When we think about sex, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a hot, steamy make-out session or the typical P and V sex we see in porn. Others may start daydreaming about somebody you find attractive or possibly recoil at the thought of intimacy. But what many people don’t consider is probably the number one rule of any sexual interaction… consent. For some people, consent doesn’t seem like such a sexy topic to discuss, so they may just shrug it off like, “She’s going along with it so that must mean she wants to do it,” or “We’re already naked so there’s no turning back now.” But we can't shrug it off like it's no big deal because it IS.
So what exactly is consent? The dictionary defines consent as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” Sexual consent is when a person freely agrees to have any sort of sexual encounter with their partner. That ranges from fondling, undressing, kissing, any type of touch, foreplay, oral sex… all the way to full on p.v. or anal sex. Sexual consent is not optional – it is a must each time you wish to enter anybody’s personal space.
With the current decisions around Title IX, the subjects of consent and sexual assault have been thrown into the spotlight. There is controversy around consent laws and false ideas that if a person doesn’t say no, then that means yes. Not so fast...giving consent isn’t failing to decline a request, but rather, giving the green light to continue. It is important to talk about and ask if what you are doing is OK, and if your partner agrees to the act(s). Just because two people have engaged in sex before doesn’t mean both are on board for next time. If an individual feels that they are unsure about moving forward and their partner keeps pressuring, using intimidation or blame to get them to agree, or if they give in out of fear of retaliation or guilt, that is NOT CONSENT. If you don't get consent, that is sexual assault.
There is much research done on the freezing response of victims of sexual assault. When somebody is in a dangerous situation, like a potential assault, for example, the body can choose to fight, flight, or freeze. A common reaction is the latter; it’s the brain's way of protecting itself, therefore the body may temporarily shut down. This can lead the person to dissociate or feel unable to fend off the attacker. Emily Nagoski discusses this in her novel “Come As You Are” about how just because a person’s body may be turned on and ready to go, does not necessarily mean they are on board and their mind is cooperating the same. There are real laws now about who is freely able to give consent since people often use the excuse somebody was “drunk and asked for it” which isn’t the case. Legalmatch.com states that the age of consent varies by state, and anybody who is under the influence of drugs and alcohol, not legal in age, unconscious (i.e. sleeping) cannot give (accurate) consent. Assuming your romantic interest feels the same way you do just because they may be physically turned on is also a false judgment. It is what comes out of their mouth, in other words… a big loud YES that matters. Let’s talk about what “yes” means too. Agreeing in the moment doesn’t necessarily guarantee yes in five minutes. A "yes," has to be continuous; your partner may be okay with kissing, but that doesn’t automatically mean you get a yes for touching their bodies. Your partner should also understand if you have started participating in an act, but change your mind for whatever reason, that the act should stop. You do not even have to provide them with a reason: saying no is good enough. It is your body and you have the right to change your mind if you were feeling it one minute but not so much the next. Going off of that, it’s not enough that the person says yes once… it should be discussed each time.
Afraid that asking for consent will ruin the moment? If we are mature enough to have sex, we should be mature enough to talk about it with our partner(s). In the long run, you are building better communication skills and setting boundaries which are vital to a healthy, happy life. It is asking the other person if they are down to do what you desire and respecting their decision either way. If somebody doesn’t consent, it’s OK to feel disappointed, but know it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you, just your offer. Consent involves making an informed decision so you are sure they are 100% in, not 50% or even 90%. It is helpful to stop and check in with the other person “Does this feel good? “Is this okay?” Remember, everyone is coming from a different past and experience. The more you understand and accept each other, the more you will relax and enjoy yourselves. So if you think about it, consent won’t ruin the moment - it’s actually making sex better!
Lastly, I want to emphasize the point, you don’t need to apologize if you’re not ready for something your partner is. It is not your fault if somebody crosses your boundaries or does anything that wasn’t consented to. A lot of resources are available for those who have been violated sexually. Together we can help to end sexual assault by educating like with the Password: Consent campaign from Break the Cycle and Project Consent, as well as respecting others and knowing our personal limits. Honesty and knowing the feeling of desire is mutual are the top ingredients for an enjoyable, consensual encounter. And there’s nothing sexier than that.
Lauren C. is a contributing member of Let’s Be Real, a movement by young people for young people about relationships. Lauren wants to use her experiences to set an example of what it means to love yourself & respect others. She enjoys educating people by sharing on social media & writing about domestic violence/mental health.