If we’re going to talk about consent, we need to talk about desire

By Suzannah Weiss

“Well, were you intimate with him?”

I’m 19 years old, and my dad is trying to console me about a breakup by getting to the root of it — which, apparently, was my unwillingness to put out.

“You know, that can be a dealbreaker for a man. Sometimes, you have to compromise.” 

This statement says a lot about how people view sex. First, it assumes that if it hasn’t happened, that must be the woman’s decision because, supposedly, women are less sexual. Second, it assumes that if you’re a woman, sex is a transaction, where you trade sex for a relationship. 

Where, exactly, does female desire fit into the equation? Nowhere. 

You hear this view of sex as devoid of female desire in terms like “put out.” And you hear it in the recent defenses of Aziz Ansari. People are calling the interactions described in Babe normal and consensual, asking how else a guy is supposed to get laid. The assumption underlying these defenses is the same as the one underlying my dad’s question: that a woman’s desire is not essential for a sexual encounter. 

Given how much pressure Ansari put on Grace, I wouldn’t go as far as to call the encounter consensual. But I think even those arguing that it is consensual could agree on one thing: there was no desire on her part. 

The importance of affirmative and enthusiastic consent

For affirmative consent to be present in a sexual interaction, the consent has to be given enthusiastically, according to Project Respect: “Only yes means yes – and yes should come from an engaged and enthusiastic partner.”

The problem is, many people still don’t think of women as capable of being enthusiastic about sex. They think of wives telling their husbands they have a headache when they make moves on them, then finally giving in when they persist. They think of teen girls having sex with their boyfriends with the hope that it’ll get them to stay. 

FYI: Women are sexual beings

Given this view of women, it’s no wonder our society has a problem understanding consent. If you don’t think of women as sexual beings, it’s hard to even picture sex that a woman enthusiastically agrees to. And so, situations like Grace and Ansari’s come to seem normal. 

If we’re going to talk about consent, we need to talk about desire — because a consensual encounter is one that’s desired by all parties involved. As long as we think of women as desireless creatures, we won’t view them as capable of consenting, and a lack of affirmative consent will continue to seem normal. 

That’s why women need to be able to talk about what porn they watch, what kind of touch turns them on, and who they’re attracted to. These discussions aren’t just for fun. They’re vital for understanding what it means to consent. To consent means to desire. 

Women’s partners need to stop asking themselves “is she OK with it?” and start asking “does she want it?” And parents need to stop telling their girls what their partners supposedly want and start telling them to do what they want. 

Then, and only then, can we begin to replace rape culture with a culture of consent.

 Image Source: Coucou Suzette

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