Muddled Messaging on Consent: Arousal as Consent

Content Notice for Explicit Discussion of Sexual Assault, Rape, and Menstruation

Combating messages about consent signaled via media is important, since those are often the only messages people receive when they are forming their sexual identities as children and adolescents. Even the lesser problematic media around tends to not do so well. Take, for instance, the ex sex scene in the 2008 Apatow Frat Pack comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The movie, as a whole, was rather funny and cute and not horribly or especially problematic, especially for its genre. Despite that, it managed to include a rather dicey message on consent in that scene. Yes, it’s a silly movie. A comedy. Allegedly humorous. I laughed at several scenes all four times I saw it. And it’s still harmful bullshit.

In the scene, Sarah uses Peter to sexually rebound from the man who is leaving her, the same man with whom she cheated on Peter. Not an awesome setup for enthusiastic consent in the first place, really, since one of the main motivators for the action in the movie is Peter’s emotional devastation over the breakup (and, later, finding out that he has been cheated on) and Sarah’s abandonment by her newer ex is framed as a mirroring of her own abandoning of Peter. Emotional issues aside, the plot-turning moment for Peter is realizing that he can’t maintain an erection with Sarah. This is interpreted by the characters and goes unquestioned by the narrative as proof positive that he is finally over Sarah and wants to be with Rachel, his newer love interest.

Except that’s not how physiological sexual response works. Studies conducted on mental vs. physical arousal in cis men and cis women reveal that the two aren’t one and the same. Subjects in these studies would sometimes report a lack of arousal even though their bodies were lubricating or hardening. Those responses do not betray some kind of secret lust for what is happening, but rather the way that bodies work. Just as someone who laughs when tickled might not actually want to be tickled, someone who is lubricating and/or swelling due to sexual stimuli might not want to engage in sexual activity.

The gap between physical arousal and psychological reality deepens when you consider rape and sexual assault. Plenty of people report arousal-type responses like vaginal lubrication, penile erection, and even ejaculation and orgasm from non-consensual sexual encounters. These responses do not function as overrides to the person’s will. What they want or don’t want always matters despite any involuntary physical responses.

To turn it around, a lack of physiological response could signal any number of things other than “I’m not interested in sex with you.” It could be anything: Lack of hydration, the heat, the cold, fatigue, feeling insecure for reasons that have nothing to do with your partner(s), too rich a meal partaken in too great a quantity beforehand, the sound of construction coming in from outside, too much alcohol, soreness from the gym the day before, impending illness from food poisoning, medication side-effects — and these are just examples from my personal life and experiences.

As someone with a uterus and menstrual cycle, I have noted that, 1-2 days out of each cycle (usually one day before and/or one day after the bleeding), I cannot orgasm. This has been consistent across years, partners, kink involvement, body weights, levels of happiness/comfort/fitness, and more factors than I probably could consciously realize. When I wasn’t aware of how my body worked that way, I would try to figure out a reason and often falsely attribute it to some other issue that I later realized was irrelevant. That it never had occurred to me that lack of physical sexual response could be a function of my sexual organs says quite a lot about how pernicious the messaging around arousal and consent is. In those impotent moments, I, someone who was not exactly uneducated on my body and sexuality, was sure that there was something wrong with me or with my partner. Instead, it was something wrong with the way that we, as a society, talk about the relationship between physical states and the human will.

Arousal is not consent, and vice versa. The sooner more of us posit that as a counter-signal to the idea that the two are one and the same, the closer we will get to a world where a larger percentage of the sex that is had is a positive experience for all parties involved.

Muddled Messaging on Consent: Arousal as Consent

2 thoughts on “Muddled Messaging on Consent: Arousal as Consent

  1. 1

    One of the causes of strife between me and my ex was that he would accuse me of not being interested in him sexually because I often wouldn’t self-lubricate, and he wouldn’t believe me when I said that I was interested in being with him. To me, my body’s lack of reaction (in some areas, I could still orgasm without issues) was no big deal. There are plenty of lubrication products available which only take a moment to use. We broke up for other reasons, but this was an issue for several years before we split.

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