Sexual Consent 101
The concept of consent may seem like a pretty straightforward idea: someone either agrees to something or not. They either want something or they don’t. However, fully understanding consent, especially when it comes to sexual activity, is essential to ensuring physical & emotional safety and maintaining healthy relationships. Not to mention, people can get into a lot of trouble due to issues surrounding consent, so it’s worth taking a close look into exactly what consent means, as well as some potential gray areas that can arise and create significant emotional, social, and legal consequences.
Let’s start with defining what consent is so that we will then also have a context for discussing what it is not. Consent simply means giving permission for something to happen and being a willing participant when it comes time for that activity to happen. Seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, it can start to get a little tricky when we begin to consider the different ways that someone can indicate their consent in a sexual scenario. They might:
Directly say “yes” (verbally)
They may nod (physically)
Those are some more clear-cut ways of indicating consent. But what if someone doesn’t say “yes” (or an equivalent, like nodding), but seems to just go along with your lead? Here is where it can get confusing. They might be a willing participant, or they might want to put on the brakes and you miss the signs. Where you get into some gray areas is when someone seems neutral. Is that consent? No.
The absence of a “no,” is NOT a “yes.”
You may be wondering, “well, do I have to check in with my partner with absolutely everything I’m doing? Like moving my hand somewhere different on their body?” That may seem ridiculous to you, but you always want to be clear with a sex partner regarding what each of you are okay with and what you’re not. This is usually a good conversation to have BEFORE you’re actually finding yourself in a sexual space. And remember, just because you talked about something prior, doesn’t mean that your partner will always want to do it (if at all!).
Cup of tea?
One of the clearest ways we have seen consent explained is using the analogy of offering a person a cup of tea. RockstarDinosaurPiratePrincess explores how if you were offering someone a cup of tea, they may say yes they would love a cup, or no they are not interested, and you would generally accept that as reasonable. If they say yes and change their mind when it comes time to drink the tea, we wouldn’t stand over them and force them to drink it, we wouldn’t criticize them for changing their mind, we wouldn’t expect them to drink tea every time we saw them, we wouldn’t assume they like all flavors of tea, and we would certainly not force it down their throat when they are sleeping. Blue Set Studios did an awesome job of illustrating Rockstar’s blog and putting it into a youtube video to that is a great 2 minute overview of this that can really simplify the understanding of the consent process.
Actually, Yes, Consent Is Sexy
It may seem contrary to popular belief, but consent is sexy. Some might think that it would ruin the mood to check in with a partner consistently and making sure that they still are enjoying themselves as a sexual situation progresses to more intimate levels. However, checking with your partner on where they are at and how they feel about the level of intimacy and sexual contact demonstrates consideration and makes you a more attractive and desired lover. This check in could be as simple as “do you like this?” or “is this okay?” but must include some concrete communication back and forth as to whether you are both comfortable with where things are and where they are heading.
Here are some things to remember about consent:
- Coerced consent is NOT consent
- Impaired consent is NOT consent
- Consent can be revoked at any time
- Regretting something later does NOT mean you didn’t consent to it at the time
Coerced Consent Is Not Consent
If you feel pressured to say “yes” to something, whether that’s because you are physically intimidated or someone is nagging you incessantly, that is not you willfully agreeing to participate. Essentially, if you would have made a different choice had you not been intimidated, pressured, or what have you, that is not consenting, that is called being coerced. Coercion comes with a lot of mixed emotions and can lead a person to feeling less valued, important, and safe.
Impaired Consent Is Not Consent
If someone is impaired, meaning that the person’s mental functioning is such that they cannot make rational decisions, they are unable to give consent. An example of this could be when a person is “not all there” mentally due to taking too much of a substance, meaning that a drunk person is unable to give consent. This gets particularly complicated when all parties involved are impaired from substance use and then after the fact one says they did not give consent, but memory is foggy.
Where does responsibility lie? There is no easy answer. The best way to avoid such situations in which you may be impaired around people you are not familiar with, have discussions of sexual comfort levels when not impaired or to not engage in sexual activity while impaired. Or more simply do not become impaired to such a level that you can no longer make good choices. There is a difference between having a glass of wine at dinner and binge drinking all night at a frat party. Know that when you are impaired you are susceptible to making poor choices. This would be true for both being easily coerced or pressuring another person into such activities.
People can withdraw their consent at any time. Even if a person initially said yes to something, they have the right to change their mind at ANY point. It’s important to remember this at both ends. You’re allowed to change your mind and the people you are being intimate with are also allowed to change their mind. Consenting to something once doesn’t signify a blanket consent that a certain thing or sex act is always okay for a person. At any point a person can decide they no longer want the cup of tea being offered to them.
To be clear, you can absolutely regret engaging in something after it happens, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t consent to it at the time. For instance, if you willingly have sex with a person and then later are angry at yourself for doing so, that doesn’t mean that that person has had sex with you without your consent. However, if it is sometimes hard for you to say “no” in the moment or put the brakes on if something is going beyond your comfort zone, that is understandable and normal. Many people, particularly women, often have trouble communicating their needs in the moment.
There might be other reasons that contribute to a difficulty with communicating needs. Maybe you have been through trauma and tend to dissociate during sex, you may have developed the mindset that if you refuse sex you will lose a partner & fear being alone, or you may struggle with communicating for any other number of other reasons. If you find yourself frequently experiencing these issues of regret after sexual activity, this may point to some deeper work needing to be done on how you see yourself in relationships, your confidence, feelings of worth, and perceptions about sex.
Serving Coffee with Tea?
To add another layer to the questions about consent, please consider what The Brown Guy Network (*alert the video contains swearing and sexualized wording) proposed about being able to prove consent after the fact. If we consider a cup of tea consent for sexual activity, coffee would be the proof that consent occurred while you were drinking your cup of tea. In their video they discuss the importance of the both sides in communicating consent and how regret can play into significant confusion as to whether consent did or did not occur.
Good rule of thumb, if there is any chance that sexual activity may be questionable after the fact, DON’T DO IT.
Consent is a very complicated issue, made even more so when it involves the legal system, hurt relationships, and traumatic experiences. We have grown into a society where we will judge others quickly on whether WE think they had given or not given consent in sexual situations, regardless if we know all the facts or were there. Whether it is mutual consent, coercion, impaired consent, or regret we do not know the other persons whole story and need to be respectful of their experience and how it impacted them. Shaming others doesn’t help anyone.
If you have found yourself having difficulty with boundaries, consent, and/or communication with coffee or tea, connecting with a counselor or supportive person can help. This can help you process what might be keeping you stuck, anxious, or overloaded so that you can better communicate your needs with your partner. Angelus has several therapists working with individuals and couples that can help guide you through this process. Reach out today to work through issues pertaining to consent as well as the surrounding relationship dynamics that may be contributing to stress surrounding consent.
Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC & Nessa Wilson, LCSW, Director