Radical Consent...or Something Like It
The first time I heard the term “radical consent” was a few years ago when a close friend of mine mentioned it in a candid conversation we were having about one of our favorite topics, sex. She told me that she always asks people, “Do you want to make out?” or “Can I kiss you?” before kissing them. During other conversations about dating and sex she mentioned that her mother taught her brothers to always explicitly ask their partners, do you want to have sex?, before engaging in intercourse. For a man about to insert his penis in someone, I could understand how it’s a reasonable question. For something as benign as a kiss, I thought it was a bit dramatic and unnecessary.
My thoughts on it have evolved since then. I used to think I didn’t need my partner to practice radical consent and I also didn’t want to exercise it myself. I thought body language, energy and a general assessment of the senses were enough to be perfectly sure I was on the same page as the person I was with. Now I know that’s just not enough for me at this point in my life. After years of existing in a system of patriarchy and using my sexuality to make a living, I’m hypersensitive when it comes to matters of sex.
This was made clear to me when a person I thought I had a platonic relationship with abruptly kissed me in his hotel room. I’d hung out with him before on a friendly tip. We grabbed drinks and talked about careers, dating trends, and our social lives. Even when sex came up it was all very matter-of-fact and not flirtatious. We didn’t touch each other outside of hugging hello and goodbye. So a few weeks ago when he invited me to his hotel room to have a drink before we planned to go down to the lobby bar I didn’t think anything of it. I thought we were saving money and pregaming in the same way I would with my girl friends.
In retrospect I should’ve foreseen where things were headed. He was gazing at me and smiling when I was barely saying anything interesting. Looking back I remember him looking at my mouth as I spoke in mundane, everyday language about how some part of Los Angeles was being gentrified. He was way too intrigued. When we started making our way out the room to go down to the bar he turned and said, “Wait, I just have to kiss you!” before planting one on my lipstick-covered mouth. All I could think to say was, “I wasn’t expecting that!” Then we went down to the bar and ordered food and drinks.
Later he asked me why I’d been caught off guard in the room earlier. I chalked it up to losing my sense of perception in the midst of being an exotic dancer. My sexuality has become confined to my workplace I guess. And those exchanges are transactional, of course. Silly me didn’t pick up on the cues most people would recognize right away. If he’d asked first, I would’ve told him I wasn’t interested in being more than friends.
Regardless of anyone’s personal baggage, being explicit about intentions can’t hurt. A common sentiment amongst people who oppose radical consent is that it ruins the mood. I don’t think the mood has to be ruined. There are ways to frame a question without killing the vibe. It all depends on how comfortable a person is with himself/herself and how creative or charming one can be. It can potentially be sexy to ask, “Can I put my mouth on yours right now?” or any other thing you want to do.
I didn’t grasp the significance of these small verbal gestures in the past but I do now. I don’t expect the person I’m involved with to ask for consent before every move he makes all the time like some definitions of consent suggest. For an initial hook-up, however, it’s good to know where your partner stands on things like anal play, licking, biting…and if he/she/they even want to hook up in the first place! Clear communication eliminates the possibility of making anyone feel like their part in intimacy is non-consensual.
*If you’re interested in learning more about consent check out this zine.