When navigating love and romance, nerve-wracking ambiguity and uncertainty just comes with the territory. Will they call? What did that text mean? Do they like me? Do I like them? Consent, however, should never be ambiguous. It should not be implied or presumed, negotiated or traded. Consent must be obtained and confirmed throughout all our sexual encounters. This isn’t as easy as it sounds—especially if you have grown up in an environment where it wasn’t permissible to talk about sex openly or where puritanical attitudes toward sex-positive women made it difficult for some to express their desires.
Ambiguity around consent is dangerous for us all. It can put women in situations where they are hoping their subtle and not-so-subtle signs are interpreted correctly by their lovers. It also enables those that don't care to garner permission first to say they simply misread the signs. The answer is to change the culture and make "enthusiastic consent" before and during every sexual encounter, whether it’s with a new or long-term partner, the expected norm.
However, many sexual-health experts actually encourage women, especially those in long-term relationships, to begin sexual contact when they are not aroused. Mismatched libidos are one of the most common complaints couples seek professional help to explore—a 2012 study finding that 34 percent of women reported a lack of interest in sex.
As physical intimacy is often considered essential to the health and happiness of a marriage or long-term relationship, experts often advise women to “fake it till they make it.” This philosophy stems from the notion that women only begin to feel aroused during sexual contact. Although male and female arousal is biologically different, is it not inherently wrong to be suggesting women give up agency over their own body with the hope that they might enjoy it at some point during the proceedings?
Having sex regardless of any sexual desire or interest could feel like an assault that you are complicit in and could possibly lead to feelings of shame or violation. Karen* from Chicago experienced a lack of sexual interest in her partner after 12 years together. A combination of changing her hormonal birth control and the stress of a house move led to a total disinterest in sex. Her therapist advised her to have sex even if she didn’t want to. “I'm a rape survivor, and that's the kind of advice likely to turn me off of sex for all eternity,” she says.
However, she did try this approach herself before therapy and found that it traumatized her. “It was disastrous. Panic attacks, nightmares, a total sexual shutdown for months,” she says.
Waiting until we’re in the mood for sex may result in never actually having sex. It’s possible to not be in the mood and enthusiastically want to be in the mood.
The work of Masters and Johnson (1966) theorized a linear approach to understanding female sexuality, where women would experience desire, followed by arousal, culminating in orgasm—which equated male and female sexuality. In the subsequent years, it has been challenged for being too simplistic and not recognizing that women often do not move through these phases in a sequential fashion.
Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Connecticut, says that for women, desire can follow arousal. That’s why she believes sex can sometimes be something couples choose to compromise on within a relationship:
“You should never be pressured or coerced to do it. But you may choose to have sex sometimes as a gift to your partner, even if you're not really feeling it.” Jill explains it’s also important to consider the reasons why one partner may not be interested in intimacy. “If you're mad at your partner, or exhausted, or otherwise absolutely not in the mood, it's fine to say ‘no.’ But there are other times when things are fine in your relationship, but you're not in the mood because you just haven't been thinking much about sex or aren't feeling horny. In those cases, you might agree to start making out with your partner and see if you can get the energy flowing,” she says.
Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, a sexologist and host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast agrees that old models of understanding female sexual desire coupled with calls for explicit enthusiastic consent, which she calls “a far better standard than no-means-no,” can lead to a sex drought. “Desire often doesn't occur spontaneously. For some of us (including those of us who love sex), waiting until we’re in the mood for sex may result in never actually having sex. It’s possible to not be in the mood and enthusiastically want to be in the mood. If you want to want sex, you may decide to proceed with some type of sex play to gauge whether or not arousal might eventually lead to enthusiastic desire,” she says.
Being instructed to have sex, especially by a medical professional, when you have no interest in the act, can feel coercive, particularly if you are a survivor of past sexual assault.
However, if a lack of desire is due to more fundamental problems related to the relationship, then sex alone is unlikely to fix the problem. Susan* from Vancouver had been with her partner for six years before seeking professional help for a low sex drive and general burnout and exhaustion. It was not a positive experience. “It felt to me like she was saying the problem was all my fault, so I refused to go back. It turned out the problem wasn’t really the burnout, more so that my husband and I didn’t really love each other anymore,” she says. It’s easy to see how in this example forging on with sexual contact when there are other issues could lead to feelings of violation.
Dr. Jess also reminds us that we have sex for many different reasons, not always related to arousal, desire or orgasm. We might choose to have sex to be close to someone we care about, to relieve stress, or even to exercise. “It’s up to each person to determine their own motivations for having sex. Having said that, we have to acknowledge some of the systemic and intersectional issues that may limit our choices when it comes to why we have sex. When we feel beholden, pressured, nervous, or intimidated, we may be less inclined to speak up and this is why enthusiastic consent is the ideal standard at every point in the sexual encounter. A good partner (and lover), checks in to make sure you’re enthusiastic about the experience,” she says.
Teaching people to identify and seek enthusiastic consent before all sexual encounters is imperative if we wish to change sexual dynamics and protect everyone from unwanted encounters or accusations. But it’s more than just checking if someone wants sex before initiating sexual contact. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) explains that consent is all about communication. The organization’s guidelines remind us that your clothing, previous sexual contact, intoxication or your relationship status do not provide any permission or alternative to obtaining clear and ongoing consent. Instead what RAINN terms “positive consent” could include the following:
● Communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this okay?”
● Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”
● Using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level
Kryss Shane, a sex and relationship expert with branches of her business throughout the U.S., recommends medical testing when libidos are mismatched to make sure a physical issue isn't at the heart of the problem. When working with couples, Kryss first meets with clients individually to ensure that neither party is being abused or would rather seek a divorce or dissolution of the relationship. She then communicates clearly to her clients the importance of consent. “If both partners are found to want to stay together and are medically healthy, we begin to talk about creating plans to work on the frequency of intercourse. This is done so that both parties can choose to participate in this work, as lack of consent from one party but consent from the other equals assault,” she says.
Being instructed to have sex, especially by a medical professional, when you have no interest in the act, can feel coercive, particularly if you are a survivor of past sexual assault. However, if you, along with your partner, are unhappy with your sex lives you may well be encouraged by sex and relationship experts to increase the amount of sex you are having, whether or not you feel sexual desire.
For best results, this advice and approach must be tempered with an expectation of enthusiastic consent, for the overall process, if not for the individual acts. *Names have been changed.