Personally, I use “good consent” rather than “enthusiastic consent.” Enthusiastic consent is a problematic term. Lots of people consent to sex without enthusiasm for the sex itself: sex workers, people who enjoy pleasing their partners even when they don’t desire sex, even people who are trying to conceive a child and have sex when one partner is ovulating. Similarly, there are lots of enthusiastic people who still don’t have good consent: if you’re a high school teacher and your fourteen-year-old student enthusiastically consents to sex with you, you still shouldn’t have sex with them. Good consent is a way vaguer phrase, but it’s also more all-encompassing.
All parts of good consent are for everyone. We’re socialized into this fucking awful pursuer-pursued dynamic, where dudes are supposed to push as far as they can, and women are supposed to respect themselves by being the gatekeepers to their genitalia. (I think that sentence needs a lot of scare quotes, so here are some you can sprinkle throughout as you please: “””””””””””””””””””””””””””) This dynamic is bullshit. Everyone has to work on getting in touch with their own desires. Everyone has to make sure their partner is consenting.
Getting In Touch With Your Own Desires
The first step to making sure that you don’t do anything you don’t want in bed is to know what you want! You’d think that would be really easy, because you’d just be like “hey, does this turn me on?” and then you’d have your answer. Maybe it works that way in Liberated Sex-Pozzie Utopia Land, but unfortunately in the real world it’s more complicated.
We have this entire culture that’s telling people that there’s One Right Thing To Want. Dudes, for instance, are supposed to have a high sex drive, to like porn, to enjoy casual sex, to be attracted to thin young feminine large-breasted women, to want anal sex and public sex and rough sex, to not want pegging and ageplay and vanilla missionary with the lights out. If you’re asexual you’re broken; if you like drag you’re a pervert and probably a pedophile; if you’re a male submissive you’re pathetic and unmasculine; if you’re queer you’re destroying America. I don’t understand why people do this: what possible gain could there be from reducing the vibrant rainbow of human sexuality to two colors (the dude color and the girl color)? Those two colors look much nicer as part of the whole spectrum.
Holly Pervocracy has an awesome guide about learning what you want, but I think the most important question to ask yourself is how you feel about it. Does the idea of a particular sex-type thing make you happy, or nervous-excited like you’re riding to the top of a roller coaster, or at peace, or curious? Conversely, does it make you feel sad, or self-hating, or used, or degraded?
People don’t necessarily know what they want. That’s okay. Sometimes you don’t know! Even about things as fundamental as sexual orientation, it’s okay to identify as questioning. I think a lot of people feel pressure to be like “I’m a pansexual monogamous dom with a foot fetish!” when the actual answer is “I dunno. I think I might like feet.” You always have a right to be uncertain, to try things, to do something once and decide you hate it and never do it again, to go through phases, to change your mind.
Communicating With Your Partner
I think the biggest keyword about good consent is negotiation.
A lot of people think of negotiation as the bit where you sit down with checklists in a very formal way and are like “so, how do you feel about flogging?” But negotiation is a lot of different things! It can be snuggling and talking about all the sexy things you’d like to do together in the future. It can be whispering about how much you crave your partner’s hands down your pants as you It can be saying “a little to the left” when your partner is almost there, or it can be saying “ohmigodYES” when they do it right. It can be a casual discussion about the obvious hotness of tentacle dildos. It can be saying “what the fuck were you thinking?” when your partner thinks it’s a good idea to, without asking, bite your clit (this happened).
And, no, negotiation is not just for kinky people. Even with vanilla sex, your partners may be tremendously diverse– some might like having their nipples played with, some might not; some might like one technique in oral, some might like another; some might enjoy watching you masturbate, some might not. There is no way you can know unless you talk about it.
However you are negotiating, it is important to have a nonjudgmental attitude. If your partner really likes having sex on a trampoline while dressed as a clown, you do not have to have sex on a trampoline while dressed as a clown. You do, however, have to recognize that you’ve been privileged enough to learn your partner’s sexuality and that you respect and honor them telling you this. Also, you should refrain from calling their sexual turnons weird or gross or sick or slutty, because that is a really good way to keep them from ever telling you anything that turns them on ever again. (The same thing goes the other way, too: unlike Tiny Ozy, you should not call someone uncool or prudish because they really don’t have any kinks. Not having kinks is just as valid as having kinks.)
Some people think negotiation is not sexy! I do not quite understand those people. I am not sure what’s not sexy about “I really want to suck your cock,” or about an extensive discussion of all the things that turn your partner on. Personally, I think it’s because people are scared to talk about their sexuality– hell, I am. You’re making yourself vulnerable to someone else, you’re afraid that they’re going to reject you… negotiation is fucking scary. But it’s necessary.
A final note: in discussions of consent, we always hear about the Mythical Straight Ladies Who Want Men To Push Through Their Boundaries. Those ladies can do exactly what everyone else who’s into noncon play does: negotiate ahead of time and set up a safeword and boundaries first.