Want to Make Consent Sexy? Try Using Sex Toys

15616649932_2bdf335deb_zAs a college administrator, I can tell you a myriad of things that don’t work when it comes to engaging college students around issues of healthy sexuality and relationships. Having a presentation labeled “Consent” is near the top of that not-to-do list.

But, want to know what does work? Having an event titled “Sex Toys.”

College students turn out for our feminist student group’s “Sex Toys” event every year.

There are obvious reasons why the venue is standing-room only, despite a host of other things that college students could be doing that Tuesday evening each February. Everyone is curious about sex toys—the what, the how, the why. It is an entirely fun evening filled with all the sex toys you can imagine and a casual atmosphere to ask all your questions. In full feminist fashion, it’s an event about empowerment and exploration, with no taboos around the body or pleasure.

Want to know why our administrators love it too?

Because in the midst of this relaxed setting of fun conversation, college students hear and even engage with our “educational outreach” on healthy sexuality—and consent. This hidden lecture is what makes the Sex Toys event truly feminist, whether attendees ever know it or not. As our speaker holds a sex toy and describes its use, she also talks about fun ways to communicate with your partner about interest, likes, dislikes, comfort, curiosity, and even begins to discuss gender norms and socially imposed expectations. All to help find the sex toy that works best for you and your partner, of course.

The sex toy, in all its novelty and shock value, allows us to reframe those “old, boring” feminist issues of gender, socialization, power and consciousness into relevant, and even hip, concerns for today’s college students.

This is engaged, feminist learning at its best. And by the end of the event, we find ourselves having talked about consent for an entire evening, without ever calling it a consent workshop or feminist education.

College students and thirty-somethings alikewe all have trouble imagining consent as sexy.

Despite even the best marketing strategies and most clever slogans, it feels contractual and boring. Not to mention, consent is a tangled web of a term for us feminists. Female-bodied persons are often socialized toward passivity and acquiescence, making it difficult for us, much less our partners, to discern if we really want sex or feel the routine obligation of making the other person happy.

But a sex toys discussion, unlike a consent workshop, can get at these issues in unorthodox ways, a sort of shock to our system that helps us to separate our participation from our socialization, to ask for a moment, “Hmm, does that interest me? What do I think about that?” These are indeed feminist questions, enabling us—through novelty—to be more authentic persons, and more authentic sexual partners.

Certainly, sex toys as a learning tool can fail just as consent education often does. We are socialized to embrace difference, not to shun or shame anyone else’s kink, and folks with female-bodied experiences often embrace that passive role even in the sex toys conversation.

But after three years and over 600 attendees, I do believe that we can learn something from the eager and curious college students who crowd into a student union room on a chilly February night. The new, the shocking, the unexpected can help us to let down our walls and be honest with ourselves—and about ourselves. And that is not only sexy, but is consent at its best.

If the novelty sex toy can raise consciousness about gendered socialization, support honesty in sexual expectations and promote open communication among college students, then I have to believe it can work some feminist magic for all of us. That is why I offer, to the jury of my feminist peers, sex toys as best feminist practice this Valentine’s Day.

Photo via Flickr user Yelp Inc. licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About

Krista Millay earned her PhD in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics from Boston University and is Director of the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Arizona.  She was a 2015-2016 Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.