If you aren’t sure your partner is turned on and happy to proceed, what kind of sex is it anyhow?
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? We ask every preschooler to use their words — and most learn to do so. We tell them their body is their own, and they get good at telling even parents to bug off when they don’t feel like being held or kissed.
The problem is that too many women have not had the same training when it comes to sex. We are supposed to control sexual situations, but there is a paradox: While we may defer to guys, some women still are supposed to artfully dissuade them from being overly sexually aggressive.
It’s clear we don’t always “use our words,” and a lot is at stake. If sexual boundaries are crossed, even against our will, it used to be that it was somehow our fault, and our shame alone. But now our culture is changing. Sexual consent has new standing. Sexual harassers cannot count on immunity from discovery, responsibility and punishment. The conversation is loud and angry and consistent: Any kind of sex without consent is wrong. Wrong! Yet, does anyone believe that no person will ever again let their sexual drive run over someone else’s rights? What’s our plan to stop it?
Can’t it be as simple as women or men who are being sexually pressured just saying no? Uh, no. Because ironically, we seem to be especially unable to talk about sex when we are having it, or about to have it.
“Using our words” about sex seems to be excruciatingly difficult. Doubly difficult if we are in a situation with someone we feel we cannot afford to offend. Still, while sex has been complicated by lopsided power differentials, the even bigger problem is caused by the fact that our culture is sexually schizoid. We love sex, yet we disparage it. We watch and read about it. We consider it shameful. We bare our bodies, but we don’t like them. We can do it, but we are uncomfortable chatting candidly about it.
Even committed partners have trouble saying what they want or don’t want, much less people hooking up with an acquaintance or stranger.
Now I know there are situations when words are not enough. A Hollywood thug like Harvey Weinstein who used power like a cudgel isn’t going to take no for an answer. He and a some others seem to be in their own ugly category.
But what about the comedian Aziz Ansari’s debacle? Doesn’t the telling of that first disastrous date sound familiar to just about everyone? Guys scratching their heads wondering what they did wrong? Women insulted, angry, manhandled and humiliated? Neither one having the slightest idea about the other’s reality? Depressing. And depressingly repeated in each generation.
It seems that many men are so uncomfortable with their own sexuality that they would rather slog through sex with an unenthusiastic date — and even risk a rape or harassment accusation the next morning — rather than have a clear discussion about what’s going on and who is going to do what to whom. Some men (and women) find talking about sex and condoms cringe-worthy and say these kinds of discussions are hard because they could “break” the mood.
That is a lame excuse, because if you don’t have enough game to make that “shall we do it?” dialogue sexy, you should consider yourself unqualified to take your clothes off. And let’s be clear about something else: If you aren’t sure your partner is turned on and happy to proceed, what kind of sex is this anyhow? I understand why nervous and insecure young people drink themselves into oblivion so they can face being sexual, but I think if we helped people feel less ambivalent about sex, they could use their words more easily and have much better sex.
So, let me say it again. Use your words, not your body language, not your facial expressions (although all those are allowed), but, damn it — use your words. And this goes for everyone.
Both people have to be seekers — not just the seeker and the sought. No matter how erotically electrified men and women are at any given point, they need to make sure, with words, that their partner is sharing the same sexual script they are. Passion is no excuse for bad decisions. Everyone can say, “Do you want me? Do you want to make love? Are you ready now?”
And not only does “no” mean “no,” a person’s hesitation, or a response such as “I’m not sure” means no. Or at least, not this time.
And, of course, you have to listen. I mean, really listen. And never dismiss the “no” or the “I’m unsure” as a coy demurral.
Doesn’t sound romantic? Does a conviction for sexual harassment sound romantic? Does a reputation as a sexual harasser turn you on? Or a loss of your job? Does being in a situation where you are suffering through an act of intercourse because you didn’t say you were ambivalent (or uninterested) sound reasonable?
In most, but I grant you, not all, cases an emphatic or nice version of “I do not want to do this with you” will usually get everyone out of a dangerous situation. Granted, this will not stop a predator — but that is for another Op-Ed about monsters and narcissists who can only be controlled by creating systems that are capable of protecting the victim and getting rid of an immoral person. But for these “grayish” situations, please, use your words.