Written by Writer’s Corps member Esther Gonzales
“Can I…” Bry asked his partner.
“Yes!” they replied enthusiastically, with a big smile on their face.
Consent is one of those strangely taboo subjects people avoid talking about at all cost. It’s as if consent immediately brings people back to when they were teens, awkwardly navigating the talk over dinner with their parents. Except consent is not a one-time conversation. It’s not optional and it doesn’t need to be awkward. More importantly, since some of us came-of-age before the “consent is an affirmative YES” era, we sometimes struggle more than most to define consent and talk about it with our sexual partners.
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So, do yourself a favor, print this article and tack it to your wall, or better yet, share it periodically on your newsfeed. Odds are if you are struggling to talk about consent, your friends are too. Let’s start by clearing up a few misconceptions about consent.
What is Consent?
Consent is a clear agreement between two willing participants to engage in an activity. People generally talk about consent in the context of sexual activity, but it can be applied to just about anything.
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Many people believe they can rely on body cues or non-verbal communication to gauge their partner’s sexual interest but that could lead to dangerous territory. In truth, body cues are not an exact science and leave way too much room for misinterpretation (remember that situation with comedian Aziz Ansari, yea, we all want to avoid that). And since they blur the lines between giving and receiving consent, many colleges and other professional organizations advocate for getting an unmistakable and enthusiastic yes from your partner before engaging in sexual activity.
That being said, here are a few rules around what consent is not:
- When someone says “no”
- The absence of a “no”
- Saying yes while you are intoxicated or otherwise incapable of giving consent
- Not saying anything
- Repeatedly asking someone to say yes, or pressuring them to say yes until they do
Consent is Freely Given
So you and your partner are in the middle of a make-out sesh and you can feel them pulling away. You want to take things a step further so you repeatedly ask them to take their clothes off until they say yes. Is this consent? Nope. Consent must be freely given and cannot be guilted, pressured or intimidated out of someone. That means it is not up to you to convince someone into participating in sexual activity. Likewise, consent cannot be given by someone who is clearly under the influence and unable to make rational decisions. Any attempt to overstep someone’s boundaries while they are intoxicated is not just a red flag, it’s sexual assault.
Consent is Ongoing
Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you wanted something, let’s say a t-shirt, however, as soon as you get to the check-out line you realize that for whatever reason you don’t need nor want it after all? Maybe it’s not your style, or maybe you just changed your mind. Whatever your reason, you put the t-shirt back never once fearing you would be questioned by the cashier on your way out or forced to pay for something you no longer want. Consent works a lot like that. That is, at any given time during a sexual experience, you can change your mind.
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It is your body and therefore your rules. You can end a sexual experience if you are no longer interested in participating at literally any point that you choose. A healthy partner will not take offense to you withdrawing consent and they will not pressure you to continue. In fact, a healthy partner would want to make sure they’re not making you uncomfortable and that they’re doing their part to respect your boundaries.
You never want to question whether your partner is or is not consenting to something during your sexual experience. Asking their consent throughout the experience ensures you are on the same page. What’s more, simply asking, “Does this feel good?” or “Is this okay?” will open the floor and allow them to express their needs at any moment.
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Consent is Specific
Here’s the thing, we all operate with assumptions that sometimes gets us into trouble. Case in point, assuming your partner’s consent extends beyond the activity they initially consented to. In other words, if your partner consents to make out, that means they are interested in kissing and nothing else. Unless you ask them to take things further, of course. Assuming a make-out sesh will automatically progress to sex, is like assuming you’ve got the job because you were invited for an interview. It is just not how the world works. Spare the awkwardness by keeping the lines for healthy communication open during every sexual encounter.
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Consent is Enthusiastic
Believe it or not, genuine enthusiasm is an important component of consent. Not only does it clearly indicate that this person really wants to be with you, but it also clears any chances of misinterpreting your partner’s wants. So pay attention to your partner and continuously check-in for enthusiasm. There is nothing better than a partner who is excited to do everything that you are!
Consent can be Sexy
The #1 reason people say they don’t want to have an explicit conversation about consent with their partner before having sex is that they are afraid it will disrupt the mood. As if the word consent will magically make their partner turn up their nose and leave.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, consent can be, dare I say, sexy. Think about it. What is sexier than a partner that is caring and curious? Asking questions like, “Can I touch you here?,” “Do you want to do that?” “Are you comfortable when I do this?” or “Do you like it when I do this?” won’t just enhance the mood, it might even earn you the partner of the year.
Trust me, the pros for engaging your partner through an on-going conversation about consent far outweigh the cons.
Consent doesn’t only apply to Sex
As we alluded to at the start, contrary to popular belief consent extends beyond the bedroom. Think about all of the things you do with your partner like agreeing to meet up on the weekend or agreeing to go out together. None of it would be possible without consent. What is more, there are tons of times you asked for consent but likely didn’t realize it. “Do you want to cuddle?,” and “Can I hold your hand?” Think about that the next time you flinch at the thought of asking for permission during sex.
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There is nothing awkward or embarrassing about asking for consent because it is an inherent part of all relationships. So the next time you get freaked out by the conversation of consent, relax. Chances are you are more practiced in giving and receiving it than you realized.