In Western culture we often have a hard time talking about sex. Even more scarce than discussions around sex are those surrounding the meaning of consent. I didn’t fully understand what consent was until adulthood through anti-sexual assault initiatives at my university or feminist communities online. I’m disappointed that it wasn’t until I engaged with these communities that I learned anything about consent—the essential first step of sex. It’s unfair that many of us make it to adulthood without fully understanding what consent means, which is why I want to open up the discussion. I wish I had known these things before I started having sex.
1. Consent is mandatory every time.
The only way to know what your partner wants is to ask them. You should make it a habit to directly ask your partner if they want to have sex instead of just initiating, as some people feel awkward about saying no once the plan is already in action. In order to be sure that they’re happy and comfortable, it’s important to ask first.
2. Consent is enthusiastic.
When you ask your partner if they want to have sex there should be no doubt of whether or not they want to. If they say something like, ‘yes,’ ‘sounds good,’ or, ‘heck yeah,’ they are giving you their consent. They have made it clear that they want this. If they say something like, ‘I guess,’ ‘I don’t know’ or “no,” you need to disengage. This person is unwilling to or unsure about having sex with you. You can ask again at another time, but another time is not a few minutes from when they turned down the initial offer. It’s probably best to leave it for another day so that your partner doesn’t feel pressured to do anything they’re uncomfortable with.
3. Consent is ongoing.
Saying yes at the beginning of sex does not mean every sexual act is on the table. If at any point your partner becomes uncomfortable with what’s happening, or for any other reason no longer wants to have sex, they have a right to stop then and there— their consent is officially revoked. If you keep going after they express their wish to stop then the sex is non-consensual. Revoking consent may come in the form of a safe word (a word you discussed beforehand) or simply by a partner saying that they want to stop. Your partner may be uncomfortable with one thing you tried but willing to continue as long as that particular thing doesn’t happen again. Communication is key.
4. You can keep asking for consent throughout.
A lot of people have problems asking for consent because they think it will be awkward to talk about. Like everything, practice makes perfect— the more you do it, the more natural it becomes! If you want to try something new with your partner it’s crucial to ask them about it. This can happen before sex, through a conversation about what you both want or during sex.
5. Asking for consent can make for better sex.
Having an open line of communication regarding what everyone wants in the bedroom makes for better sex. Once you’ve established your desires, there’s a lot less mediocre activity. Instead, you’re fast tracking to the good stuff. With consciously negotiated consent, both partners know that they are cared about, valued and respected, which is never a bad thing!
6. Consistently asking for consent could strengthen your relationship.
Good communication is the key to a positive, healthy relationship. When you start communicating clearly about your sex life, this discussion style can easily carry into other aspects of your relationship. More honesty makes for less problems.
7. Not receiving consent isn’t always personal.
There will be people in life who aren’t attracted to you and/or will reject you. That happens and must be respected. That being said, if they’re a romantic partner or someone else who you’ve had sex with before, their ‘no’ is not always directly related to you. Did they say they’re tired, having a headache or just not in the mood? They’re probably telling the truth. Sometimes people just aren’t up for sex and that’s natural. Another possibility is that they have experienced trauma in their life that is affecting their ability to engage in sexual activity. The best course of action in this case is to let them know that you respect and support their boundaries. In any case, it’s important not to make them feel guilty for saying no.
8. Consent goes beyond the bedroom.
The idea of asking for consent isn’t reserved for sexual partners. Even in non-sexual contexts you can ask permission before touching someone. Have you ever had someone hug you or put their arm around you when you weren’t comfortable with it? You probably would have preferred being given the chance to decline. I remember having my heart warmed by a friend asking if he could touch my shoulder before excitedly giving me news. It was nice to know that he had thought about my feelings before coming into my personal space. Most importantly, we don’t often consider asking consent from children. We often see children being instructed to give hugs and kisses to relatives without thinking to ask them what they’re comfortable with. We should be taught from a young age to communicate our boundaries. Not everyone is comfortable with physical interaction at all times which is why we as a society need to learn to ask instead of assume, as well as listen to the answers we receive.