Intimacy Series: The Rejection Inherent in Consent

The Rejection Inherent in Consent

Perhaps the worst prevailing relationship advice is that women in committed romantic partnerships should feel compelled to have sex with their partners, whether they want to or not. Let me say this in no uncertain terms:


Obligatory sex destroys relationships.


It doesn’t matter if she is giving him sex because she is told it is her duty by the church, their couples counselor, societal messaging, some study in a magazine, endless cinematic rom-coms, some call-in radio psychologist, cultural arranged marriage practices, the family court system, or even her own mom. Consenting to unwanted sex is the absolute enemy of trust building, and it is toxic to the very connection we seek in pursuing sex in the first place.


You might be easily convinced that obligatory sex isn’t fulfilling for the woman who feels obliged. But here’s the counterintuitive part: Obligatory sex is even worse, in the long run, for the person who is asking for it.


There is a rejection inherent in unenthusiastic consent. As an active alcoholic, I was sometimes not aware enough to pick up on the subtle disdain my wife felt for me. In my permanent sobriety, however, without the poison to blur the edges of reality, I could feel the repulsion in Sheri’s reluctant acquiescence.


I could feel the rejection inherent in consent.


Although this is part of the “Intimacy Series” on a forum dedicated to alcoholism recovery, this message really has very little to do with the impact of addiction on relationships. This message is about the impact of terrible societal indoctrination about consent starting with Saturday morning cartoons and K-12 sexual education. Alcoholics don’t have the inside track on being misinformed. Virtually everyone learns the same harmful garbage about sexual consent.


Studies conducted on college students indicate that the most commonly practiced form of consent given in their young-adult relationships is a lack of resistance to erotic touch, having their clothes removed or having their hands placed on the genitals of their partners. Lack of resistance – as in, “She didn’t stop me, so I kept going.” That is how we have been taught for generations to interpret nonexistent communication about something as sacred, and potentially traumatizing, as sexual contact. No conversation. No requests granted. No eager mutual chatter. If she doesn’t push him away, he feels justified to keep going.


Think about how crazy this is in the context of other courting and relationship negotiations. If you want to go to dinner with someone, you don’t just shove them in your car and see if they climb out the other side. You ask. If you want to go to a movie with your partner, you don’t just wander through the multiplex nudging your date toward one of the theater doors. You discuss which movie you will see. If you want to marry your partner, you don’t just keep walking by churches and hip-checking your partner at the threshold hoping to find pews full of your friends and relatives. You ask. You plan. You commit. You get excited!


But with the sacred, yet taboo, subject of sex, we have all been taught to, “Make a move and see where it goes.” Do you see how dangerous it is to accept non-resistance as a form of affirmative consent?


“I’m married,” you might be thinking. “We’ve been together for decades. What does college-aged consent ambiguity have to do with me?” Unfortunately, establishing a long-term romantic commitment with someone only muddies the waters of consent further. Now, to ambiguity we add obligation, and the situation gets much more potentially harmful.


As we discussed in the “Intimacy Series” article titled, “Sex-Drive Snowflakes,” another rarely discussed, but universally prevalent, aspect of relationships is sexual desire discrepancy. If you have a partner, there is virtually zero chance that you both desire sex with the same timing or frequency. And because human libido fluctuates through our lifespan, we are almost guaranteed to be in partnership with someone with whom we are sexually mismatched in a variety of ways to varying degrees over time.


Sheri and I have the predominant sexual desire discrepancy situation. I am the man, and I desire sex far more often than my wife. While this is very common, it is not the only way sexual desire can be discrepant. Sometimes the woman wants it more often than the man. In diverse gender and diverse orientation relationships, the discrepancy can go any number of directions. The point is, there is no right or wrong way for sexual desire to be divergent. No one is sexually broken for wanting a lot of sex. No one is sexually broken for wanting little or no sex. I only mention that the desire discrepancy between my wife and I is common because ours is the situation tied to the stereotype that the husband always wants it more than the wife. That stereotype is incorrect. There is no accuracy to definitive statements about gender and sexuality.


In our case, I have the higher libido. For many years, mostly during my active addiction, I was almost always the one to initiate sex in our relationship. My advances were met with any number of responses varying on a spectrum from tolerant acceptance (lack of resistance) to repulsive rejection. Just as there is a spectrum of unenthusiastic expressions of consent or rejection, there is a spectrum of ways the responses were received by my fragile psyche. Sometimes, I was horny enough, or drunk enough, that I didn’t care. A lack of a “no” was consent enough for me to pursue sexual contact. Other times, the lack of enthusiasm hurt. It hurt deeply, in fact. It eroded my self-esteem, and made me feel grotesque and perverted.


For a long time, Sheri never expressed desire. When I initiated sexual contact, and asked Sheri if it was alright, she would say, “We can.” When I pressed, and asked her if she wanted to, she would repeat, “Yeah, it’s OK. We can.” The longer I remained sober, and the more capable of parsing out nuance, the more painful was the difference between acceptance and desire. Willing and wanting are two entirely different things. I began to brace myself – not for rejection, but for the rejection inherent in consent.


Notice I’m not even talking about how it felt for Sheri. There is very little nuance to using her body to appease someone to whom she felt no attraction, crumbling trust and growing levels of disdain. It felt inhumane to her. She felt like I didn’t respect her enough to prioritize her over alcohol, but I used her to satisfy unilateral, unreciprocated urges.


I felt rejected and unloved. My wife felt disrespected and unloved. What we had between us was obligatory consent, reluctant consent, tolerated consent, pitied consent, and even coerced consent. What we lacked was enthusiastic consent.


There is a huge, cavernous divide between coerced consent and mutually enthusiastic consent. It took us years to cross that chasm. So many foundational steps had to take place before consent became an asset, instead of a liability, in our relationship. Sobriety wasn’t the solution to our consent conundrum, but it was a prerequisite. Then we had to process resentments between us, create an atmosphere of consistent emotional safety, replace bad memories with good ones, and start to rebuild trust. This is a very long road, and I readily acknowledge that one paragraph does not do the time and effort required justice. But resentment processing and reorienting triggers is not the topic of this article, so I won’t expand further on these critical relationship recovery topics here. Trust me when I say this paragraph represents years of relationship recovery work as a prelude to the two forms of enthusiastic sexual consent I will outline below.


Desired Sexual Contact: Sheri and I have made a ton of progress in our relationship. Consistent safety and abundant trust do not, however, eliminate sexual desire discrepancy. I still have a higher sex drive than my wife. But as she feels more confident in, comfortable with, and attracted to me, feeling a desire for sexual contact occurs for her with increasing frequency. When we both want it, mutual enthusiastic consent is the outcome. We don’t schedule sex. This is another well known piece of misguided advice for busy parents who struggle to find intimate time together. Scheduling sex does as much harm as giving obligatory consent. We readily accept that we can’t schedule feelings or emotions. So why would we assume we can schedule a sacred act that is dependent on warm and connected feelings and emotions? That is ludicrous.


Instead, Sheri and I check in with each other every day regarding sexual desire. That’s right. We talk about sex every night as we climb into bed. More often than not, the conversation is an acknowledgement that one of us is not interested. But often enough, we find mutual enthusiastic consent in those conversations. There is no ambiguity. There are no tense moments waiting to see if my advances will be resisted. It is a conversation. We talk about one of the most taboo subjects in a relationship, and we do it 365 times a year.


Do you know what happens when you talk with your partner about sex everyday? The discomfort evaporates in a surprisingly short amount of time. Sex is a topic about which we have been taught to fear communication for our whole lives. And yet, when we are intentional and committed to having the daily conversations, the shame and embarrassment fades away inside the first week. It is truly remarkable, and these daily conversations have been nothing short of miraculous for Sheri and me.


There is rejection inherent in reluctant consent. But there is no room for feelings of rejection in authentic, concise communication.


Generous Sexual Contact: Alas, communication dissolves taboo, but it does not eliminate sexual desire discrepancy. This leads me to our second, less obvious, manifestation of enthusiastic sexual consent. Even when Sheri is not sexually aroused, sometimes she still wants to engage in sex with me. Sometimes, often really, it is not about the orgasm for her. It is about fostering an enhancement of the emotional connection between us. Sometimes Sheri appreciates me, and she recognizes that my desire for her is not a sign of my greediness, but rather another expression of love. Sometimes she wants to have sexual contact with me, not to appease me or tolerate me or out of any form of obligation – but rather – because she loves me and wants to give generously to her partner.


There is critical nuance here. Giving of herself generously sounds, on the surface, a lot like spreading her legs because that is the societal, religious and cultural duty of a wife. But that is not what generous enthusiastic consent is about at all. The difference lies in Sheri’s intent. Generous enthusiastic consent is offered freely without coercion, encouragement, duty or obligation. It is an affirmative act of love rather than a negative act to avoid guilt or criticism. The difference is subtle, but so important. Can you see it?


This brings me to a crucially important point about earning enthusiastic consent. Sticking with the example of our relationship, where I have the stronger libido and there is significant sexual desire discrepancy, earning Sheri’s enthusiastic consent is my job. It is not Sheri’s responsibility as a wife or a woman or the person with less sex drive to suck it up and give it up. Correlating enthusiastic consent to responsibility would contradict all of the points of this article. If enthusiastic consent was Sheri’s job, we would be back in the pit of obligatory sex. It is my job to make Sheri enthusiastic.


If you go to a comedy show, and the comedian isn’t funny, is it your job to laugh anyway? If you go to a restaurant, and the service is awful, is it your responsibility to tip anyway? If you pull up to the gas pump, and the station is out of fuel, should you pay for gas you don’t receive? The answer to these rhetorical questions is an obvious and emphatic, “No!” So if I’m not holding up my end of the bargain by creating a consistently emotionally safe environment, doing my share of the household workload (even though I work outside the house and make money), nurturing our kids and showing non-sexual attention to my wife, why would I expect Sheri to be enthusiastic about having sex with me? It makes no sense. And yet, in our society permeated with sexual obligation, someone will inevitably read this article and tell his wife, “That Matt guy says you need to be enthusiastic about having sex with me.” No, that’s not what I am saying. I know this is a long article, but start over, because you missed the point completely. What that Matt guys is saying is that you need to earn your partner’s enthusiastic consent (there are two types), or avoid sex because it is doing more harm than good if it is reluctant or coerced.


I want to end by emphasizing my belief that we should all be held harmless for operating naively in a culture that set us up for relationship failure with Disney and Hallmark Channel romance examples invading our psyche from childhood, and an overt acceptance that non-resistance is the predominant and effective form of consent. We never had a chance. It really isn’t our fault. None of us.


Now you have a chance. Pursue mutual enthusiastic consent based on desire and generosity. Learn to be vulnerable and authentic and open with your partner. Do it for them. But more importantly, do it for yourself. Eliminate the shame, rejection, taboo and guilt that results from anything short of enthusiastic consent.


If you are ready to pursue relationship recovery and work on intimacy repair after alcoholism, please consider joining us in the Marriagevoltion.


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