because they’ve been trained to act demure with men and not stand up for themselves in ways that are perceived as harsh or critical, or because they’re afraid we’ll get angry if they’re more direct with us in asserting their boundaries or they reject us, or because they genuinely don’t want to hurt our feelings. For better or worse, they’re actually trying to soften the blow for us in the way they deliver their messages.
Proactively looking out for these “soft no’s” during a hook-up, and adjusting course and/or checking in with her verbally if we think we’re receiving a soft no, should be the new normal among men. Get ahead of the curve on this new normal, and start now.
You probably think you’ve been doing a great job on this, and know where the line of her boundaries is in all cases. (I once thought that about myself too--in fact, I thought I was a master at this--and I am grateful to have received some very pointed feedback from women with direct experience of me in the past, that I was incorrect in that belief.)
What I hope we men have learned collectively, from #MeToo, is that we’re wrong about that way more often than we think.
Are you the counterexample to that trend? Maybe. But it’s probably more valuable and useful if you consider that you might not be, and do more verbal checking in to recalibrate to women’s sexual boundaries. Women are asking us to recalibrate. It’s our turn to decide if we’re going to do this simple and sensible thing they’re asking of us.
To my knowledge, there are few women out there thinking, “I wish men would speed their sexual escalation up, and pay less attention to my own desires and sexual boundaries as they rush to sex.” Whereas, as we’ve seen from the dialogue around the Ansari case, many women are asking us to slow down a bit in our sexual escalation while on dates, and check in with them to make sure they’re totally on-board before more escalation. And to care, and stop escalating, if they’re not totally on-board.
Another simple way to combine both non-verbal and verbal checking-in involves actively paying attention and being attuned to her body (which you should probably be doing anyway during sex!), and actively noticing if there are times when she contracts, pulls away, withdraws, or goes "cold." If you notice that, then check in with her, with a simple “You doing OK?” to give her a safe opening to name any of her hesitations.
The precise timing or wording of the verbal questions is not the key--you may not remember the perfectly-worded example, and deliver it at the perfect instant, while you’re in the middle of a hook-up after a few glasses of wine on a Saturday night. But understanding and exemplifying the spirit of these questions is absolutely necessary:
By taking the Consent Pledge, we men are voluntarily and openly shifting the burden of establishing consent to us. (Previously, this burden was primarily put on women, who were expected to say “NO” loudly and forcefully, get up and leave, or even to push us away if they didn’t want our persistent badgering for sex.)
For those of us men who choose to take the Consent Pledge, the onus is now on us to check in with women we’re connecting with sexually, and to make sure they’re actually OK with what’s going on, and that they’re not feeling pressured about it.
This type of “checking in”--as exemplified by the sample questions above--should be done, certainly before anyone’s genitals are getting touched, sucked, or fucked. Probably before touching breasts or butt. And maybe, if you’re really not sure, it may be appropriate to ask even before leaning in for the first kiss. And ongoingly, from time to time, as these activities continue or escalate. It’s likely you’ll need to ask these questions less and less, or not at all, the longer someone has been your partner.
(Note: in the paragraph above, I am assuming you’re on a date or in some other clear romantic/erotic context with a woman, and that you hold no formal power over her or other workplace connections. If you’re not on a date--such as at a work-related lunch or dinner with a colleague--it’s likely you’re engaged in a power dynamic you don’t understand, where any eroticizing of the situation could be harmful in ways you’re not aware of. The intent of this pledge is not meant to cover workplace harassment or strong power imbalances, where even asking for a kiss itself can rightfully be seen as harassment.)
9. What about alcohol and drugs?
If either of you have been drinking or taking drugs--particularly with a new partner--you could ask something like, “Do you feel clear enough to be making decisions about sex?” And whatever your partner says in response to that, if YOU feel they’re not clear enough, then just stop. It’s the right thing to do. If she’s stumbling, slurring, or insensible, she needs a glass of water or a blanket, not some hazily-remembered, possibly-coerced sexual encounter.
In guidelines about affirmative consent--such as those handed out to college freshman during school orientations--one often comes across the proposition that it is impossible for someone to give consent if they have taken any alcohol or drugs whatsoever. With all due respect for the intention behind this proposition, I must take issue with it, as don’t think it does anyone any good. That position would have the effect turning all sex that has ever occurred after a glass of wine or a beer at dinner--likely much of the sex in history, since the invention of wine and beer--into non-consensual sex. This is simply a confused position, and I cannot see how it can be maintained seriously, in good faith.
That said, there is no question that mixing alcohol and drugs with sex massively raises the likelihood of unintentionally or intentionally crossing sexual boundaries during sex. Extreme care with your partner’s sexual boundaries--the opposite of pushing and pressuring--must be taken, and an even higher level of communication about boundaries, if you choose to take the risk of mixing drugs or alcohol with sex.
Drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions--which is, of course, why many people take them. This means people will be a yes to things when they’re intoxicated, that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been a yes to, when sober. When a woman sobers up after a night of sex with a new partner, and her original, sober set of boundaries, desires, preferences and values are restored, it’s possible that she’ll look back at things she was a yes to at the time, and feel violated.
This reality is the subject of much sneering by men (and some women): “it wasn’t assault, it was just sex that she regretted.”
I’m not here to debate that point. But I am here to say this: aiming to make sure that you and your partner don’t regret the sex you’re having, is the safest thing for both you and your partner. And when either partner takes a mind-altering substance with the intention of temporarily lowering their inhibitions, the chance of regret when sober again becomes much, much higher.
In his piece, “A message for men who want to avoid women regretting having been sexual with them.” (http://tinyurl.com/yb7yn5tr Daniel Schmactenberger makes an excellent suggestion around this:
“Only take new sexual steps when you are both completely sober. If you’ve established comfort with a particular level of sexual connection, you can introduce intoxicants to that level of play. But you don’t want her to make a decision that she has never made before with you, that may later feel consequential, when her discernment is less than full. E.g., if you’ve been dating and having oral sex for some time but not intercourse, and you want to have oral sex again while high or buzzed, (assuming the intoxicant is familiar and handled well), that’s probably fine. But if she feels open to having intercourse for the first time then, wait until she’s fully sober to make that choice.”
Another option is to have conversations about boundaries and limits before either of you consumes any alcohol or drugs. And to uphold those boundaries impeccably in the heat of the moment, for the rest of the night, no matter how much you wish you hadn’t made those agreements before you were tipsy.
Of course, another option is to just not to use drugs or alcohol at all, or not while having sex.
But this is not a sobriety sermon. It’s consent advice for people in the real world. And people in the real world often combine alcohol or drugs, and sex. (I personally enjoy mixing marijuana and sex very much.) I neither recommend for nor against other people taking intoxicants--that is a decision you must come to for yourself. But if you choose to indulge, there are ways to make things safer for you and your partner from a consent perspective, less likely to lead to regret, and more likely to lead to pleasure and happiness for everyone.
Another way to make things safer is to agree ahead of time on a safeword that means, unambiguously, stop immediately. That word can be, just, “stop.” Or it can be “red.” Or kumquat. Or whatever word you mutually agree upon (and are sure to remember.)
Having a safeword in place during sexual activity does not guarantee consent (someone can be in too altered a state of consciousness to be in touch with their boundaries or remember to use their safeword, an extremely dangerous state for all involved.) But it is one extra layer of communication and security.
Are you starting to see the pattern here? When it comes to sexual boundaries, more communication is usually better than less communication, particularly when with a new partner, and particularly if drugs and alcohol are involved. This really isn’t rocket science!
The point is not to make strict rules and regulations that must be followed in a rigid, contractual fashion throughout the entire interaction, in the same cookie-cutter way with each person. The point is for us men to proactively commit to finding out for sure that our partner is truly into what we’re doing with them, to not pressure them for more, and to stop if they’re not into it, at any time before or during our time together. And to commit to communicating clearly and openly enough to make sure we’re on the same page about these things with our partner. Even if it feels awkward or unsexy to do so in the moment.
These are new skills and practices for most men and women--asking and talking openly about sexual desires, preferences and boundaries before and in the middle of a hookup--so there’s bound to be a learning curve before we can start doing it fluently, without interrupting the smooth flow of the romance and eroticism. But having these conversations will start feeling less and less unsexy, and may even start to feel positively sexy, the more we get used to it, and the more it becomes the social norm.
As discussed before, some women may not like to be asked these questions. They may feel it ruins the mood or kills spontaneity. They might think you’re less of a man if you have to ask, and that it’s turn off. They may feel, "I just want a man to feel into me and know what I want, without having to ask." That’s OK. Everyone has their own desires around what’s hot for them, and not everyone is going to feel this new social norm meets their needs, desires, and sense of turn-on. It’s understandable for men to be afraid that some women prefer that a man “just know,” rather than having to ask.
In this case, trust. Trust that these women will understand why you’re asking. Trust that they can say, “Hey, you don’t need to ask all these questions--if I don’t like something, I’ll tell you.”
Let’s make being absolutely sure of our partner's sexual boundaries the default option. Even if that means we need to stop the hook-up and have a conversation about mutual boundaries, along with our conversation about STIs and birth control.
Instead of “Well, I thought it was consensual, and she seemed to be into it, and if she didn’t like it she was free to leave” being the default option for men--leading to cases like Aziz Ansari and worse.
Guys, in the wake of #MeToo, let’s err on the side of caution to make sure we don’t become yet another woman’s #MeToo.
Rather than erring on the side of always pushing the pedal to the metal on the sexual escalation, no matter if anyone's even put their seatbelts on yet!
If you and your partner want to move away from this new default of “erring on the side of caution,” towards a more open, free and spontaneous ethic of “You don’t need to ask verbally, you can just keep going unless I say stop,” that’s great. Agree to that specifically.
Let’s stop leaving consent to unspoken chance. There’s too much at stake for everyone. Together, let’s create a new culture of respect for sexual boundaries.
The first step we can take as men, is committing to this Consent Pledge--and more important, putting it into practice, every day, starting today.
(Written by Michael Ellsberg.)
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