Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
A journalist called, having received a question from a reader asking what to tell his son concerning sexual “consent” now that the young man was going off to college. I suggested a few things that the dad might choose to say.
First, as recorded by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies adolescent sexual behavior, over 70% of young people age 20 reported having had sexual intercourse, a percentage that increases with advancing years. So the dad could say how the last stage of adolescence, what I call Trial Independence (18-23), is often a more sexually active time.
The womanly and manly social experience of partners sharing sexual privacy and allowing themselves to be intimately known, hopefully for physical pleasure and emotional closeness, becomes more common at this older age.
He could go on to explain how growing forward from puberty, sexual attraction and arousal become primal mood altering experiences that, when excited, can seem to have a “mind” of their own and can become difficult to restrain. Thus it can sometimes be a challenge in older adolescent relationships to keep sexual intimacy consensual. Self-centered and misguided thinking can lead the way. “If I’m turned on, you must be too.” “If you turned me on, then you owe me satisfaction.” “It’s your fault for turning me on!” No, that’s blaming the victim. The person responsible for feeling turned on and managing this heightened state is oneself.
Then, maybe the dad could discuss several common enemies of consensual sex.
Sex is less likely to be consensual when parties involved are drunk or otherwise drugged. Sexual arousal is already mood and mind altering, so taking mood and mind altering substances can only make a person more actively aggressive, more passively submissive, or less thoughtfully aware of what is going on and less vigilant about what is safe, wise, sensitive, or right. For the sake of consensual sex, keep it sober so afterwards the memory is of doing what one wanted, not of what one can’t remember or regrets.
Sex is less likely to be consensual when parties involved are impulsively driven. Caught up in the arousal of the moment, urgent emotions can impel actions without consulting thought as physical desires drive decisions that are made. For the sake of consensual sex, make having sex a planned event so partners and can be clear about what they want and safety precautions can be taken, because all sexual activity carries risks – of sexually transmitted disease, unplanned pregnancy, and of misplaced caring.
Sex is less likely to be consensual when one party feels manipulated or coerced. When manipulative ploys like promised love are employed, of love obligating sex, of sex signifying love, or other emotionally manipulative strategies are used, the experience can become exploitive. And when coercive actions like threat or force are enlisted to satisfy one person’s desire at the expense of what the other person doesn’t want, then the encounter becomes assaultive and rape can occur. For the sake of consensual sex, keep the experience freely chosen for both parties, with room for changing one’s mind if what one thought one wanted is not what was wanted after all.
How to define consensual sex? I think “consensual” means mutual, so what we’re talking about is how the sexual part of a relationship can be conducted in jointly agreed upon terms. For this mutuality to be established, both parties must assert and be given equity of standing in their relationship. “We are equally wanting and deciding to do this.”
General Mutuality in a significant relationship means:
There is adequate Reciprocity so each party makes valued contributions to each other’s and their joint well-being;
There is adequate Consideration so each party is responsive to each other’s welfare through those little acts of courtesy and tenderness that can signify so much;
And there is adequate Compromise when wants diverge so each party moves off immediate self-interest to find a common solution both can support.
Consent as Sexual Mutuality means:
There is adequate Reciprocity so the experience is conducted in a way that brings pleasure to both parties;
There is adequate Consideration so the experience is observant of each other’s sensitivities, comfort, and safety;
And there is adequate Compromise so the experience is governed by joint agreement over what is done and not done.
“But how am I to know if my partner is truly consenting?” an older adolescent might ask.
It’s not complicated. Assuming the moment is substance and pressure free, just stop the action long enough to ask a direct question: “Is sexually getting together something you really want to do?” Then wait for a reply before going ahead or stopping as the other person wishes, always respecting a change of mind after consent has first been given.
When it comes to checking for sexual consent, take the time to ask for and listen to what you need to know.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Use of Parental Worry