Last week we talked about what a “model of consent” is and what a few models were. Today is about consent under the “yes means yes” model.
Consent is being in agreement that what is going on is good/ desirable/ fun/ sexy and should keep happening. You need to have your partner’s consent for sexual activity, or it is sexual assault/ rape.
Consent is a state, like trust. or paying attention. And it’s between your partner’s ears.
Affirmative consent is when you know that you have consent, because there are concrete things your partner has done that tell you so. Putting a condom on your dick and climbing on top of you, for instance. Or using their words to say, “I kinda want to fuck you again.” (while the afternoon light streams in the kitchen windows….) Knowing that your partner wants you, as opposed to basically guessing, makes for hands down better sex.
The consent that I’m referring to in this post is an ethical/moral/be-a-decent-human-being term, not a legal term. Most people, I think, are basically decent and kind and want to do the right thing, but I also think a lot of us grew up with some really fucked up information and ideas about sex. Like that it should “just happen” and you should not plan for it or talk about it.
What does consent look like? How do you communicate your consent, as well as your boundaries? How can you know that you have your partner’s consent, and where the boundaries of that consent lie?
Consent is a state, like paying attention. And if you’re on a date, you don’t determine someone’s attention once and then assume they’re enraptured for the next half an hour of you talking at them across a table, without checking back in or letting them get a word in edgewise. You know you need to have someone’s attention continuously and voluntarily if you want (a) actually connect with them and (ii) not be an asshole.
Beyond the minimum requirements of not being an asshole, it’s also a lot more fun if your date is responding to you, asking questions and making observations. So how do you make sure you have your date’s “attention” the whole time?
Humans communicate in two major ways: verbal and nonverbal. (for this post, “verbal” and “use your words” will include anything with words, like speaking or writing or signing.)
The current prevailing narrative for sexual interactions eschews verbal communication almost entirely. The short version being that women are to look sexy and beckoning, and men are to pursue and initiate sexual actions, all the way from the initial conversation to intercourse, which is penis in vagina. Sex is over when the guy cums. Words are only for if something is wrong. Or if you’re, like, freaky.
Following this script for sex requires a huge number of assumptions on all sides:
- it assumes a guy’s goal is always penetrative sex.
Under the idea that men always want to keep escalating, with a goal of penetrative sex, that makes it really hard for a guy to say he doesn’t want to go further. And it implies women can’t rape men, if a guy “always wants it.” That’s not true. Guys need to be able to set their own boundaries as much as girls do, without being pressured by a woman being like “Why don’t you want to? Is there something wrong with me?” (Is there something wrong with you?)
- it says you can assume, if a woman goes somewhere alone with you and lets you take off some or all of her clothes, the woman is game for basically anything up to and including penetrative sex, unless she objects clearly enough.
Relying solely on your partner to unambiguously, verbally object if something is rotten in the state of sexy, with no onus on you to ask or notice anything, is like walking into an irregularly shaped room blindfolded, assuming it’s square, and finding the walls by running full tilt in random directions, not knowing if you’ve hit a boundary until you put holes in the drywall. It’s reckless.
It’s also disrespectful, off-loading all responsibility onto your partner. It forces her to monitor the situation and makes her “bad cop” if she has a problem. If she has to be bad cop, she has to hold part of herself back, allocating mental resources to being vigilant. And, when speaking up is seen as something to be avoided…. it will be avoided. She’ll weigh doing something she doesn’t want to do sexually against the unpleasantness of your displeasure if she calls a halt, and sometimes she’ll know that it would be more unpleasant to try and stop you.
For example, guys : If you’re gonna put your dick in a woman for the first time, do you make her ask for a condom, or do you go look for one at the appropriate time? If neither of you has one, do you keep going as if there’s no issue and force your partner to be like “whoah, no, stop.” ? Do you realize that’s shitty of you and probably scary to your partner?
(for the record, you should have/bring condoms. “you” meaning everyone. if y’all haven’t specifically talked about STI status and whether or not you’ll be using condoms, assume you’re using them.)
- this script relegates women to the status of passive
Fuck that script. One active partner and one entirely passive partner isn’t even good sex.
Good sex is like running together while holding hands. Both people running. You have to be paying attention to your partner at all times, because if you let go, you’re no longer running together. You can let go or they can let go at any time. You can’t get started or change speed or direction without buy-in from your partner. Consent is keeping a hold of your partner’s hand, agreeing to go with them, agreeing to not leave them behind.
Good sex is like sprinting along together, paying attention to each other the whole time, making little course corrections all the while, possibly breaking out in fits of giggles when you make eye contact, maybe even laughing so hard you can hardly breathe, ending up together somewhere you wanted to be, and collapsing in an exhausted, satisfied heap at the end. Laying in a tangled pile of sweat and content and sweet kisses.
Or maybe good sex is like an old married couple walking arm in arm down the block and back, the way they always do, the way they’ve done twice a week and every Sunday for 30 years. They don’t sprint, that isn’t the point of enjoying walking together. And maybe they don’t turn and stare in each other’s eyes the whole way like they once did when they were young lovers, but sometimes one of them will tilt their head to rest on their partner’s shoulder, just to add one more point of contact. There aren’t a lot of course corrections, because they know where each other is going. And when they get back to the house, he opens the screen door and holds it for her, and she kisses him on the way by, with his hand at the small of her back, before they go inside.
I’m sure you have noticed there’s no still no words in those scenes. Do I care a lot about ascertaining consent? Yeah, I do. Do I think consent has to be explicitly verbal? Ya know… no. I don’t. I do think that to know about your partner’s consent, you should look for the presence of positive indicators (yes means yes) rather than just the absence of negative indicators (no means no).
There are a lot of non-verbal things you can (and should) concretely look for. Before any touching even happens, do they mirror your body language? Do they lean in when you lean in? If you move closer to them, do they move closer to you, or do they move away? If they move away a couple of times, quit trying to touch them.
How do you know it’s ok to hug someone? They raise their arms to hug you before you close the distance between you. If they don’t want to hug you, they keep their arms at their sides, or back up, or offer a handshake instead. How do you know when you can kiss someone, if you don’t use your words? You don’t close 100% of the distance and they meet you partway. If they don’t want to kiss you, they won’t meet you there.
If your partner is consenting, you will see them meeting you halfway on stuff, responding to your touch, touching you back, making approving noises, positioning their body helpfully, making occasional eye contact, smiling, giggling, kissing you, smelling your skin.
If your partner pulls away, flinches, draws back, goes still, goes limp, freezes, is silent, looks unhappy, starts holding their breath, goes from meeting you halfway to merely allowing your touch: stop and check in with words. Maybe they’re ticklish? Maybe they want to stop.
Decent human being note that I wish didn’t have to be said: if your partner is crying, and you are not playing that kind of game on purpose, stop what you are doing and ask them what is wrong.
Decent human being note #2: If your partner is asleep next to you and y’all have never discussed sleepy sex, or they might be awake, you’re not really sure, they’re kinda humping you? and they have a boner/are super wet and you’d really like to have some sleepy sex, ask them with words. If they do not answer, they are not awake. (silence means no. guessing this one wrong is rape, kids.)
If you are unsure about anything, check in with words. if you want something more complex than can be telegraphed with eye contact + movement, or is more than an incremental difference from what you were doing before, ask with words.
Don’t assume every positive indicator means you’re going to have sex. Speaking of which, what’s sex? If your partner says, “I don’t want to have sex tonight,” does oral sex count? I’m sure you know the answer at this point, but it’s still ask with words!
“Ummm,” “I guess?” “shhhuuure.” “You know I would but I can’t.” “I dunno.” “Maybe?” “I really just want to watch the movie.” “Red,” and “….” (motionless silence) all mean No.
If the person you want to make the sexy with at any point says “no” or “stop,” stop. And quit trying whatever it was. Don’t try again that day/night unless your partner asks for whatever-it-was with their words. Don’t go for it on a different night unless than answer changes to “yes, please.”
Important thing to remember: Nobody is a mind reader. Especially with a new partner or a new activity, explicit verbal consent is a really, really good idea, and a best practice. If you’re holding hands with someone, and you take off sprinting without asking them if they want to run… if you guessed right then y’all are sprinting along together like magic and everything is rainbows and unicorns and orgasms.
If you guessed wrong, you could knock your partner down and hurt them, especially if you drag them for a while. (that would be continuing the sexy after they want you to stop.) Even if they do want to come along, you might jerk their arm halfway out of their socket before they catch up to what is happening. If you don’t ask them how far they want to go, you may have very different goals in mind. Even if your partner keeps running until the farther goal, they might hit an emotional wall before you arrive and be in a bad way at the end.
So talk to your partner. Start talking before it’s do-I-or-don’t-I-put-my-dick/fingers/toy-inside-you time.
Examples of talking about boundaries and explicit verbal consent: “I would really like to cuddle, but I don’t want to make out.” Do you want to go someplace alone? ::hands on shirttail:: How do you feel about losing this? I feel great but I’d like to keep our pants on. I feel great about that, how do you feel about me taking your pants off? Do you like this? That feels awesome. It’d feel awesomer if you did it harder. Does that feel good? Yeah, but not so hard. Do you like your nipples played with? No, they’re really sensitive. Yes, they’re really sensitive! Yes, please, really hard. Do you have a condom? Can you put a condom on? “Fuck me.” Can I fuck you? I really really want you. ::dick lined up for penetration:: Can I? Yes.
Explicit verbal consent can be super hot. The affirmation that your partner wants you, completely freely choosing to do these things with you… is super hot. It’s a way better feeling than being like “I guess I can get away with this.”
It’s far easier to lose oneself in pleasure if you’re not worried that consenting to X, which you like, will obligate you to Y, which you’re not ready to do tonight. Self-containment out of apprehension makes for less-good sex. Being able to ask about expectations makes for more enjoyable sexy times.
(Also far easier to lose oneself in pleasure if one is confident one’s partner is not going to flip their shit and be a dick if you decide you want to stop. Fear is not sexy.)
Consent is a state. Like “frozen” for water, or “alive,” for Schrödinger’s cat. But it’s a state that exists in your partners’ brain. You don’t know if the ice is thick enough to support your weight without observing and measuring (and you have to know what the parameters are for thick-enough ice). And you don’t know if that damn cat is alive or dead unless you look. And… you don’t know for sure what’s going on in your partner’s brain without asking.