Note: this post discusses consent, and as such mentions the consequences of failing to practice consent skills: sexual assault and r*pe. Sensitive readers should be aware.
Consent 101 is the first topic for this year’s #AdultSexEdMonth!
There are a lot of things we have historically gotten wrong about human sexuality. Humans are social creatures, and we have sex almost entirely for social reasons. It makes sense then, that we, not being animals, would develop a set of ethics around sexuality. The basic framework for who has sex when all comes down to one core basic concept: consent. I mean good consent. I mean ethical consent. I mean active, affirmative consent. So what exactly does that mean?
Active, affirmative consent is the set of healthy boundaries and a framework for clear communication around when and how people engage in sexual activity.
It’s important to note that I just want to cover the basics here, and I’m talking exclusively about adults. I’m also not going to talk about how a social power imbalance impacts consent – that’s a bit advanced for this discussion.
There’s also no such thing as non-consensual sex. If there isn’t active, affirmative, ongoing consent and clear communication, it’s not sex. It may be sexual in nature, but it is a form of violence and traumatizes the mind and body. It’s assault or rape.
Besides, humans can’t yet read minds. So, consent is mandatory.
1. Consent is Active
When people have sex, it requires the active participation of everyone involved. If a person is incapable of taking action because they’re unconscious or chemically impaired, they can’t agree to do much of anything. If one person is passively allowing things to happen to their body, that’s not affirmative, active consent either (again, tweezing out this scenario is a bit advanced for this discussion). Absence of a no is not a yes.
2. Consent is Affirmative and Enthusiastic
When an active participant gives a clear “yes” to sexual activity, that’s affirmative and enthusiastic. That means that boundaries are respected and everyone involved is having a good time. Sex should never involve convincing someone to engage in a particular activity. There’s no whining, goading, shaming, or pressuring anyone to do anything. It’s about building your sexy pizza together, being clear and finding common ground in what everyone wants to happen.
3. Consent is Ongoing
Just because a person agrees to one sexual activity, it doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to all sexual activity. And, when someone agrees to a sexual activity once, it doesn’t mean that they agree to the same or other sexual activity in the future. One enthusiastic “yes” is not carte blanche for all future encounters. No one owes anyone else sexual activity. A wedding ring is not consent.
It’s important to continually check in with each other. Ask if what you’re doing feels good. Ask if you’re progressing fast enough or slow enough. Make sure your partner is enjoying what’s happening, and offer to change it up or stop if they aren’t having a good time.
Consent can change or vary at any time. Remember that TEDx talk by Dr. Emily Nagoski? The part where she talks about context is important. Context can change in the brain and hit the brake. That’s sometimes beyond the control of everyone involved, and while it can be a bummer, it’s totally okay and going to happen from time to time. (If you have a particularly touchy brake, maybe it’s time to consider Passion Coaching.)
4. No Is an Answer
One of the most important aspects of active, affirmative consent is that it’s always okay to stop. It can be hard to deal with sexual frustration and rejection, but since sex is a social activity, you’re going to encounter someone not wanting exactly what you want. Responsible adults know that the only way to fully prevent sexual frustration and rejection is masturbation, so be open to your partner saying “no” at any time. If you penetrate your partner, know that you can cause extensive tissue damage if they aren’t fully turned on, and you can impart severe psychological damage if your partner doesn’t like or want what is happening. The brain reacts to these scenarios as trauma, and it can impact your partner for life. That’s why it’s so important to be a grown-up and take no for an answer. It doesn’t mean your partner wants nothing to do with you, it just means it isn’t the right time. Context and sensation have to be right, and some people have more sensitive brakes.
For more, check out this series of public service announcement videos that I absolutely adore: