I have talked – and heard, and read – a lot about consent in the past few months. I am starting to give workshops on it, too, which is great experience. One thing that I have noticed most people struggle with is the practical part.
I will explain myself. Although a lot of people still have the concept of consent itself still a bit fuzzy, many people know what it is, textbook-definition-wise.
For those of you a bit unsure, or if you think you know but you really don’t, here are some characteristics of consent:
– Mutual: That means everyone involved in whatever is going on is giving it.
– Continuous: That means that it is not a yes at the beginning and then you are good to go forever and ever. It also means the people involved are responsible for checking in with the other and making sure everyone is enthusiastically into whatever is happening. AND it also means that it can be withdrawn at any point.
– Act-specific: This goes without saying if one truly understands the previous point, but consent to one thing does not mean consent to every (or any) other thing that follows. Consent to one thing now does not mean consent for that one same thing forever. This also means that relationship status does not mean consent: just because you are married does not mean both people consent to everything the other person wants.
– Freely given: This means that if a “no” carries with it negative consequences (of any kind – blackmail, emotional or physical violence, financial trouble, getting fired), then a “yes” means nothing. The space has to be a safe one in which a “no” can be said and received. (We’ll get more into this later.)
– Enthusiastic: This means many things: that a lack of a “no”, or silence, do not mean “yes”. That “not sure”, “not tonight”, “I am tired”, “could you not?”, “stop”, “I feel weird about this”, etc should be checked in and discussed and anything that is going on should STOP.
– Explicit: That means that, although non-verbal cues help, and the body should definitely (ideally) match the words, explicit verbal consent should happen. If not verbal, how can one be sure? (Hint: You can’t.)
Now, many people will say this list, or a variation of this list, but when it comes down to it, they will object that explicit consent is kind of unrealistic or boring or awkward or unnecessary even. I think it is in that last point, the point about being explicit and verbal, that many people get stuck and scream IMPOSSIBLE! and leave me broken-hearted.
Many people will say it is boring to explicitly ask and give consent. I find this kind of funny because I have thought this way too, until I realized what explicit, enthusiastic, consent can actually look like: dirty talk. I think people who see it as boring think of a very dry police-questioning kind of interaction: “Would you agree that now is a good time to perform manual stimulation on each other?” “I agree, certainly. But perhaps we could start by osculating for 5 to 15 minutes before proceeding” OF COURSE THAT THIS WOULD BE BORING AND UNREALISTIC.
Other people still will argue that it is often unnecessary. The “c’mon, dudebroman, I’ve got mad game! I know when a chick wants the D, y’know?” argument. Well, dudebroman, and any other person reading this: you don’t “just” know if another folk wants the D or any other letter you might want to give at that point in time. No one does. You gotta ask. The one initiating any sexual contact should always check in with the other person. Of course I don’t mean a ridiculous play-by-play “can I touch your left butt-cheek? Can I touch your right one? Can I touch both simultaneously?” so don’t be the jackass who makes that joke when someone is explaining consent to you, okay?
Many other people will argue that it is awkward and therefore unrealistic because you’d kill the mood or scare the person away.
First of all, as I like saying about any other situation that certain people see as awkward: it is only so if you make it or think it so. Furthermore, it is only awkward the first couple of times you do it – like anything else. We get this idea from the media and other people that sex “just happens”, and that there is no need for verbal communication. People are not born with this knowledge of what goes where and how fast or slow and how every D and P and A likes it and what to do with your genitals to help them become the very best they can be. People aren’t – usually, anyway – born good at sex (whatever that even means). You get good at your own, and you get good at communicating in such a way that the other person gets good at doing you and you at doing them. Same with consent, people aren’t born good at it. People are often raised to be bad at it, actually (not because they are raised to sexually abuse – although that point is arguable -, but because they are taught that you don’t need to ask, because “game” means you just intuitively know stuff). You have to learn consent, and practice it, though.
Now, let’s go back to the dirty talk. I love talking about dirty talk because it is literally what sex ed activists mean when they say this clichéd “Consent Is Sexy” line. “Do you want my dick in your mouth?” Giggle all you want, and take your time to blush and do a backflip if you need to, but that shit’s hot.
Dirty talk, furthermore, works for both questions and checking-in (“Do you like it when I do this? how much do you like it, huh? or this?”) or initiatives (“You know what drives me nuts? When you do this”). Initiatives are great because you can use them to both state what you want but also check in (“I would love to kiss you right now”). And, call me crazy, but there is no sexier thing than having someone saying to you that they really want you. As one of my faves sex educator /magic person, Megan Andelloux says, you want someone pulling towards you, not pushing and stopping you every step of the way (which is the kind of rapey “playing hard to get” model, btw. Let’s save that convo for Christmastime, though).
Now, of course dirty talk and consent (beware, I am not saying they are the same thing, and dirty talk should be consensual and checked-in for too) take some time to get used to and good at. Hell, I am speaking from no high horse of ultimate-consent-power
(can that be a superhero? one that jumps into bed – or wherever consent is needed – and hits offenders with a sparkly dildo-hammer?) here. But anyone can get up there.
It takes a lot of unlearning, for sure:
Unlearning our shame with wording body parts (if you can’t say the word for it, how can you ask if someone wants something in/around/on it?) and with verbalizing desire (especially those raised as women, who are most often taught that wanting something sexual, or to show it, is slutty and shameful). Unlearning that to tell someone (or hear someone tell us) what they want means they (or we) have failed as lovers. Unlearning that “kinky” (whatever that means to every and any one of my readers) is a bad thing and that certain behaviours are inherently bad, or of this and that kind of people or orientation or gender.
Yes, I am talking about guys that are still scared of their butts because “homo!” or whatever. You don’t know what you are missing (or so would a prostate-owner say).
It takes a lot of learning: about our own bodies (how are we supposed to instruct the other/s if we don’t know ourselves?), about communication, about the body (do you know that a penis-owner can have an orgasm without an erection? – if you did, a cookie for you! If you didn’t, well, there you go. Something I know (and you didn’t) about your gens.
More often than not, too, I hear arguments towards it being awkward to explicitly ask/give consent when you are starting off with someone, and arguments towards it being unnecessary when you have been with that person/people for ages. It seems then that it is never truly a good time to explicitly ask for consent, when it is ALWAYS a good time to do so. Not only because it makes you an actually decent human being (which should be enough of a reason), but it can also make you a better partner in crime.
When you are starting off with someone, asking if they want something or other can give you a better sense of what makes them go nuts in a good way, and what is a definite OFF switch. If you have been with someone/s for ages, it spices things up a bit: you can see if they are willing to try X or Y, you can tease them about things. And c’mon, dirty talk is fun, and surprisingly new for a lot of “old” (time together-wise, not necessarily age-related) couples.
I guess what I want to say is, learn and practice consent. I would say “it’s not that hard, for fucks sakes”, but for many of us it is, because of what we’ve known all our lives, and because it takes time and willingness and thought. But hey, on the plus side, it makes you a non-rapist. And it can make sex much better. And it can make your relationships (both the one-night-stand and the lifelong partnership) much better too. Is it awkward at the beginning? Sure, but so is sex, and yet you did it anyway (that time with the sweaty palms and the parked car that was way too small and uncomfortable and the is-this-supposed-to-go-here’s ), didn’t you?
Or maybe you did do it on top of a car in January, in the Yukon. And with practice you learned that that was shitty and now you do things in ways that are better? In ways that are sexier in a way you thought that maybe on top of a car was sexy but was really just a bad idea? Right?! Okay not the best example, but there ya go.