Not a dichotomy, a spectrum: on rape, consent, and desire

In yesterday’s post, I made reference to a “rape spectrum” (also sometimes called a “consent spectrum”). In the comments, SamSeaborn and CornWalker asked me to clarify the concept.

I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about consent. There’s an ongoing discussion about consent, enthusiasm, and agency at the splendid Yes Means Yes blog. The book with the same title, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, also explores the intersections of desire and culture and agency. One topic that has always come up in my talks about consent — and which came up in the book as well — was the difficulty of defining those sexual encounters that do not meet the prevailing legal standard for rape, but are still non-consensual to one degree or another. (This problematic concept is explored in a very fine piece by Latoya Peterson, a “Yes Means Yes” contributor: The Not Rape Epidemic.)

A recent survey in the Journal of Sex Research has led to the adoption of a new term to describe one aspect of the problem: sexual compliance. The authors define compliance as “consent without desire”. That’s an exasperating way of couching it — after all, as I usually point out in my workshops and lectures, consent comes from the Latin consentire, which means literally “with feeling” or “with desire.” Consent, I argue, both etymologically and ethically shouldn’t be understood as the mere absence of a “no” or even the mere willingness to comply with another’s wishes. Authentic consent is always charged with desire; “enthusiastic consent” is, in a very real sense, a redundant term!

But I recognize that the common understanding of consent refers to the granting of permission rather than the presence of desire, and I suppose that a lesson in Latin isn’t going to change that interpretation.

One way to think about sexual ethics and the problem of what Latoya Peterson calls “Not Rape” as well as what the Journal of Sex Research calls “sexual compliance” or “consent without desire” is to imagine a spectrum. Think of a long flat line, but without any numbers on it. (This isn’t quite the Kinsey scale of sexual identity.) Imagine that the left end point of the scale is marked “Absolute Enthusiastic Consent” or, better yet, “Hell, Yes!” The right end point of the spectrum is marked “Neither Consented to Nor Desired” or “Hell, No!” or “Everyone in Their Right Mind Would Agree that This is Rape!” It’s pretty clear that a lot of what happens sexually in our lives or in the lives of the people we love happens somewhere in between these two poles. Listening to the stories of how real people live — and in many cases, reflecting on our own pasts — most of us realize fast that it’s a false dichotomy to insisist that every act of sex is “either rape, or it isn’t.” There’s a lot of space in between our two poles.

What meets the legal standard of rape occupies, say, the right third of the spectrum. If most people’s vision of something that is “obviously rape” involves the stereotype of a stranger in a ski mask jumping out of a bush and sexually assaulting a woman at gunpoint, the law takes a broader view. The law notes that sometimes consent can’t be given, even in the presence of a “hell, yes.” Intoxication vitiates consent in the eyes of the law, as does (in many places) the minor status of one of the participants in a sexual act. A drunken “yes” or a “yes” from a fourteen year-old isn’t at the right extreme of the spectrum, because genuine desire may be present (alcohol takes away reason, not horniness), but it’s still in the area the law considers legal rape. Most of us are glad for laws about statutory rape and the use of intoxicants. They make good sense.

Then in the middle third of the spectrum, we find the intersection of ambiguity and anguish. It’s in the middle of our “rape spectrum” that I’d place my sexual behavior with my students during my “acting out” years early in my career. I slept with many students who were enrolled in my classes at the time we had sex. In every single instance, I perceived enthusiastic consent from these women, all of whom were legal adults. I perceived it perhaps because it was there, or perhaps because I wanted to perceive it. But I held the power of the gradebook, and I held the mystique of the “professor fantasy” that is a cultural staple. Did the power of the gradebook vitiate consent in a way similar to the way that alcohol — or minor status — might? I think that at least in some instances, it may have. Not to the same degree, perhaps. What I did fell into the “unethical, but not illegal” category. (It wasn’t even a violation of college policy at the time, as PCC did not have such a policy until I created it as part of my amends process.) So when I wrote yesterday that my actions fell on the “rape spectrum”, I didn’t say “I was a rapist.” I was making a point about the way in which power imbalances tend to undermine consent. Sometimes those imbalances cross the line from problematic to illegal, and sometimes they don’t. But those imbalances are never found on the far left end — the “ideal consent end” of the spectrum.

But there are other scenarios that end up in our middle third of the spectrum. I’ve written often about the ways in which one partner in a relationship will badger or nag or pressure the other for sex. Men in particular have been trained not to take “no” for an answer, but instead to keep plugging away in order to turn that “No” into a “Yes” or at least an “Okay, I guess.” If a man ignores a woman’s “No”, then he’s clearly in the right third of the spectrum, the area shaded in as “legally rape.” But what if he pesters and persists until the “No” becomes not a “Hell, Yes!” but a resigned “Okay”, or a “Do what you want” or an “If you really want to” or a “Whatever” or perhaps just an acquiescent silence? That’s not legally rape in most instances — but it sure as hell falls miles short of the standard of enthusiastic consent! Not all coercion meets the legal standard for rape.

And even on our left-hand side of the scale — close to the “enthusiastic consent” ideal but still well short of it – are the sexual dynamics familiar to many folks in long-term relationships. One partner is in the mood, the other isn’t. The lower-desire partner may feel a desire to please their higher-desire mate, and so her or she willingly consents to sex. But we need always to distinguish between the desire to please another and one’s own sexual desire. Both can lead us to consent, and in the best encounters, all parties involved are both very horny and very eager to bring pleasure to those whom they are with. But uneven desire is a staple of countless relationships, and most couples end up working out compromises in the face of this libido disparity. Those compromises are clearly legally consensual. They are also often charged with mutual desire. But the mutual desires often take different forms. Sex that feels obligatory, sex that is charged with a sense of duty, falls short of the “left-side ideal” of “enthusiastic consent.” And the truth is, a great many of us will end up having that kind of sex sooner or later.

When I bring up the spectrum, I bring it up in order to inspire conversation. I want people to expand their understanding of consent and of rape. I want them to see that desire is complicated, and to work to discern the desire to please another from one’s own desire for sexual satisfaction. Those aren’t always mutually exclusive, but they sure as hell aren’t the same thing either. We need to work to make sure our laws are enforced, but also to make sure that we challenge a lot of the behaviors that fall into that murky “middle third” of the spectrum. And that means talking, listening, and demanding the truth from ourselves and others.

0 thoughts on “Not a dichotomy, a spectrum: on rape, consent, and desire

  1. I’m really uncomfortable to see this kind of discussion take place at all, especially led by a man. It just seems so obvious that the right thing to say is “If you’re in any doubt at all, the answer is no.” To make an intellectual issue of it automatically says that there’s room to argue.

    Nobody has to stay in a relationship where they aren’t getting what they want. Let a guy who wants some sex go and find a woman who agrees! A partner’s enthusiasm is the best aphrodisiac there could ever be.

  2. Good post. On the the college professor/general power balance issue, I think there’s a distinction worth making. If person A sleeps with person B because B is in a position of authority over A, I think it is only problematic (in terms of rape/consent, anyway) if A does so because they perceive that B will use their authority for their benefit/against them as a result of some sort of sexual encounter. I can see how that is on the “rape spectrum”, since their action is not solely their own choice and is motivated by fear of consequences, and is in that sense (at least partially) coerced.

    But what I don’t understand is how someone who acts on a “teacher crush” is considered on the rape spectrum. There are certainly difficulties with it – problems with favouritism, appropriacy and the healthiness of the crush – but I don’t understand how there’s reduced consent in such a case. It’s inappropriate, sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s tied into rape or the whole consent issue. The person has a desire to sleep with someone, not motivated by coercion, and while we may doubt or look down on the reasons behind that desire, it is still their desire. If someone is attracted exclusively to alpha males, we may well dispute the reasons for their attraction, but we wouldn’t reasonably claim that they are somehow the victim of a rape (or even have reduced consent) should they act on that desire.

    I haven’t done much reading on the topic, so apologies if I’m rambling a bit or am missing something obvious.

  3. Hugo, thanks for the post clarifying your ideas. I think language is the primary issue with the idea of consent being a spectrum or being a black and white issue, so perhaps it’s best to discuss it without that word and the disparate connotations it provokes.

    It seems to me we’re talking about principally about two things here: permission and desire.

    Permission does appear to be black and white, and I’d suggest that those arguing that consent is probably see the two terms as synonymous. There are two aspects of permission: whether or not the actors have granted it and whether or not the law judges those actors as having been competent to grant it. For “rape” to have occurred, one actor either has to have denied permission, or the law must have judged the actor unable to grant permission due to age, mental state, coercion, etc.

    Desire, on the other hand, does lie on a continuum. However you brought up an associated issue that I think strikes at the heart of Yes Means Yes and the idea of Enthusiastic Consent, one which I think could use some further discussion. There are, as you say, two desires at play here: the desire to engage in sexual behavior and the desire to please one’s partner. It is a combination of these two desires with permission that leads to Enthusiastic Consent.

    Complicating this further is that women are socialized to be complaisant. So now we have issues not only of permission and desire, but whether that desire is authentic. Where does this leave us?

    It seems then that what most men pay attention to is permission – the No or the Yes (or the absence of a No) – when they should be paying attention to both permission and desire. Because men are focussed on permission rather than desire, it’s logical (but regrettable) that they will employ methods such as badgering or alcohol to gain permission. But frankly, even ignoring permission who wants to be having sex where sexual desire is absent and the desire to please is somewhat tepid in one’s partner?

    I think this is why Enthusiastic Consent is the proper standard (even if it is currently only an ideal). Determining enthusiastic consent embodies two tests. First, we must ascertain whether or not permission has been given. If not, then continuing is sexual assault, clear and simple. Second, we need to determine whether or not desire is present. Here, absent behavior to the contrary, I think we do best in taking our partners at their word. With experience I think we can learn to discern whether desire is there or not.

    That said, I find Enthusiastic Consent somewhat disconcerting. Not because I don’t think it’s a suitable or valid ideal, rather the opposite. With enthusiastic consent as the ideal, consent without enthusiasm sounds quite unappealing, perhaps rightly so. Yet Hugo seems to intimate (I presume in the context of long term relationships) that sex without enthusiasm is inevitable. Is this what leads to “bed death” in relationships (that is, partners choosing to abstain rather than engage in unenthusiastic yet consensual sex) or is that something altogether different?

  4. Thankyou Hugo, for a very interesting post, and one I’d agree pretty much completely with.

    @corn walker: “Permission does appear to be black and white […] There are two aspects of permission: whether or not the actors have granted it and whether or not the law judges those actors as having been competent to grant it.”

    Surely the competence part is still a spectrum, though? The law has to draw clear lines, so makes a cut-off at (say) 18 – but it’s not like a switch flips on your 18th birthday and you suddenly wake up able to make mature, responsible, un-influenced judgements! Your agency/influentiability(?) certainly change gradually as you mature; and there are similar shades of grey in intoxication, imbalances of power, and so on.

  5. I like the ideal of there only ever being enthusiastic consent, but it feels to me like only an ideal. It’d be nice if that were the case, but it’s not exactly readily available, and if things on the left-hand third of the spectrum ultimately increase the happiness of both parties, why should we discourage that?

    I’ve gone to movies with women (generally girlfriends) even though I wasn’t enthusiastic about it and I’ve gone to parties with women (generally girlfriends) even though I wasn’t really enthusiastic about it and I’ve had sex with women (generally girlfriends) even though I wasn’t really enthusiastic about it, and try as I might, I can’t convince myself that the last one is categorically different from the first two. As much as I’d love to think otherwise, all three of those have almost certainly occurred in the reverse direction, and I’m quite certain that in every case, we were ultimately happier as a couple than we would had all such occurrences never happen.

  6. Just so that I am clear: you are saying that non-consent is black, consent is shades of grey. No always means no. But shades of consent come in when you have power imbalances and desire-disparities. Is that correct?

  7. I made an editing error there, but what I am trying to establish if you are proposing that all matters of consent/non-consent are on a scale, or if you are saying that while consent can be a scale, non-consent is an absolute. Once the “no” threshold has been met, does anything else matter? In other words, are we saying that the amount one screams or fights is of any interest?

  8. FWC, I am saying that “no means no”, always, period. But I’ve always hated the title “Yes means Yes”, because all of us — especially women — can think of umpteen instances where we’ve said yes when we’d rather have said no.

    Put very simply:

    1. No always means No.
    2. Yes sometimes, but not always, means yes.
    3. Teasing out what lies behind the “yes” in a way that values agency, desire, and also values the human need not to overanalyse everything: that’s the rub.

    Cornwalker is right, permission and desire are two different things, but both things that need to be in the consent calculus.

  9. Surely the competence part is still a spectrum, though? The law has to draw clear lines, so makes a cut-off at (say) 18 – but it’s not like a switch flips on your 18th birthday and you suddenly wake up able to make mature, responsible, un-influenced judgements! Your agency/influentiability(?) certainly change gradually as you mature; and there are similar shades of grey in intoxication, imbalances of power, and so on.

    As far as the law is concerned, no. You wake up on your 18th birthday and you are now competent to smoke, vote, join the military, marry, and have sex (ages will differ by state). If my paramour is underage, I’ve committed statutory rape, whether she’s 12, 15, or (in some states) 17. The term “statutory” is used to distinguish it from rape where permission was not granted. A particular judge might take age into account, but that’s applying human discretion in the application of the law. My use of competence is in that sense only; where permission is freely given, the law may say that you are not able to give that permission.

    Of course laws may vary. In some states the “age of consent” is a set number – it is unlawful to engage in sexual activity if you are underage. In others, the law takes into account the age of the partner as well, choosing (for example) to make it lawful for a 16 year old to engage in sexual activity with an 18 year old but unlawful with a 25 year old.

  10. Situations where men are persistent to the point of annoyance because they want sex, partner’s desire be damned, are in the middle of the spectrum. Fair enough.

    So where are those situations where men are similarly persistent because their experiences have informed them a woman’s initial reluctance is as likely as not a show, she does in fact want (or at least wouldn’t mind) sex, but she wants the guy to put in a little more aggressive work to get it? Does it depend on whether the woman’s reluctance that day is real or feigned? Does it depend on how long they’ve been in a sexual relationship? Is it only ok if she’s specifically told him she likes that type of behavior, and not if he “knows” without being told and is, in fact, correct? Does it ever crest the hill onto the good end of the spectrum, or is it always a little sketchy?

    FWIW, the hypothetical guy is not me. I can’t act that way unless I know beforehand, through actual communication, that she wants me to behave thusly. But I have a few friends who fall on the female side of this scenario.

  11. In our marriage, we have an expression that we use to express consent without desire: “I am willing to be willing.” Which says that if I were answering based solely on my own desire, the answer would be no. But I love my partner and want to give him/her pleasure. So I enter the beginning stages of sexuality with my partner and try to catch up to his/her arousal or desire. But if it doesn’t happen for me, if I just can’t get there, I reserve the right to back out altogether, or to offer something that I can give without needing to be aroused or desirous. About 5% of the time, we just shut it down after a good faith effort. I would estimate than another 30% of the time, it becomes one-way sex. But about 65% of the time, “I am willing to be willing” becomes “So help me God, if you stop, I will have to kill you.”

  12. Hugo,

    thanks for your explanation. I follow your explanation with respect to the redundancy of “ethusiastic consent”, but I think that corn walker is correct to point out that you’re mixing different dimensions – you say yourself that consent is usually understood as “permission”.

    I’m looking at this question mainly from the point of view of the initiator. Even if we say that all grey area means that no permission has been granted, everyone who initiates, whether a guy in a club trying to convince a woman he met to have a one night stand, or Jaclyn Friedman in a longterm relationship with asymmetric sexual desire (, there needs to be a clear idea of when it has been granted or can *reasonably* assumed (reasonable is another ambigous term, I know), because without subjective deliberate intent to disregard assumed or explicit permission, whatever happens in violation of the other’s subjective lack of permission is logically an accident, not sexual assault/rape. So, in extreme circumstances, it’s actually possible that one partner was (subjectively) raped while the other was (subjectively) having consensual sex, and *both* versions of reality are equally valid.

    A well-meaning initiator *needs* a clear standard for explicit or assumable permission in order to be subjectively able to believe permission has been given. A not-so well meaning initiator will certainly prefer shades of grey that allow him/her to deny the deliberate intent to proceed without being reasonably certain of permission to do so.

  13. The whole point of talking about the spectrum is to create conversation. This is, or could be, a catalyst for serious discussion among friends (and especially, between sex partners) about the complexity of desire (desire to please v. desire for sex itself), about the distinction between the granting of permission and the expression of desire, and so forth.

    We’re never going to design a sexual system that isn’t fraught with ambiguity – we can only give people the tools to talk with each other. We can give them a vocabulary for intimate conversation, and encourage them to have those conversations. And that’s what I’m trying to do here. The point is that the question many well-meaning folks ask — “When can I know for sure sex is really wanted” — is one with a complex range of answers. And figuring out what those answers might look happens not on a blog, but in intimate conversation with the people with whom one might be having or would like to have sex.

  14. Hugo,

    “We can give them a vocabulary for intimate conversation, and encourage them to have those conversations. And that’s what I’m trying to do here.”

    hmm, I believe that that’s what you’re trying to do, but, just like with the yes-means-yes-blog, it’s really doesn’t feel that way to me at all. You’re talking about a “rape-spectrum” to encourage well meaning people to hold intimate conversations about desire? I don’t understand that. Seems like trying to induce a debate about the beauty of democracy as a political system by talking about the 2000 presidential election and the Florida recount. Again, I’m not questioning your intention, but I doubt that always framing sex-positivity in a rape-context is going to engender much of a positive debate, you’re just triggering people to become instinctively defensive when you’d actually like to engage them.

  15. @corn walker: absolutely agreed, the law draws clear lines; the legal definitions of competence to consent are (at least in some aspects) black and white. But the discussion we’re having here is not primarily about what’s currently legal; its about what’s ethical, about what we believe consent, permission, competence to consent actually mean, or ought to mean. The point I was trying to make (maybe unclearly) was that while legal competence to consent is pretty black-and-white, actual competence to consent is most definitely a spectrum.

  16. Sam, it may be that you’re triggered — but I’ve taken this talk into some pretty tough settings (fraternities, other all-male spaces) for many years, and witnessed it lead to some extraordinary discussion. But until you come to one of my talks, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

  17. @FormerWildChild: your description of “willing to be willing” articulates very well something that I’ve ended up evolving in several relationships too — and exactly why, at least between people who know each other well, the left-hand third of the spectrum can have room for a lot of happy much-more-than-just-compromise.

  18. Hugo,

    “But until you come to one of my talks, you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

    fair enough.

  19. So, in extreme circumstances, it’s actually possible that one partner was (subjectively) raped while the other was (subjectively) having consensual sex, and *both* versions of reality are equally valid.

    I’m afraid that I don’t see both versions of reality as equally valid, and I hope that the partner who mistakenly thought the sex was consensual would be horrified to learn that ze had missed physical/verbal/aural cues that hir partner experienced the encounter as rape. I don’t believe it is setting a bar too high to expect that all parties to a sexual encounter want their partner(s) to feel safe, to feel sexual, to want to be part of the encounter, and to enjoy the experience. If one person feels raped, the other person did not take enough time and care in communicating, getting to know hir partner, and assessing what was going on.

    Sorry, but just reading that statement was very triggering for me. If one person experiences a sexual encounter as rape, then the other person’s mistaken interpretation of the encounter does not carry equal ethical weight.

  20. Roughly 10 years ago I was a union steward in my (federal) agency. I was asked to represent a reasonably young (female)clerical employee in another branch of our agency. She surprised me by insisting that I take her request for a job reassignment to their regional administrator, rather than her supervisor. He saw the two of us and immediately denied her request, which ended my issue.

    Some years later I found out that he’d been forced to resign due to some behavior related issues. Later on after I’d retired, I found out that she had had an “affair” with him (though I doubt that this is what forced him out of his job).

    I presume that the “affair” was “consensual” and thus “rape” was not an issue. Such behavior by the man was clearly inappropriate (and illegal). I see an important difference between this situation and how you (Hugo) were involved in sexual relations with students. The effects of what happened most probably could only have hurt this young woman. It was unlikely that their actions affected others, nor that others knew of what went on.

    I see a big difference between a situation where you might have been involved with say a graduate student at a large, local university and being with students at PCC. Even if the student at PCC initiated the sexual contact, no one can return to “total neutrality” with any certainty after whatever transpired had happened. Said student, for example, might fear that breaking off future sexual contact could impact upon her grade, her “reputation” or other things in her future life. Being visibly partying/sexual with others in a college setting can much more easily lead to others knowing some of what was going on.

    If you had been involved with a USC graduate student, any issues related to your “control” would be indirect and “a stretch”. Where one is involved at a college or university (or high school) what one does or doesn’t do can have serious effects on multiple individuals in ways that neither participant may anticipate when (choosing to) get(ting) involved.

    I don’t think that it necessarily matters if the student was 18, 25 or 35 in terms of their understanding of potential consequences in the future of their actions related to their “enthusiastic participation”.

    I think one could say a similar thing when, for example, either a man or a woman gets involved in an “affair” with another person who is in a committed (presumably monogamous) relationship. The fact that one is “middle aged” doesn’t mean that one looks at the issues clearly because one is older.

    I certainly wouldn’t say that you (Hugo) raped women, however I think it certainly possible that you may have “sexually abused” one or more students regardless of their obvious “consent”. Clearly the substance abuse issues might have made that possible, but also one doesn’t necessarily know the effects one may have on another. Coming from a position of “power” as a professor leaves one open in varying ways to whether one or more students may have (later on) had more than “regrets” or similar. All of us can, in a sense, do similarly when we are with others in relationships, however we generally can (logically) say: “I didn’t know …” and be right, while you in a position of power don’t have that “equality based” defense, that your actions were “innocent”. Psychological trauma – past sexual abuse histories, for example, could intervene in a “consensual encounter”, where I, at least, would see you as a professor as stepping over this edge. (others may see this differently.)

  21. Comrade,

    “I hope that the partner who mistakenly thought the sex was consensual would be horrified to learn that ze had missed physical/verbal/aural cues that hir partner experienced the encounter as rape.”

    I’d imagine that would be horrible news to everyone who made such a mistake.

    “If one person feels raped, the other person did not take enough time and care in communicating, getting to know hir partner, and assessing what was going on.”

    Sorry that was triggering. It’s a logically inevitable argument, though, not sure how to put this differently.

    Who decides what enough time and care in communicating is? You do realize that there is no objectivity in this matter, right? That’s kind of the point of the post. You want to take the subjective occurrence of a mistake as proof for negligent behaviour? That’s kind of circular, can’t you see that? It’s the ambiguity that I’d like to reduce as much as possible, precisely to help people never get into such a situation. But I don’t think it’s possible to assign “ethical weight” to subjective perceptions of reality. That’s a wrong category in this respect.

  22. Oh man, so many thoughts, I’m a little dizzy. Let’s see, FormerWildChild and Peter already articulated one of the points that sprung to mind, the “willing to be willing” and the discrepancy that can occur between intellectual/mental desire, and physiological arousal. Some people might say that this is a female specific problem, or an older demographic specific problem, but I will adamantly contest that it’s not. One can be willing in the mind, that is, willing “in theory” to engage in sexual congress with one’s partner, while still struggling with what is often articulated as “desire” in a physical sense. …And in this discussion of consent, desire, and the need for enthusiastic consent, there’s a tiny part of me that does worry whether pushing too far in the wrong direction will actually have the undesirable (hah, pun not intended) effect of encouranging people (usually women, but this is really isn’t just one partner’s issue) to feel broken somehow when they find themselves experiencing low levels of physical-desire. Yet, are constantly being told that “anything less than enthusiastic consent” is inappropriate, so they may lack the tools or knowledge to approach something closer to the “willing to be willing” model, wherein the idea is to “explore the idea of sex.. and see if the body will catch up.”

    A related question that my psych professor put to me, which I am still stumped by, is that a not-insignificant % of middle-aged women are now complaining something along the lines of, “When I was growing up, they told us we weren’t supposed to desire sex – but now, not only are we supposed to desire it, we’re supposed to have multiple orgasms?!” and that not every woman necessarily WANTS to have to go through the grand rigamarole wherein her partner has to make her cum every single time and it always has to be enthusiastic desire– that some, at least, would rather just “get it over with,” because they really just, not that enthusiastic about sex. — This perspective baffles me, and it’s NOT AT ALL the model I would want to have in my relationships, but it seems unfair to call it invalid.

    Re: Sam & Comrade’s comments,

    “I hope that the partner who mistakenly thought the sex was consensual would be horrified to learn that ze had missed physical/verbal/aural cues that hir partner experienced the encounter as rape.”

    I’d imagine that would be horrible news to everyone who made such a mistake.

    Reminds me of this article from over a year ago:

  23. I don’t think suggesting that the “left third” of the spectrum can be a site for some problematic issues around desire and “compliance” and “people-pleasing” renders the sex that’s had in that “left third” somehow “invalid”. It’s a spectrum more than a moral hierarchy of ascending goods.

    Geo, I’d accept that characterization of my relationships with the students I was involved with, or at least of some of those relationships. As I’ve written, I’ve made amends and gotten varied reactions. See this post and this post for the stories of two very different students with whom I was sexually involved and how they subsequently thought of what happened between us.

  24. Ari,

    I was thinking more on a philosophical level, but, yeah, that link is a sad real-world example.

  25. Ari, I love your comment, and also, thanks for posting that link. I’ve never seen it before and it’s horrifying.

    In my mind, it was still very much in the realm of fantasy, and I was secure in knowing that if and when I decided to take things to the next level—i.e., act out the fantasy—the inevitable and, for me, dreaded conversation involving safe words and boundaries (things I’d always associated with schoolmarms and humorless girls who’d read too much Third Wave feminism) would have to happen.

    If anything makes me sincerely believe even more that feminism needs an image change, it’s the bolded part.

  26. FormerWildChild: Would you say that “I am willing to be willing” sex has become a staple of your sexual relations as a couple.

    I’d imagine that, even in an equal-desire relationship there will be fewer times, after the honeymoon is over, where the non-initiator starts from the willing to be willing perspective.

    As a thought experiment, if that were the rule rather than the exception, would you be ok with that?

  27. Actually — the first question is asking a bit much, but I would be curious about your (or anyone’s response to the second.

  28. Pingback: Lauder Lip | The Beauty Of Face

  29. Willing to be willing is an interesting idea, one that was explored in the NYT a while back with Daniel Bergner’s piece on women and desire, among others. I suspect there are both positive and negative effects that are likely to result from sexual interaction being primarily based on this model.

    On the positive ledger it is a recognition that sexual desire is an ephemeral state, one that will not always or even often be in sync with that of one’s partner, even if their respective libidos are somewhat evenly matched. It represents a willingness to put in the effort to please one’s partner with the caveat (as FWC recounted) that sometimes it’s not just going to happen. Provided it is a good faith effort I think it can aid in prolonging attachment and feelings of affection.

    However I think there is also potential for negative effects, particularly if other-directed sexual desire is absent from the relationship. The feeling of not being desired by your partner is a profound rejection in a sexual relationship, and where exclusivity is present (as is the case in most sexual relationships) says “I don’t want you, and no one else can have you.” To avoid this each partner would likely need to share in both initiating and in being willing to be willing.

    The negatives of an asymmetric willingness notwithstanding, I imagine the absence of even this type of willingness would lead to even greater negative consequences. Consider a sexually exclusive relationship where one partner is unwilling to be willing. An immediate consequence would be a sharp reduction in physical intimacy between partners. With “maybe” becoming “no” I don’t see how this is any different than the pursuer-rejector dynamic common in sexless marriages, a dynamic which results in both partners being resentful, frustrated, and withdrawn. And we know from these relationships that when sexual intimacy is withdrawn, other forms of intimacy are quick to follow.

  30. @Randomizer, err, “I’d imagine that, even in an equal-desire relationship there will be fewer times, after the honeymoon is over, where the non-initiator starts from the willing to be willing perspective.” — I don’t follow. I think this situation is MORE likely to increase over time, rather than decrease.

  31. @Ari, I think it’s a bit more complicated…

    It’s difficult to determine what the nature of desire is during the “new relationship energy” phase. Is it truly that your libido is ramped sky high and then falls back to earth, or is it that in our eagerness to have our desire reciprocated (limerence) we stretch ourselves to be more accommodating to our partner’s desires?

    If this is the case we might see that initial period of desire more as being “eager to be willing” and as that initial period fades, so too does this eagerness fade into “willing to be willing” if we’re still enamored of our partner, and perhaps “unwilling to be willing” if not.

    Last year a feature in the NYT magazine highlighted some of the changes to the DSM-V surrounding the controversial diagnosis of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in women. I talked with a sex therapist about this and she had an interesting view that in hindsight seems somewhat obvious: It’s complicated. For some women, there are cultural issues that are inhibiting (slut-shaming, body image, conflicting messages). For a few women there are physical problems (primarily pain). But for many women she saw having difficulty with desire it wasn’t that they didn’t want to have sex, it’s that they didn’t want to have sex with their partners. And there’s no pill that will be able to fix that.

  32. @corn walker, sexual desire while in the midst of NRE tends to be ramped up pretty high, making it difficult to tell whether you really DO have the “equal-desire relationship” that randomizer was suggesting.. But you’re also very likely to be making “extra time” for that partner, because you’re very excited about seeing them and this new relationship, and when sparks are really flying you do have this intense passion that correlates with high levels of physiological arousal, with excellerated boosts of neurotransmitters dopamine, PEA (phenylethylamine), and possibly oxytocin, the first and the last also being related to the process of sexual arousal.

    However, past the NRE stage, you lose some of those edgy benefits, esp. the psysiological arousal (your body simply can not maintain itself like that), and thus a bit of your body-based boosts for sex. Also though, committed long-term relationships suffer from obstacles that new ones don’t: time constraints, work demands, sometimes kid demands, all those real life things that suddenly crowds in once the flush of NRE creeps away… Hence, why I think that “willing to be willing” is much more likely to increase over time.

    Ah, technically there’s no pill for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in women at all.. Science struggles with women’s bodies in a way that it does not with mens, in regards to most things about sex. I’m quite familiar with the complicated-ness of desire, and the chaos that is the DSM 😉 I am not a certified therapist, but I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to diagnose a woman who’s primary presenting feature is “I don’t want to have sex with my partner.

    But feel like we’ve veered waaaayyy off from the original topic at hand.

  33. @Ari I’m not so sure it’s off topic, considering the topic was about how consent and desire lie on a spectrum.

    You may very well be right, that during NRE the neurotransmitters do increase libido (perhaps indirectly via increased testosterone production or ? – RadioLab did a segment on dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin a few years ago).

    I’ve talked with a number of women about desire and their experiences are all over the place (as anecdotes are likely to be). Specifically relating to NRE, these women are all over the spectrum. One, who generally has a very low libido, did not experience an increase in sexual desire but did experience an increased willingness to be willing. Another experienced what sounds more typical – increased libido during the early stages and settled back into a normal libido (for her) as the relationship progressed. Yet another experienced increased desire that has pretty much stayed that way. The latter two are very aware of being willing to be willing, and the impact sexual intimacy (or the lack thereof) has on their relationships. Two of the women with low desire would characterize themselves as “wanting to be willing.” That is, they are aware of the reduced of sexual intimacy in their relationships (one is technically in a “sexless marriage”), but are for whatever reason unable to be willing for their partners.

    It is the experiences of these two women that intrigue me most about the idea of a “rape spectrum.” One of these women said that she has, on occasion, had sex with her partner even when she didn’t want to because she felt guilty. I can’t imagine the guy wouldn’t realize her heart wasn’t in it, which makes me wonder in which “third” of Hugo’s spectrum that would lie. Sure, she’s given permission, but was that permission “coerced” over days (weeks?) of initiating and rejecting? What is the responsibility of the initiator who receives a “Yes” that he suspects (knows?) is likely the result of a dynamic of guilt? I suspect probing (“do you really want to do this or are you just feeling guilty because it’s been so long?”) would probably turn the “Yes” into a “No” so I’m betting it doesn’t happen all that often, but I don’t actually know.

  34. Ari — correct, I phrased it backwards, “willing to be willing” would be expected to increase after the honeymoon.

    As for the topic at hand, I know that as a novice non-virgin, more of my experiences were in the gray zone and some tending towards consent with unequal certainty of desire.

    As I (and my partners) got a little more experience, the alignment (communication?) of desire and consent improved.

    Certainly my experience of consent and desire in long term relationships has included both “hell yes, right now” and “ya, ok, I’m willing to be willing” and my experience of the latter is that what starts with a degree of indifference can definitely become very enthusiastic.

    Having spent some years in a (now defunct) sexless relationship, I am quite sensitive to signs of declining desire and am quite clear that a certain level of mutual desire is essential for me (a deal breaker) in an intimate relationship. I do accept though that, to some extent declines in desire beyond the stage of NRE are inevitable for most of us.

    A willingness to be, as Dan Savage says, Good Giving and Game, can go a long way to picking up the slack. Consent and desire don’t always have to align, though enthusiastic consent is certainly unambiguously best for all concerned.

  35. @Randomizer: that is not a thought experiment for me. Yes, there have been seasons where being willing to be willing pretty much categorized our relationship. And that was an upgrade. There were times when our relationship was virtually sexless. As corwalker has said, it is profoundly damaging and distressing to be the less desired person in the relationship.

    For us, the key was hanging in there. We actually did a brief separation period in which I was free to date other people and for awhile that helped. But as it turns out, there is no one else I want to hold at night. There is no one else that I trust with my body and heart like I trust him.

    So it became a matter of finding out why he didn’t want sex. We discovered three things. The most important one I am putting in caps, not to yell but because I think it is really important. We discovered that he was TESTOSTERONE DEFICIENT. He no longer eats any soy (suppresses testosterone) and he uses androgel. The results have been transformative, not only for our sex life but also for his energy and for managing his blood-sugar.

    After that, we learned two other things: 1. He is often profoundly anxious, and anxiety and desire are almost always mutually exclusive. 2. He believed that women don’t really like sex. He truly believed, based on his history, that women were only putting out to be kind or manipulative. What was most helpful in changing that belief was months where there was a lot of one-sided sex. He saw that even if there was nothing in it for him, I still wanted it.

    But even as we fixed those things, timing was still a problem. We are both incredibly busy and obsessive about our work. We arrived at “being willing to be willing” after years of trying to both be in the mood to at the same time with very poor results. And it has been a lifesaver for our marriage.

    Randomizer, you said:

    “Having spent some years in a (now defunct) sexless relationship, I am quite sensitive to signs of declining desire and am quite clear that a certain level of mutual desire is essential for me (a deal breaker) in an intimate relationship. I do accept though that, to some extent declines in desire beyond the stage of NRE are inevitable for most of us.”

    I disagree that it after NRE it settles down. We go through periods when we are hotter for each other and better at sex with each other than we have ever been before. But these are seasons and you have to ride them out without believing that they are permanent.

    I too have been very sensitive about watching for desire to drop away, always monitoring for a drop and worried that we would backslide. But I have started to relax because my husband and I have built in a few fail-safes. You may or may not find these of any value, but I will share them anyway.

    We have a theory that since we are both very cerebral people, we get “out of our bodies” a lot. So it seems important for us to keep our bodies familiar with each other.

    It is like we have to remind our brains that our bodies are more than convenient transportation devices. So we have a timer of two weeks. If neither of us has wanted sex and we haven’t had it in two weeks, we have it anyway. After we break the cycle of non-desire, we almost always have a mini-honeymoon. I am not saying that this would be right for everyone. But for us it has been important to put sex on the schedule, to block out an afternoon on the weekend if necessary. I want to be very clear, though that breaking through the cycle of non-desire takes both people being willing to be willing, and to occasionally have nearly comical sex.

    Speaking of nearly comical sex, we have one other theory. Sex is only *really* good every x number of times (this varies for couples and at junctures in relationships). For x-1 number of sessions, the key is hanging in there, being loving and connected and keeping your sense of humor. So when we have a session where it wasn’t that great, we don’t panic and assume that we have lost our spark or that we are just becoming old and non-desirable. We (now) assume that it was just an x-1 time.

    I hope that this helps.

  36. One other thing about being willing to be willing. Sometimes one or the other of us isn’t willing to be willing. And that has to be okay with the other person. Being willing to be willing only works if it is not a state of being in the relationship, if you have a lot of trust in each other, and if you are both capable of keeping yourself safe.

    I cannot stress the importance of the last one enough. It isn’t just about the person who might not give full-consent. It is also for the pleasure of the other person. We discovered that my husband could not really relax and bring his authentic sexuality to our marriage if he was not sure that I was capable of keeping myself safe. He would always be holding back, worried that I was not willing to or capable of saying no. So we have done some stop experiments. I shut it down cold when it was hot and heavy. And we learned that we were both okay with no, even if the no came just as we were ready to come.

    I think that without those sort of stop experiments, we would not have trusted each other enough to have the agreement of “being willing to be willing.” Being willing to be willing could easily become compliance for the sake of peace. But stop experiments and the 5% failure rate of “being willing to be willing” keeps us healthy.

    Again, this is not for everyone. If there is any reason to suspect that someone might indicate willingness where there is little or none, please do not try this. I could never forgive myself if someone got pushed into sex they didn’t want because of what I suggested.

  37. I think many couples, FWC, would identify with your “x-1 theory”. It is almost a certainty in long-term relationships, and humor is indispensable.

  38. Pingback: Interesting posts, weekend of 12/5/10 « Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction

  39. FormerWildChild:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think there are some really good take-aways there for me.

    I have seen that seasons of sex thing in my current relationship. Sometimes things are not happening much and then all of a sudden it is every day for a week, and good to excellent.

    Then back to earth.

    I try to be careful not to make too much of an issue about it when things are not so active since approaching the marital bed with a problem-solving mindset can create it’s own difficulties.