Consent. It’s sexy, yes, as the now-ubiquitous saying goes. But as Melissa Febos writes in her new essay collection, Girlhood (out March 30), consent is oh so complicated. “What do yes and no really mean in a culture where you’re prescribed to say yes all the time? And can harm be done when affirmative consent is given? And the answer I came up with, in short, is ‘Yes,’” she says on this week's episode of LGBTQ&A.
“There were a lot of instances where it just seemed easier to have sex or do whatever than it would be to say ‘No’ and deal with the fallout of saying no to someone and having to take care of their feelings or potentially deal with a scary assault situation,” Febos says. Consent was given, so who, if anyone, is at fault?
It’s something Febos struggled with while writing Girlhood. “Just the way that even if the other person has no idea what’s going on if I subject myself to an intimate situation that I’m not comfortable with, it has many of the same consequences as if the other person pressured me, even if they didn’t. So I’ve had experiences having sex with women, men, nonbinary people that felt in the aftermath similar to a kind of traumatic experience. But the other person didn’t do anything wrong — it was just that I didn’t know how to stop when I needed to.”
It’s this gray area that Febos’s writing exposes with methodical precision. She’s both writer and detective, investigating her past with gloves and black light to reveal the invisible stains.
One solace, perhaps the thing that allowed her to maintain a healthy relationship to her sexuality and desires as a young person, was discovering masturbation. She describes it as something like a miracle in her life. “People don't write about adolescent girls whacking off constantly, but I was,” she says. This protected her. It showed her that there was more to her sexual desires than the unwanted eyes and hands of the men around her. And eventually, it helped transform her sexual relationships with others.
“I had a really robust, really healthy relationship to self-pleasure in my own body, and in some ways, I think it provided a kind of map when I was ready to redefine my sexual relationship to other people,” Febos says.
Learning what your boundaries are and aren’t “is awkward and uncomfortable and near-impossible. It’s the work of a lifetime — for far too many. The most extraordinary and heartbreaking part of Girlhood is how ordinary Febos experiences around desire and consent reveal themselves to be.
“I wanted to sort of excavate that word,” she says, “and scoop out all of the untrue meanings and associations that it has, to really put on that shelf some very real, very ordinary experiences that are not what people think about when they think about the word ‘girlhood.’”
Girlhood by Melissa Febos comes out on March 30th.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.