We are well into the month of love and we’re talking about sex, so let’s have a chat about sexual consent. The idea of sexual consent has become a scary one, associated with the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world, and when we talk about it, we’re usually focusing on the absence of consent, and not the presence of it. Because of this, we often forget to actually think to ourselves: what is sexual consent?
When I was conducting an academic study into sexual consent, I had one of the participants describe consent to me as “if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” I’d like to delve into what we mean by “hell yes”, as opposed to the common practice of looking at the “no.”
The broad definition of consent used in research, law, and general social settings is the freely given agreement to take part in a sexual activity1. The nuances of the definition of consent vary from person to person, and from setting to setting. I’ve come up with a couple of questions to ask yourself to help you explore your own understanding of your consent and the consent of your sexual partners.
How do you verbally communicate your sexual consent?
Consent doesn’t always have to be a “yes”, it may look different in the heat of the moment. “I want to take off our clothes” or “do you have a condom?” are ways of giving consent. Often verbal consent can be easier when you’re having sex with a new partner or someone you don’t know very well2.
How do you non-verbally communicate your sexual consent?
Body language is a valid form of consent, so think about how you use your non-verbal cues to communicate you’re agreeing to sexual activity. Non-verbal cues are generally more common in ongoing sexual relationships when partners understand each other’s sexual patterns better2.
This is usually the kind of consent model we see in movies and television shows, where consent is seldom explicitly established but there appears to be an unspoken understanding between characters.3 Think about how you show you’re consenting, without using words: Do you take off your clothes? Start to undress your partner/s?
How do you communicate your ongoing sexual consent?
It’s important to remember that consent is not a once-off, everyone needs to be consenting the whole way through sex. Think about how you show your partner/s that you’re continuously agreeing to have sex, do you do so verbally, non-verbally, or both?
How do you get consent from your partner/s?
Your partner/s will have a unique set of consent signals, verbal and non-verbal, much like you do. What are their cues? The cues may be subtle, especially if you’ve been having sex together for a while. Think about questions 1 to 3 in relation to your partner/s, and try and apply the ideas for each question to their consent communication. If you’re struggling to answer, ask them!
Have the conversation with yourself and your partner
Our ideas of consent are often a bit hazy, given that it’s something we never really talk about in practice. We may have been taught a “no means no” slogan when we were younger, but nothing about what it looks like when we do want to have sex. Because of this, it may have taken you a minute to think about your answers to these questions.
We often don’t even know our own consent signals – we know we want to have sex, and that our partner/s know we want to have sex, but we may not be able to pinpoint how we’re getting that point across. It’s worth having a conversation with yourself, and the people you’re having sex with, to explore how you understand sexual consent.
- Beres, M. A. (2014). Rethinking the concept of consent for anti-sexual violence activism and education. Feminism & Psychology, 24(3), 373-389.
- Brady, G., Lowe, P., Brown, G., Osmond, J., & Newman, M. (2018). ‘All in all it is just a judgement call’: issues surrounding sexual consent in young people’s heterosexual encounters. Journal of Youth Studies, 21(1), 35-50.
- Jozkowski, K. N., Marcantonio, T. L., Rhoads, K. E., Canan, S., Hunt, M. E., & Willis, M. (2019). A content analysis of sexual consent and refusal communication in mainstream films. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(6), 754-765.