How To Make Sexual Consent Sexy

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S1: Just a heads up that this episode contains a discussion of sexual assault and sex. It’s a fascinating and even hopeful conversation in a lot of ways. But of course, we understand this episode isn’t for you, and we’ll look forward to seeing you same time next week.

S2: Someone saying, may I kiss you? Is like. What is unsexy about that? You know, it’s it’s it’s wonderful. And it’s also a very empowering, I think, litmus test.

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S1: Welcome to how to I’m Amanda Ripley. Today we’re going to try to see if we can make sexual consent sexy. Is that even possible, you might ask? Well, we’re going to find out. Can you ask for consent without ruining the mood? Can you continually negotiate boundaries even if they change in real time? And finally, can you heal after an experience that you really didn’t consent to?

S3: So I think, you know, unfortunately, like a lot of people, I’ve dealt with sexual assault multiple times in my life.

S1: That’s our listener Julia in New York. Unfortunately, stories like hers aren’t as rare as we’d like them to be. More than one in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their life, according to the CDC. And around 80% of those who report sexual assault knew their perpetrator, which was the case. The first time this happened to Julia.

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S3: The first person was someone I trusted, someone who my parents knew who was around like four or five years older than me. And it was someone I hooked up with when I was 16. And at that time that was consensual. And then a few years later, I met up with him again and told him I was in a relationship. And, you know, he said, Don’t be presumptuous. And I was like, Oh, how silly of me to assume that he wanted to hook up with me. And then we had this experience where he, like, tried to have sex with me, tried to hook up with me, like as I was, you know, resisting. I ended up, you know, pushing him off. And I felt very, you know, good about myself for for doing so. And so after that happened, it was just this kind of gross experience where, you know, afterwards he really enthusiastically greeted my dad who was picking me up. And it was just a really jarring experience. And like, now I can I can call it sexual assault. At the time, I did not.

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S1: There’s actually some evidence that people who are sexually assaulted as teenagers are more likely to be assaulted again in the future. For Julia, she had a second awful experience, this time in college. A few years later.

S3: He was just someone who was predatory, like a lot like, you know, way too drunk at a party he at at his place. I wanted to, like, go to the bathroom, just throw up. And he led me to his bedroom and he sexually assaulted me.

S1: A few years later, before she graduated, Julia decided to actually meet up with the guy and confront him in person.

S3: I knew that it was kind of it was definitely an emotionally risky move. If he didn’t react well, it could kind of be difficult to deal with. But I sort of just, like, sat him down at this cafe and and thankfully, he he listened. I mean, he was just he was there. He didn’t interject to me. Well, I told him, well, what he did was wrong. And in my mind, I was just, you know, like if this could lead to him pausing for a moment before making a similar decision in the future, to me that felt like it was worth it. And, you know, he seemed understanding. And so that is the most like closure I’ve ever gotten from this type of situation.

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S1: As you might imagine, after both of these traumatic experiences, Julia had a pretty complicated relationship to intimacy.

S3: My body was just. I’m not sexual at all. Sex. And my sexuality used to be a really like liberating and free thing for me. Like, and I always sort of prided myself on being sexually open and I can talk about these things and kind of spontaneous and of course, like using the precautions that I knew of. But. It just became this really heavy thing for me.

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S1: I want to just acknowledge that this sucks. I can hear that you’ve done a huge amount of work. Yeah. You get to this point and that it sounds like part of what I’m hearing is. You want to get back to who you were in some ways, right? But you also want to grow from these experiences. Like you want to be free in the way that you once were.

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S3: And know that I can’t really return to the person that I was before these experiences. And I also do know that that person was less aware of like her own boundaries. And so I kind of I also don’t really want to return to that previous person entirely, but I would like to get to a place where a sex can be just like a really pleasurable experience and a freeing experience, and it doesn’t have as much mental baggage.

S1: Julia has a pretty strong support system, including a therapist and good friends she can talk to. But she still sometimes wonders how can she approach new relationships and learn to trust her partners and herself? Can she have awkward conversations about boundaries and disclosures in a way that’s not just empowering, but maybe even erotic? We brought in two experts to help us answer these questions. Auguste McLAUGHLAN is a health and sexuality journalist and host of Girl Boner Radio.

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S2: First of all, I just commend you, Julia, for your self-awareness. You just have such beautiful sensitivity and this curiosity I’m sensing about what could be beyond where you’re at now. And I think so much growth comes from that curiosity.

S1: And Jamila Dawson is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a focus around enhancing sex and supporting people who are in alternative relationships.

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S4: I’m glad that you’re in that place because a lot of times people do think, Oh, I want to go back to who I was. And there’s really one. We can’t we can’t go back. What we can do is create this next this next iteration.

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S1: Jameel and August have written a book together called With Pleasure Managing Trauma Triggers for More Vibrant Sex and Relationships. They have some great insights to help Julia and other people recreate their sex life in a way that’s more honest, more healthy, and just more fun. So stay with us. So we heard from Julia that she wants to get to a place where sex can be pleasurable and freeing again. Well, talk about navigating consent and boundaries. But first, a question from August.

S2: One question I had and and 100% don’t feel like you need to share anything about this. But I am curious about your relationship to solo play self-pleasure masturbation, especially because you’re you have a lot of questions about pleasure in your body moving forward. Is there anything you’d like to share about that?

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S3: I. I’m definitely a big fan of vibrators and, you know, all the sex toys, all of that. I think the majority of mainstream porn that’s out there is like really, really degrading and then also really racist. And I grew up watching it, you know, so I had access to it. And so I think it was really formative to my idea of what sexuality is. I put most of the blame on like, you know, the sexual assault I’ve experienced in the past. I put most of it on the people right as I should. But also I do I feel resentment towards this kind of this culture of porn that normalizes a lot of things. I think I didn’t know what it would be like, I guess, to be sexual without doing certain acts or without honestly, like there being an element of being degraded in some way. Yeah.

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S1: Yeah. I’m glad we’re we’re talking about this because I this, too, is something that I think we don’t talk enough about. And, you know, I mean, I think so many people this is their first exposure now to sex. Right. I mean, most people everyone let’s say everyone, I’m going to go with everyone. So at this point, yeah. And starting I think the average age is 11 but could be younger. Yeah. So I’m curious, Jamila, in August, is there good porn? Is there like another option? Okay.

S4: Yeah. The short, short answer is yes, there is. Yeah. I think a lot like a generation of young women grew up with this idea of like being sex positive meant being down for so many things. And so sex positivity is this idea of approaching sex in our bodies with curiosity and this idea that it can take different forms. You know, I’ve seen so many women have like, oh, yeah, like I can swallow and I can do this, like the other thing and my questions and it’s like, well, do you like, do you actually like them? Because if you don’t, you’re you’re now trapped in like you’re not down. We’re just being dissociated from our own sexual experience, our own erotic experience.

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S2: There’s also a site called the Clit List. It was designed with survivors of sexual assault in mind. Mm hmm. Which is can be a really empowering thing to know that that’s the community, you know, that you’re a part of. And they try to. I mean, anything can be whether you use the word triggering or activating when you’ve been through an assault, it could be a a basketball that’s in porn. I mean, it could be anything. Yeah, but as you were saying, a lot of the things that maybe feel demeaning would not be so present there. Um, and if I could share just a quick anecdote, an example of that gap you’re talking about between real sex and like porn sex. I had a listener of my podcast write in to me saying that she and her boyfriend had both been engaging in anal sex frequently, and then they found out that neither one of them was into it and they only they were assuming because of the porn they were watching that everyone loved it and they were so relieved once they had that conversation to go, Oh, my gosh, you mean you don’t really? Oh, my gosh. You also know. Really? So it’s definitely this big gap. And so I want to also validate those feelings, those mixed feelings.

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S1: So that’s our first insight. Rediscover what’s actually pleasurable and arousing to you and what’s not. This is valuable intel that you can share with partners later on. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of terrible porn out there. So look in alternate places and if you do stumble across something upsetting, here’s one thing you can do.

S4: We cannot underestimate how critical it is to let your body know that it is still alive and can move through to the next moment. And we underestimate the impact of just breath, like breathe long enough so that you can notice that something is happening and then something you can either stop the thing. Meaning like if you’re watching porn, for example, and a feeling, a bad feeling comes out like giving yourself does that breath are those two breaths that tells your body, hey, we’re not going to die because it feels like sometimes we’re going to die. Mm hmm. And then giving yourself space to make the choice that you want to make in that moment.

S2: And sometimes taking orgasm off the table, like for a little while. Yeah. Or maybe just some of the time I’m all for just getting off with your vibrator. I think that’s wonderful. At the same time, if you’re looking to explore your body’s capacity for pleasure, maybe experience some healing sensations or see what it feels like to masturbate without porn. I know that a lot of folks in, like, their twenties and teens. When you say masturbate or solo play or self-pleasure. They don’t imagine it without porn. Yeah. So sometimes just trying like say I’m going to take five or 10 minutes and I’m going to just be with my body. I’m going to put lotion sensually on my body. I’m going to read something really sexy and maybe take a feather and move it over my skin and see which parts of my body might feel erogenous. Just to slow down and to and to take that breath. In that case, too, I think can be really helpful.

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S3: Yeah, I feel like rediscovering like what actually brings me pleasure does seem like. Something that would be important. And I also think that that has been limiting in relationships I’ve had where I’m like, this is this is the one way I like to do it. And so that doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration. But like doing that on my own time, I guess, just like by myself does sound different.

S4: Yeah. Yeah. And no pressure to do anything but just explore. Um, and same with when we’re. We’re having sex with another person. Um, I’m just going to come out and say that, like most Americans having bad sex, but I’m seeing more and more people be very curious about sex being explored. Hmm. Um, and so there’s, you know, getting involved in sex positive communities and like, being kind of clear on our, like, dating profiles and stuff of love to negotiate, love to talk about and build together what we’re going to do together because there are truly like wonderful sexual partners out there. And it does take sifting.

S1: We’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’ll talk about the grey areas of sex with partners and how to communicate without killing the mood. Don’t go anywhere. If you rely on how to to help you talk about hard things. The best way to support this show is by joining Slate. Plus, Slate’s membership program signing up for Slate. Plus helps us help all the people you. Here on this podcast. Every week and members will never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. You’ll also get free and total access to Slate’s website. So I hope you’ll join if you can. To sign up. Go to Slate.com. Slash how to plus again that Slate.com slash how to plus. Thanks. We’re back with our experts, August McLaughlin and Jamila Dawson. Last year, our listener Julia was single, newly arrived to a big city and ready to put herself out there. So she went on a few dates with one particular guy.

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S3: We had sex a few times and it was fine, and it was just this last time when he just took it too far and it just. He ended up, like, choking me very hard to the point where I got, like, bruises and it was in the fight or flight freeze. It was definitely a freeze situation. So in the aftermath, I really was upset at myself for not saying more because it definitely started off consensual. And then at a certain point, something was triggered within me, and I no longer felt able to say anything. And I remember leaving and call calling my friend, who I think God was very supportive and very validating. I love him and he completely validated my experience. And I feel like it’s so lucky to have, you know, that first point of contact afterwards to really, you know, help one. And so and for this guy, I just blocked him on everything and just, you know, that was how I dealt with that.

S1: Julia left the experience kind of blaming herself and wondering, is it possible to make consent an ongoing conversation with your partner? That way you could change course in real time if things stop feeling good. Not long after that, Julia, who is bi, had sex with a woman who showed her exactly what that might look like.

S3: She. Just kind of checked in with me throughout the whole process. And so every step of the way, she was like, Do you like this? You know? And so I think she did a great job. I think sometimes when people are like, you know, talk about concerns, they’re afraid that it means like stopping the sex to be like stopping the flow, to be like, do you consent to this.

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S1: Where you sign this four page document?

S3: Yes, exactly.

S1: Your initial. Initial. That’s fine. Right. Yes. Fax it.

S4: Dry. Exactly.

S3: Right. Yeah. So she really pulled off, like, you know, asking for consent while being sexy. And that was just a really lovely experience.

S1: Jamila or August. Are there ways of thinking about consent that maybe would be helpful or tips for how to do it while keeping things lovely?

S2: Yeah. Well, I love what Julia brought up about boundaries and consent being this sexy talk, because it really is. I mean, if you ask a question or you approach consent and the person doesn’t take it, well, then you get to move on and and not deal with, you know, something going awry. And so I think we can think of that as like a muscle and and work it, you know, step by step. And if this person is going to just shut me down, then what else would they shut me down for? And so it feels scary and that’s natural. And and I also think it’s important to know that if something feels awkward, that doesn’t mean it’s not going well as far as your consent talk. It’s something that we have to build muscle memory about, I think. So even talking through these things by yourself, you know, say it’s like sit down and have a pretend date at home. It’s kind of like self-pleasure but self consent play, you know where love it.

S4: Let’s make it a king.

S2: That’s just kind of giving me a little. Yeah.

S4: Yeah, right. Like, oh, himself in the mirror.

S1: What do you what’s.

S4: Yeah. I cannot tell you how many adults are nervous about saying, like, vagina penis, oral sex, anal sex. Like just learning to say the words, learning to say, I love having my back stroked. Can you start with that? You know, and sometimes having just a few things that we really like and then asking that the other person, what are two or three things you like? And then going from there. But just that practice.

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S1: Here’s our next insight. Practice communicating what you want. It may feel silly at first, but the more you practice, the easier it gets, just like with anything else. In fact, Julia has been doing this to some degree already around something we haven’t mentioned yet. She recently contracted herpes, which is actually pretty common, but that’s now another awkward conversation she has to have with potential partners.

S3: It’s it’s been interesting. I guess now the main thing that I think about before meeting someone is what am I going to tell them? I have herpes. How am I going to approach that conversation? By the way, like before this goes any further, I just want to let you know that I have herpes. And if you have any questions about that, I’m happy to answer it to the best of my abilities, but want it to be transparent. So that’s my little spiel that I have worked out. That sounds.

S4: Great. Like, truly.

S1: What is the energy like I hear? Confidence and like being assertive. What is the energy you’re feeling or trying to feel in those?

S3: I’m trying to feel this. I’m trying to feel those thing. Usually I hate myself up. If they go to the bathroom, we’re like, All right, okay, we are hot. We are giving this speech.

S1: If you’re still working on your own speech or figuring out where to start with boundaries. August suggests trying a yes no maybe list with your partner.

S2: It’s fun because it turns it into kind of a game. It basically lists activities and then columns. Yes, no. And maybe. And you both fill them out and compare. And the no is really it could be a no forever or it could be a no, not for now. And either way, it’s fine. It’s just we’re getting together on, say, Saturday. Why don’t we both fill this out? And the cool thing about that, too, is it also builds anticipation.

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S4: Which is.

S3: Sexy. Yes, it’s so sexy.

S2: Sometimes it’s like the sexiest part.

S1: Julia, what do you think in hearing that? Could you imagine doing anything like that?

S3: I can. I like how there’s a maybe section as well, you know, so it’s not just like black and white. There’s room for, like, exploration with another with another person.

S4: If you’re not sure that you like something, then it’s totally okay to say that. I don’t know if I like this. And so there can be language around the the murky parts because the best sex happens in kind of those things you discover with yourself or with another person. And, and awkwardness is par. You know, I wish I want people to have more good awkward sex.

S2: Yeah, I love that term.

S1: Well, I like the idea of, like, expecting awkwardness as opposed to assuming that’s a sign of failure or like probably if we’re actually trying to get consent and we’re actually trying to be, you know, have boundaries and communicate is probably going to be awkward. Right. And also another I don’t see another path. So here’s where we need to be. Real boundaries and consent work win partners are equally willing and able to communicate. The responsibility can’t fall on just one person.

S3: I do, you know, wish that there was more emphasis put on the people perpetuating the assaults. Yeah.

S1: It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that people who have done this once are going to do it more. And what it sounded like, what you said in your own stories when you were able to you really you sat that guy down and you’re still pretty young at this point in the coffee shop on campus. And you said this not okay. I want you to know. And that was a good feeling, right? Like you took that power back?

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S3: Yeah, I closed that chapter. I think that’s part of the reason why that doesn’t feel like it has a lasting impact is because I got a rare amount of closure from that.

S1: That kind of closure isn’t always possible. But in this case, Julia was able to reclaim some agency, and that can make all the difference.

S4: I think there’s a way of doing things to complete a circle that don’t have to be cruel, but closed. Close. The circle of you had an impact on me, a person who assaulted me, and I am going to let you know that you had an impact on me and I’m going to let you know what that was for. A lot of times, though, we don’t have we can’t close the loop with the person either because they don’t want to they won’t let themselves be accessible or, you know, they’ve gone off. And in those cases letting like sitting with the paradox, like, it’s okay, we don’t have to forgive people who have harmed us. We can if we so if we’ve gone through our own process. But sometimes it’s enough to either write a letter or series of letters over time, creating your own ritual. There’s a reason why cultures burn people in effigy. Even a little bit is the paper of like this. This is what happened and I am going to make it done for myself.

S2: Yeah. I love what Jamila said about rituals. I think that’s so powerful because this concept of closure can be very complicated and. Kind of taking it into your own hands can be really amazing. I also would recommend a consent and boundary focused, like preventative focused self-defense class, not because it’s the onus is on us, you know, that we need to obviously stop attacks, but take it for yourself. And so the class that I really love, it’s called impact. And they have classes, I think, across the country and they’re wonderful and they really are very mindful of of consent and assault history. And I do remember going to a big concert after I had taken the first series of classes, and I was with my partner and his friend, and they went off to the bar. And all of a sudden I was by myself. And I had this moment where I thought I should feel scared because of history. Like I normally would have felt a little nervous in a in a quote unquote normal way, right? Where we just are out in public and something terrible could happen. So I need to be very vigilant. And instead I was like, Oh, I totally got this. I just I was so relaxed. I felt so safe. And that’s just a really incredible gift that we can give ourselves.

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S1: So whether it’s rituals or therapy or self-defense classes that work for you, it is important to find ways to process any trauma that’s occurred. For Juliette, one of her outlets is painting.

S3: A typically actually just kind of have this approach. Right. This is very specific. But like where I kind of let my hands go kind of limp as I’m painting around a canvas or drawing around. And then after doing that for a while, it looks really chaotic and kind of messy and ugly. And then from there, I try to make something beautiful.

S1: That’s cool.

S4: Yeah, anything that helps in the present moment where you’re actually doing an act of creation in the present moment, that just it’s you and your body is and it’s profound.

S1: Here’s our last insight. Look for ways to stay present and to reclaim some control over your world. In Julia’s case, she started doing some work in sex education, and she’s getting clearer each day about what she wants her future relationships to look like.

S3: I would also love to, you know, if I have kids. I would love to share like all of my knowledge with them when it comes to sex and sexuality. I wasn’t raised thinking that sex was, you know. Shameful, per se. But the silence made it feel like it was, you know. Hmm.

S1: Yeah. I’m sitting here listening and thinking. Why does this feel so extremely likely to happen? And I realize it’s because you’re doing it right now. Yeah, like you’re already doing it. Mm hmm. Do you have any advice, Julia, for listeners who might have dealt with sexual assault and aren’t as far along on this journey?

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S3: Finding those few trusted people in your life and opening up to them is really important. I think so often we don’t want to feel like a burden, but like more often than not, people do want to help and want to listen. Like, if you just think about, you know, if a friend opens up to me, I’m like, oh, my God, like, what an honor you chose. You chose me to open up to like, that’s. Yeah. Finding those few people in your life. And also definitely, like, finding a therapist and also kind of using that therapist. Like, I’ve had friends who say that they don’t share their actual issues in therapy and I’m. Yeah, and I’m like, but that’s what you’re paying them. Like, you got to get your money. You got to get your money’s worth. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S4: That’s to work. I just.

S1: Yeah. Thank you to Julia for sharing her story with us and to Jamila Dawson and August McLaughlin for all of their wisdom. Make sure to look for their book with pleasure. Managing Trauma Triggers for more Vibrant Sex and Relationships. And if you or anyone you know has experienced sexual violence and is looking for more resources, RAINES National Sexual Assault Hotline is a good place to start. The number is one 800 6564673 or go to rain dot org. That’s R a I and dot org. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. And we might have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, you know what to do. Give us a rating and a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS Executive Producer is Derek John Katie Shepherd and Rosemary Belson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Mira Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg created the show i Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.