Consent has become a buzzword over the last few years. With the #MeToo movement and the many high-profile sexual assault trials making headlines, it’s important to have a frank conversation that both defines and discusses sexual consent.
Understanding sexual consent
The dictionary definition of consent says, “permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.” This seems pretty cut and dry – but why is it that SO many people still seem to misunderstand what consent is?
Think about it. How many times have you heard about a woman reporting she was sexually assaulted during a college party only to have people respond with, “Well she shouldn’t be drinking that much.” Or, “She sleeps with everyone, I think she just wants a payout.” Not only are these words incredibly damaging and insensitive, they're also misinformed.
Approximately 30% of rape cases are reported to the police and of that 30% only about .08% of perpetrators will go to jail or prison. One of the main reasons reporting is so low is due to the societal backlash many sexual assault victims face, leaving them feeling ostrcized, ashamed and fearful that their attacker may retaliate.
Planned Parenthood uses an acronym to help better define sexual consent: F.R.I.E.S.
- Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
- Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
- Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
- Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).
How to ask for sexual consent
Honestly, don’t overthink this one. Just ask. Try something like, “Can I [fill in the blank]?” or “Do you want me to do [fill in the blank]?” And wait for a clear answer.
If your partner says “yes” or makes it clear that they’re into it, then you have consent.
If your partner says, “no” or says nothing at all, you don’t have consent. Also, pay attention to your partners’ tone of voice and body language. If they seem hesitant or uncomfortable then you DO NOT have consent.
If you don’t know what they want, or they say yes but don’t seem sure, stop what you’re doing and check in with them before you keep going. Try saying something like:
- “I want to make sure you want to do this. Should I keep going?”
- “It’s okay if you’re not into this. We can do something else. What do you think?”
- “I want us to both enjoy this, if you’re not into this we can try something else.”
What to do if someone says ‘yes’ but you’re not totally sure if they’re into it
If your partner says “yes” to something but you’re not sure they mean it, your best bet is to NOT do that thing and talk about it later. Oftentimes, this situation happens in the middle of having sex, which can make your partner feel pressured, embarrassed or guilty about setting boundaries.
Talk about new things you want to try in the bedroom in a neutral environment instead of in the heat of the moment – and you should plan out a time to have that conversation. Don’t just bring it up out of nowhere. Say something like, “I’d really like to reconnect about our sex-life. Are you comfortable with having that conversation after dinner tonight?”
How to say ‘no’ if you’re uncomfortable
On the flip-side, if you’re the one wanting to say no but you feel pressured, uncomfortable or just have a hard time being assertive, try following these tips:
- Tell them what you DO want to do: kissing, touching, watching a movie together, etc.
- Make sure you are clear and direct. Look them in the eyes and use a serious tone of voice.
- You can also let them know that you really do like, or love, them, but you’re just not comfortable with [fill in the blank].
- I really like it when you [fill in the blank]. Can we do more of that instead of [fill in the blank]?
- The most direct way is to just say ;no’ or ‘I’m not comfortable doing this.’ It’s your body and you deserve to call the shots.
Keep in mind, you don’t owe any explanation to your partner. You don’t need to justify why you’re saying no if you’re uncomfortable doing so. Listen to what your body is telling you. Sometimes we want to please others so badly we ignore our gut feelings.
If you start to feel anxious, scared or just uncomfortable in any way, your body may be telling you something – listen to it. If you feel as if you’re dissociating (for example, you ‘zone out’ while engaging in sex) this is a trauma response and is another way your body/mind is communicating that you’re not in the right headspace to move forward.
What sexual consent DOESN’T look like
It’s extremely important to keep in mind what sexual consen’t does not look like. It’s not always as black and white as someone saying ‘no.’ Here are some examples:
- A partner who is disengaged, nonresponsive, or visibly upset
- Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more
- Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state
- Someone being incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
- Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear, gaslighting, manipulation or intimidation
- Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it with them in the past
- Refusing to acknowledge “no”
Navigating gray areas of sexual consent
There are a few gray areas when it comes to sexual consent. For example, legally, if you’re under the influence of drugs and alcohol, you cannot give consent. However, we all know how common it is to have sex under the influence.
Alcohol and many drugs can affect three things: your inhibitions, your thought processing, and your ability to communicate clearly and quickly. Plus, if someone has overindulged, there’s the risk that they could be unconscious or unresponsive. If you’re in that place, consent simply CANNOT happen — it’s as simple as that. Not conscious? No consent.
If you’re planning on using substances and engaging in sex, keep these things in mind:
- Don’t try anything new for the first time
- Implement a safe word and/or safe gesture
- Reschedule sex if you’ve approached your drinking or usage threshold (for example, you’ve had more than three vodka-sodas)
- Talk about it in advance if you can and come up with a mutually agreed-upon plan
- Have emergency contraception on-hand, if relevant
At the end of the day though, if you’re not sure your partner is consenting, or is able to consent, it’s time to stop. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of sex or just getting started.