The #MeToo movement has brought conversations around consent to international headlines—and proved that it’s not always easy to talk about, especially when it comes to “gray areas.” Most often, this refers to personal relationships in which sexual mistreatment is “rooted in behavior that is harmful and inequitable but isn’t illegal,” as Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote in a September Jezebel article. Their traces are evident in when abusers apologize for “misunderstanding a situation,” “blurring lines between the personal and the professional,” and “behaving insensitively.” They’re when consent in its simplest yes/no formulation fails to maintain its meaning—when the person in the position of power has often achieved the “yes” necessary to defend themselves should the other person later object to the way they’ve been treated. Every excuse for why “gray areas” are permissible is a logical mutation of yes—not trying to stop someone, or not trying hard enough. Being persuaded, manipulated, or cajoled. Having liked it before.
In relationships where both parties have chosen to spend time together sexually, affirmative consent, functioning as it’s intended to, is based on every individual person’s understanding and communication of it. RAINN has a useful guide to general best practices when it comes to giving and receiving consent, but it can also be instructive (or at least reassuring) to hear how it works in practice for real people. Broadly has invited five people whose work directly corresponds with sex to discuss the times in their personal lives that recontextualized how consent could account for their needs on an individual level.
John Paul Brammer
Ever since #MeToo got rolling and people started sharing their experiences, I keep going back to this one thing that happened with me after I had just come out of the closet. I was going to school at the University of Oklahoma, and I was in that phase where, after being repressed for 20-something years, I was eager to date anyone—I didn't care who. I landed on this slightly older guy who was really terrible. Every time I was with him, I was like, Why am I with this person? but I felt compelled to keep seeing him because I wanted a boyfriend, and I wanted my first this and my first that. I had no idea how gay sex worked—I was looking for someone to show me the ropes.
On my 21st birthday, he took me to my first gay bar. Everyone was buying me drinks. It was in Tulsa, which is a couple hours from the University of Oklahoma. I got super drunk, and he was like, "We're closer to my place than we are to yours. Why don't we just go back there?"
Back at his place, I got in bed and fell asleep, and at some point during the night he got on top of me. (At this point, I should provide the context that had been asking throughout our little relationship stint if I wanted to bottom, and I kept saying, "No. I'm not ready. This doesn't feel comfortable. I'm nervous.")
I wasn't so drunk that I didn't know exactly what he was doing. What really trips me up about the whole situation is that I definitely did enjoy that he was doing it and getting pleasure from it, so I thought, Okay. I think I want to do this. Now's a good time anyway. I don't feel things quite as much as I usually do. Because I do get inhibitions about bottoming; I'm high-anxiety: I like being in control, so I struggle with sort of getting out of that mindset enough to let go. I was like, Okay. This is a good opportunity. I'm just gonna go with it.
I didn't give him any indication that I was awake. There was no active, "Yes. I want you to do this." There was just me on the inside, like, Yeah, I think I want to do this.
He started trying to penetrate me. I can't remember what happened after that. I just know some series of events unfolded and we went back to sleep.
When I woke up, I felt absolutely fine. I didn't feel like I had been violated, or that something terrible had just happened to me. It was like any other day. But then he made this joke, like, "Oh—don't tell the police about that." I was like, What on Earth? He had a really shitty sense of humor to begin with, so I was like, Maybe that's just him being weird?
I went back to school and told my friends about what happened. I was making jokes about it, because I didn't really understand it. To this day, I second-guess it a lot—there was so much I didn't know about the gay experience, and sex, that I'm like, Can I even trust myself to get that series of events down accurately? But when I told my friends about it, they were like, "Oh, no. You were definitely raped." It was this really urgent, threatening thing and I freaked out really hard, because people were telling me that something awful had happened to me—that I was a victim and that I needed to immediately go to a therapist and get tested. (In hindsight, I agree with that last point—I can't remember if he wore a condom or if he was inside me.) I flipped out—like I said, I had anxiety.
The most complicated-feeling part that I come back to was that I didn’t fight him. Should I have said, “Get off me?” Then, the other part was like, But you wanted that to happen. Which I did, at the moment. This keeps coming back to me, because I think it's a point where what consent means to me, and what consent is, and how it functions between two people, because, as I've come to understand it, I realize now I wasn't in a place to give consent in that situation.
It keeps coming back to me because it defines what consent is, what it means to me, and how it functions between two people. As I've come to understand it, I realize I wasn't really in a place to give consent in that situation. It’s hard to internalize, but it was on him to understand that I was drunk and either asleep or passed out.
Consent is not this hard, immediate, emphatic thing where one person screams yes, the other person screams yes, and then they sign a contract, or something. It's evaluating all the factors on a case-by-case basis to understand what's going on.
Every interaction between two people is a contract, even if it's not physical. There's no paper or anything, but two people have motives, desires, things they want, things they don't want, personalities, complex minds. Any interaction between two entities like that is going to be a give and take that you have to balance.
It's the same for the realms outside of consent—being in a relationship, being roommates, having little arguments with your parents. All of that is contractual—and that means the terms can be violated. When I looked at the contract between me and this person, whom I trusted, I see there was a violation there.
Consent is contextual. #MeToo has been so important in getting us to think hard about those questions and those situations. It's maligned as people just trying to get back at men or get them out of their jobs. It’s not about that at all. In #MeToo, people are extremely interested in gray areas and power dynamics! In the long run, I'm super grateful for it—it helped me reevaluate my own situation.
John Paul Brammer is a Mexican American writer and columnist from rural Oklahoma. He is currently a staff writer at Condé Nast's LGBTQ+ outlet, them. , where he also writes an advice column called Hola Papi! He is working on his first book.
I dealt with people not accepting consent quite a few times when I was younger. What would happen with me is that I would feel like I would wanna do something—I would be on the phone and I would say, "Yeah. I'm ready. I wanna do this." I would be in a situation where I would like the boy and have felt like I pushed him to the point where he was ready to have sex, and I didn't want to, but I felt obligated, so I had sex.
I almost get mad at myself for allowing that to happen, but it was a learning process for me. I got to a point in my life where it was okay that I had a good time and I don't wanna kiss you yet. I'm just not ready. I don't wanna have sex with you. I'm still getting to know you, and I'm comfortable in that I don't feel like I have to lay down with you in order for you to like me more. If you like me for who I am, that's cool, and if not, I'll find someone else who appreciates my boundaries.
You're allowed to go out to dinner or go on a movie date. You don't have to feel obligated to kiss at the end of a date. You are allowed to say no—that doesn’t make you a bitch or a fucked-up person. It does not make you a tease. You don't owe anybody anything. Regardless of how far you've gotten with that person, or if you guys were kissing and your bra came off, or you promised him you were gonna do something, but now you changed your mind. You can always say no at the last minute. You can have the condom on and you can say, "You know what? I'm sorry. I've changed my mind."
No is no. No is not convince me. No is not force me. No is not manipulate me and make me feel bad because I'm saying no. I already said no. I'm allowed to say no whenever I feel like it. As a partner, the other person needs to not get upset, put on their clothes, understand your feelings, and validate how you feel.
Amber Rose is an activist, author, and the founding organizer of The Amber Rose SlutWalk , a march promoting sexual autonomy, safety, and health. Slutwalk 2018 takes place this weekend on October 6 in Los Angeles.
June Amelia Rose
I put out a personal ad looking for new people to have sexual experiences with. A girl answered, and we talked through Facebook Messenger and got to know each other. I primarily identify as a submissive masochist, and she identifies as a sadist.
We went to a coffee shop. Luckily, it was after hours, so there's no one else around and just go to talk about things that we were into more in-depth to get a feel for if we had chemistry or not.
I mentioned several things that I was into specifically that I liked to be written on with Sharpie or Magic Marker. We had a very long conversation to plan a scene at a kink party a week after our conversation. Because she took in the information, she was able to come up with a scene—what people call a performance where you act out your kink—where I was going to wear a ball gag, and she was going to wrap me in plastic wrap and walk me around a sex party.
We went to the party and we had people write degrading phrases. The big part of the negotiation of the story is that it's really hard to trust someone to write things on you in public, because you never know what could be seen, by others, as bad or offensive, or particularly violent or hateful in a hurtful way, not a fun way. So what I negotiate when people write on me is that I don't want anything written that invalidates my womanhood—nothing too physically violent, like about wanting to kill me. I don't play on those terms. When my partner was leading me around this party, it was very hard to walk—because of the plastic wrap, I had to take very small steps, and I couldn’t talk. I had to trust her not to let people write that stuff on me.
Sure enough, I trusted her, and I wound up being a great scene and I still have the plastic wrap hanging above my bed today. Because it was such a good experience, we’ve done lots of scenes afterwards.
I gravitate towards this story because I negotiated all of it well in advance. I gave her a lot of honest information about what I was interested in and what I wasn't, all up front without shielding it. And then there was a negotiation where she came back to me and was like I would like to do this.
That’s the model for how I negotiate scenes now. I normally will like talk with someone pretty heavily beforehand, usually through text or DMs, and then we'll meet up once for coffee, usually without the idea that we're going to play that night. There's almost always a very amount of talking and communication, getting to know someone before I do that.
June Amelia Rose is an anarchist leatherdyke fiction writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of the novelette Porngirl, The Illustrious , as well as the short story zine Bootlicker .
Consent can be different for me than for you. That's an important part of the equation, because I don't think consent can always just be one specific thing—people have their own personal ideas of consent.
As a transsexual man—and I use the label transsexual, I'm not transgender for a reason we can get into another time—coming into my own as a sexual person, and still having my vagina as a man, was very difficult when it came to consent and when it came to understanding how to deal with sex. Because, now, I'm no longer physically a female, but I'm a man that has female anatomy of some sort. To actually navigate that sexually is very difficult when you're first coming out with your body.
Disclosure is a big part of consent, and it was a big part of my early kind of consenting to people and letting them understand me. I was newly coming out as a man and trying to experiment in the gay men's world. (My attraction to men started during my transition.) As you know, [most] gay men are attracted to men that have penises. I felt uncomfortable walking into this environment, but I knew I had to do it. I had no understanding of how to do it, because no one had spoken about it [to me] before and there was no guide book. I don’t even think I understood consent and disclosure at that point.
So, I'm at a bar and men are flirting with me and I'm flirting back, and clearly they think I'm a cis man, no doubt about that. A man comes up and he's flirting with me, asking, "Sir, can I sit on your lap?”
I'm like "Sure, of course!" It was at a leather bar, so that kind of play was happening all over—the people in that setting deal a lot with consent, and they're very good about that—those kinds of places were the places where I even learned what consent was. So, as [this guy] is licking me and rubbing my pants, I'm getting nervous because he's going to see that I don't have something there.
I'm not sure how to handle it. I'm starting to physically sweat. I'm thinking, How am I gonna handle this? And then I think, No. I have to say something—not only for my own self, but also for this person who—I think—assumes I have a penis. This all plays into consent.
So I say, "I need to tell you something."
He says, "Yes, sir."
"I used to be a woman, and now I'm a man, but I still have my vagina."
He looks at me. "I don't understand, sir."
"I have a vagina—I don't have a penis, and if we want to play, you have to be okay with that.”
He said, "You know, sir, I don't care. You're hot and sexy, and it's fine with me." I thought to myself, Wow, that is consent—you are okay to play with me as long as you are okay with who I am and what I have. I put it all out on the table, we negotiated that, and it was okay. After that, the experience was so beautiful and freeing, and there was no nervousness on my side or feeling that he was going to overstep my boundaries.
I learned to respect myself by negotiating a given situation and saying, "You can do this if you respect the situation." Giving consent means I am so confident in myself as a person that I am able to be forthcoming with you—because I want you and I to both have a great space to be in together.
When I first moved to Los Angeles two years ago, I thought joining a dating app would expedite the process of getting to know people within the area and perhaps expand my social network. When I met someone on the app that I had a genuine connection with, I thought, Wow, LA’s dating scene already trumps NYC’s.
After going on a few dates, we decided to physicalize the magnetic connection we had made in conversation. He invited me over to his house. Foreplay progressed naturally, and I was excited to have sex with someone whom I thought was genuinely invested in creating a sexual experience founded on honesty and freedom of expression.
After we finished foreplay, he insisted on having sex without using protection. I insisted that he wear a condom, but he made several excuses—“I don’t have any condoms” and, “You can trust me.”
What is trust if your words and body aren’t being valued? After realizing that he wasn’t going to abide by my sexual boundaries, I decided to leave, regardless of our seemingly fluid emotional rapport. That was only possible after reasserting that I was not comfortable in this situation.
I can honestly say this was my first sexual encounter with a partner who disregarded verbal and physical cues just because they had other notions of how their fantasy should play out. A huge shocker to me was that he contacted me the next day! As if nothing had ever happened. In hindsight, that was very telling about his character, and his disregard for consensual sexual boundaries.
It would be easy to blame myself for engaging with this person and for being so trusting, but the experience also highlights the value of our own innate personal compasses—which we should trust more often, when our sexual liberties and preferences depend on it.
Penda N’diaye is an editor-at-large at The Press , a monthly publication curated by creatives of color, where she also writes Pro Hoe, a forthcoming sex-positive column focused on the sex lives of people of color which will debut in the October 15 issue of The Press.