Sexual consent is a huge and important topic. In the last year, we have talked more about consent than we ever have on a societal level. Thanks to the explosion of the #MeToo Movement, we are thinking much more critically about consent and how it should be applied in different situations. We are no longer remaining silent on violations of that consent. A lot of people think that they understand what consent is but this doesn’t really mean they shouldn’t learn more about it. A number of studies have confirmed that despite having a basic understanding of consent, most people still agree with consent violations when presented in specific scenarios despite stating that they are not OK.
The misunderstanding that most people have is that they think consent is only about desire. They don’t really take into account the other things that make up sexual consent. So what is consent really? It’s made up of five basic principles. Consent is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific.
Consent is Freely Given
Our choice to consent is a crucial part of the process. If we do not choose to give the OK, it is rape pure and simple. Consent is all about choice. It’s important that our choice is not coerced in any way. It is not considered to be freely given if the other person holds some sort of power over us or we have a reason to believe that a refusal will lead to harm or other negative consequences. Coercion can come in many different forms and this is one of the things that has really been highlighted with the #MeToo Movement. People have an increased awareness of the difference power dynamics can play in consent. This is a huge step in the right direction. If we look back as recent as 90s movies, for example, it was still highly encouraged and acceptable for men to sexualize their female employees. In some spaces this is still considered as acceptable. Increased awareness around consent and sexual harassment are starting to make a difference in how people think and approach others.
Part of keeping consent freely given is respecting the “no” when it happens. It is still coercion to temporarily accept the no but continue to pressure the person. No is not an objection to be overcome. If a person gives it, it is not up to you to change their mind. Putting pressure on them and trying to change their mind can easily and quickly escalate to a situation where the person may feel it’s not safe or useless to say no. At this point you are not getting a consensual yes, it is a coerced one. We’ve now crossed the line into sexual assault.
Consent is Reversible
Another important piece about consent is that it can be withdrawn. Many people struggle with this part of the concept. While they acknowledge that it can be withdrawn at any time when given scenarios people have still responded that they feel it’s not OK for one person to withdraw their consent at a certain point. It doesn’t matter how far the encounter has gone. Two people could be in the middle of having sex and it’s still alright for one person to change their mind and withdraw their consent to end the activity. Sure this may not be what the other person wants to hear but no one is under any obligation to continue an activity that they don’t want or is making them uncomfortable.
One person’s pleasure is not more important than the comfort and security of someone else, particularly when the pleasure is impacting the other person’s level of comfort. In other areas of our life we easily see this. When people make fun of others, we consider it rude and bad form. It is highly frowned upon because we acknowledge the discomfort and humanity of the person who is being made fun of. We acknowledge the harm that it does to their emotional well being. When we see that, it shows the bully for the jerk that they are. The same is true in sexual situations. A person who doesn’t care for the well being of their sexual partner is only out for their own pleasure. If that’s the case, then that person should just masturbate. Sex is about the enjoyment and connection between two or more people. If a person isn’t on board with that, then they should just keep to themselves.
Consent is Informed
We can’t give our consent if we don’t know what we are agreeing to. Consent must be informed! We need to have the presence of mind and understanding of what we are consenting to. This means knowing what activities we will be engaging in, with who, what risks are involved, and what safer sex methods are being used to mitigate those risks. Sometimes knowing some of these details would change our minds about whether or not we want to participate. We may choose differently depending on some of the specifics. That’s why it’s important to have conversations around consent prior to having sex with someone.
Misrepresenting or withholding information to influence them to consent is considered a consent violation. It is a deliberate and malicious act if you know that they would not consent if they had that information. This also extends to using mind-altering substances, such as drugs or alcohol, to reduce a person’s objections to sexual activities. When someone is not in their right mind, they are not in a state to consent. Getting someone too drunk to refuse is not getting consent. Once again, we have crossed into sexual assault territory. It’s important that people are capable of consenting.
Consent is Enthusiastic
This is the way desire really shines through consent. We should be able to tell that our partner is really into it. When we are having the consent conversation, they should be engaged and excited. They should be putting in their two cents. If they are less than verbally or physically excited, we should be stopping to find out why. There are a lot of reasons why people may not be feeling enthusiastic. Not all of these reasons will have anything to do with us either. They could be feeling unwell, have other things on their mind, feeling exhausted, or any other number of reasons. If someone isn’t enthusiastic talking about having sex with you, there’s a good chance they won’t be enthusiastic during either.
Ideally, each person should be actively participating and interested in what’s happening. If someone seems super excited during the consent conversation but they seem to be more withdrawn once you get into it, stop and check in. You can simply ask how they’re doing or if they want to stop. Be sure to create a safe space where people feel they can withdraw their consent if they need to. After all, who wants to have sex with someone who isn’t excited and into having sex with you?
Another important thing to note about consent is that our desire to participate in sex is super important but it’s important to note that this is just one of the five factors that make up consent. Sometimes a person may very much want to have sex with someone else but they have a lot of other reasons why they should not. Just because someone may want to, doesn’t automatically mean that they have given consent.
Consent is Specific
Consent is not a blanket statement for all time. When we consent to something once, it doesn’t mean that we consent to it every single time going forward. It is specific to the time and place we have given our consent. This holds true to the specific activities we consent to participate in. Along with our consent being informed, we should be able to agree on how far things will go and where the boundaries are. We should be able to agree with our partner on the limits of our interest with them. How far will things go? Will there be making out? Is it ok to leave marks, such as hickeys? Is oral sex ok? Vaginal sex? Anal sex? Just this time?
Consent is all about communicating the desires you have with your partner and understanding where those desires overlap, if at all. The more specific we are, the less room for error there is and the less likely anyone will be pushed into a space that makes them feel uncomfortable. Being specific maximizing our enjoyment. Not only do we ensure that we don’t cross over any boundaries but it also gives us the chance to discover activities that you and your partner may both be interested in but may not have come up without talking about consent.
Keep Learning & Having Conversations About Consent
Many people still feel that they know all the need to know and that conversations about consent are inherently awkward. They don’t have to be and the truth is that they open to the door to more satisfying sex. Consent safeguards people and respect. It creates a deeper relationship between two people because they both feel safe and respected. Learn more about consent and how you can use it to improve your relationships and life by picking up a copy of “Got Consent?“.
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