Let’s be clear: consent really is as simple as a yes or no. But the catchy taglines don’t acknowledge the subtleties and complexities of sexual desire. How does one interpret body language, and resist making assumptions based on previous sexual experience? What about feelings of vulnerability that make it hard to communicate exactly what one wants and doesn’t want?
It is within these all too common and under-discussed subtleties that lead to misunderstandings, and at least, bad sex, or at worst, sexual violence. In 2015, the Canadian Women’s Foundation (WCF) reported that only 1 in 3 Canadians were able to demonstrate an understanding of what consent really means; that is, that consent is “positive (e.g. saying yes, initiating and/or enjoying sexual activity) and ongoing (e.g. continues during the sexual activity).” California passed a law in 2014 that requires a “yes means yes” rule. Under a “yes means yes” standard, sexual activity is considered consensual only when both partners clearly state their willingness to participate through “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” at every stage.
Learning about and practicing consent is important in most areas of life, not simply in our sexual escapades. If you’re feeling unsure about how to negotiate consent, I encourage you not to see consent as simply exclusive to the bedroom. Look for it in conversations with friends. Negotiate where to go for coffee (or tea?), or what to have for dinner tonight with your roommate. I use examples of food because our desires and senses are joyously intertwined, and taste preferences (like sexual preferences) are so diverse and personal. Would you insist on taking a friend out for Vindaloo, without giving them the details of how spicy the dish is, whether it is made with beef, chicken, lamb, or veggie, which restaurant you’ll be attending, and who’s going to be the designated driver on the way home? Plus, your friend may have tried Vindaloo before, but only at their aunt’s place, and hasn’t had a chance to try it at Gateway to India, so in that sense, they may not know what they’re consenting to. This brings up the necessity that consent is informed, and not simply offering vague details on what is to come.
Cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity can sometimes play a role in negotiating consent in heterosexual relationships. As a twenty-something woman, I am slowly untangling my own expectation about being “agreeable” and “likeable;” I know that being seen as an angry feminist is undesirable. Socialized ideas of femininity play a role here. On the flipside, dominant ideals of masculinity can keep men caged from displaying their vulnerabilities, closing the door to the necessary negotiations that lead to consent.
My go-to in negotiating consent is embracing awkwardness when we express desires. I recently asked a potential lover, “Do you ever think about kissing me?” and when they said yes, I asked, “Would you be interested in trying it now?” And while this may not be the hottest line from a romance novel, it was in that moment of vulnerability, that baited breath, and that flicker of uncertainty which created intimacy that was really sexy when they said yes. So I highly encourage you to include that nervous moment as part of the thrill of being sexy, because the motto that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is ask to ask permission” does not apply here.
A few of my handy tips for negotiating consent:
Always err on the side of caution: Communicating desire through body language can be thrilling and tingle-inducing. You may find yourself in a flirty and frisky scenario, and while body language is a great way to demonstrate affection and interest, don’t assume that the person wants to take you home. In the words of sex-positive songwriter Rachel Lark, “if you’re not sure it’s not rape, just don’t do it.” If vibes of uncertainty emanate, back off–and cool off.
Ask questions along the way: Asking questions such as “Is this okay?” “Would you like me to (fill in the dirty blank)?” “Would you be interested in ______?” and “How does this feel?” are a few really hot examples. Forget the idea that asking too many questions takes away from the seductive aspects. Enthusiasm, confidence, and slowness are hot. Coercion is not.
Communicate always: Ask questions before, during, and after sexual activities. After each time my partner and I have sex, we talk about what we liked, what we didn’t like, what we’d like to do again, and how much further to go or whether to take a step back. This communication is as much as part of our sexual adventure as the sex itself. This practice is evidently most easily practiced in a long-term relationship; however, we shouldn’t be quick to assume that in a long-term relationship these kinds of discussions are not necessary. According to the WCF, 1 in 10 Canadians believe that consent becomes less important once you’re involved in a long-term relationship. This is one of the many myths about consent that need to be debunked.
Engaging in sexual activity poses the potential for thrill, pleasure, and fulfillment, but also the potential for discomfort, and maybe trauma. Really great sex starts with emotional intimacy, and this requires empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; it is about imagining what the other person feels, what would turn them on, what their bodily sensations might feel like. Pay attention to what might make you uncomfortable. My lover has told me that when I express what I want, it allows us both to go further in our experimenting. Empathy is not magic; it develops from diligent practice of communication and connection. So talking opens the door to emotional and physical intimacy—between friends, family, and lovers. It can certainly be exciting to explore the space just outside our comfort zone, but only if that exploration starts from a place of mutual consent, respect, and empathy.