The Slippery Slope of Sexual Consent (part 2)
TRIGGER WARNING. This article contains detailed descriptions of sexual encounters (including assault) and may be triggering to sexual assault survivors.
This post is part 2 of a series on boundaries, sexual consent and stepping us as men AND women to create the most empowered, empowering and satisfying sexual encounters we can. To get started, go ahead and read part 1 here. There’s a whole lotta context there that ought to be read first.
This is not meant as a complete conversation on consent, or a consent 101. There’s lots of resources out there for that, and if you’re trying to get the basics right now, this video is the perfect place to start. (Love you Laci Green!)
This article is more an exploration of the subtleties, the grey areas, and some of the problems with trying to create a one-size-fits all on how to do ‘good’ consent.
Yep, it’s edgy and maybe uncomfortable. But that’s where the growth happens, right?
Consent is more than just saying ‘it’s ok’.
It’s more than the absence of a no.
It’s a whole hearted, desire-driven, enthusiastic YES, I WANT THIS!
There’s still some debate around how strictly consent needs to be defined, but at its most essential, sexual consent is a voluntary, conscious, mutual agreement to engage in sexual activity.
But perhaps my favourite description is this:
“Consent isn’t a question. It’s a state. If, instead of lovers, the two of you were synchronized swimmers, consent would be the water. It’s not enough to jump in, get wet and climb out — if you want to swim, you have to be in the water continually. And if you want to have sex, you have to be continually in a state of enthusiastic consent with your partner.”
– Jaclyn Friedman, quoted in this article
But when it comes to the finer details of what that consent actually looks – this is where there’s disagreement.
Most laws state that consent can be given either verbally or nonverbally, but some activists insist only verbal consent should be valid.
Some consent standards place the sole responsibility on the initiator to ask for verbal consent, such as The Affirmative Consent Standard.
And other models call for verbal consent at every slight acceleration of the pace.
You want to kiss the person in front of you? Ask first.
You want to use tongue? Ask first.
You want to grab their ass or run your hand down their pants? Yep. You’d better ask first.
(Which sounds pretty good if the person initiating is a stranger or it’s your first time getting busy. A different context though and this might be a bit of overkill.)
So yeah, there’s some confusion about what consent really looks like in practice. And this is something that needs to be clear.
But is there a one-size-fits all? Is it going to look the same in every single encounter?
The truth is, we need to take back the personal power with this one and define what ‘good’ consent looks like to each of us, then communicate those standards with our sexual partners.
Because on paper, yes, asking for verbal consent at every turn looks like consent heaven. In practice? It can lead to a pretty clunky, stop-start interaction.
Which is totally fine (and necessary) in many circumstances.
And sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes you want things to flow seamlessly. You want to lose yourself in the moment, tear each other’s clothes off in passion, get thrown on the bed and be completely devoured. No pausing for verbal consent, please.
And to create that, we ALL need to become sexually empowered and able to communicate. Not just one person, and certainly not just ‘the guy’.
At the core of it, consent is about respect. And it’s up to each and every one of us to define how we want to receive that respect. Stand by those standards, and if you find someone who can meet you there? Rock on.
An Uncomfortable Truth
Whilst we’re on the topic of giving and not giving consent, here’s an important disclaimer.
You should only need to say no once. Plain and simple.
Same goes for, “Put a condom on.” “Slow down.” or “Pull out.”
But peeps, the truth is, there may be times when once isn’t enough. He or she might ignore you, keep pushing and keep ‘trying it on’.
So here’s what I can tell you:
If you need to say it more than once, or they’re not listening to what you do and don’t want – it’s time to question whether or not this is the right person for you.
Keep on saying no, push them off, scream, shout, make a fuss – do whatever you’ve gotta do to wriggle your way outta there. Completely guilt free.
There’s obviously times when this isn’t going to work. Or when it’s not safe to do so. I’m not speaking to those times. I trust your ability to make that judgement call on your own.
I’m speaking to all those men and women out there who have stayed quiet because of guilt. Shame. Embarrassment. Fear of being judged. Of making things awkward. Because they just didn’t know what to do next. (And yes, that included me once upon a time).
Once should be enough, and no you shouldn’t have to fight. But if you do, you’ve got a get outta jail-free card to be ‘rude’ as hell.
And then, if it were me, I’d be showing that person the door the very next chance I got. With a no return-policy.
A Not-So-Love Story (& A Call To Arms)
Girl meets guy. Girl likes guy. Guy likes girl.
First date goes well, and they decide to go back to her place to fool around. Heavy petting. Passionate tongue-all-the-way kissing. Hotness all round.
After some very delicious and R-rated warm up, she breathily asks him:
‘Do you have a condom?’
‘Yup,’ he groans, melting with want for her.
“I want you inside me. Let’s take this to the bedroom.”
And so they do. But then suddenly, she changes her mind. For whatever reason (’cause really, there’s no explanation needed) she decides she doesn’t want to have sex that night.
But she finds it hard to speak up. (Yeah, it can feel kinda sucky to change your mind and maybe disappoint someone. It takes courage to voice our truth).
Things are moving fast, he’s now insider her, but she manages to stammer out, “I don’t think I want this.”
And yet he keeps going.
“No, really, stop.”
(Just for the record, her first comment of “I don’t think I want this” is already enough to be classified a withdrawal of consent. Same as, “Ouch, you’re hurting me.” or “I don’t like this.”)
So she lies there, feeling like death, wanting him to stop, but staying quiet. He doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Afterwards she feels awful. Dirty. Gross. She can’t look him in the eye, but she politely kisses him on the mouth and mumbles that yeah, she’ll call him.
(Let’s hope she doesn’t).
This is way too familiar, and for many of us, way too damn close to home.
So let’s unpack it.
This is not an ‘either/or’ discussion.
Should he have stopped? Abso-fucking-lutely. Is he at fault? No doubt about it. Is she to blame? Nope, not at all. Yes, this is an example of rape.
AND (not but) she also could have spoken up more. AND there is more that she could have done.
OK. Let’s just pause for a moment here. Before the moral outrage begins, there’s something incredibly important I need to spell out.
Just because she didn’t speak up more does NOT make it her fault. And this certainly shouldn’t be something she (or anyone else) uses to beat herself up with.
After sexual assault and rape, it’s pretty much biology that the victim will feel guilt and that they’re responsible. They’re not. A thousand times, they’re not.
But having dealt with and healed the trauma of sexual assault myself, and having helped far too many women on their own journey to do the same, something that so often comes up (like, almost every single time), is making peace with that part of ourselves that says, “I could have done more.”
And that voice is hard to ignore.
It’s a complex, deeply personal and oh so delicate part of the healing process, and one that’s rarely spoken about because it’s so emotionally charged.
No, we’re not at fault. Yes, we could have done more. No, we shouldn’t have to. (Double-think at its best)
Sometimes doing more will have absolutely no affect. Sometimes it’s literally not safe to do more. Obviously, when there’s force or the threat of violence involved, staying quiet becomes your only option.
Not to mention in many cases, it’s actually a biological response to freeze and shut down. We literally can’t speak up. It’s the third and oh-so-common response to fight-or-flight, and there’s really nothing we can do in that moment when we’re overwhelmed by shock or fear.
But that doesn’t change the fact that for many of us, there’s also so much more we can do to become empowered sexual agents. And that recognising this is often a crucial step in reclaiming our power and healing those old wounds.
I don’t bring this up as some thinly veiled “Women, it’s your responsibility to not get raped.” Not at all.
This is a call to arms – an invitation for us to fuck off the guilt and people-pleaser in us that prevents us from speaking our truth. That weighty paradigm that traps us in awkward sexual situations we don’t want to be in.
It requires us to be deeply compassionate with ourselves about what happened – that no, we’re not to blame. That they are fully responsible. That we did the best we could at the time – AND to ask ourselves going forward, if perhaps there’s more we can do to feel empowered.
‘Cause that’s the point. To be the most empowered, sexually-savvy selves that we can be. And to truly own our No just as much as we own our Yes.
Navigating the Murkiness
Let’s revisit our not-so-love story for a moment.
What if in a different scenario, she changes her mind but doesn’t say anything? Where she loses her voice completely, or goes along with it to be agreeable?
Should he notice that she’s laying there not really enjoying herself?
Well, yeah, you would hope so.
Is it rape because he doesn’t?
Well, this is where it can be a little too murky and a little unclear. Every case is uniquely different, and it’s not always so cut and dry. In some cases it’s clear, and in others, not so much. It’s all so wrapped up in subjective experience.
Is it fair to expect this man be such a skilful, attentive lover that he’s able to read her body and mind even while dealing with his own universe of thoughts, feelings and insecurities (umm, yes, men have sexual insecurities too)? To know that she’s changed her mind, or doesn’t like that particular position, or wants things to stop altogether?
Well it would be nice, sure. And yes, let’s teach each other how to be more skilful lovers, absolutely.
But is it fair to expect that? Are we again not asking one person to take all of the responsibility for the sexual interaction?
This is where the The Affirmative Consent Standard would have won the day. If he had have checked in again right before penetration, perhaps she would have felt more comfortable speaking up. Perhaps not.
But because he didn’t, should he be charged with rape? Would that be moral? What is her responsibility in this situation?
Hello grey area.
This doesn’t mean these kinds of sexual encounters aren’t painful or traumatic. Rape label or not, this hurts. And over time, it can really weigh you down and eat away at your soul. It’s just as important to process and heal these kinds of experiences as it is a violent rape.
Which is the exact reason we need to be talking more openly about sex as a society, prioritising sex education and yes, empowering ourselves.
Let’s educate men AND women about what it is to be sexually empowered, attentive and considerate lovers.
To teach young men and women how to fully own, love and embrace their sexuality.
How to honour their own bodies, and the bodies of others.
How to take control of their own pleasure, rather than leaving it up to someone else.
To teach sexual autonomy, and deep respect of the autonomy of others.
And to take full, shameless responsibility for our yes and our no.
When we all do that, navigating consent together becomes so much clearer.
A Word on Alcohol & Being Unconscious
This oh-so-popular drug (or any drug really) complicates consent to no end.
There’s those that would say you can’t give consent when you’re drunk. That a yes when you’re under the influence doesn’t count.
Obviously there’s some gaping holes in this argument.
By this logic, drink drivers shouldn’t be held responsible for their decisions because they’re not really making them.
At the same time, we can’t discount the impact drugs (including alcohol) have on someone’s ability to give consent.
Even a clear yes from someone who’s really drunk may not be the whole-hearted, enthusiastic yes that we’re really going for when aiming for consensual sex.
And there’s definitely something not quite right about sleeping with someone who’s drunk if you’re completely sober. But sometimes it’s hard to tell just how drunk someone actually is. When does their yes stop counting? And if you’re both drunk – who’s responsible then?
This really is as murky as it gets.
The truth is it’s a sliding scale. Let’s not remove someone’s right to have consensual sex after a few drinks. But let’s also recognise that the greater the consumption and affect of alcohol (or any drug), the less likely someone is able to give consent.
Your best bet? If someone’s intoxicated, steer clear of any kind of sexual play. That might be hard when you too are intoxicated – ’cause, yeah, alcohol literally shuts down the sound-decision making parts of our brain – but it’s the only way for things to be super clear.
Even better – don’t get blind intoxicated.
And grey area or not, the law is still pretty clear on the following. An absence of a no is not a yes. Silence is not a yes. Incoherent mumbling, or slipping in and out of consciousness, also not a yes.
And fuck, do I really need to say this? (Sadly, yes.)
Whilst I’m 99.9% sure that the kinds of people here reading our blogs already know this, it would be remiss of me not to say:
If someone’s asleep or unconscious (or even half asleep), they can’t give consent. Even if you had sex two hours ago. Even if you’ve been together for years. Even if they’ve never said no to sex in the history of always. Still can’t give consent.
Just so we’re really clear.
Some Final Thoughts
So this is the part where I give you the answer on how to do consent the ‘right’ way, yeah?
Sorry, it’s not that simple. It’s really up to you to decide, and then to step up.
Sure, I have some tips:
Talk about what consent means to you before you get started with someone. If you don’t know each other so well, you’re probably best off not making assumptions or trying to be too subtle. Perhaps a more scaffolded model of asking for verbal consent as things escalate might be the best way to go. Just like speaking up right from the start and being super explicit if you don’t want something to happen is probably a good idea too.
Ask for what you want, and say what you don’t want.
If you’re looking for a ‘sexier’ way of asking permission, state your desires as an empowered yet respectful way of inviting consent. “I so want to kiss you right now.” “I really want to suck your cock.” “I want to be inside you.” It’s all good. Then wait and see what the response is. No response? Nope, that’s not consent. Go ahead and add your most breathy, dripping in sensuality, “Do you want that?” and listen to the reply.
Listen. Really listen. If someone tells you right from the start they only want to snuggle, that’s what they want. Only to snuggle. Refer back to part 1 if you’re confused. No one needs to be convinced or persuaded. That really isn’t a thing.
And as a blanket rule – before any kind of penetration, just go ahead and check in. Men and women alike, this is just a pretty good rule of thumb. (Literally and figuratively.)
But again, this is all so personal.
At the end of the day, here’s what I do know.
In the age of tinder hook-ups and causal sex, you really can’t assume that the people you’re seeing will have the same consent standards as you. Especially when there IS no universally accepted standard.
If you want to feel sexually empowered, respected and safe…
If you want to empower and be respectful…
Then you’ve got to be taking your share of the responsibility and speaking UP.
Whether that’s being shameless with your no, telling your partner how you want the whole consent thing to go down, or asking what it is your partner wants the whole way through.
If you want your partner to just straight up take you, that’s more than fine. But you’re going to have to communicate that. Don’t make them guess. (And make sure you’re damn confident in your no.)
Want them to check in with you at every single turn? Yep, all good. But you’re best to communicate that as well, lest they’ve ever been shamed for not being direct enough or not making a move when ‘the time was right’.
And if you’re not totally, completely sure what the person you’re with wants? Just ask them.
There’s so much YOU can do, without leaving all the responsibility on the table for someone else, (or taking on too much for yourself).
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Finding Your Sexual Voice
Speaking up can be hard – especially in the culture we live in. Stating our desires, asking for what we want, giving feedback when things just ain’t working for us – these aren’t things us women are taught how to do..
But you can learn, and it’s a journey that will change your life. In every way. From the bedroom to how you show up as woman in your everyday life, sexual empowerment is where it’s at.
Want to find out how you can start on this journey? Let’s have a chat. Click here to apply for a free discovery session with me, Jodie. No obligation, just straight up connection, exploration and discovery.
If you’re dealing with the trauma of sexual assault, whether the assault took place today, last week or twenty years ago, there’s a range of excellent support services out there for you.
In the United States? RAINN offers a variety of services – call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.