The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

SEX WEEK | The Simple Art of Consent

An Interview with Jennifer Wiessner
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Ella Beiser

We’ve all seen the tea video. (If you haven’t, take three minutes out of your day and get with the times.) Essentially, the video covers sexual activity and consent through the metaphor of offering someone tea. 

The tea video discusses some nuances of consent, but there are many aspects of consent left to be discussed. So, here we are, discussing them. Why? Because America’s sex education curriculums failed some of us, and we need to play catchup. 

So, to move beyond the basics of consent, The Student interviewed one of Maine’s best sex therapists, Jennifer Wiessner. Questions and answers were edited for brevity. 

Interviewer: What can consent look like?

Wiessner: Clear and voluntary – it could look like someone asking what someone likes or prefers, it can be a direct inquiry, like, can I touch you there? Would you like it if I did this? It can be fun! If you know yourself, and you know what you want and you’re communicating that with a partner that knows what they want, then we can both relax. And when we’re relaxed, we can actually experience more pleasure. I always say, know yourself, have a plan, have a blast.

Fundamental to all of this – sort of the pre-step to consent – is knowing thyself. If you don’t know yourself, your own body, if you have shame about your body, if you’re uncomfortable with your body, if you don’t know your anatomy, if you don’t know how it responds, if you’re not familiar with touching your own body, all of those things make it really difficult to then have agency consent and share your body with someone else. So before we even ever get to consent, it’s really important to ask, do I know myself? 

And another key question is, why am I doing this? If you’re not like, because I totally want this because I’m really into this person, then you have to really figure out why am I doing this? Am I being pressured? Am I being coerced? Is it because I feel like I should have been doing this already? Do I feel like I need to “get it out of the way”? 

In Europe, particularly the Netherlands, the majority of teenagers that have their first sexual experience report them as positive. In the United States, it’s in reverse. I think because in the Netherlands, they receive compulsory sexuality education, and they are more prepared to know themselves. So knowing yourself is so incredibly important.

Interviewer: How should you bring up consent in a new relationship? Do you recommend having a formal(ish) conversation about it?

Wiessner: The word formal is the operative one – it doesn’t sound sexy. But we can do that. Underpinning all of this is knowing yourself. To have this conversation, if I already know kind of generally what I like, generally what I don’t like, that’s great. Versus being like, “Oh, I don’t know what I like, I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what my limits are,” that can create a lot of anxiety and also potential ambiguous situations. It’ll make it easier to know what you want in order to negotiate with someone. 

If you’re not ready to do that, or feel comfortable doing that, honestly, you’re not ready for sexual behavior. It’s kind of part of the adulting process – you have to be able to communicate this because guess what your health and well being is on the line with this sort of stuff. Healthy relationships are built on communication, and the ability to make informed decisions about your body.

But it can be as casual as, “hey, it’s important for me to feel comfortable knowing that we can both talk about what we like and what we don’t like and what we’re willing and not willing to do. Are you okay with that?” If somebody’s not interested in doing that, or thinks that’s weird, that would be a red flag for me.

Interviewer: What’s different about consent in and out of relationships? Should there be a difference?

Wiessner: So starting with the understanding that your relationship structure or your status is not sort of a correlate to consent – meaning, just because you agreed you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing to anything specific. 

In my opinion, consent is based on just communicating, asking questions, respecting each other, and trust. The more that we know somebody, the more that we understand their personality and who they are, and maybe how they interact and communicate. However, we still run into the issue of assuming, and it’s never good, right? Because, really, consent is permission. And it involves what I consider mutual decision making. It can be given through words, or through actions, (still, nonverbal consent is not quite as clear as talking about what you want sexually and what you don’t want.) 

Just so we all are clear, consent to any type of sexual activity should not then be taken automatically as consent to anything else. It’s sort of a behavior by behavior, mutual decision that’s being made. So previous consent for one thing doesn’t imply consent to anything else in the future – we shouldn’t assume those things. And of course, we know that consent should be able to be withdrawn at any time. During anything. As I say to high schoolers: I don’t care if you’re on your feet or on your back, you could always change your mind, and you can always change your consent.

Interviewer: How can people with differing levels of understanding talk about consent?

Wiessner: It is not your job to educate someone. Absolutely not. It’s just like whether we’re talking about consent, whether we’re talking about race, whether we’re talking about religion, it shouldn’t be the person’s job to do the educating. However, the educating about what you need, and what you want is your responsibility, because it keeps you safe and it keeps you pleasure that keeps you desiring this relationship. 

If your partner’s idea of consent isn’t developed enough, you could say something like: hey, consent is really important, it sounds like you’re kind of having a hard time with it. Maybe you could pass this person a resource, but be like, this is what I need to feel good and to have a good time in a relationship. And if you’re not quite there, yet, I get it. It’s just, it can’t be for me. 

Sometimes, it’s sort of pruning the people who are not fitting into your health and well being. If you’re compromising it, you want to check in with yourself: Why am I calm? What or why did I stay this long with this situation that isn’t fitting? What am I going to do about that in the future?

Interviewer: How can people get on the same page about consent? Are there any sex-therapist-recommended tools?

Wiessner: Again, communication is crazy important. Increased communication about sexual behavior increases the following things: your feeling of comfort and safety, pleasure, feelings of closeness together, and relationship satisfaction. When we are clear with each other, and we know what to do, we know what we want, we know what they want, we again can relax into pleasure. Consent is really a great anti-anxiety.

Making a list of sexual limits is a great way to get your thoughts down. It helps you to consider things that you may or may not be interested in. That way, you know that you can communicate that to a partner. If you feel close enough to this person, maybe you share a limits list and talk about it – I think you’d want to be in some sort of established connection, to feel safe to share that. At least doing a limit list lets you explore behaviors, because hey, not everybody knows everything. And not everybody knows all the different types of behaviors out there or have thought about them. For example, do I like my arms restrained? Do I like being blindfolded? Do I like pleasure and pain combined? If we’ve never thought about that, it’s something to just think about and so then you’re prepared if somebody brings that up to you. 

In regards to getting on the same page, ask yourself: what are my motivations in this experience? Is this somebody I want to be in a relationship with? Is this somebody I just want a sexual experience with? Why am I here? Then, be sure to communicate this with your partner(s) and ask for their reflections as well.

Interviewer: How do you recommend ‘knowing yourself’ in order to have a productive conversation about sexual preferences?

Wiessner: Everybody’s different and they’re on different levels in terms of knowing their bodies. I’d start by consulting something like Scarleteen.com (because they have everything there that you could possibly wonder about). Everybody has questions about sex, but we’re embarrassed to ask them. So if we can go to a source that seems private and we can get that information, I strongly recommend that.

The Guide to Getting It On and the Sex Bible are two other great resources. Heather Corrina has a book that I suggest to young adults and teenagers which is called S.E.X., The All You Need to Know Guide – that’s another one about just all the things you need to know, all the questions you need to consider, all the things that you need to know about yourself to have like I said a “Hell yeah!” experience. Stigma around wanting, desiring, touching ourselves, about telling someone what we want is rampant, especially for folks with vulvas. The more that we can read up on ourselves and understand our desires, how our body works, and that we may have a different sort of arousal cycle than a partner. 

Interviewer: In your experience, what are the most common problems with consent in relationships?

Wiessner: I think there’s a few…

  1. Not knowing yourself. Then, there’s ambiguity, ambiguity about what’s being communicated, ambiguity about what I want, ambiguity about what I think my partner wants. 
  2. The embarrassment or fear of asking explicitly for consent. Lack of explicit consent is a risk factor for sexual violence. So again, the more that we can communicate, the better things can generally go. 
    1. Interestingly, the adult males that I work with will tell me nothing is sexier than having a partner who tells them what they want. So it’s that weird thing of feeling embarrassed doing it, because we are not brought up to know that we have that ability and should be doing that, and that it’s healthy for us. And yet, partners want that. 
  3. Another problematic thing with consent is when we involve alcohol. Of course, although it’s a great social lubricant, it really can be a slippery slope for regret. The ambiguous feelings may be afterward, or potentially a non consensual experience and then shame. So it really can have a pretty negative impact, especially on first experience or sexual debut. And also, there’s been some research that then we are likely to choose what we would call an atypical partner, meaning somebody we probably would not have chosen if we were sober. This also can end up in regretful sexual experience. On college campuses, 75% of sexual assaults occurring on campuses, is when the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol.

Interviewer: How can differences in sex drive come to fruition in relationships? Is that a common conflict? How is that resolved?

Wiessner: It is normal to not have the same desire for things as someone else. You may both love pizza, but it doesn’t mean that you love the same amount of pizza, it doesn’t mean that you like the pizza with this topping, etc. 

The way to deal with desire discrepancy is to first understand that it’s okay. Everybody has a different type of desire – we need to understand that it exists, understand that it’s okay, and that shaming someone for their desire is never going to be helpful or healthy. Finding your middle ground can be more of a focus. If there is no middle ground, then it’s not the right space and/or person. Let me give you a quick example: Person A loves oral sex. Person B doesn’t particularly love it, but is fine with doing it. That’s middle ground. Then, if Person B is giving that to Person A, because it’s something they enjoy, then Person A will be open to hearing the things that are interesting to Person B.

The most important thing to hear is that desire discrepancy is normal and everyone experiences it. 

Interviewer: Do you have any resources related to consent and coercion?

Wiessner: An organization called One Love. So it’s joinonelove.org and they teach all about consent, boundaries and dating violence. I’m pretty picky, but they’re excellent. But I’ve been training with their organization too, because I want to start teaching these types of relationships to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, so they can start out with a healthy idea of “What is consent? What is a boundary?

Our education surrounding consent cannot stop at viewing the tea video every couple years. Learning about consent and about yourself are integral preliminary steps before sexual activity. Participate in the reflection exercises at your own pace. Journal about them! Ponder them while you shower! Talk to your friends about them! Help us in our battle to destigmatize consent and desire.

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About the Contributor
Catalina Passino, Managing Features Editor
Catalina is a sophomore from Leesburg, Virginia. She plans to major in Psychology and minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Outside of her studies, Catalina dabbles in baking, basketball, and frolicking. During her freshman year, Catalina began as a contributing writer and later became a staff writer for the Bates Student. Though she is now in features, she also enjoys the news and forum sections.

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