Consent Factsheet: Part 1
In this factsheet, we’ll discuss:
- Popular models of consent
- Phrases and communication tools to give and receive consent
- Consent and hookup apps
- What it means to negotiate consent within ourselves
What is consent?
The word consent means to agree to do or allow something.
Consensual sex is sex where everyone involved is doing things they want, and no one is doing things they don’t want. This often involves negotiating—because not everyone wants the same things.
“No means no”
When it comes to sex and consent, you might have heard the phrase “no means no.”
This is usually taken to mean that if you don’t want something to happen—whether that’s a specific sexual act or being spoken to or touched in any sexual manner at all—and you communicate that, by saying “no,” for example, any sexual action taken by another that does not respect your “no” can be considered sexual harassment, coercion, assault, or even rape. The phrase “no means no” was actually popularized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) in the 1990s, and while it has its flaws (which will be addressed as we go), “no means no” remains a good starting point for thinking about consent.
“No means no” is especially helpful when trying to understand what sexual coercion is. As Teen Talk writes, “Trying to turn someone’s ‘no’ into an ‘ok, I guess so’ is called sexual coercion. Coercion is when someone keeps asking even after hearing no, or tries to threaten or bribe the other person by saying things like, ‘if you loved me you would’ or ‘my ex would do this with me, why won’t you?’” Not only is pressuring someone into sex through coercion disrespectful, it is a form of sexual assault. One “no” should be more than enough.
Now we don’t mean to scare you by bringing all this up! There’s already so much fear associated with sex. Rape and sexual assault are serious crimes and if you think you’ve experienced one, we encourage you to talk with someone you trust and/or reach out to an anti-sexual violence hotline or another resource, such a therapist or counselor. What Jems is going to focus on here are concepts and tools to help people engage in desirable, consensual sex, while navigating some of the grey areas that often come up. Consent doesn’t have to be a scary topic.
“Yes means yes”
A more contemporary and popular idea of consent is that only “yes means yes.” Also sometimes called “affirmative consent,” the “yes means yes” model of consent encourages sexual partners to engage in ongoing, enthusiastic expressions of their desires, needs, and boundaries, and to be listening for these communications from their partner(s), and when in doubt—to ask.
Practicing “yes means yes” can make sex a joyful and exciting process. Active communication becomes part of the natural flow of a hookup.
“Yes means yes” style communication actually gets us closer to the origin of the word consent, which literally means to feel together.
What does consent look, sound, and feel like?
Consent can get a bad rep similar to using condoms—like an interruption in the experience instead of a part of the experience. With a playful partner, anything can be hot. Just as condom use can be made sexy (asked for in a sensual whisper, put on one partner by the other), so too can seeking consent. Here are some phrases you might consider using to give and receive consent:
Does that feel good? / That feels so good
What do you like? / I love it when you ______
Do you want me to go faster/slower/gentler/rougher? / Can you go faster/slower/gentler/rougher
What turns you on? / This turns me on / You’re really turning me on
You look so great, can I kiss you? / Why haven’t you kissed me already!?
Are you comfortable with this? / It’s better when you ______
Can I touch you here? / I’d love to touch you here / Touch me here
We know not everyone loves to talk. Many people prefer to express themselves sexually through non-verbal cues like eye contact, moans, grunts and body language. This can make consent complicated at times!
If talking really isn’t your thing, you could ask your partner if you can show them a picture or video of something you like. You could also ask them if you can show them something using your own body, for example, demonstrating the tempo you liked to be stroked, or the place on your neck that is extra sensitive. Sexting in advance can also be a great way to initiate a dialogue; sometimes boundaries, needs and pleasures are easier to share in writing. A mix of non-verbal and verbal communication can be really powerful.
If it’s your partner who isn’t super verbal (some people are shy, some just too cool...), you could ask them for clarification on some of their non-verbal cues. For instance, when you hear a specific moan, you could ask them, “Does that mean you like this?” or “Should I do that more?” If you feel them moving away or flinching at a specific touch, you could ask them “Should I not touch you there?” or “Do you want to talk about it?”
The more we get to know each other, the more we’ll learn how to read the subtleties of each other’s sounds and body language. This can take time, since everyone has their own ways of communicating through their body.
Every moment is new
One of the most important things to remember about consent is that everyone—including yourself!—is allowed to change their mind at any time.
Just because someone consented to something at one point does not mean they have consented to that forever, or at any other time.
Every moment is new. Consent is a continuous process.
Sometimes it can feel like we get “lost in the throes of passion—” we feel so much during sex, that our brain doesn’t feel “on.” This is not an excuse for not listening to your partner all throughout a hookup. If your partner is signaling to you that they have changed their mind, it is your responsibility and duty to hear them and respect their needs. Check in frequently—with your partner(s) and yourself.
Consent and hookup apps
Consent can get fuzzy when we’re meeting people using dating and hookup apps, or any other romantically or sexually charged situation. Sometimes people might feel like they “owe it” to the other person to hookup with them if they met in a situation where they were “looking for that kind of thing.” We’ve also had friends tell us about how they saw someone on an app, initially were into them, but when they got together, the spark wasn’t there, but they “didn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings,” so they hooked up anyway.
We can’t repeat this enough: Just because you met someone on a dating or hookup app does not mean you have to do anything with them. Just because someone bought you dinner and invited you over or did something nice for you—you do not owe them anything. At any point, and for any reason (and you don’t even need a reason!), you are allowed to change your mind. Your partner is allowed to change their mind. You can say no, they can say no. You can leave, they can leave. Meeting in a situation that implies sexual and/or romantic interest is not a promise—it’s not consent.
This brings us to a HUGE under-discussed aspect of consent, which is that consent is not only negotiated BETWEEN PARTNERS, consent is also something we negotiate WITHIN OURSELVES.
What does it mean to negotiate consent within ourselves?
Have you ever had mixed feelings about something or someone? Have you ever not known what the right thing for you to do is? Yeah, us too. All the time!
Life is mysterious and sex is especially mysterious.
It’s totally normal to feel like you want something in one moment and then not want it in the next. It’s totally normal to desire multiple seemingly opposing things! It’s also normal not to desire any specific thing, but to still want to have experiences, to learn what feels good through experience.
Learning what we want and how, when, and with whom we want it is a lifelong process. It’s a journey that can and should be enjoyed!
At the end of the day, your sex life is yours. Part of making your sex life your own involves communicating honestly with yourself. Observe your experiences, listen to your body, mind, heart and spirit, take notes and reflect.
Negotiating consent within ourselves might involve weighing the pros (the pleasures and rewards) and cons (the risks and repercussions) of a specific decision, like: “Sure, that person is hella hot, but I hear they ghost on folks. Am I really up for that? Maybe I should talk it through with someone I trust...”
If you think about it, you’re probably negotiating consent within yourself already all the time—we do it with what food we eat, what jobs we’re willing to do, and which friends we tell what to. Becoming more mindful of our own internal processes can empower us in our decisions and actions—and that’s on consent.