A few Fridays ago, I went to a lecture called “Let’s Talk about Sex” by Nancy Bauer, a Tufts professor. Bauer’s thesis was that we should talk about sex more. She stood at the podium, giving a lot of theoretical reasons why talking about sex would improve issues of consent and also make sex better. She didn’t specify the shape of these conversations, or how to make them come about. She spoke as though fruitful conversations about sex would materialize from sheer will, as if we’d suddenly have the vocabulary and the tact to effortlessly talk about sex. But, just because one agrees that we should talk about sex doesn’t mean we know how to.
In the winter, somebody asked me, “what do you like?” I began to answer, but then my voice dwindled. There was a horrible moment of dead air. I felt childish. How could I not know what I wanted? It wasn’t that I didn’t want anything, rather, it was that I didn’t have the imagery or the vocabulary to explain specifically what I wanted. Recently, a friend told me that it’s hard to be asked what she wants. Like me, she feels like she doesn’t have the adequate base of knowledge to sift through for an appropriate answer — she’s been trying to figure out what that answer is.
After the room had been quiet for too long, I asked the other person what they wanted. They were ready. They didn’t seem to be grasping for answers in the same way that I was; the words, the images appeared easily to them.
If you’ve been watching porn for longer or been having sex for longer, it seems as though ideas about what you want, or simply what’s possible, are clearer, real, accessible. If you’ve seen it done, you can say it out loud. The person with the bigger sexual lexicon takes up more space in the conversation.
It’s not that Bauer’s explanation is impossible — I think I lived it once. I was with someone and we did not overthink, or plan, and words appeared without calculation. Moment after moment, they asked me, “is this okay?” Our interaction felt like walking down a long hallway; they stopped when they felt like it. The questions weren’t asked to fill a quota of consent — they were asked for the sake of it, for the pleasure of asking.
A few weeks later, I was with someone else who also continuously asked “is this okay?” But this person asked like they wished they didn’t have to. They asked as if it was an obligation; it felt less like a question and more like a challenge. Like: see, I did what I was supposed to do. They asked like they didn’t want me to say no, so it didn’t really feel like they were asking.
A lot of people I know, many of them men, say that asking “is this okay?” makes sex less sexy. Constant questions “ruin the mood,” they tell me. It’s as if they think they have a certain number of “do you like this?” chips to cash in before the net sexiness starts to enter the negative.
Maybe it’s “less sexy” to ask because questions make the possibility of “no” present and concrete while having sex. Maybe people are unconsciously afraid to ask these questions because they remind us that two answers are possible. It’s not that they don’t want to let people say “no,” rather that the very reality that “no” is an option is unpleasant and just easier to ignore.
This is my suspicion about what’s going on when people dismiss or begrudgingly ask for continuous consent: D’Angelo is playing, and there’s a healthy amount of nervous laughter. Everything feels nice, it seems as though you are both into it. For some, it seems like asking “is this okay” suddenly introduces “no.” It’s as if asking makes the whole process feel illicit. When you have to ask for permission, it can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong. It’s much easier to remain silent until necessary, to not riddle the entire experience with such precariousness, the constant knife’s edge.
Recently, I sat in the dining hall with my friends and we tried to articulate why sex is better when people feel free to ask is this okay. We felt it was important to convince the people we knew, but we struggled finding the words for why. We were sharing a table with a large group of boys and we had our conversation loudly, daring them to overhear. This was the best we could do.
I keep coming back to that moment in the winter when continuous consent felt natural. I can’t explain why that person asked when they did, or even count on my fingers how often they asked. I wasn’t keeping track and neither were they. They asked not in order to check a box, but because there is pleasure in asking.
With each question, the hookup gains stakes, a momentum of affirmation. There is a rhythm of consent, which builds from, rather than ignores, the reality of two answers. So, the same power which fuels this anxiety around “no” can be repurposed as pleasure: taking off your shirt means something, and that is sexy.
—Magazine writer Malaika K. Tapper can be reached at email@example.com. This is the second installment of her column, You Up?, which explores desire on Harvard's campus.