Sex talks

The language of sexual negotiation must go far beyond 'consent' and 'refusal' if we are to foster ethical, autonomous sex

Photo by Terry Vine/Getty.

Rebecca Kukla is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She is the author of Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers' Bodies (2005). She lives in Washington, DC. 

4,300 words

Communication is essential to ethical sex. Typically, our public discussions focus on only one narrow kind of communication: requests for sex followed by consent or refusal. But notice that we use language and communication in a wide variety of ways in negotiating sex. We flirt and rebuff, express curiosity and repulsion, and articulate fantasies. Ideally, we talk about what kind of sex we want to have, involving which activities, and what we like and don’t like. We settle whether or not we are going to have sex at all, and when we want to stop. We check in with one another and talk dirty to one another during sex.  

In this essay I explore the language of sexual negotiation. My specific interest is in what philosophers call the ‘pragmatics’ of speech. That is, I am less interested in what words mean than I am in how speaking can be understood as a kind of action that has a pragmatic effect on the world. Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean. J L Austin developed this way of thinking about the different things that speech can do in his classic book, How To Do Things With Words (1962), and many philosophers of language have developed the idea since.

For instance, consider the question: ‘Can you take the train to New York?’; the statement: ‘You can take the train to New York!’; the order: ‘Take the train to New York!’; and the advice: ‘I’d take the train to New York if I were you!’ These speech acts use almost the same words, but they are quite different in their pragmatic ‘force’. That is, what differentiates them is less their meaning than what they do, and what kinds of actions they call for from their audience. One calls for an answer, one conveys information, one demands an action, and one suggests an action for consideration.

All speech acts perform some sort of action, with some set of social effects. And all speech acts are governed by what philosophers call ‘felicity norms’ and ‘propriety norms’. Felicity norms are the norms that make a certain speech act a coherent possibility. So for instance, my teenage son can’t call a national vote – he just doesn’t have the right authority for that to make any sense as a speech act that he can perform. Likewise, I can’t name someone else’s baby just because I feel like it, by shouting a name at it. These would be infelicitous speech acts. Propriety norms are norms that make a speech act situationally appropriate. So, although I have the authority to order my son to clean his room, it would be a massive norm violation for me to walk into his classroom at school and shout at him to clean his room in the middle of class.

Different speech acts with different force can enable or undermine ethical, pleasurable, autonomous sex. In public discussions about the ethics of sexual communication, we have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech when it comes to ethical sex – the only kind of speech we need to be worried about. I will try to show that our narrow focus on consent has distorted and limited our understanding of sexual self-determination, and of the various roles that language can play in making sex ethical and fulfilling, or unethical and harmful.

How does our focus on consent limit us? Here are a few ways:

  • Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you. Paradigmatically, consent (or refusal of consent) is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position. And in practice, given cultural realities, our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her. Surely we hope that sexual negotiation will be more mutually participatory than this?
  • Much of our actual sexual communication isn’t about asking for sex or agreeing to it. In communicating about sex, I might begin to articulate a fantasy, suggest a possibility that I think might please the other person, probe to find out how the other person feels about an activity or role, or seek help in exploring how I feel about it, for instance. Good sexual negotiation often involves active, collaborative discussion about what would be fun to do. It also often includes conversations about limits, constraints and exit conditions. None of this fits nicely into a request-and-consent-or-refuse model of sexual negotiation.
  • Autonomous, willing participation is necessary for ethical sex, but it is not sufficient. We can autonomously consent to all sorts of bad sex, for terrible reasons. I might agree to do something that I find degrading or unpleasantly painful, for instance, perhaps because I would rather have bad sex than no sex at all, or because my partner isn’t interested in finding out what would give me pleasure.

One person requesting sex and the other consenting to let sex happen is not the most typical – and almost never the ideal – way for sex to be initiated. So what are other ways in which we can use language in order to initiate sex and, especially, what are ways to do it well? I will focus on two: invitations and gift offers.

Usually, when all goes well, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests. Especially when we are just getting together with someone for the first time, whether for a casual hookup or at the start of a more serious relationship, invitations are a more common and typically more appropriate way of initiating sex than are requests. Once I am in a relationship with someone, it’s not always out of bounds for me to request sex, as a favour. But when I’m trying to establish intimacy with someone as I am getting to know them, an invitation is more typical and likely more conducive to good, flourishing sex than a request.

A quirk of invitations is that, if accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee

What kind of speech act is an invitation? What does it do? Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter. When you invite someone to something, they are not obligated to accept the invitation. But also, you are not merely opening a neutral possibility; you are making clear that they would be welcome. If I say to you: ‘I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and I want you to please come, and if you don’t I’ll be hurt,’ then I am requesting your presence, not inviting you. Conversely, if I say to you: ‘I’m cooking dinner at my place on Wednesday and you can show up or not, it’s totally up to you, I don’t care either way,’ then this is not really an invitation but perhaps more like an offer; at best it’s a highly unwelcoming, inept invitation. Invitations leave the invitee free to accept or reject them. If you turn down my invitation, I get to be disappointed, but not aggrieved (although I can feel aggrieved if it is turned down rudely or insultingly). An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.

Although an invitation leaves the recipient free to turn it down, this does not give anyone carte blanche to issue any invitation they want. Invitations can be infelicitous, or inappropriate. I can’t invite you to come to vote in my precinct. This is infelicitous: I don’t have the standing, and it’s not an invitation that institutions make it possible for you to take up. And a felicitous invitation can be inappropriate. If I meet a stranger on the bus and chat with her for two minutes about the traffic, it would be inappropriate for me to invite her to my wedding.

A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding. Although we are usually pleased when people accept our sexual invitations, we generally don’t want people to agree to sex with us as a favour to us, as it would be if it were the granting of a request. And the invitation needs to be felicitous and appropriate. I cannot invite you to have sex with someone else other than me (which would be both infelicitous and unethical). I cannot invite you to have sex with me if doing so would be an abuse of power, or if for other reasons it would be difficult for you to say no to the invitation (which would be both inappropriate and unethical), or at the end of a two-minute chat about the weather in the grocery line (which would be inappropriate and probably uncomfortable). The mere fact that an invitation can be freely turned down does not give people licence to issue infelicitous or inappropriate invitations – which is something that street harassers, for instance, often don’t seem to understand.

I propose centring invitations rather than requests in our model of the language of sexual initiation. This opens up a whole set of new ethical and pragmatic questions. When are sexual invitations felicitous and appropriate, and who has authority to issue them to whom? Since invitations strike a complex balance between welcoming and leaving the recipient free, what maintains this balance and what throws it off-kilter? An invitation might be degrading by being insufficiently welcoming, for instance. Or it might be coercive by being too pressing. Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.

When we are first trying to establish sexual intimacy with someone, sexual invitations are more common and typically healthier than sexual requests. Once we are in an established, long-term relationship with a partner, sex is sometimes initiated via a gift offer. While it would be odd and almost always inappropriate to offer sex as a gift to someone we barely know, it’s not unusual for longtime partners to offer each other gifts of sex. I might offer my partner sex as a way of saying goodbye before leaving for a trip. I might offer to role-play or indulge a fetish that both of us know is not my ‘thing’. There is nothing inherently problematic about offering to engage in a sexual activity with someone we care about out of generosity rather than direct desire. Although some have recently advocated for a model of ethical sex that requires ‘enthusiastic consent’ from everyone involved, not all sexual encounters or all activities within them have to be enthusiastically desired by all parties in order to be ethical and worthwhile.

As we did with invitations, let’s back up and think about the pragmatic structure of gifts and gift offers before proceeding. Gifts are, of essence, freely given and generous; a gift that I am compelled to offer is not actually a gift. (In practice, we are routinely compelled by various rules of etiquette to give various ‘gifts’ – but these are not really gifts, and insofar as they have that surface presentation, they have to masquerade as freely given). Gifts, by nature, cannot be demanded or even requested. If you ask me to indulge some sexual desire of yours, then my doing so is not a gift but the granting of a favour. A gift must be designed to please the recipient; it might not actually succeed in pleasing, but an offering that is not expected to please is not actually a gift. It is also essential to gift-giving that the recipient need not accept the gift. Gifts that are accepted call for both gratitude and reciprocation from the receiver.

Social scientists have long been fascinated by gift-giving, both because of the complexity of its norms and because of its important role in sustaining and negotiating community. As John Sherry explores in his 1983 article on the anthropology of gift-giving, different sorts of gifts and different kinds of uptake and reciprocation are appropriate for a business associate, a hospitalised friend, a bachelor party, a lover, a wedding, a child’s birthday party, and so forth. Every culture also has distinctive norms governing the refusal and acceptance of gifts. A striking feature of gift-giving is its essentially reciprocal character, which is part of every gift-giving system despite cultural variations. Gifts need to be reciprocated, and this is part of how they sustain relationships.

Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts

Part of what is complicated about the norms of gift reciprocity is that they are inherently open-ended. What counts as proper reciprocation is tricky. For instance, reciprocating a gift too quickly or too closely in kind is a norm violation: if you give me a book that you think I would love, it is inappropriate for me to immediately hand you a different book back, and even more inappropriate for me to give you the same book back at any time. The size, timing and content of reciprocation must all be keyed subtly and not too directly to the original gift. Partly because gifts must be given generously and not compelled, this logic of reciprocity is tricky – while gifts call for reciprocation, if the reciprocation they call for is too specific, then they are no longer gifts but something more like barters.

An invitation need not presume that the recipient wants to accept it. But a gift offer is designed to be an act of generosity that pleases the recipient (whether or not it succeeds in doing so), and it calls for reciprocation. This is part of why, unlike sexual invitations, sexual gift offers are typically presumptuous and inappropriate in the early stages of getting to know someone, when you don’t yet know what would please them and you aren’t yet in a position to impose an obligation to reciprocate on them. But generous offers of sexual gifts, designed first and foremost to please one’s partner rather than to directly satisfy one’s own sexual desires, are a normal part of an ongoing healthy relationship. Such gifts do create an obligation to reciprocate, though not immediately, or exactly in kind, or on any particular schedule. If you routinely indulge my sexual desires out of generosity, it is disrespectful and undermining of our relationship if I never reciprocate.

Notice that typically, if someone offers me an appropriate gift, I need a good reason to turn it down. Turning down a gift is a hurtful snub. This is not true for sexual gifts offers, which can be turned down for any reason at all; no one has the standing to feel aggrieved by their rejection. If I offer to indulge your fetish, say, and you turn me down, I might be disappointed or surprised, but I don’t get to take you as having wronged me in any way.

Sexual gifts, like invitations, can be appropriate or inappropriate, and felicitous or infelicitous. Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts, for instance. Sexual gifts offered too early in a relationship are inappropriate. It would be infelicitous for me to try to give you some other person’s sexual attentions as a gift. An authentic, appropriate and thoughtful sexual gift offer within a relationship calls for an expression of gratitude (though not necessarily for acceptance), even if the recipient happens not to be in the mood for that particular gift at that time.

So far we have been discussing ways in which people might initiate sex; I’ve tried to move beyond the model in which one person initiates sex with a request, which the other person then consents to or refuses. But the language of sexual negotiation importantly includes more than just sexual initiation. Ideally, we communicate about all sorts of things other than whether to have sex, including what sorts of things we like to do during sex, what we definitely want off the table, whether we are having fun, what we want to adjust as we go, when we want to stop, and much more. Although there’s lots of kinds of speech I could talk about here, I want to focus on just one more type of speech act, because I think it’s an especially interesting and important ethical tool for sexual communication. I will talk about safe words and their pragmatic structure.

Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously (for instance, by accepting an invitation), we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely. Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity. People negotiating sex sometimes establish a safe word in advance. This can be a random distinctive word that is pretty certain not to come up in the course of normal conversation during sex (one friend uses ‘kimchi’ and another uses ‘Helsinki’). Or participants can use a ‘green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ system, which allows for more nuance: ‘green’ reassures your partner that everything is going well, and indicates active enjoyment and a desire to continue. ‘Yellow’ is a way of indicating your discomfort or wariness, and calling on the other person to ease off and be on the lookout for signs that you want to change or stop the activity. ‘Red’ ends the sexual encounter; if someone calls ‘red’ then everyone not only stops what they are doing but exits the sexual context altogether.

Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing (although they can also be used when there has been a transgression). Calling ‘red’ does not imply that anyone has messed up or violated consent; it simply ends things. It calls for no apology and requires no apology after its use. It is significant that safe words are typically semantically irrelevant words that are not going to otherwise come up in a normal sexual encounter – they are designed to intrude minimally and unambiguously, without calling for interpretation, discussion or conversational response. Without a safe-word system, if I want to abruptly end a scene or activity, I need to say something like: ‘Stop this immediately.’ It’s very difficult for such a speech act not to come off as a rebuke; it almost inevitably creates a rift in our interaction that now needs repairing.

Safe words have a complex pragmatic structure. The negotiation of safe words is a kind of metaspeech that lets participants decide together how to make clear the boundaries of a sexual encounter; they serve a powerful function in creating the scaffolding within which activities can happen, even if they are never used. One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral. If someone calls out: ‘Oh, daddy, no, stop!’ they almost certainly don’t think their partner is actually their father, and they might well not want to stop. We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context. Having a safe-word system in place lets participants establish norms for exiting a nonliteral discursive frame that might include role-playing, metaphor and experimentation with boundaries. ‘Yellow’ functions not so much as an order as a direction of attention, along with a call to shift gears a bit. ‘Red’ is a specific kind of order: it retracts consent, but it also ends an encounter, shifting the participants out of the sexual context and into their everyday context.

Safe words enhance sexual autonomy and safety, but should never replace the force of the rest of speech

Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily. Safe words thus expand the space of opportunities for sexual agency. There are all sorts of things that we might like to do or try that are dangerous or unappealing if we don’t have confidence that we can stop them without ambiguity or extended negotiation or hurt feelings. This might include potentially painful or uncomfortable activities, as well as activities in which we are role-playing coercion or domination and submission, and any other activities involving nonliteral speech. But it can also include anything that we would like to explore, even though it potentially pushes the boundaries of our comfort zone.

And safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity – all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well. So, ‘Oh no, please, I can’t take any more, no!’ might well be part of a consensual domination scene rather than an attempt to end it, but ‘No really, get off me, I need to pee and you are pressing on my bladder’ is almost always an indication that autonomous participation has been withdrawn, as is ‘Damn it, it’s already 8:00 – I need to leave for work.’ Safe words are a tool for enhancing sexual autonomy and safety, but they should never replace the force of the rest of speech.

While (unsurprisingly) the original and paradigmatic home of safe words is the BDSM community, I think it would be fantastic if the use of safe words became standard practice (even outside the sexual domain), and in particular if training in the use of safe words became a completely standard part of sex and health education for teens. Safe words give people the ability to stop an activity clearly and without an argument or a formulated reason. This is especially important for young people who are just beginning to explore sex, figure out what they enjoy, and learn how to hear and respect one another’s limits. Safe words also enable people to explore desires whose fulfilment would otherwise be dangerous or uncomfortable. Normalising their use would be a major step in empowering and protecting the safety and autonomy of everyone. Having the system in play creates a space for ongoing consent and active experimentation and sexual collaboration.

I’ve suggested that our strong social tendency to focus our discussions of sexual negotiation on consent and refusal has resulted in a narrowed and distorted view of the pragmatics of sexual communication. Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent. Sometimes people autonomously agree to participate in a sexual activity for ethically problematic reasons – perhaps because they think that it’s required to prove their ‘real manhood’ and impress their friends, or because they feel guilty not having sex with someone who was nice to them and now wants it ‘in return’. Sometimes people agree to do things that degrade or exploit them. And sometimes sexual communication violates ethical and pragmatic norms: an invitation might be unwelcoming or inappropriate, or too pressing; a gift offer might be insulting; people might agree to participate in an activity that puts someone in danger without clarifying how that person can exit the situation; and so forth.

When we talk about sexual autonomy, our conversations generally focus on one of two areas. One is access to contraception, abortion and sexual healthcare and education (which have not been my topic here). The second is consent – or, more specifically, as I suggested early on, typically women’s ability to successfully refuse consent to men. Both of these are, indeed, deeply important topics, especially since both are under serious legal and cultural threat right now. But I have argued that sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication – including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.

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