Discover more from Clementine Morrigan
Consent for people's real sex lives where we don't sound like robots
Attunement, shared responsibility, mixed styles of communication, valuing the erotic, and recognizing the inherent risk in sexuality
The popular model for good consent (which I call the contractual model) typically insists that consent must be verbal, ongoing, sober, and enthusiastic. In my experience most people don’t actually have sex this way and when they try to, the effect is robotic and unerotic.
Most people do not consider most sex they’ve had that fails to live up to this model of consent nonconsensual, but if something unwanted happens during sex, failure to live up to this model will be cited as evidence that the sex was not consensual. If verbal, ongoing, sober, and enthusiastic consent is not secured but the sex turns out well, no one is likely to say anything. But if the sex turns out badly, then it will be defined as sexual assault.
This suggests that there are other elements at play in determining if sex feels good and wanted, or if it feels bad and unwanted. Of course, it could be random chance that the receptive partner just happens to enjoy whatever the initiatory partner happened to do, and I’m sure that does happen sometimes. But I think the key factor in whether or not sex feels good and wanted, or bad and unwanted, is whether or not there was attunement.
I’m going to define and explain what attunement is, and suggest it as one component of a new consent model that I think better reflects people’s actual sex lives than the one we are currently teaching. The other components, which I will also unpack, are: shared responsibility, mixed styles of communication, valuing the erotic, and recognizing the inherent risk in sexuality. I believe that teaching this model of consent will empower people, increase people’s attunement and communication skills, decrease unwanted sexual experiences, and get people out of the false dilemma where they feel they need to choose between ‘good consent’ and hot sex.
Attunement: Dr. Dan Siegel explains "When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”
Attunement is a practice of deep listening, not just to a person’s words, but to their body language, their tone of voice, their movements, and their way of being. Attunement is an orientation of curiosity and openness, a sincere wanting to know, with no agenda and no expected outcome. When we are trying for attunement we are doing our best to understand another person, opening ourselves to them, and communicating to them that we want to know them. Deep intimacy always includes deep attunement.
Attunement is a skill we learn in childhood through its modelling by our caregivers. Many of us did not have attuned caregivers so we did not learn attunement. We may instead ‘check out’ and dissociate from another person’s signals. We may hyper-vigilantly obsess over another person’s signals (which is also not attunement). We may be so caught up in our own experiences that we fail to notice another person’s signals. We may be so anxious about how we are being perceived that we fail to interpret another person’s signals.
Fortunately, good attunement skills can be learned, developed, and practiced. Attunement is about turning toward the other with open ended curiosity and expressing welcome to whatever you find. Attunement uses mixed communication styles and is not a solely verbal or nonverbal practice, usually including elements of both. The contractual model of consent teaches us to secure a verbal ‘yes’ but attunement listens deeper than that. Attunement pays attention to multiple forms of communication and is therefore more likely to notice body language that asks for more curiosity about what is going on.
We can practice attunement in all our relationships, inside and outside sexual contexts. When we gain literacy and awareness around attunement we will find that our most cherished relationships and our hottest sexual experiences are ones where we felt attuned to.
Shared responsibility: In the contractual model of consent, if the initiatory partner does not verbally ask for consent at any new stage of the encounter they can be held responsible for sexual assault, even if they genuinely had no idea that what they were doing was unwanted or constituted a new ‘stage’ (the concept of ‘stages’ of sex is arbitrarily defined). The receptive partner is responsible for saying yes or no and if they say yes the initiatory partner is ‘off the hook’ and doesn’t need to maintain an ongoing orientation of curiosity about other forms of communication. This model helps no one.
Instead we can work with a model of shared responsibility, in which both partners are doing their absolute best to practice attunement and strong communication, and in which both partners recognize and accept the inherent risk in sexual encounters. Both partners are responsible for doing their best to find out about and respect the other person’s desires and boundaries, and are also responsible for doing their best to communicate and respect their own desires and boundaries.
In this model we each have a responsibility to do our best to choose sexual partners who are demonstrating respect and curiosity about our desires and boundaries. We have a responsibility to do our best to choose sexual partners who seem capable and willing to express and respect their own desires and boundaries. We are responsible for using our discernment in assessing our own and our partner’s capacity for attuned communication in this context and at this time.
Mixed styles of communication: Each of us has our own specific history sometimes with its own traumas, our own character with its own quirks and styles, and our own strengths and limitations. None of us communicate in the exact same way. For some, directly asking for what we want and saying no to what we don’t is easy and natural. For a lot of us, that’s not true. A lot of us get stuck in our heads, panic, or go into freeze. Even those of us who have no problem asking for what we want in our day to day life may find that communication style in the context of sex unerotic and unnatural.
When our goal is not to secure a yes but to practice the best communication possible for the specific people here, we need to get creative about our communication styles. Verbal communication can be used to help lovers, especially new lovers, make sense of each other’s nonverbal communication. What signs and signals indicate you are into it? What signs and signals suggest the need for a pause and check in? It can also be used to establish a specific nonverbal communication device like a double tap on the arm that means “I need to stop.” It can be used to lay out what sexual acts are off limits and what are on the table. This doesn’t have to take the form of Can I? at each new ‘stage’ of sex. It can take the form of a check in before, whether lengthy or brief, that builds some solid scaffolding for the practice of attunement.
Valuing the erotic: The erotic is fundamentally about our separateness. The erotic is about reaching across the distance and meeting in vulnerability and intimacy with another person who we can never completely know. Mystery is necessary to the erotic. So is flow. So is play. So is risk. Anything that attempts to reduce sexuality to a contract or set of yes/no questions stifles and restricts the erotic. This is why the vast majority of people do not actually practice the contractual model of consent in their sex lives. They don’t find it hot.
Recognizing the inherent risk in sexuality: The contractual model of consent offers us the fantasy that if we follow a set of rigid rules, we will never do anything unwanted. Consent, in the contractual model, is as simple as repeated asking, on the one hand, and as simple as clearly stating yes or no, on the other. (Those tasks are not actually simple and straightforward for most people, and most people do not find them hot.) The reality is, even if we practice the contractual model exactly, we still do not live inside of our partner’s experience. We still don’t actually know for sure if the yes is sincere and enthusiastic. If we were practicing attunement we would have a better idea, but even with attunement, there is always the risk of getting it wrong and doing something unwanted, even with our best intentions.
All sex contains inherent risk. It always includes the risk of misattunement, misunderstanding, and accidental boundary crossing. Part of what’s hot and exciting about another person is that they are not you. That’s also what makes sex risky: since they are not you, they will always remain somewhat outside of your knowing. Since you can’t read their mind or directly access their experience, the best you can do is try to communicate and attune. In the contractual model, the best you can do is ask directly and in that model, you don’t have to worry that the person is being dishonest or ambivalent with their yes, which in reality, they very well might be.
The contractual model of consent treats an accidental breach of someone’s boundaries (without a verbal ask) as a consent violation, and therefore always as a sexual assault. We conflate accidental boundary breaches as equivalent to the intentional overriding of someone’s stated or obvious boundaries. People who are accused of sexual assault are often treated as dangerous monsters and driven from their communities. No one wants that. And the vast majority of people absolutely do not want to cross their partner’s boundaries and are not trying to.
The only way to have sex responsibly is recognize and accept its inherent risk, and to allow that recognition to encourage our sincere attempts at attunement and communication. Rather than scapegoating individuals who accidentally misattuned, we can work to provide people with resources for developing their attunement and communication skills and resources for increasing their capacity to assert and maintain their own boundaries. We can free up our mind from defensiveness and shame when we accept that this is an inherent risk in sex, and misattunement doesn’t make anyone a monster. It’s an opportunity for finding out why the misattunement happened, and how both partners can work to prevent the same thing from happening again.
This model of consent relies on attunement, shared responsibility, mixed communication styles, valuing the erotic, and recognizing the inherent risk in sexuality. It is not a script or a set of rules. Practicing this model of consent can look very different depending on the people involved and the context. It can happen in a cruising context at a bathhouse where gestures are the main form of communication beyond body language. It can happen on a 3rd date after several conversations about preferences, desires, boundaries, and body language. It can happen between long term partners using almost no verbal communication because they are so attuned to each other.
Practicing this style of consent and deepening your attunement and communication skills will lead to better, hotter sex and less unwanted experiences than the contractual model. Because you don’t have to rely on yourself and your partner to excel at communicating in a rigid and scripted way, you can find modes of communication that actually work for you.
Unwanted sexual experiences can still happen. Nothing removes that risk, not even the contractual model. But there’s plenty you can do to reduce that risk, and accepting it means accepting the imperfection of all communication.
Here are some new(ish) things: