Writing From Factor X

February 27, 2011

Let’s Have a Conversation About Compromise and Consent

The discussion on compromise in last week’s comments has got me thinking about compromise as it’s generally discussed in the asexual community, and not necessarily in a good way. However. Before I continue in this vein, I want to make one thing clear: I have no interest in casting judgement on what any individual asexual person chooses to do. Seriously, as I pointed out repeatedly in that comments section, all the options for asexuals trying to achieve long-term intimacy suck. If you, anonymous reader, have found a situation that works for you, excellent! Nor have I any interest in making unilateral, black-and-white statements here. My goal in writing this piece is to create discussion, not to make all-encompassing pronouncements.

That said, there was this piece on Tumblr that made me start thinking about the way we often discuss compromise in the asexual community. It’s called Sexual Ethics As Applying to Asexuality, and what it’s trying to do is apply the principles of enthusiastic consent to asexual/sexual relationships. It’s worth a read, and there’s a lot of things in it I’m all behind. I certainly agree with the original piece that expecting sex from anyone else is wrong, full stop. I don’t, however, agree with it entirely, and I want to talk about why.

Enthusiastic consent as a concept is pretty clearly one of those things thought up by sex-positive people without actually knowing that asexuals exist (or possibly, caring). At first glance, the idea that no one should be having sex they’re not totally into on their own account isn’t a bad idea. After all, what’s rape but sex without consent? And there are a whole lot of different ways that people can be pressured into sex without force, and is that consent truly consent? After all, consent ought to be free in order to count as agreement, not coerced or pressured in any way.

Except… what holding enthusiastic consent to be the gold standard as consent does is essentially tell many asexuals that we can’t consent at all. And that is an implication I am seriously not comfortable with. For one thing, it tells me that we don’t have ultimate control over what happens to our own bodies. It tells me that even if an asexual person does actually want to have sex–and there can be a number of reasons to have sex beyond one’s own personal physical gratification–we still can’t consent on our own behalf.

Do you know who else can’t consent to sex? Children. Drunk and drugged people. Animals. In short, people who can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests regarding their own bodies at the moment. And the thing is, as an adult and sober asexual woman, no one gets to tell me what to do with my body but me. If I verbally make it clear that I have chosen to do something with my body, and if check-ins from my partner make it clear that I’m not in actual distress, I should be able to do as I please without anyone calling it rape because I was not, myself, totally into the activity.

Enthusiastic consent therefore cannot be the only understanding of valid sexual consent without calling personal rights to control one’s own body into question. There needs to be a broader understanding of models of consent. SlightlyMetaphysical recently posted a piece discussing ideas for this which I like–does it count as enthusiastic if the enthusiasm is purely about your partner’s enjoyment, for instance?

Alternatively, consent models could prioritize checking in with one’s partner or increasing the level of verbal communication before and during sex. Or paying attention to body language during sex–obviously, if someone tenses up or looks upset, you should be paying attention. There are a lot of different ways to discuss consent models that go beyond “(verbal) No Means No” without insisting that the only way anyone can consent to sex is to be totally into that sexual act for yourself at all times.

On the other hand, I do think the way I have often seen discussion about compromise go in the asexual community is seriously problematic. My experience is that acquiring intimacy is often discussed in fairly simple terms: either you’re romantic, and you date sexuals and expect to compromise or else you try to run the numbers and date other asexuals, or else you’re aromantic and want only the loose, less close friendships to begin with. And it’s unfortunately so much more complicated than that. We’re a diverse community. There’s about a million different ways to be asexual, and not all of them are served by those three options.

And I worry about pressure to compromise. As I pointed out earlier this month, the numbers are not in asexuals’ favor if the romance/friendship binary is to remain. It’s not hard to calculate the odds. Is the choice to compromise for some asexuals truly free? Pressure can come in many forms, and if you’re raised to think that your main options are being single forever or dating–and then realizing that you’ve almost certainly got to have sex you possibly don’t particularly want if you do date–well. Thinking that you don’t have many other options is a form of pressure to pick the “least worst” all on its own. And shouldn’t we be trying to make better options than that?

There needs to be more discussion of options beyond monogamous romantic relationships and trying to subsist on mainstream conceptions of friendships. Those options do work for some asexuals, don’t get me wrong–but they’re not as workable for all asexuals. There are so many ways to be asexual that no one-size-fits-all approach to asexuality and intimacy could possibly exist. We need to be thinking of ways to create more approaches in order to serve the needs of all asexuals.


  1. I read “enthusiastic consent” a bit differently. It did click with me when I first heard about it, so I didn’t see it as inherently exclusive of asexuals. While I don’t think people should uphold sexual standards that don’t work for them personally, I think it’s definitely possible to enthusiastically consent to something you may not wholly enjoy. As far as I’ve read, it seems like the model *does* prioritize increased verbal communication, because it seems like the original point of the concept was to show that “lack of no =/= yes”.

    …trying to subsist on mainstream conceptions of friendships

    Hm, yeah, “trying to subsist” is a good way to put it. I’ve spent way too much time (maybe) trying to brainstorm new relationship styles for asexuals, but at the end of the day, forming relationships isn’t something I’m great at, not traditional ones and definitely not avant-garde ones. I have a hard time taking the lead and actually putting them into action. Another lost post from Spectral Amoebas, perhaps.

    Comment by Ily — February 27, 2011 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

    • Usually when I see “enthusiastic consent” defined, it’s more about expressing one’s personal enjoyment for the sex while it’s happening–moving your partner’s hand, making happy noises, that kind of thing. I do see more encouragement for verbal consent and more talking about sex beforehand in sex-positive spaces, but I read enthusiastic consent itself as being primarily nonverbal. Which… frankly, I think verbal consent always always needs to happen, because not everyone reads body language well enough or projects “normal” body language well enough for relying on nonverbal methods ANYWAY.

      And yeah. I am actually not all that great at it either, which is why I’m hesitant to say “well, new relationship models solve everything!” Because not everyone is lucky or good enough with people to rely on meddling with the rules of relationship forming. I just wish we had better models.

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 28, 2011 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  2. You obviously know I agree since we’ve talked about this quite a bit. 😉 I do want to go THIS THIS THIS to the bit about bodily autonomy and free choices, because that’s one of the things that disturbs me personally about the enthusiastic consent issue and you’ve really managed to put your finger on it re: being treated like a person who can’t be trusted with their own body. As a repulsed ace, I will never pass the criterion of enthusiastic consent, full stop, and I really really resent people telling me this means I can never meaningfully consent to sex at all… because apparently me being able to make my own decisions about my own damn body is less important than other people’s sexual ideals. I doubt I will ever want to consent to sex but I want to at least have the possibility.

    The frustrating thing is that enthusiastic consent is a very valuable concept… provided you don’t try to apply it overbroadly, which most sexual sex-pos people I know do. Like, I think enthusiastic consent is *immensely* valuable for first-time sex especially between people who don’t know each other that well, where open communication on the subject may not have happened or is impeded by embarrassment, cultural norms, etc. etc. I just wish it were coupled with a consent model that was about communication.

    It’s also worth pointing out that I think people can enthusiastically consent in the moment and feel upset and taken advantage of later; people (especially sexual people) can get carried away and because sexuality is tied up with so many issues in our society it’s quite possible to be enthusiastically into sex at the moment but still have reasons why you don’t want to do it that are being overridden by libido. (I had a friend in undergrad who ended up in a situation somewhat like this, from how I understood her story the next day.) So enthusiastic consent isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure-all even from the other side of things.

    Comment by Kaz — February 28, 2011 @ 6:06 am | Reply

    • oh yeah I forgot to mention that like Ily I REALLY REALLY LIKE “trying to subsist on mainstream conceptions of friendships” because it’s so accurate and concise compared to the usual way I ramble about it.

      Comment by Kaz — February 28, 2011 @ 6:07 am | Reply

    • Right–it’s not that it’s a horrible model on its own, but it needs to be qualified and either treated as one of several models or coupled to a model that is all about the actual talking. Which is not, in my experience, happening–although as Norah has said downthread, this may be changing.

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 28, 2011 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  3. Now, as far as I know and in Australia at least, sexual consent is used in a legal context only when that consent is given freely, without force, threat or coercion. Such a definition seems (to me) to avoid the clear problems with “consent means not saying no” as it is popularly perceived, and might also avoid the issues with “enthusiastic consent” that you describe (which can apply to plenty of sexual relationships as well as asexual, when one partner’s desire/motivation for sex might be for their partner’s enjoyment rather than their own, etc.).

    You’re right about the importance of communication and awareness between partners in the matter of consent, though it’s pretty disappointing that such models aren’t already standard for lots of people. I only know basics of consent from a legal perspective, where such models are probably harder for proving consent or the lack of, but I believe they should really apply to any relationship that involves sex.

    Comment by Kelemta — February 28, 2011 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

    • That does seem like a good way to play it, except when you get to defining force, threat, and coercion. Like, is badgering someone into sex by whining a lot even when they said no the first time force? Is emotional manipulation uncoerced? Of course, that’s semantics–you can argue that those both count because they’re both either threats of annoyance and they create pressure to consent. Which brings me back round to agreeing with you…

      Comment by Sciatrix — February 28, 2011 @ 7:42 pm | Reply

      • You’re really right, it does leave a lot open to define (the effect of which in a legal situation depends mostly on the people involved). It goes to show — I hadn’t actually even thought of whining in particular (only really badgering), but it can certainly be used for real manipulation.

        Comment by Kelemta — March 2, 2011 @ 4:06 am | Reply

        • I experienced that for a long while with my ex (who, unfortunately, is now harassing me online). All I knew at the time was I really didn’t care about the sex, at all, and he had a ridiculously high sex drive.

          He whined, directly and indirectly, for ages and it always made me feel guilty and I’d cave because I felt like I was causing him distress. There was a lot of emotional manipulation during that relationship, and sadly it was during a time when I was suffering a depressive episode and therefore was far more vulnerable than I normally would have been.

          So, yes. Whining can have a definite impact on the definition of consent. Thinking back, probably 75% of the sexual activities I participated in during that relationship didn’t involve “active consent” (or even “enthusiastic consent”) on my part. Yet I still have trouble trying to label it coercion.

          Comment by phiremangston — March 2, 2011 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve seen a few people already switching to “active consent” over “enthusiastic”, which I think suits me at least very well.

    Comment by Norah — February 28, 2011 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

    • Also wanted to add that I’m pretty damned tired of people saying that if you’re not enthusiastic about the sex and really into it, it’s 1) sort of rape and 2) the sex must be bad and 3) my partner is a weird and dangerous person because he’d have sex with someone who’s all indifferent and sometimes even bored (!) and not dislike it, and so either one or both of us HAS to be suffering and so either one or both of us are cruel, bad people.

      I’ll have ******* sex while being bored out of my mind or while reading a book whenever I’ll ******* want, and I’ll be looking at YOU (whoever says one of the above things) while I’m doing it and giving you the finger.

      Comment by Norah — March 1, 2011 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

      • Also wanted to add that I’d never actually seen the word ‘compromise’ in this context before AVEN, and I rarely use it except on AVEN as a shorthand.

        And it IS not a good term to use. Maybe some people actually compromise and are fine with it, but it doesn´t actually even apply to my situation, it´s become sort of a weird term for any asexual who doesn´t actively enjoy sex (with people) who has sex (with people) anyway, but it makes it sound like a sacrifice by default.

        Also wanted to add that, yes it can be rape (didn’t intend to make it sound like lack of enthusiasm and consent is never problematic), but damnit, people can have sex without the enthusiasm but with the consent.

        Comment by Norah — March 1, 2011 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

    • Seriously, your body? Is yours. And no one should say that either of you are cruel, bad, or any of the rest of it for your relationship, particularly if neither of you are having problems with it.

      I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen “compromise” used in that context out of the asexual community, and I saw it most on AVEN. (I do see it in other places, most notably the LJ community.) Maybe it’s time to think of a better word? Stephanie’s suggested “mutual exploration” downthread.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 1, 2011 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  5. I’ve never heard of enthusiastic consent, so I’ll have to do some research and get back to you on my thoughts regarding how it applies to asexuals. I did want to speak briefly to the issue of compromise.

    I think compromise is a poor choice of words because it sounds like two people giving something up and neither person being completely happy. Which then ties into the false stereotype that asexuals and sexuals must, by definition, make each other miserable. I don’t have a better word, but basically the asexual partner isn’t having sex because s/eh enjoys it, but DOES enjoy making hir partner happy. The asexual would get the opportunity to explore what sexual behaviors, if any, are acceptable or even pleasurable to hir and the sexual person would have the opportunity to engage in sexual behaviors with hir chosen partner, which makes hir happy. Thus, no compromising. Perhaps mutual exploration would be a better word. It also is not that different from sexual/sexual couples who have varying sex drives or experience levels.

    Of course this model doesn’t work for all asexuals because there are some who would prefer not to do any exploration of this sort at all, in which case other options, such as dating other asexuals exclusively or having an open relationship so the sexual partner can get hir needs met elsewhere, work better for that asexual.

    Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — March 1, 2011 @ 2:03 am | Reply

    • I remember getting a worksheet once with the “negotiation hierarchy”. It was something like:

      Lose-lose–> win/lose –> compromise –> win-win

      It sounds like you’re talking about a win-win situation.

      Comment by Ily — March 1, 2011 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

    • Right. I mean, I didn’t make up the word–but you’ve definitely identified a lot of problems with the way that we conceptualize that situation which are inherent in the word, if that makes sense? Compromise (mutual exploration?) tends to be thought of as lose-lose, and I think it shouldn’t have to be if it’s being done properly.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 1, 2011 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

      • The thing that gets me about this is that, well. Every couple compromises on something. No two people are so completely in tune that it’s never, ever the case that person A wants to do X and person B wants to do Y. Working out something that will satisfy both parties when Annette wants to go to the cinema and Birgit wants to go to the theatre is one of the basic building blocks of a relationship. And, okay, for a lot of people sexuality is such an important area and having sex when they don’t enthusiastically want to is so awful that any amount of compromise there is going to be awful. But not necessarily for all, and I feel that, mm, if we say that “‘compromising’ on sex can never work, it has to be (mutual exploration/recontextualisation/etc.)” we’re projecting mainstream views of sex and sexuality onto everyone. Like, if you compromise on meals or hobbies or whatever that’s just normal give and take but if you compromise on sex it means neither party can ever be fully happy and blah blah horrible relationship blah. I’m pretty sure it’s possible for an asexual and a sexual to compromise – as in, consider their sexual activity a compromise – and not care that much because to them it’s not any different than compromising on who does the dishes or whether to go to the cinema.

        That said, I agree it’s definitely not the best term to speak about asexuals having sex in relationships with sexual people in general because the scenario I described above is by all appearances really not the norm and we shouldn’t project that onto asexual people either. I just don’t want to go too far in the other direction on that front.

        Comment by Kaz — March 2, 2011 @ 10:26 am | Reply

        • I think we’re saying the same thing but not interpreting the word “compromise” in the same manner. It’s a problem I often have, possibly due to my Aspergers. Anyway, I was trying to express a similar thought, that sex isn’t different than other aspects of a relationship, and also that asexual/sexual pairings in this regard don’t have to be that different from sexual/sexual pairings, since it is very rare that any two people will have the exact same sex drive and level of desire. For me, “compromise” has negative connotations — i.e. in the cinema/theatre situation they go somewhere else entirely that neither Annette nor Birgit particularly enjoys. But perhaps that ‘s just quibbling about words; I do agree with the main point that a foundation of any relationship is being able to communicate and work out differences.

          Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — March 2, 2011 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  6. Reblogged this on le printemps amour.

    Comment by fitriaoda — October 5, 2013 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  7. […] a lot of discussion of consent in the ace community, but most of it revolves around A. whether or not aces can ever truly consent (consensus is “yes, they can, what is your problem”), […]

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  8. […] give an example of a model which is prone to Type 1 Error: “enthusiastic consent”. Sciatrix describes pretty well the problems with the “enthusiastic consent” model and asexuals, […]

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  9. […] if I were going to introduce someone to the flavor of that ongoing conversation, I might link this, this, and this. The fact remains: there are aces who have sex, and there are aces who have sex for […]

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  10. […] a lot of discussion of consent in the ace community, but most of it revolves around A. whether or not aces can ever truly consent (consensus is “yes, they can, what is your problem”), B. how […]

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  11. […] myself specifically or aces or a subgroup of aces more broadly, for the reason that it would also take away my/our agency. If I can’t say “yes,” then I must always say “no” and there is no choice involved. On […]

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