Just after class, a friend sent me a link to an article that’s making the rounds comparing consent to a cup of tea. It’s been getting a lot of attention. I’m glad it’s starting conversations, but it still perpetuates a lot of the old problems in the way that we’re taught about consent. So what is this lesson missing? Well, let's take a look.
How Consent Is Taught By SocietyWe are taught to avoid "no." We’re starting to learn to wait for "yes," but we’re taught about consent in a fear-based way. We are taught to avoid rape, even though we have a lifetime of experience that shows us that our "no" might not carry much weight.
As children, we are taught to give hugs or receive kisses to be polite (even from the aunt or uncle that creeps us out). So, after years of being told that our "no" doesn’t matter, suddenly we’re told consent sometimes applies. No wonder people think it’s so complicated.
In schools, especially in colleges, we are teaching boys not to rape and girls not to get raped. We’re reinforcing that men are the aggressors and that women are the passive recipients. This echoes the problems around sex and gender in our society and continues to perpetuate them. It reinforces stereotypes of sexuality that don’t ring true for many people. It leaves those people outside of what is being represented as the "norm."
Another Problem With How Consent Is TaughtHere’s another problem: when all we think about or talk about is avoiding a no, we don’t get to explore what would make an optimal experience for everyone involved. Where’s the pleasure in that fear-based equation? When I’m teaching and coaching, I focus on creating optimal experiences and not just how to avoid jail time.
So what does all this mean? Is there a better way to approach consent? Yes, actually there is a better way. It’s pretty simple: actually communicate. Learn to ask questions and volunteer information in a way that feels comfortable for you.
The Better Way to Approach ConsentStart by setting and respecting boundaries long before you reach the bedroom. When you meet someone, ask if they’d like a handshake or a hug rather than making an assumption. These habits set people at ease and let everyone know they don’t need to worry about policing their boundaries at all times when they are with you.
Getting to the end of a date and wondering if there will be a goodnight kiss? One of my students recently shared a story about a date asking if they could step closer. Rather than ruin the romantic mood by asking, the mood was enhanced. Not only was the question a sexy thrill, because the advance was welcome, it also set the tone for the interaction: nothing unwelcome was going to happen.
What about during sexual play? Try asking someone, "How would you like to be touched?" There’s a good chance they have never been asked that before. It can be a learning experience for both of you. (Read more in Yes! Why Consent Is Totally Sexy.)
Ask Open-Ended QuestionsAlso, avoid asking yes or no questions. When you ask, "Is this OK?" you’re likely to get a yes unless what you’re doing is horrible. This is where getting past "not horrible" comes into play.
Ask questions that require an open-ended answer. For example, you could ask your partner "On a scale of 1-10 how much do you enjoy this?" Then, ask again after a modification to what you’re doing. You might find out more nuanced information about your partner and their preferences than you’ve heard before. You can also ask questions like, "Harder or softer?" or "Faster or slower?" One of my favorite questions is simply, "What would make this better?" (Get more great tips in Getting Curious: The Surprising Skill for Hot, Fun, Consent-Happy Sex.)
You Can Set the ToneYou can also start the conversation by volunteering information rather than asking questions. This can help set the other person at ease, especially if they aren’t used to open communication. Try saying, "You know what I really like?" or "There’s something I’ve wanted to try…" Not only will you have opened the dialogue, but hopefully by stating your own desires and interests first, your partner will feel safe doing so, too.
You can also turn check-ins and communication into dirty talk. Try telling your partner, "I want you inside me right now," or "Yes, harder." This kind of talk fits nicely with sexual activity, but also does the job of communicating desire and reinforcing consent. You can even turn it into a game, "You want some more? Ask me for it."
Why Don't We Talk About It More Openly?One problem that we encounter is that admitting that we want something can be scary. We run into fears that were drilled into us that say if we actually want sex or pleasure, it makes us a slut ... and that being a slut is bad. We make ourselves vulnerable because admitting that we want something leaves us open to hearing no, being rejected, or being shamed for our desires.
Sex is often about vulnerability. That’s one of the yummiest things about it. To let someone see us in our all naked glory, physically and emotionally, and to discover that they still want us is incredibly empowering.
If you don’t think someone will react well to hearing what will make for the best possible experience for you then why get naked with them at all?