Trigger warning: sexual assault
Cultural debate and discourse about consent have gained traction following the #MeToo movement. After years of silence, women are sharing their stories about sexual misconduct and assault. However, in the United States, a country that doesn’t teach comprehensive sex education, we still look towards media, film, music, literature, and other cultural institutions for sexual guidance. If we depend on these systems for our sexual awareness, especially those that depict sexuality as unrealistic fiction, we leave with a bankrupt idea of how sex works and how consent ought to work.
Women’s resistance to sex can often be seen as a challenge for men to overcome, where men “get some” and women “give it up” or “save it.” The narrative is beginning to change, with some pop culture getting the act of consent right, like in the film Call Me By Your Name, where a man asks another man if he can kiss him in the heat of a breathless moment. What we can do, for ourselves and others, is to begin to work towards changing the narrative by first educating ourselves, changing our conversations and behavior, and exercising affirmative consent in our own relationships.
At 17, I experienced the result of a lack of conversation about consent. I was sexually assaulted, and, in the moment, I said nothing and I did nothing. I froze. I didn’t, couldn’t, say no, or yes, or anything. I experienced what I would later learn is called tonic immobility: prey responds to a threat by playing dead in the hopes that the predator loses interest.
That same year, another sexual encounter with a partner escalated without verbal consent and I was faced with the uncertainty of my culpability in the situation. Unfortunately, not all sexual encounters are by the book. Sometimes saying no is not enough. Sometimes reading someone’s nonverbal cues is not enough.
What is Affirmative Consent?
This is where the term affirmative consent comes in, and what it aims to avoid; the grey areas of sexual interaction that are not adequately addressed by a “no means no” system. The State University of New York defines affirmative consent:
“Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
The idea behind affirmative consent is that “no means no” is not enough. Rather, we need to start thinking in terms of “yes means yes.” This idea, which is of incredible importance to young people exploring their sexuality, has been recently circulating around college campuses. It is now making its way into the mainstream conversation and not just regarding casual or short-term sexual encounters, but also affirmative consent within committed romantic relationships.
The concept arises from the idea that, in order to foster productive, trusting, and connected relationships with our partners, we need to pay attention to their needs in the bedroom as much as we pay attention to any of their other physical or emotional needs. Open communication is the gateway to safe sex and great sex. By communicating better with our partners, we can all better enjoy the physical connections that we make and without the risk of violating the trust of our partners. We’re each responsible for ensuring that our sexual partners are comfortable with and consenting to what’s happening at every stage of the relationship.
This extends past the first date and throughout the entirety of a relationship. Consent is an active process that evolves, and so, too, should our communication about it.
The concept of affirmative consent has been met with ambivalence, the main criticism being that asking for consent takes the romance and passion out of intimate encounters. I counter that nothing else can take the romance and passion out of an intimate encounter like non-consent. Feeling pressured or forced, regardless of verbal or non-verbal cues, is a surefire way to kill the romance and make someone feel violated.
Rather than thinking of consent as a hurdle on the way to the finish line, I argue that we should begin to think of it as a crucial component of all sexual activity. We should be exercising affirmative consent before sex even starts, as a part of foreplay, to maintain communication during sex, and after sex is over. Here are some practical steps to incorporate affirmative consent throughout all the physical intimacy that you and your partner experience together.
Discuss what you like in advance
Before sex begins, you should be in active communication with your partner about what they’re comfortable with. The more you know about your partner sexually, the better sex you’ll have, and the more attuned you will be to when they’re into it and when they’re not. This step is about building erotic Love Maps with your partner. It guides you and your partner to a healthy starting place that you can build upon and change as you learn more about each other’s preferences and sexual needs.
Make asking for consent a part of foreplay
Good sex begins with good foreplay. According to a report in the Journal of Sexual Research, men and women hope to engage in about 20 minutes of foreplay before actual intercourse. That’s plenty of time to ask some simple questions to make sure that both partners affirmatively consent to what is to follow.
An easy way to engage in this talk without losing the heat of the moment is to use consent as a form of dirty talk. Asking your partner “Do you want to do ____?” is a way to ask for affirmative consent, or saying “I want to do ____ to you” is erotic in the moment if they’re already into it, and also gives them an opportunity to say no or make other suggestions that they’re more comfortable with.
Maintain communication during sex
Talking during sex, as well as giving feedback during sex as a continuation of the dirty talk that may have started during foreplay, is a great way to continue communication about consent. Feedback about what is working for you and what isn’t through actual talk or through affirmative response like saying “Oh, yes,” or “Keep doing that” helps both of you to learn more about each other and please each other more effectively, which creates a win-win for both parties.
It is also essential to read your partner’s body language as best you can. Though verbal affirmation is ideal, sometimes it is not possible. If they’re saying “no,” but their body seems to be saying “yes,” then the “no” always stands. If they’re saying “yes” verbally but their body language is saying “no,” then it is best to pause and ask if they’re truly comfortable with what’s happening.
Come up with signals for when verbalization isn’t possible
If you’re thinking that dirty talk, or even talking at all during sex, is not something that comes naturally to you or your partner, coming up with cues for “yes” and “no” ahead of time is a good alternative or addition to other communication patterns you’ve established together. There are some circumstances where verbal confirmation is not ideal or not possible; in these cases, coming up with a signal system with your partner ahead of time is key. This can be a shake of the head, a raised hand, or a safe word. This is up to you and your partner as long as it is agreed upon before it might become necessary.
Talk about it afterward
Having a conversation about sex after you’ve finished is the second part of building erotic Love Maps with your partner. You can discuss what you liked, what you weren’t that into, and what you might like to try next time so that the next encounter is more informed, attuned, and better for both of you.
The major benefit of affirmative consent is that it will attune you to your partner and their needs as much as you are attuned to your own. This approach to consent and communication about sex is a recipe for great and safe consensual sex between partners.
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