If you’re me, your social media feed is full of posts about consent and #metoo (but you’re not, so who knows what’s in your feed). Why does this public conversation about consent matter?
The importance of reflecting on how you think about consent
You may be thinking, “I’m not a rapist — do I really need to read about consent?” The answer is no; you don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do (because your consent matters!). However! There might be ways that you would adjust your approach to consent if you gave it a little more thought. So let’s dive in!
On a cultural level, we’re not doing a great job with consent — sexually or otherwise. When we want something, we sometimes pressure people to give it to us. Also, we don’t always ask all of the questions that go into assessing how consensual an interaction truly is.
Consent can be even trickier in sexual interactions because a lot of us aren’t fully comfortable with talking about sex. But the thing is, talking openly about sex with your partner(s), is pretty much the single tactic that almost every sex advice columnist, sex therapist, and sex educator agrees will help you have better sex. Sexual communication is key whether it’s a one-night-stand or a long-term relationship.
It’s true — sex is better when you’re confident that everyone involved is completely on board with every sexy thing that happens.
For sex (and by “sex,” I mean all types of sexual interactions, not just penis-in-vagina style) to be consensual, everyone involved needs to agree to it (verbally or nonverbally — though saying it out loud is the easiest way to know for sure). Consent needs to be freely given (no pressure) and ongoing (you can say no at any time).
Also, people need to know what they’re consenting to. Are there any risks involved that they should know about? Risks might include STIs, pregnancy, etc. So if you have an STI (or think you might), that’s the type of information you might want to let your partner know (if you’re going to have sex that could potentially transmit that STI). If you’re thinking of having sex that could lead to pregnancy, that’s another thing you might want to talk to your partner about (whether you/they are using birth control, etc.). That way, they can make an informed decision about whether or not to have sex with you, what kind of sex to have, and whether they want to use protection.
Other pre-sex disclosures might include your relationship status, and whether you’re looking for a relationship versus a hookup.
When consent gets tricky
What if they’re drunk or high?
What if there’s a power dynamic (for instance, if you can influence their professional success or social status)?
What if they feel disempowered to say no because of their marginalized identity or upbringing (for instance, their parents, society, or both taught them that it is expected to be polite and agreeable as a girl/woman)?
What if they’re much younger than you?
What if they’re emotional right now (maybe they’re going through a breakup, the death of a loved one, depression, etc.)?
What if they feel indebted to you for some reason (for instance, if you bought them dinner or are letting them sleep at your place)?
I’m not saying that you can never have consensual sex in the above scenarios. Maybe you should have sex with your boss! First of all, I have to admit that that’s kind of hot. Secondly, if you’re both/all careful about using good consent practices, great, consensual sex can happen even in complicated situations.
Tips for practicing good consent in hard situations
Explicit, verbal consent is a good place to start for a complicated situation. But sometimes a person might say yes when they are not actually ready, or they’re not feeling empowered to say no.
What can you do if someone says yes, but you’re in a situation that makes consent complicated? How can you be sure?
If you’re uncertain, it may be best to err on the side of caution.
Rules of thumb for getting consent right
Don’t fret! While consent can be complex, it’s entirely possible to navigate it well! Here are some rules of thumb that may help you along the way.
Now go and have all the consensual sex you want! Fill your life with pleasurable, consensual experiences! I think you’ll find that you enjoy the delight of mutual enthusiasm, as well as the peace of a clear conscience.