The way we talk about sexual consent is confusing.
For starters, even though it’s the basis of any healthy sexual interaction or relationship, no body talks to us about it. If we’re lucky we start hearing about consent in our 20s.
And then when people do talk about it, it’s easy to find some people who say consent is simple and other people who complain its so complicated it’s not worth thinking about.
The truth is that consent is simple AND complicated. So is sex. That’s one of the things that makes sex so interesting and exciting. And another truth is that consent IS worth figuring out, because sex without consent isn’t really sex. It’s assault (or rape).
Consent isn’t simple but some examples of consent are clearer than others. If someone tells you they don’t want you to touch them, then don’t touch them. If someone is passed out or otherwise not able to tell you whether they do or don’t want to be touched, don’t touch them.
But most of sex is less clear. We aren’t stupid if we find sex complicated. We’re human. Here are just a few examples of how complicated it can be:
- Someone might be physically able to say no, but not feel like they are allowed to after a lifetime of being told their opinions don’t matter. (they do!)
- Someone may be into sex at first but then want to stop part way through, only they don’t know how, or if they’re even allowed to. (they are!)
- Some people don’t communicate verbally, but everything they’ve ever been told about consent is that you have to “talk” about it. So they think they can’t say no. (they can!)
- Some people have been so beaten down by others and life (physically, psychologically, emotionally) that they take what they can get when it comes to attention and affection. They might never say that they were coerced, but they also might not say they wanted or enjoyed the sex they had.
Consent shouldn’t be complicated. But it is, because we live in a world where we are almost all raised to ignore our own physical needs, desires, and instincts, and to never talk about sex.
Having sex with enthusiastic consent isn’t like having someone sign a form. It’s complicated because there are (at least) two people with desires and feelings and bodies, trying to mush themselves together in a pleasurable way. This means every situation will be a little bit different.
The sex education website Scarleteen has what I think is the most comprehensive break down on how to address consent in sexual situations. The bottom line is that you can’t really know if someone is consenting without either knowing more than a little bit about them or being completely explicit in your communication.
Here are a few tips on how to know if the sex you’re having is consensual.
Talk About Sex Early
Knowing someone’s personal beliefs and political positions on sex (do they think it’s okay to watch porn? what do they think of the latest celebrity sex toy scandal?) is a great way to open up the door to more personal conversations about sex. You can learn about what this person thinks about sex, where they stand on sexual issues, and you may even learn a bit about what kinds of sex they like.
But the most important benefit of talking about sex early is that the more you do it, the less weird it gets. Talking about sex over coffee or just before the movie starts will make talking about sex in bed a lot easier.
Talk About Consent In General (and Then Get Specific)
Consent only sounds like a strange word that sex educators use because you don’t use it yourself. So start using it. It’s a useful word! Ask a potential partner what they think of this whole question of how to get sexual consent. Find out what they do and don’t know about it.
You can start generally by talking about any of the stories in the news and on social media about consent (usually about the lack of consent when it comes to celebrities and others in positions of power).
Once you are ready to get a little more personal have a conversation about what consent looks like for each of you without committing to ever being sexual together. You aren’t talking about having sex but you’re sharing something about how you respond to pleasure.
On your own, finish this sentence:
“For me, when I’m really feeling good I usually ________.”
Where the blank describes the kinds of things you say or do, how your body moves, what you look like.
If you don’t know the answer to that question, it may not be the right time for sex. If you do know the answer, share it with the person, and ask them what it’s like for them. This isn’t about what you look like when you’re having sex. Maybe it’s about what you’re like when you’re eating an amazing meal, or doing some other physical activity that gives you pleasure. What consent looks like with sexual activities may be different, but this information gives you cues and a better idea of what consent looks and sounds like for your potential partner.
If it feels safe you can get even more personal by sharing good and bad previous experiences when it comes to consent. Maybe it’s a story about getting hit on in a bar, or a time when you had sex and later regretted it. Or it might be a story about a sexual experience you (or someone you know) had where everyone was great at checking in and making sure everyone was into what was happening.
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