The Mess We Call ‘Desire’
In my little Berlin community, sex positivity, polyamory, and kink are the norm. Just last weekend, we hosted some 30 friends for an all-night sex party which got rather wild rather quickly, with the last foursome of the night finishing around 9 am.
And you know what? No drama. Whatsoever. The worst thing that happened was: some people were a bit uncomfortable with a guy watching them for a bit too long before asking if he can join.
Being so open and experimenting can leave you pretty vulnerable, as there are many opportunities to get hurt. But I’d bet you that you would feel safer from unwanted sexual attention at one of our parties than just walking down the street.
How did we get there?
Part of it is just choosing the right people, of course. People we trust, people who are smart and kind, who respect each other’s boundaries.
But we also talk about consent a lot. We run little consent games at the start of each party. We post useful reference materials. We have personal check-ins if we think anything has or might go wrong.
Didn’t we already invite all the right people who already get it?
It’s because we acknowledge that even for us, who have been doing this for years, who are in successful open relationships, who identify as feminists, who are regulars in sex clubs, who went to countless workshops on the topic — even for us consent is not easy.
I know that my party crowd is not exactly representative of society at large. Out there, consent violations are the norm, not the exception, and that’s in everyday places which don’t even invite any kind of sexual interaction in the first place.
And I know that consent education gets brought up a lot. But I think that it’s quite often done quite wrong.
Because the popular narrative is that consent is easy.
The popular narrative is that it’s really not rocket science:
Just don’t do anything sexual to another person unless that person explicitly agrees to it.
Boom, sorted. Maybe mention valid consent, that it can be withdrawn, and so on. But that’s essentially it, teaching done, now let’s focus on the important part: bitching about all those stupid people who clearly didn’t get it.
The theory and practice of consent are two different worlds
Meanwhile, every single word in this sentence is a whole universe of complexity that sounds simple until you are actually meant to put theory into practice. Here are just some questions to get you thinking:
Don’t do. Is just watching ‘doing’? What about not doing something you should be doing?
Anything. Every single thing? Do you ask before you move your hand up their thigh at every centimetre?
Sexual. Whoa, is this hand on my shoulder friendly or sexual?
To. What about doing it around them? Asking them to do it to you?
Another person. What about bystanders to your consensual play?
Unless. Oh, now we’re talking! Here’s a minimal requirement you can satisfy by getting them to say ‘yes’ by any means necessary.
That person. Is that person an hour ago the same person they are now? Are they the same after a couple of drinks?
Explicitly. How explicit is an inviting smile? You saw it as well, right?
Agrees. Exactly how much convincing is allowed?
To it. If they agreed to kiss, that means with tongue, right?
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how complex these things are in practice. Now try to navigate them in different social contexts, with different people, in different places, at different levels of horniness…
But you noticed it, right? One word is missing. The first one. My absolute favourite:
This is the word that encapsulates how simple all this should be. I hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. The whole next section is about this one word only.
Here is a great example of what I mean.
This video was making the rounds a few years back and it infuriates me to no end. The tldr is: sexual consent is like making tea. If somebody says they want tea, great! Make them tea. But if they don’t want tea, you just don’t make them tea. It is that simple.
Can you see the elephant in the room?
Just don’t make tea.
Just don’t have sex.
If your desire for sex is as easy to overcome as your desire to offer people tea, then I’m sorry to say, but you have no fucking idea what it is like to really desire sex.
Saying ‘just don’t do it’ is completely blind to the fact that we are all massively driven by our emotions and desire is one of the most primal emotions there is. It is in no way comparable to making tea! None of us have four billion years of evolution worth of hormones screaming behind our ears to go make people tea.
Sexual desire is a proud, powerful, primal beast, not a tea party!
Only a person who has never experienced the strong pull of the beast within them, the buzz of hormones that demand it right here right now, the intensity of amazing sex the memory of which howls and begs to be repeated — only a person like that could think the tea comparison works.
You might as well run a Just Say No! to drugs and alcohol campaign amongst teenagers. See how that works out.
And how often do your tea offers get rejected feeding your insecurities?
Only a person who has never had low self-esteem, harboured resentment over past rejections, felt invisible yet desperately wanted to be seen, or succumbed to self-pity — only a person like that could think that the tea comparison works.
Just don’t have sex? Try telling that to a starving beast as it watches everybody else feast.
Wait, I know, I know!
Some people from impoverished backgrounds steal stuff, right? How about we convince them to stop, using the same means? Here it comes, wait for it…
Just don’t want stuff!
I can go on! Here’s my solution for people who can’t afford to buy food:
Just don’t eat anything other than potatoes every day!
Oh wait, I have one for the standard of living crisis, too:
Just don’t have financial security!
Done, sorted. Now we can focus on the important part: bitching about all those stupid people who clearly didn’t get it and continue having a problem and doing stupid things.
We might have chosen some great people for our little Berlin community, but even between us, we recognise that there is no just in consent, because you can’t just switch off your sexual desire.
If you pretend you can, you’ll only set yourself up for failure.
You will think that you’ve got it all sorted, that you’re in control. And then you won’t notice as with each consecutive drink and steamy scene around you your desire gets hungrier and hungrier, your brain slowly loses control and your groin takes over.
But for most people, it doesn’t take a sex party to fog their brains. Most people, and especially most young men, are pretty much constantly sexually frustrated. Their beast is always seconds away from overtaking their brains, simply because it is always hungry.
You can’t tell them to just control themselves, easy peasy, and call it a day. If you think that controlling your desire is easy, you are either fooling yourself, or you don’t have much of a desire to control in the first place.
They need to control themselves, of course, but you need to tell them that it will be hard as hell.
You need to give them tools that make it easier. You need to help them develop techniques to manage their desire. And you need to stop trivialising it.
Back in the Middle Ages, people literally became hermits in the desert and closed themselves in convents to tame their desires, because they knew that the temptations of the flesh are no joking matter.
Obviously, don’t do that. But this does tell you something, right? Nothing about navigating powerful, primal emotions that literally evolved before our reason and morality did, is as simple as making tea.
We did not evolve to be happy, fair, or caring of other people’s emotions. We evolved to reproduce by any means necessary. And no, I am not pulling some dumb evolutionary psychology excuse for being an asshole. We should control our urges and make sure that our brains and morality win with our raw desire. But we can’t pretend that it’s easy!
We need to build a world in which boundaries are respected and sexual harassment is rare. We need to take our desire — a proud, powerful, primal beast — and make it our friend and ally, not our master.
Taming beasts and world-building.
Hard stuff. Not at all easy. Stop pretending it is.