I’ve recently decided to start this series as a slightly more sex-positive part of my blog, mostly because I feel like the sex education in our schools (when we have any) and the rest of our lives is horrendously inadequate. I know that for some of you I’m probably beating a dead horse, and I also know that there are probably plenty of other bloggers out there who have already done this a lot better. But, fuck it. You can’t talk about sexual violence without incorporating the other aspect; that is, sexual activity that attempts to be healthy in every way. Safer sex doesn’t stop at using a condom. It encompasses so much more than that. And, as the daughter of a med school teacher, I’m in a rather unique position to discuss a lot of that in accurate layman’s terms.
This particular installment involves one of my favorite things: consent. It assumes that you are already a person who cares whether or not your partner is comfortable with and enjoying sexual activity – if this isn’t the case, there are a variety of other posts on this blog (check the ‘rape’ tag) that may be more appropriate for you. If you do care, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t do a whole lot unless you understand the ins and outs of it a little better.
So, a prelude: what is consent? Or, what isn’t consent?
This is one of those things that’s been done to death by a lot of other blogs, but in my humble opinion it’s still worth reiterating (all the time. To everyone. Shouting it from the mountaintops, even).
Consent is a lot of things, but the most basic are:
1. Consent is active. The lack of a “no” does not constitute consent, nor does silence, nor does something seemingly ambiguous like “it’s getting late” or “I’m sort of tired” or “but I have a boy/girlfriend”. Even if your partner lets you do whatever you’re doing, you have not obtained consent until they have actually said “yes” to the activity.*
2. Consent is specific. Just because your partner said “yes” to something once, that does not mean they consented to do it again. Consent only applies to the situation at hand: the specific time, place, kind of sexual activity, and person/s with which they’re doing whatever they’re doing. This also explains why it’s entirely possible for partner rape to occur: just because you had consensual sex with someone one time, that does not mean you can just assume they’re down for it the next time. When in doubt, ask.
3. Consent is freely given. It’s not enough that a “yes” is obtained; how it is obtained is just as important. A “yes” given in a situation where your partner knows that you will be angry or act out if they don’t agree to sexual activity does not count as consent. A “yes” given after you have begged, wheedled, or asked repeatedly does not count as consent. A “yes” given after you make any move to intimidate your partner does not count as consent. A “yes” only counts as consent when your partner is able to feel that ze is being given a real choice in the matter, rather than being pressured into cooperating.
4. Consent is retractable. Okay, cool, so your partner freely agreed to do a certain thing with you. But you’re not home free yet: you also need to understand that consent is defined by the last thing your partner said on the matter. So if, partway through the activity, ze changes hir mind and indicates that ze would like to stop, it is 110% your responsibility to respect that and stop right away. Do not try to change hir mind, do not argue or say “just a little longer” or “you need to let me finish”. Ze needs to do no such thing. Just because you were given a “yes” initially, that does not give you the right to carry on if that “yes” is retracted.
On the most simple level, that’s really all you have to keep in mind. Make sure your partner* has actually verbally said “yes” to the particular thing you want to do at that particular time, don’t pressure them into the decision, and be prepared to stop if they ask you to. Easy peasy lemon squeezy pumpkin pie, right? Well, sort of.
See, the media (and pretty much everywhere else we learn about the actual act of sex*** from) doesn’t really provide us with a great framework for learning how to actually implement this. It’s one thing to understand the checklist what you need in order for sex to be consensual, but to be quite honest, a lot of us have no idea how the fuck to actually ask for consent without sounding like a textbook/robot.
So, I’ve compiled a handy-dandy selection of ways to ask for consent that can help keep things a little easier – and that, if done right, can actually be pretty sexy. It’s not like you need to bring sex to a screeching halt every time you want to try something else or make sure your partner is comfortable and into it; just, ya know, check in occasionally. If anyone can think of any that they’d want to add to this list, please please PLEASE contact me about it!!! I can only think of so many on my own.
Before starting a sexual activity:
- “Is it okay if I ________?” Personally, this one is my go-to. While it might initially sound insecure, try whispering it into your partner’s ear. That tends to bump anything up on the erotic scale, if my experience is anything to go by.
- “Would you want to ________?”
- “Do you want to try _______?”
- “I’ve always sort of wanted to _______. What do you think?” Be a little careful about this one mid-coitus: if what you’re suggesting is drastically different than the sorts of things you two have done in the past, it might be best to discuss it before your clothes have hit the floor.
During whatever you’re doing:
- “Is there anything else that you’d want to try?” This serves a nice double purpose of both encouraging your partner to be open with you about hir preferences and offering hir an out if ze is uncomfortable with what’s going on but too shy to say so.
- “Does that feel good?” Again, while you might worry that this comes off as shaky or insecure, it’s not hard to remedy that. Just be careful that you don’t sound like you’re fishing for a particular answer.
- “Do you need to take a break for a bit?” Straight gentlemen, non-straight ladies, and anyone else who might ostensibly have a female partner: this is one you should definitely make use of if you ever notice that your partner getting dry during sex. It doesn’t necessarily mean that she isn’t enjoying it; sometimes, it just happens. Better safe than sorry, though…just ask, because the worst that could happen is that she says she actually is enjoying it, in which case all you need to do is offer to grab some lube before you keep going.
- “Do you want me to keep going?”
- “Would it be better/easier if I ______?”
- “Do you like it this way/with this/without this/etc?”
- “How do you want me to do ______?”
- “Let me know if you want me to do anything differently.”
And, remember: as a very wise man once told me, there is a safe and healthy way to do just about anything. Safe words are 100% your friend. Especially when engaging in more unusual or taboo things, it makes it way more enjoyable for everyone involved: you get the satisfaction of knowing that your partner is enjoying it, too, and your partner can enjoy hirself with the reassurance that you care about respecting hir boundaries.
Now, I’m no spokesperson for the fetish community, and I’ve never visited a bondage dungeon in my life. But hopefully, what little I do know can be a drop in the bucket as far as fighting all the misinformation out there (incidentally, this is my biggest beef with the “50 Shades of Gray” bullshit; not the terrible writing, but the damage it does to the idea of safe, consensual kink).
The basic tenants are this (and, really, you should do the first one even if you’re engaging in the most vanilla sex possible):
1. Establish boundaries. “Hard” boundaries and “soft” boundaries: respectively, things you never want to try or engage in versus things you’re not totally comfortable with but may be willing to explore given the right settings. In a more casual setting, this doesn’t need to be a big/fancy affair. Just ask your partner, at some point, if there’s anything they’re really not into, and make a mental note to avoid those. In a more kinky setting, this is an absolute must, and it would actually be a good idea to put it into writing.
2. Use a safeword. Respect that safeword like it is your fucking bible. For those unfamiliar, a safeword is a word that your partner (or you!) can use as code for “for whatever reason, I am no longer comfortable with this and it needs to stop NOW”. It’s particularly useful in a lot of dominant/submissive or “consensual nonconsent”**** play where saying “no” or “stop” might be part of the roles played. In other words, it’s a failsafe in situations where boundaries might be pushed and consent can be difficult to gauge by more conventional routes.
The caveat to this is that you must always, always respond to that safeword as an immediate and incontrovertible command to STOP. There is never any room for debate: when your partner says the safeword, you stop. Ignoring a safeword is not just a party foul, it is full-blown sexual assault. Your safeword is your partner’s method of withdrawing consent, and failure to respond accordingly is inexcusable on about fifteen separate levels. Moreover, exactly like the more standard forms of gauging consent, you absolutely cannot use your emotions as punishment for your partner if ze decides to retract consent. If you try to argue with or threaten or shame hir for using the safeword, or if you badger hir about re-trying whatever pushed hir boundaries, then, safeword or not, you are not engaging in consensual play.
So, what am I really getting at with all this?
What I’m trying to impress on you is that, no matter what you’re into, no matter how much or little you know your partner/s, and no matter how little way you have with words, there is always a safe, healthy, and respectful way to check that you have your partner’s consent before engaging in whatever floats your boat.
And maybe you already knew all this, and that’s really great. Tell some other people about it. Link your five favorite people to this post, drunkenly explain it to your friends on the football team this weekend, or really go all-out and print out a little flyer on consent to pin up in your college’s residence halls And heck, if you didn’t know already, I hope some of this managed to help! :3
(P.S. if there’s anything you’d like to see edited into this installment of the series or addressed in a future one, I’d love to hear from you about it!)
Avvie, over and out.
* There are ways to gain consent nonverbally as well; however, this is a little beyond the scope of this post, so maybe I’ll need to make another specifically for it. To be on the safe side, it’s just best to always look for verbal consent unless you’re well-versed in the ins and outs of nonverbal kinds.
** I use the singular here, and for most of the post, but all of this applies just as readily to situations with multiple sexual partners. I’ve just kept it mostly to sexual situations involving two people for the sake of grammatical simplicity.
*** For the purposes of this post, “sex” = “any sort of sexual/intimate activity”, not just penetrative intercourse.
**** For the record, I have no problem with people engaging in “rape play” (i.e. roleplaying a rape situation, but with pre-arranged consent and a safeword). I couldn’t handle it, myself, but as long as both partners enjoy the roleplay and the underlying consent is there, I can’t actually think of a reason to condemn it.