If you ask me, people don’t talk about consent enough with respect to sex. Sure, those of us who attend college get a one-hour seminar at orientation to talk about the definition of consent and the consequences of violating it, but consent is far too nuanced to cover in such a short period of time.
“No means no,” is the primary message we get about consent, and it’s important. If someone says no to sex, do not have sex with them. If someone says no to something you may consider totally benign like a hug, do not hug them. Consent can be revoked at any time. A person cannot consent when incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Most of us have heard these basics, and it’s important to know them as a baseline.
These are not the only things to keep in mind, though. We must also create an environment in which our partners feel safe saying no to us. Let me explain.
Think about this situation. You are in a relationship in which you’re financially supported by another person. You are worried that if the person isn’t satisfied with the relationship, they’ll leave you with nothing. So, to keep them happy, you have sex with them when they ask, whether you want to or not. This is an example of a situation where a person might feel they can’t say no.
Aaron, age 32, talks about a time he had a friend over for drinks and let them crash on the couch so they wouldn’t have to drive home. This friend proceeded to crawl into his bed and initiate sex. When he expressed that he wasn’t interested, they continued to ask and initiate. He decided it was easier to just go with it and have sex with the person than to say no and create conflict.
So, how do we ensure that a partner feels okay, safe, or comfortable saying no to sex, or any activity? Obviously, it’s impossible to control for every factor affecting consent, but there are a few things you can do.
First, be specific. “Can I go down on you?” or “Want to bottom?” are better than issuing commands or simply moving the person into position. Communicate these questions with each sex act. Just because they want to give you a blowjob doesn’t mean they want you to reciprocate, so ask first.
Lead by example. Tell the person what you like, then ask what they’re into. Say no to anything you’re not comfortable with. Continually communicate during the entire encounter. Showing that you’re comfortable talking about consent helps put your partner at ease that they, too, can tell you what they do and don’t want.
If they seem ambivalent, emphasize that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to. If you ask them, “Can you use this cock ring?” and they say something indecisive like “I guess so;” say “It’s totally okay if you don’t want to!” or “no worries. What if I wore it instead?” Take the pressure off and give them an out.
Let’s revisit the above example with Aaron. His guest was badgering, which felt coercive to him. They also continued attempting to initiate sex after Aaron had already expressed disinterest. What should they have done instead? The best way to approach it would have been to simply ask, and to stop right away when Aaron said no, rather than asking repeatedly, trying to wear him down.
Being safe to say yes to is also important! Your partner should feel safe telling you what they want without fear of judgment. You don’t have to say “yes” to everything they ask, but try not to make them feel bad for asking respectfully. You may think their desire is weird, but as long as it isn’t putting anyone in danger, there’s no reason to make them feel bad for it. This is also a behavior you can encourage by modeling. Tell your partner your fantasy to open the door to hearing theirs, and respect their “no” if they aren’t interested in trying it.
These tips are not comprehensive. It’s important to add that seeking and giving consent isn’t going to undermine the passion of the moment, however you define that. Consent is about communication and creating a safe, comfortable environment. The more openly you talk with your partner, the better you will both be able to give informed and enthusiastic consent. Chances are you’ll end up feeling freer, more connected—and having a great experience.