CN: Alcohol, nightclub harassment
I learned about consent when I explored my bi-curiosity for the first time – in a gay club in Prague, Czech Republic. A safe space for Eastern Europe’s queer community to celebrate their sexual orientation without judgement. I’d wanted to experiment with guys for a while and the strobe light and two Jaegerbombs made me feel anonymous enough to decide that this was the night. It didn’t take long until I locked eyes with a guy in his twenties. He was good-looking, chiseled face, sweaty forehead. “Can I kiss you?” We kissed and danced and sang along to the music and kissed again. Slowly, his hand started moving towards my crotch. “Can I touch you?”.
He kept moving my hand. Just before he reached my belt, I shunned away. I ran outside and lit a cigarette. A feeling of anger overcame me. Not at him for asking for more but at myself for not having given him what he wanted. I’d gotten his expectations up by approaching him – he was much better looking than me. I felt as if I’d used him for my own little sexual experiment.
Only much later, on my train back home, I realised what I’d learned about consent. First of all, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d asked him if I could kiss him and he consented. He moved his hand and I withdrew my consent. He did take no for an answer, and began apologising profusely before I made my way outside. But I hadn’t been given a fair choice.
I started to realise that my consent was much more complex than the absence of a no. The Law of England and Wales states that consent requires ‘agreement by choice, and the freedom and capacity to make that choice’. Freedom, capacity, choice; we find anything but clearly defined boundaries when exploring these terms in a legal context. But discussing consent in terms of our legal obligations would be inconsistent with what sexual interaction should be characterised by. Consent shouldn’t be a barrier to getting what we want; instead, our sexual experiences should be based on nothing but unambiguous, enthusiastic consent established by proactive communication.
When is sexual activity unethical? We approach this question the wrong way if we discuss sex as an object or service we get once we obtain permission for it. Once we start viewing sex as a dialogue, a dynamic, with giving and receiving pleasure weighed equally, the answer to our question becomes obvious: we’re behaving unethically as soon as we don’t consider our partner’s desires as equal to our own. Once we internalise this principle, asking the right questions should come to us naturally, rather than looking for them in the answers we want to hear.
Ask. Does that person understand what you’re asking from them? Are they coherent? And then, does their consent go beyond permission? Do they want you to do what you’re about to do? If you can’t confirm any one of these, stop. You don’t need to apologise. You’ve decided to view your partner’s boundaries as more than an obstacle between you and your own sexual pleasure. You’ve decided to treat sex as an interaction that empowers yourself and your partner. It’s okay if your interests and desires don’t align.
Changing our mode of thinking about sex isn’t easy. But only if we do so will we be able to treat consent with the necessary sensitivity. To get there, we have to make proper communication part of our sex lives. One important step is to understand our own boundaries. Prior to my experiences in Prague, I’d never faced a situation in which someone asked more from me sexually than I was willing to give. Only upon reflecting on our kiss, his hand, the feeling of guilt that overcame me as soon as I stepped outside, did I fully realise that those who treat consent like a locked door leading to their sexual pleasure never understood consent in the first place.