By now, you should know that it’s not OK to touch someone’s body without permission. Yet, nearly every damn day there’s news of some actor, politician, or collegiate who’s crossed these lines (and clearly should’ve known better).
Although the #MeToo comeuppance seems to have shot up out of nowhere, consent violations, like chickens, have come home to roost. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed, raped, objectified, or groped. We’ve all been there.
An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. One in 3 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime (compared to 1 in 6 men.) The viral #MeToo hashtag is a godsend for those who wanted to break their silence about sexual harassment and assault. In this era, consent is a serious topic everywhere from the ball field to the boardroom. These important conversations not only benefit the greater good, but provide a safer landscape for survivors to get help and support.
What often gets overlooked in these dialogues, though, is how you establish consent in real-life scenarios – without killing the mood. Here's a step-by-step guide to helping you navigate your relationships to ensure your encounters are ethical, consensual and fun.
Step 1 - Understand the Meaning of Consent
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “consent” as “to give assent or approval.” In simple terms, consent is clear, enthusiastic and communicated.
We should all agree that we want ourselves and our partners to be enthusiastic about sex, right? That means there has to be a hard stop on sexual activity if your partner is silent, drunk, stoned, or indifferent. Sure, an unequivocal “yes” is critical, but so is paying attention to your partner’s physical and emotional cues. That said, it’s dicey to negotiate consent based strictly on body language, since there are so many ways to perceive nonverbal behavior.
Repeat after me: The absence of “no” does not mean yes. “No” is a complete sentence.
“It's important to be comfortable saying, and hearing, the word ‘no’ in conversations around consent,” says Jennifer Rahner of GeekySexyLove.com. “Asking questions about someone's no is permissible, but be careful not to appear coercive and trying to change a no.”
When you hear a no, Rahner recommends reassuring your partner than you have heard them and understand their no. Some great phrases to become comfortable using:
- "Thank you for letting me know."
- "Thank you – may I ask again later?"
- "Thank you for taking care of yourself."
- "Thank you – I appreciate we can talk about our wants and desires so directly."
“Make sure you recognize the positive aspects of hearing no,” says Rahner. “It's a learning experience on a path to getting to know a partner or potential partner and is an excellent barometer for monitoring compatibility.”
If you still have questions about what is and isn’t consent, check out this British public service video comparing sex to offering someone a cup of tea. This. Is. Everything.
Step 2 - Learn How to Negotiate Verbal Agreements
Consent is a conscious decision-making process. It must be informed, meaning that someone who’s being asked for their consent understands the full scope of what they're being asked to participate in. For example, if someone’s asleep or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they may be unable to give consent in an informed way.
The purpose of these conversations is to articulate your sexual likes and dislikes, boundaries, sexual history, and safer sex practices. Keep in mind, any one of these things can change over the course of a relationship (and probably will, which is why it's important to check in with your partner on a regular basis). Try to avoid having these conversations when you’re already hot, bothered and naked. Best-case scenario? Set up time to talk with a partner in a relaxed environment where you can have a productive two-way dialogue.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with these types of conversations, it can be awkward at first. That’s normal. The thing is, the more you have these intimate pre-play talks, the more comfortable they become. They can actually be a total turn-on!
Step 3 - Understand What's Required to Get Consent
One of my partners is basically the poster child for consent. On our first date, he leaned across the table and asked if it was OK to kiss me. It was the hottest thing ever. When he took me back to his place on a later date, he explicitly checked in every step of the way: “May I touch you here/take this off…” As we shifted gears from kissing to touching to getting naked, I felt safe and had agency as things escalated.
A big myth in our society is that talking about consent ahead of time ruins the vibe. Rahner believes that couldn’t be farther from the truth. She says consent can be discussed while flirting. “Fine tune your non-verbal flirting skills to include sexy talk and talk about what you want from a new partner. Confidence and direct talk can be incredibly hot!”
“There's nothing sexier than someone who says, ‘Can I kiss you? Can I touch? Do you want to? Should we wait till our next date to?’” says Jenny Block, author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex. “It's all about how it's couched.”
“You have to have complete, total consent. And it has to be the kind of consent your mama would be proud of,” says Block. “Would your mama say you were being polite to that young lady or would she say you were pushing her, ‘Come on baby. Come on baby' is not sexy.”
Step 4 - Recognize That Consent Is an Ongoing Dialogue
Just because you’ve said yes to a sexual activity once, doesn’t mean it’s an open invitation for all of eternity. On Twitter, @Neo_url said it best:
If you’ve ever tried to put your finger up a straight guy’s ass during sex, you’ll know that they actually understand ongoing consent, withdrawal of consent and sexual boundaries very well. They act confused when it’s our bodies.
“Consenting to one sexual behavior does not provide blanket consent for other acts,” Rahner says.
Consent can be revoked or renegotiated at any time
And here’s where a lot of folks run into snags: “Consent is an ongoing conversation no matter how long you've been with a lover,” says Rahner.
Block talks to a lot of her friends' teen daughters about sex.
“A lot of them don't understand that you can be in the middle of an act with somebody and you can say, ‘Stop it.’ You can put a full-stop on anything, at any time, even if you've said, ‘Yes, I want to do this.’ You can change your mind,” she says.
“I think, unfortunately, in trying to be good parents, we've told our kids you have to finish what you start, you have to be polite, don't hurt anyone’s feelings, and that sometimes we lie and do things we don't like because it's the kind thing to do.”
Step 5 - Understand What Happens If Consent Is Violated
“If you've been sexually assaulted, it's OK to need some time to figure out next steps,” says Kitty Stryker, editor of Ask: Building Consent Culture. “Some people report it and go to the police, others undertake trauma therapy, still others work through their experience individually. While it's often relieving to have a support system you can trust and talk to about your needs and how you feel, it can also be scary, especially if you share a social group. There's no one right answer on how to respond to trauma.”
Stryker adds, "If you believe you've violated someone, the most important thing is to not fall to the temptation to be defensive. If you're in direct contact, ask if there's anything you can do to help that person feel safe right now,” she says. “Remember to prioritize the survivor’s needs, which might be space from you.”
The bottom line: Consent is essential. We all need to open the dialogue on the topic and model good behavior. We also need to listen and pay attention to words, feelings and context. And if you’re not sure whether your partner is providing enthusiastic consent, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Mistakes happen, but we all deserve more.
Ask: Building Consent Culture by Kitty Stryker
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says