Consent really shouldn’t be a difficult thing for us to get our heads around but sadly, given the society we live in, it seems to be more of a headache than it needs to be. The problem is, on an almost daily basis many of us are so used to “no” not really meaning no and we’re used to being convinced that we want something when we’re not sure we really do (marketing anyone?) For most of us, our sex and relationship education didn’t even touch on consent. Add to this the layers of confusing cultural messages around sexual behaviour — women being expected to be both provocative and innocent, men allowed to be “players” and expected to be up for anything — and things get even more complicated. So it’s no wonder we can get confused when we are applying this to sex.
But, starting honest and open discussions about sexual consent is a great place to begin, especially when in essence consent really is as simple as saying an enthusiastic “yes” or a confident “no”.
The best education models are now starting to include consent in school PSHE lessons (or equivalent) from an early age – teaching children bodily autonomy before it becomes anything even closely relating to sexual behaviour. This is important: a child that feels confident saying “no” if someone is invading their space in the playground grows up to be an adult that is able to apply this understanding to their sexuality.
When it comes to sex, in order to communicate a “yes” or a “no” we first have to know what we like and dislike. Not everything, of course, but it’s good to have an idea. This can and will change over time, and it can be surprising when it does, but it’s important to key into our own preferences. When I started out on my journey as a submissive, my first Dom really helped me with this. Early on, he asked me what my hard and soft limits were and I had no idea. So he gave me a list and told me to work my way through them, labelling each either as a “yes”, a “perhaps” (a soft limit) or a definitive “no” (a hard limit). So I made a spreadsheet (yes, really?) and it was eye opening.
A two-way street
Having someone guide me through my own process really helped me to become aware of the two-way nature of consent too. It is widely assumed that men are always a “yes” but I’ve slowly learned to ask the questions too. Do partners want to see a picture of my butt before bed? One might be a sweeping yes (“Send me naughty pictures whenever you like!”) but another might be less open (during lockdown, a partner explicitly asked me not to send him any naughty pictures and to keep my sharing of pictures solely to my gardening). It’s my job to respect this.
What does consent look like?
Two great acronyms are “BAE” and FRIES”.
Perils of Patriarchy (@perilsofpatriarchy) say that “Consent is Bae” — Before All Else — and I think this sums it up perfectly. Before you do anything sexual with a new partner, especially if there is any kink or BDSM involved, you should always talk about what your likes and dislikes are, if possible before, but definitely during and after the sex. How? We’ll talk about that a bit later.
Planned Parenthood uses Fries:
F – freely given (consent should be given without pressure and in the absence of drugs or alcohol)
R- reversible (anyone can change their mind at any time, even if consent has been previously given)
I – informed (the boundaries of consent should be honoured by all parties)
E – enthusiastic (YES! Not maybe)
S – specific (the boundaries of consent should be clearly understood by all parties)
Consent is also likened to a number of foodstuffs, like tea and pizza. Imagine someone arrives at your door, and you offer them tea, and they say no. Do you force or convince them to have tea? No. You accept their decision not to have tea. Alternatively, discussions around consent can be compared to ordering pizza: you know which toppings you like and which ones you don’t and you ask accordingly. Despite the emotional and social implications of sex it really is no different.
Sex is also most fun for everyone when everyone involved is consenting and — therefore — enjoying it. There seems to be an opinion that consent culture takes the fun out of sex… but if that’s the case, the question has to be asked… is everyone enjoying it? Because if asking for consent from a partner is scary, then perhaps you know that the answer wouldn’t be an “enthusiastic yes”?
Making consent sexy
While it isn’t always possible, discussing sex before you have it with a new partner is a great way to get to know one another and can build tension; asking for consent before sex with a regular partner is a simply a way to get in the mood. And, if you’ve been swept up without a chance to have a full on conversation beforehand (it happens!) then asking for it in the throes of passion is just dirty talk. Everything doesn’t have to stop… questions can be whispered or growled into your partner’s ear. Questions like:
“Would you like it if…?”
“Do you like that?”
“What would you like next?”
“How does that feel?”
“Would you like to try…?”
“Does… turn you on?”
“Have you ever fantasised about…?”
Agreeing to use traffic lights (red for stop, amber for slow down, and green for go) can work brilliantly and having a safeword — applicable to any situation, not just BDSM — is also a great way to communicate consent too.
Subject to change
But… the thing with consent is that it’s constantly shifting. A yes (or a no) to something in one moment isn’t necessarily a yes (or a no) to the same thing on a different day. I’ve since revisited my spreadsheet multiple times and it amazes me all the time how much things change.
So many things affect an individual’s desire on any given day and it’s important to be open to this: both to changing our own minds and allowing our partners to do the same. I may usually enjoy giving or receiving oral sex, but I may not be in the mood in a particular moment; I reserve the right to say no.
What gets in the way of consent?
Alcohol and drugs
The biggest hurdles for consent are without a doubt alcohol and drugs. Our inhibitions are lowered, our ability to say “no” is impaired; I for one have overstepped my own boundaries numerous times when under the influence and it’s never a nice feeling. On a very base level, alcohol not only makes it harder for us to communicate our consent, but it also makes it harder for someone else to pick up on non-verbal cues. Alcohol also makes it difficult to know or prove if something really was consensual or not.
Recently, after a particularly drunken date, I found myself in a state where I was quite literally unable to say, “No.” Not because I was too drunk to know I wanted to say it, but because the person I was with, combined with the alcohol, reminded me of a past relationship so much that my brain was triggered into a place in which I was emotionally paralysed. Needless to say this was not a pleasant situation and one I would like very much to avoid in future. The interesting thing was that even though I felt sure I was giving off negative nonverbal cues, he was completely oblivious to them. If alcohol hadn’t been involved it could have been a very different experience.
Entitlement and coercion
No one owes anyone anything when it comes to sex. Even if you’re married or in a relationship you don’t owe your partner sex but saying no can be hard and can lead to coercion. “No” is a sentence in and of itself and should be treated as such. If your partner says, “No,” that is not your chance to try to convince them, it is also not your cue to ask them to justify themselves. And, if you say, “No,” and your partner does either of these things they are certainly not respecting your boundaries. Furthermore, consent is not gendered, it works both ways: women need to respect men’s “No” too.
However, an open and frank conversation is another thing entirely.
Conversations about Consent
Consent is so much better all round if we just talk about what we like and don’t like before, during and after sex and if we listen actively to our partners as well. We have to learn to have conversations that might feel uncomfortable but I truly believe that if we aren’t ready and willing to talk about things, then we absolutely shouldn’t be doing them.
Obviously things change, and because you’re “into” something doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel like doing that something, but talking is a great place to start.
Why not share some of your favourite ways to ask about consent? We’d love to hear your thoughts.