Sexual consent? Let’s talk about sexual fluency

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Chanel Contos’s petition catalysed hundreds of stories from high school girls of rape and sexual assault. Ensuing conversations around sex ethics in Australia have produced many constructive suggestions, one of which is to include more consent education in schools.

Standard programs of education focus on teaching teens about what constitutes genuine consent to sex, and the conditions that undermine it. More innovative programs encourage ongoing, mutually respectful modes of communication between sexual partners that involve questions like “What would you like me to do?” and “What would feel good for you?”, thereby tilting the focus from consent to desire.

Initiatives of this kind are all to the good. However, both traditional and progressive approaches to sex education overlook two critical issues. First, how do we motivate heterosexual men to take a genuine interest in their partner’s sexual experience? Second, what might prevent women from understanding, articulating, and confidently affirming their sexual desires?

The need to address these questions is pressing. Studies show that heterosexual men often fail to meaningfully inquire into their partner’s wants and needs. Instead, it is their desires alone that typically shape the sexual encounter. Women, by contrast, often feel pressured into saying “yes” to sex that they do not desire, and routinely acquiesce to sex acts with men — even violent sex acts — that they do not enjoy but do not feel they can refuse. In other instances, women simply lack knowledge of what it is that brings them sexual pleasure, or lack the confidence to communicate their preferences to their partners.

To trivialise these experiences as nothing more than “bad sex” is misplaced. Repeatedly consenting to undesired, unenjoyable, one-sided sex can be deeply damaging for women, and can profoundly affect their lives beyond the bedroom. One of the most troubling consequences of this is that women become so alienated from their own desires and pleasures that it renders them less able to recognise, and more vulnerable to, mistreatment, violence, and sexual assault.

Sexual fluency

The pervasive reality of disrespectful, unjust sex doesn’t point so much towards a crisis of consent as it does to a crisis of what I call “sexual fluency”. In the common vernacular, “fluency” refers to an ability to express oneself easily and articulately. The concept of fluency is bound up with notions of fluidity, ease, and agility, and denotes feelings of confidence and assuredness. To be fluent in a language, for instance, implies that one can confidently express themselves in that language and can readily adapt to new dialogues and conversations with others.

By analogy, sexual fluency refers to a person’s ability to understand, articulate, and affirm a range of sexual experiences and preferences. Someone who is sexually disfluent may be impaired in their capacity to recognise, communicate, and honour their sexual desires, or to be appropriately attuned and responsive to those of others. Just as linguistic fluency requires that the language in question exists and is in circulation, sexual fluency requires the availability of shared resources through which to make sense of diverse sexual pleasures, desires, and experiences.

And here lies the trouble. A yawning gap exists in the cultural resources through which men and women make sense of themselves as sexual actors, including how they should and should not behave, what they can expect from sex, and what they are entitled to. This gap helps to sustain an unequal degree of sexual self-knowledge and sexual self-regard among men and women — and this disparity is one that women pay for dearly in terms of rape and unjust sex.

Divergent sexual narratives

Prevailing cultural scripts of heterosexuality breed sexual disfluency by preventing men and women from recognising, articulating, and appreciating desires and behaviours that depart from the status quo. These scripts are highly rigid, ubiquitous, and perpetually reinforced. Sporting commentaries and pornographic narratives that position men’s bodies as tough and inviolable — as weapons as opposed to sites of intimacy and connection — intersect with representations of the male sex drive as natural, forceful, and uncontrollable. That these representations are further reinforced in institutions of law and education helps to explain a commonly-held expectation that men, not women, initiate and lead sexual encounters, as well as the language of “conquest” that permeates men’s descriptions of sex with women.

While men’s sexual agency is aggressively promoted, women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure continues to be side-lined. As the dearth of studies on clitoral anatomy and the female orgasm suggests, women continue to be deprived of adequate resources through which to gain a better understanding and appreciation of their sexual needs. What they confront, instead, are cultural narratives that position women as needing to give men sex in order to retain the things they value, as well as those narratives that cast women as too shy or modest to articulate a desire for sexual degradation and violence. That this script was promoted in a chart-topping pop song speaks to how normalised it has become.

Resisting the pull of narrow heterosexual roles may ultimately lead to better sex for men and women, but the penalties can be both significant and unevenly experienced: while men primarily risk the ridicule and rejection of other men, the costs that women — especially less privileged women — may incur for exploring and asserting their sexual agency tend to be far more serious.

The cluster of social and institutional supports for men’s sense of sexual entitlement leaves little incentive for them to make genuine inquiries into women’s sexual needs. Women, on the other hand, confront various obstacles and disincentives to developing the kind of sexual self-understanding, self-confidence, and self-respect that distinguishes the sexually fluent subject.

Fluency and consent

Although educating teens about sexual consent may help to prevent rape and serious forms of sexual assault, it will do little to prevent disrespectful, non-reciprocal sex. Consent education alone won’t endow men with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and respect, and it won’t necessarily provide women with the language and confidence through which to understand, articulate, and affirm their sexual preferences.

In some cases, it may even risk making the problem worse. This is because standard programs of education typically fail to interrogate the background conditions that coerce women into consenting to sex that they do not desire or enjoy, and which encourage men to see themselves as entitled to aggressively pursue sex. In failing to address these background conditions, consent modules that are being rolled out by universities and workplaces risk compounding women’s sense of themselves as incompetent sexual actors who find it difficult to assert their sexual agency, even after further “education”.

Fluency, by contrast, cannot be “taught” by teachers or parents alone. It will also require us to critically examine the cultural and institutional structures that have failed to provide women with adequate resources through which to understand and honour the many different ways in which they experience sexual pleasure, and to see their sexual desires as worthy of respect. It will also require much more concerted efforts to intervene in cultures of male sexual entitlement and aggression.

As a means of cultivating sexual fluency, the law is a blunt instrument. Tougher punishments for those who engage in misogynistic acts, and removing sexist images from public circulation, will not automatically free men and women to imagine their sexual selves in less rigid and more empowering ways. Achieving this will require a commitment to diversifying the cultural backdrop against which and through which our sexual behaviours take shape.

Thankfully, that cultural shift has already begun. Cultural idealisations of aggressive masculinities have been met with counter-images celebrating vulnerable, soft, and feminine men. We are also bearing witness to the rise of female erotica and female-directed pornography; the development of initiatives that educate women about their bodies and sexual pleasure; and a growing number of online forums for women to publicly share their experiences of misogyny (and to disable its effects through derisive humour). Each of these examples represents an attempt to supply women with a new vocabulary through which to better understand their sexuality and sexual experiences. Moreover, they contribute to shaping a broader cultural climate in which women may develop the confidence to assert their right to be treated with respect, irrespective of the context, and in which men perceive women and their bodies as worthy of respect.

Sexual consent education is crucial, and the efforts of Chanel Contos and others to promote it are salutary. However, focusing on consent is not the only way of imagining a better sexual culture. Alongside consent, we need to talk about sexual fluency.