Did you know that 30th November is International Day of Consent? Of course, as a sex writer and educator I believe that EVERY day should be International Day of Consent! But just what is this consent thing all about anyway – and why is it so important that we talk about it?
What is Consent?
A dictionary definition of consent means permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. And that’s a pretty good starting point. So since we’re talking about sex (as well as kink, relationships, dating, and other sex-adjacent things), let’s consider what that means in that context.
It means that if you want to have sex with someone or do other similar activities with them, they must be freely and knowingly giving you their permission for those things to happen. In other words, it’s not about grudging permission but about them joyfully choosing to engage in those activities with you.
Consent that happens under coercion or threat (of physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, or financial harm) is not consent.
Consent when someone is too drunk, high, unconscious, or otherwise incapacitated to make a meaningful decision is not consent.
Consent when someone is asleep is not consent (there are circumstances in which people in Dominant/submissive relationships agree to instigating play during sleep being okay, but this is advanced level stuff and requires intense negotiation and safewords.)
Consent when someone is under the legal age to give it is not consent.
Consent to one thing isn’t consent to everything else.
Someone “not saying no” (but also not saying or clearly indicating yes) is not consent.
See a pattern here?
In order to be meaningful, consent must be fully informed, freely given, and revocable at any time without negative consequences.
Doesn’t that “ruin the mood?”
Consent can be super sexy (and we’ll come onto that in a minute.) But asking for, and receiving, consent can also be really straightforward and not a big deal. Like this:
“Do you want to have sex?”
“Nah, I don’t feel like it. Fancy cuddling and watching a movie?”
“Do you want to have sex?”
“Oh hell yes, I’ve been hoping you’d ask!”
In both scenarios, you’ve asked a straightforward question and received a straightforward answer.
When people hear “you must get consent before doing any sexual activity,” for some reason they sometimes leap to imagining totally cold, clinical negotiations with long sentences in legalese and forms signed in triplicate. This isn’t what we mean and it isn’t what any reasonable person expects!
You just have to ask.
- “Can I touch you here?”
- “I’d really like to kiss you, would you be into that?”
- “I’ve been thinking I’d love to tie you up. Does that sound hot to you?”
- “Want me to get a condom?”
And so on and so on. Practice asking those questions, and practice hearing both yes and no and responding graciously.
Here’s another thing, and this might be my last word in “asking ruins it”: even if it did ruin the mood, consent would still be necessary! You don’t get to maybe violate someone because asking for consent makes your boner sad. #SorryNotSorry.
If I ask, they might say no!
Very few people will say no to something they were otherwise going to say yes to just because you asked. (Can you imagine? “Do you want to have sex?” “Ugh I was super hot for you but now you’ve asked I’m totally not into it, go away.”) I’m sure there are people like that out there, because life is a rich and varied tapestry. But I also feel reasonably convinced that they’re rare.
And someone who says no because you asked? Is not a safe person to have sex with. They have shown a deep misunderstanding of and disregard for consent, and are not the kind of person you want to be getting naked and vulnerable with.
Otherwise, a person who says no when you ask… doesn’t want to have sex with you (either right now in this moment, or at all.) If you’d pushed on without explicitly asking for consent, they might have felt unable to stop you or say no in the moment, feeling pressured to go along with something they really weren’t into. And that’s a situation that only ends one way: with someone feeling violated and you possibly having assaulted someone.
How to make consent sexy
I’ve long thought that consent was really sexy for one simple reason: enthusiastic consent means that someone really wants to have sex with you! And what’s hotter than a person who really wants to have sex with you? In my view, very little.
You can ask for consent in a sexy way, too. If someone wants to do sexy things with you, then the act of asking can be part of the foreplay and part of the sex itself. Whether you’re exchanging flirty texts in the lead-up to a date, or on the verge of getting naked with each other, you can talk in detail about all the things you want to do with each other. If you’re not sure if your lover or potential lover would be into something? Ask! (“I’d really love to go down on you. Would you like that?”)
If you have dominant tendencies and your partner is more submissive, there’s another super hot way to get their consent: make them tell you what they want. Not only will this give you a clear sense of what they’re (very enthusiastically) consenting to, it’s also hot as hell.
By the way: positive feedback during sex is a form of giving ongoing consent. If someone is moaning things like “oh yes” and “don’t stop”, guess what? Very sexy consent is happening.
How to respond to a “no”
We hear a lot about what not to do when someone says no. Don’t pout or sulk, pressure them, guilt trip them, yell at them, cause them any kind of harm, or do the thing anyway. And that’s all good advice. But what does a good response to a no look like?
Think of it like this: when someone says no, they’re giving you a gift. They’re showing you how you can love or take care of them in that moment. They’re giving you information to be a better lover, partner, friend, or random-stranger-in-a-sex-club to them in that moment.
Here are a few specific examples you can use:
- “Thank you for taking care of yourself”
- “Okay, cool” (followed by a subject change)
- “No worries, would you like to [other activity not involving sex] instead?”
- “Okay, I won’t bring it up again but let me know if you ever change your mind!”
You have an opportunity to show them you’re a safe person to be honest with. Take it.
Make informed, freely given consent your minimum standard
Consent doesn’t just apply to sex, and the reason so many of us get it wrong when it come to sex is that we aren’t taught about consent when we’re growing up. In fact, many of us go through life being pressured into doing things we don’t want to do (“give Grandma a kiss!” when we’re children) and pressuring others (“go on, just have one” to your friend who doesn’t drink.)
What if we made informed and freely given consent our minimum standard for all our interpersonal relationships – with family, friends, lovers, strangers, and even ourselves? How radically would that approach change the world?
Amy Norton (she/they) is a sex writer, blogger, and pleasure product afficionado who has been running her site, Coffee & Kink, since 2016. She is a polyamorous, queer femme and lives in the UK with her nesting partner, cat, and frankly ridiculous collection of vibrators.