essays, journal entries

Consent Obsession

I’m realizing that I’m a little bit obsessed with consent, in perhaps a way that is too much. I mean, it is not a bad thing to get someone’s consent in sexual play, and there are many ways to do so. But I’m starting to see ways that I’m conscious of consent or non-consent in many other aspects of my life.

For example:

One of the reasons I don’t really like sex in public is because of the other people who may witness it. Some people find the getting caught part the part that is thrilling, and some folks find the threat of getting caught (though not actually getting caught) thrilling. I do like being in such lust and desire that you can’t keep your hands off the one you’re with long enough to get home and really have to take them, have to have them, right now, right here, but I don’t want that to have anything to do with being in public or potentially watched by strangers, because the strangers are not consenting. No matter how sex-positive (or sex-negative) they might be, they are not consenting to seeing someone else having sex right now, right here, and I guess that I feel like doing it, then, is a little bit rude.

Now, consenting strangers, like at a sex party? Sure. No problem. I’m glad to have sex in front of other people, though I’m more of a voyeur than I am an exhibitionist, I do like showing off my partner and what she can do, how she looks, how I can make her scream and gasp and cry and come.

When I perform at a reading series and decided to read some erotica, I try always to warn folks at the beginning of the reading, to tell them what the content will be (just broadly—a blow job, some fucking—without ruining the “plot,” of course). Sometimes one is just not in the mood to listen to explicit sex, certainly I am not in the mood sometimes, and have been at events where someone busts into some really explicit sex (or violence, or something else a bit controversial) and often the audience gets very uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t sometimes want the audience to be uncomfortable, when listening to my work, or that I think anyone who has a problem with sex should necessarily leave if given a warning, just that it’s easier to kind of brace yourself if you have some vague expectation of what’s upcoming.

This consent obsession happens in my own apartment, too. I noticed it just recently, when I was, yet again, shushing Kristen as we were fucking, probably in the morning, possibly when either my roommate was around or when my new neighbors with their young child were loud enough to hear through the walls. I know my roommate knows that I have a lot of sex, and I know he doesn’t really mind, but still, I try to be respectful.

I was discussing this with Kristen a little bit lately, this particular one about being quiet when we have sex at my place, and she pushed me a little to think about it. Especially in terms of the neighbors. “That’s just something that happens in New York City apartments,” she shrugged. The walls are thin, we live close together, cramped in this big ol’ city. And sheesh, there are way worse sounds to hear than your neighbors having good sex—hell, maybe they’re pervy enough to really like hearing their neighbors get it on, and it ends up inspiring them to have sex, too. Sometimes I really do let it get in the way of really letting go when we’re fucking, and I don’t want that to happen.

(Hey look, Sinclair is putting other people’s perceived—not even actual!—needs in front of her own. Surprise, surprise. Yeah, working on it.)

I’ve been noticing this lately in terms of my email inboxes, too. I have a public email inbox, and twitter stream, and thus sometimes I get things in my inbox that I don’t consent to, that I don’t ask for, from products and ads and offers to hate mail. One of the things about email is that it’s really hard to receive an email, see who it’s from, see the subject line, and then either not open it or delete it without reading it, and thus I have ended up reading all sorts of things that I didn’t really want to. I’ve kept this in mind when sometimes writing long sappy emails to my exes in my mind, too, thinking, are they consenting to receiving this email? Do they want to hear from me? It’s different to send a note saying, hey, thinking of you, hope you are well, verses sending a two-page long story-of-my-life and pouring-my-heart-out emotional letter.

Perhaps it’s a form of containment.

That’s not to say that I don’t love and appreciate the occasional emails in my inbox about my work, folks pouring out their hearts and emotions and sex lives, telling me about gender and their partners or exes and how my work has changed how they are relating to their relationship, sex, or gender issues. I do love that. I’m so glad my work isn’t going out there into some big black void. And I know that when I reveal this kind of personal stuff about my own gender, sexuality, sex life, relationship, and emotional life, it makes it easier to open up about yours in response, and I cherish that opening. It’s inspiring and beautiful and I love that kind of connection with other folks.

I suppose that’s just one of the side effects of having a public email address—and I’m starting to really envy folks like Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Havi Brooks of The Fluent Self who have shut down their email inboxes entirely. I know that wouldn’t exactly solve the problem, and I do like to have a place where folks can write to me. And the only thing I can do about this is to note the ways that I sometimes throw things in other people’s inboxes that they don’t consent to, and be aware of that.

I still have my own issues with trusting the agency of my partner, too. My relationship with Kristen was kinda tough over the holidays, and one of the things that came out of that was some distrust on my part of the D/s dynamic that I’d come to love and cherish. I second-guessed myself and her to the point that I wasn’t trusting what either of us were saying, I was (subconsciously or unconsciously) convinced that there was something else I wasn’t seeing, something I didn’t know about that would come bubbling up (again) and … be scary. But, so what if it does? That could certainly happen! There’s always more stuff to figure out that comes up and demands to be dealt with. So what. More and more, I trust that I—and Kristen and I together—have the tools to deal with that stuff, whatever it is. And when I can bring this all into articulation, it’s very clear that I haven’t been trusting our dynamic enough and have needed to relax and let go a little more (instead of gripping tight and trying to keep control and protect and help, yet again).

Maybe my “consent obsession” is slightly more accurately described as an obsession with control—or perhaps that’s related, though not entirely the same, like an overlapping Venn diagram. Regardless, it’s something I notice coming up in various places in my life, and I want to be more aware, mindful, and intentional with what I choose to do with it when it arises.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

6 thoughts on “Consent Obsession”

  1. nadia says:

    you are fantastically (over)articulate and I'm looking forward to LSM this friday!

  2. Adisson says:

    Wow, Sinclair. Thanks for posting this. As someone else who has a bit of a consent obsession (I'm constantly shushing the beau because I'm in a first floor apartment right next to a study room– not good for kinky sex at all!), your teasing out of the forces and interests at work in your own life is really illuminating to some of my own forces and interests. I think a lot of this does have to do with control, but I think, especially with the apartment bit, there's still a bit of sex shame stigma that we have to shake off (enough s's there?) regardless of how we frame it– either as "they aren't consenting" or in my case "I really don't want my housemates to know how much amazing sex I'm having and with whom". I'll be interested to see how this shifts as you (and I in my own life) become more fully aware of it and find new ways to address the issues at hand. ^_^;;


  3. Randy says:

    I think your final paragraph might be the most telling? Control.

    Anyways, I’m reminded of an anecdote about a couple staying in a hotel. They heard a familiar rhythmic squeak, squeak, squeak of bed springs presumably from the room next door.

    They mentioned how it sounded like whomever there was having fun. Their talk got them around to having some of their own fun. Afterward they realized they could still hear the sound, was it round two? Were they still going?

    Regardless they fell asleep only to awake in the morning to…you guessed it, round what-number-was-this?

    They loaded up their car and the husband was curious enough to go back in down the hallway in the other direction beyond the neighboring room. He found the source of the erotic stimulation…an ice machine was producing the regular noise!

  4. Bond says:

    When it comes to stuff the about strangers seeing/hearing… I think your impulses really are simply polite and considerate. It is rude to have sex where unsuspecting strangers are likely to stumble, and while roommates of course expect to overhear some sex, it is rude to have unreasonably loud sex when they’re nearby, and polite to consider them (especially if they might be trying to sleep — are you reading this, roommate of mine?).

    Anyway, very interesting post as always.

  5. Inferno says:

    I think your “consent obsession” is a good thing. To many people push their own want, desires, ways into other peoples lives.

    You are being considerate by keeping it down.

    My wife and I went out last week with some friends and at a very chill bar watched a couple grope eachother to the point of dry humping.

    Very rude and annoying.

    We didn't want to watch and they made many people in the bar uncomfortable. Public display at the wrong time and the wrong place.

    Our friends (3 women and 2 men) all did not dig the show.

    Our friends and ourselves are all pretty active swingers. (out swingers)

    My wife is very much a show off. At a club or a different bar even (different crowd) would have thought nothing of such behavior in others or herself.

    7 people who in other circumstances love to party like the roman myths all were annoyed at a public display of affection.

    Consent – verbal or implied is very important when we as people act out around others.

    I wish more people had your “consent obsession”

  6. grrlchef says:

    I found your initial comment about consent fascinating. As someone who was always terrified of breaking the rules or social consideration I recently did it more than once in public. Yes, if someone had stumbled upon us I would have been mortified (which is why I had never done it before). Hard to get off in that situation, but still thrilling for what it is. Second, consent in a sexual dynamic (which is where I thought you were headed) I had said girl tell me that a lot of women like to be topped, or dominated sexually so they dont have to constantly ask for what they want. I am always bashful about assuming what a girl likes, and so more often than not I am accused of being a “faux” top. (this happens a lot) Presenting as a tomboyish femme. Is it just courage, permission, consent? Is there a way around that when you are getting to know someone intimately? Im not afraid to take charge, Im afraid of being rude or presumptuous.

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