Late one night at a party during college I found myself in a corner of a beautifully-wallpapered room in one of the crumbling mansions overrun by students in this small New England city. It was the kind of house that had a conservatory. It was late. Nobody cared.
I was having a conversation with a very attractive individual. Or rather, I was talking this person’s face off. I had another beer. I had two more beers. I talked about my family, my dead dog, my apartment, my shoes. I felt wonderfully seen and heard. Slowly our bodies arranged themselves so that we were pressing against each other. The room emptied out. The lights dimmed and finally I stopped talking. Or rather, my mouth was stopped with a kiss.
I wasn’t asked. I didn’t say no. I didn’t say yes. And yes, it was fabulous.
Another encounter, several weeks later. I revealed my true feelings for a friend, then ran into that friend outside of the library, smoking a cigarette. I assumed I was about to be rejected once and for all until I heard the words:
“Can I kiss you?”
“Yes,” I replied immediately. The consent was explicit, verbal and affirmative. Also, very hot.
With debate raging around proposed consent laws in California and on college campuses, I’m reminded of all the different types of contexts for consent. Encouraging people to ask for affirmative consent throughout sexual activity could lead to better communication and better sex, as New York magazine argued in a recent column. I agree with that, but I must ask myself—how will this change the meaning of "no”? For so long it’s been a signifier for “this might be rape if we keep going” or “I’m extremely uncomfortable and everything needs to stop.” Will reconfiguring “yes” as the new standard of consent allow “no’s” overlooked potential for sexiness to shine through?
And what about the silence that is neither ‘no’ nor ‘yes’? Non-linguistic communication has been identified as a zone of ambiguity that must be clarified with words. Ideally there are ways to get people to pay attention to physical signals, and not just verbal ones, right?
Sometimes it seems that laws are written for the most brutish beasts in all of us who don’t understand social cues and want to prey on others. For those of you who consider yourselves elevated creatures with a desire to have excellent consensual sex, I offer these tips on how to cultivate a kind of sexual relationship that will more often get to “yes,” and has a nuanced approach to “no.” Otherwise known as, “How to Have Good Sex.”
1. First. have bad sex. Then talk about it. People make a lot of mistakes (especially in college) and that’s fine. Often if we express that something has gone wrong and remain open to talking about about it or trying something new, it will lead to better sex. Everybody who is good in bed has been bad in bed at one point or another in the past, so free yourself from the idea that you need to be a champion.
2. Talk to the person that you’re sleeping with. In person. Not via text. You’ll learn a lot.
3. Spend a long time kissing. Kissing has the unique position of being a self-contained activity that doesn’t escalate… necessarily.
4. Say ‘yes’ to a sex break. If you’re sensing that somebody is not into something in bed you have a few options. You could stop and say: “What’s wrong?” but that can sometimes kill any sort of mood that might be there.
Better yet, suggest an activity that’s not necessarily sexual. How about some ice cream? Do you want to take a shower? What if I kiss your wrist? What if I gave you a back rub? Want to watch an episode of Breaking Bad? A friend of mine once told me that you haven’t really had sex until you’ve spent an entire day having sex and doing other stuff. It doesn’t have to be a race from a clothed state to orgasm.
5. Lose the argument. There’s something sexy about being outsmarted—and the same can be said of being seduced. Expand your consciousness and lose the argument; there is pleasure available in giving in and letting go.
6. Avoid Jackrabbit sex. The most common complaint I hear from straight women concerns the monotonous sexual rhythm endemic to many young males. It’s a surefire way to end up with a disinterested, pissed off, dead-fish sexual partner in your bed. Jackrabbit sex leaves many women feeling invisible, disempowered to say anything because it seems like there has been such a profound misunderstanding of pleasure. Unless a lady is yelling ���harder, faster, deeper,” then usually you should be thinking about “gentler, slower, more clitoral.”
I’ve said it. Let’s hope we never have to discuss it again.
7. Say ‘yes’ to a slumber party. Get close without closing the deal. Spending the night and then waiting to have sex in the morning or another time can be a great way to establish closer communication. Once you’ve seen someone wearing your ill-fitting PJ bottoms you’re going to be more comfortable asking them to go “a little to the left,” pausing for a pee break, or admitting that you’re not in the mood tonight.
8. Allow space for your partner not to know what she wants. Figuring it out as you go is hot. Being open to suggestion and helping somebody discover new things is erotic for everybody involved.
9. Break your own rules. Ask yourself what you want. Make some rules for yourself and then test them or allow them to be tested.
10. Finally, Look at your partner’s face.
This can be scary. Faces do weird things during sex. However, they’re essential for communication. Is your partner smiling? Does she look like she’s about to be hit by a Mack truck? Is she asleep? Does she seem tired? Try to pay attention to the physical and emotional state of your partner throughout sex. Some cues are easier to read than others.
Asleep? Stop immediately.
Crying? Ask: “Should I keep going?” Or say, “Tell me about your father.”
Smiling? Ask: “Is something funny?” Or say: “Nice teeth.”
Looks like she’s about to be hit by a truck? Ask: “Are you about to come?” or “Do you need some water?”
Bored? Ask: “Have you ever tried anal?” or, “Did you watch the State of the Union last night?” or “Looks like it’s time for my favorite part of the day—going down on you.”
Angry? Ask: “Do you have to poop?” Or say, “Tell me about your mother.”
Melancholic? Ask, “Can I play you some FKA Twigs?” Or recite some Shakespeare if you’ve got that in your back pocket.
Nostalgic? Say: “Your profile reminds me of an iconic movie star,” or “Are you thinking about your childhood?” or “Have you ever listened to a cello alone on a bridge looking at the stars?”
Confused? Say: “You look confused.”
You get it. Say anything, just make it clear to your partner that you are checking in and paying attention. New consent laws ask everyone—even non-rapists—to rethink the way we seek and give consent. It’s possible that with thought and creativity these laws will protect people while keeping sex sexy.
Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.