Consent isn’t just a box you check.
Checking in is something we do all the time. It’s natural to think about other people’s preferences and make sure they’re comfortable and having a good time. Whether asking people how they want their coffee, if they’re warm enough in your car, or if you’re in their way at a concert. For many reasons, though, this type of check-in isn’t something that we always think about doing when it comes to being sexual with someone. Because it’s not part of our idea of what sex looks like, many times we don’t stop to talk about our preferences. Whether we’re focused on getting where WE want to go, worried about seeming uncool or killing the mood, or not thinking about it at all.
More than just consensual sex, we should want sex that is fun, satisfying, safe-feeling, and connected for everyone involved. But if consent isn’t just checking off a box or getting a “yes”, what is it?
Consent is something that should be ongoing and act-specific, but often people think this means you have to ask permission for every touch before you do it. This approach works but most people don’t act that way, and it’s easy to see how that could look more like two robots rather than an exchange of passion. People also have consensual sex every day without doing this, and still, know that they have their partner’s consent.
Instead, it can be helpful to think about consent as an ongoing conversation, and one that is embodied. Tuning in to your partner’s boundaries and reading their nonverbal cues is just as important as the verbal conversation. Consent is about respecting each other’s bodies and boundaries; an essential part of consent is slowing down to become aware of what our bodies are saying.
This article will outline information that can help navigate consent conversations with your partner(s). A good place to start this conversation is by recognizing that it’s not about a particular thing you might do; it’s about staying aware of how our boundaries and bodies feel. If we’re paying attention, asking questions when we’re not sure, and being respectful of the bodies and boundaries of everyone involved, then we’re tuned in and connected.
So what is enthusiastic consent?
Sexual consent as an idea is something that has evolved over the years. In the 70s and 80s, the idea of “no means no” was pretty radical. This was important in challenging the stereotype that people (women especially) may say no when they mean yes, and so the focus was on respecting a “no.” In the 90s and 00s, the focus shifted to the idea that consent should be affirmative: “only yes means yes.” This shift helped to highlight the nonverbal and indirect ways someone can show a “no” without saying it, such as when they don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to say “no.”
Today, we also talk about how consent should be enthusiastic. Enthusiastic consent is the idea that consent continues beyond the initial “yes” and is shown by engagement and/or interest. It’s about checking in with your sexual partner and acknowledging their sexual and emotional signals. It’s also about recognizing that consent can’t be given where there is manipulation, pressure, threats, or when someone isn’t in the right state of mind.
Even though we call it “enthusiastic consent,” things don’t have to be exciting and high-energy: there needs to be obvious interest and attention. If that interest or attention isn’t obvious that’s where learning about our partner’s and our boundaries comes into play. Being engaged with our partners is how we make sure there’s enthusiastic consent as well as how we develop sexual and emotional trust and connection.
Reading body language
Asking questions and listening to your partner is always a good option, but there are a lot of other ways to read your partner and get a sense of how they’re feeling. Thinking about embodied consent can help you to recognize your own body and boundaries and what your partner’s body is saying about their boundaries.
Look for nonverbal cues
Not into it: can include leaning away, crossing their arms, being tense, avoiding eye contact, not reciprocating, pushing away, trying to ignore or distract themselves
- Our senses can usually tell when things take a wrong turn. Think about times when you know someone wasn’t into you: what body cues did you notice that made you feel that things weren’t reciprocated?* Into it: can include leaning in, smiling, eye contact, laughing, touching, mirroring body language
- Think about times when you were connecting with someone who you know was attracted to you at that moment. What did that feel like in your body?
If you’re not sure if someone is “excited” nervous or “scared” nervous – for instance, they’re giggling or laughing – it’s important to talk things over to make sure they’re having a good time. Even just reminding them that you only want to do what they want to do and that you can stop at any time, can make your partner feel safer if they do want to have sex, or give space for them to let you know if they don’t want to.
Listen for verbal cues
Not into it: can include telling you they’re not interested, changing the topic, making an excuse, bargaining down
- Tone of voice. Only “yes” means yes, but what does this sound like? Even if someone says the word yes, if they sound unsure, withdrawn or distracted, that’s a sign that a person is feeling conflicted or pressured to give a yes. This pressure doesn’t have to be coming from you: there are lots of messages we receive every day that tell us what we should want or what is expected of us in and around sex, and these messages get internalized and can inform our responses.
- Someone may suggest an alternative sexual activity because they’re excited about that act, but sometimes this kind of suggestion is a way of getting out of something they don’t want to do – which is not consent. It’s important to look for other cues or ask for clarification if you’re not sure!
Into it: can include telling you they’re into it, asking questions about your preferences, giving hints
Ask prompting questions
It can feel scary to ask someone what they want when it comes to sex, but the fact is that there’s no such thing as being “good at sex” in a universal sense. Everyone’s bodies and preferences are different, and we won’t know what’s good for the person we’re with unless we learn it from them. Some examples to get things started:
- Is there anything you don’t want to do right now, or anywhere you want me to focus on?
- Are you down to keep going, or would you rather pause for a bit?
- Do you like ______?
- Can I kiss/touch you here?
- Are you feeling this?
- How would you like me to touch you?
When you ask questions, it’s important to keep an eye out for all the nonverbal ways someone might respond. A “yes” when someone is looking away or looking nervous or upset is a cue to keep talking and hold off on more touching until you’re sure they’re ready.
Talking with your partner
Talking about what’s pleasurable for each partner and being open to the possibility of being rejected can feel awkward sometimes, but here are just a few reasons why introducing these ideas into your relationships can be a really great thing:
- Learn more about yourself and your preferences
- Learn more about your partner and their preferences
- Practicing openness and effective communication skills have benefits for other areas of your relationship
- Feel confident that you and your partner are being good to each other
- Create opportunities for increased pleasure
- Increase intimacy and trust
In general, it’s important to let go of the idea that sex is a simple conversation. Consent that is mutual and freely given, ongoing and act-specific, sober, and enthusiastic means staying open to our partner’s body and boundaries and asking questions. Embodied consent also means staying aware of our own body and boundaries to make sure we include our own needs in our considerations.
How to respond to your partner
It’s necessary to check in with your partner, but it’s also important to recognize that they may not know what they want. Women, in particular, are often socialized not to be assertive, especially when it comes to sex. For many people, regardless of their age or experience, these types of conversations might be new to them. That isn’t to say that they haven’t been having consensual sex, but this kind of open communication and transparency might be unfamiliar.
It’s also important to recognize that a lot of people feel unable to say no before or during sex. There is a lot of pressure in our society to have sex, and there are many reasons why someone may go along with something they don’t want to do.
Media often sets the unrealistic expectation that you’ll see someone from across a room, click, and know what you both want.
In real life, we may have those cinematic moments at times, but more communication is usually needed. There’s a learning curve to knowing what someone likes and dislikes, and how their bodies work. Having that conversation is an important relationship skill, and can set the tone for a much more fulfilling sexual relationship. You can open things up for more honest conversations about what you both want and ultimately have much better sex by respecting each other’s bodies and boundaries. Especially by ensuring all parties involved are having a good time (rather than on doing any particular thing).
So what does it mean to foster enthusiastic consent?
We need to open up what “good sex” can be. Awkward sex. Funny sex. Honest, real sex. Sex that takes a break for a conversation or a pee break or another day. Everything that’s learning and tuning in is part of “good sex”. Pleasure can exist without that foundation, but it risks doing harm. Being open to no sex is an important part of having enthusiastic consent.