When it comes to consent, we cannot move forward by only looking back. Too often, when we hear people discussing interpersonal violence and abuse, we only get a picture of the problem: what's wrong and why. Just as important, if not more, is what we actually want intimacy, relationships and consent to look and feel like. (For some background on the history behind consent, read A Short History of Sexual Consent.)
What Consent Looks and Feels Like
It's easy to focus on the negative and get lost in the flood of problems facing society in these areas. One of the most common frustrations I hear from students and adults is that they know that all of these things are wrong, but then what should they be doing instead inside and outside of the bedroom?
Another sticking point is that the majority of these conversations around consent and relationships are colonized. By colonized, I mean they focus on a white, Western, hetero/cisgender perspective. We want to have a common ideal that everyone can be working toward, which means that de-colonizing sex positivity and including cultural humility in these frameworks is a must. Non-verbal cues and communication are vital to affirmative consent and connect to the areas of token-resistance/compliance, but we can’t talk about non-verbal cues without exploring different cultures' beliefs and practices around gestures, body language and personal space. (To read more about this, check out Culture and Consent: The Things We have to Unlearn to Get It Right.)
Add to this the fact that for so long, and in so many spaces, consent has been ignored if not violated and you have the biggest hurdle yet; how do you learn what consent truly is if you haven’t experienced it before? To solve this puzzle let’s start with the five cornerstones of consent.
Consent must be…
Affirmative & Enthusiastic Consent
Affirmative consent is clear and solid. This means that each person’s body language, energy and demeanor all agree with the verbal and non-verbal YES that they are saying. Enthusiasm is the partner of affirmation because there must be joy in this agreement. Not only am I clearly saying "yes," but I’m excited about it! Who wants to talk to, kiss, or have sex with someone who isn’t excited about being with them? Not me!
What is more erotic and exciting than being with a partner who is head-over-heels thrilled to be doing what you are doing? Societal shame around desire can certainly make being this open and honest hard, but it’s not impossible. Clear and happy communication is completely and totally obtainable for current and future generations.
Sex is a buffet, not a single dish. To say that you have agreed on a particular activity and thus consented to it requires us to erase assumptions and inform your partners of exactly what you want, what your boundaries are, and be willing to renegotiate throughout the process. This is especially true if we have barriers in communicating with our partners. Some of these barriers can be shame, shyness or something as complicated as different native languages or a neurodivergence such as autism. The key is to use multiple tools to enhance communication: writing out your desires; using photos and videos to share what you want to explore; observing body language and, above all, verbally checking in. If you aren’t sure just ask. If your partner suddenly changes their mind about anything, make sure they understand that this is OK, and that you will not hold it against them. The more we work to overcome social inhibitors the more effective and honest communication becomes and the better off we all are.
Consent That Is Freely & Willingly Given
A yes that is harnessed by pressure, guilt, or a threat is actually a no. Too often, we feel that in order to please our partners, or to keep our relationships , jobs, or homes, we need to go along with whatever is being asked of us. Yes, sometimes we are in situations that leave us with few options and no one should ever feel guilty about doing what they need to do to survive. But anyone who is in a position of power must be mindful of how their power may be pressuring their partner. A great example of this is how a female partner may shame or threaten to leave her male partner because he doesn’t want to have sex and is “not man enough.” These power dynamics are apparent across all genders and all age groups. Consent and coercion cannot coexist.
Consent and coercion cannot coexist.
Consent Given When of Sound Mind and Body
In addition to all of the previous factors, in order for consent to be valid all people involved must be in a mental and physical state to make informed decisions. We have all grown up with the concept that sex and alcohol are like peanut butter and jelly - they just go together. The reality is that consent and intoxication are like oil and water. You cannot make an affirmative, informed and free decision when your mind isn’t clear. This is a really hard message for many young people because society has educated them to believe the polar opposite: that alcohol is a surefire way to increase your success with seduction. If you need substances to enjoy sex or to convince someone else that they will then you need to look at where those beliefs are coming from and unpack that. One thing I know for sure is that great sex does not need persuading; it sells itself!
Many people think that consent is a gray area, but if you look over these five factors, you can see that consent can be pretty clear. The real problem lies in the conflicting messages we receive about boundaries and communication. No matter what your interaction is - whether getting consent to text someone regularly, or to give them a hug, or to exchange body fluids - at every age and every stage of your relationship (yes, even if you are life partners or married) consent is sexy, mandatory and needed. Together we can relearn what that looks and feels like and create a culture where it always happens.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.