Don’t miss our first post on consent, in which we discussed what sexual consent looks, feels, and sounds like, with tools on how to negotiate consent with our partner(s) and within ourselves.
In this factsheet, we’ll discuss:
- Consent and confusing feelings that can come up after a hookup
- Things that hinder our ability to consent
- How we can become more empowered, consent-able subjects
Can consent be taken back?
This is a complicated question!
As we discussed in our first factsheet on consent, everyone is allowed to change their mind at any time about what they are doing and/or about to do.
It is also very common for people to change how they feel and think about a situation after it has happened. This is where consent can become super nuanced.
Although we can’t give any hard and fast rules on this subject—every situation should be weighed on a case-by-case basis—we can share some ways of thinking around this subject...
Since humans are constantly learning, growing and changing, it’s natural to develop a different perspective on an experience after it’s happened. It’s also common to go into an experience thinking it’ll be one thing and experience something different.
Since sex can be so mysterious and every moment is new, it’s impossible to know 100 percent for sure exactly what we are consenting to when we agree to have sex with someone. Part of being a responsible actor in our own lives is accepting that, in any experience, there will always be unknowns. Knowing how to navigate the unknown is a huge part of having the kind of sex (and living the kind of life!) you want. The first step is to recognize there will always be surprises. Consider asking yourself:
What do I need to feel safe and responsible as I explore new situations and people?
Some things that help us at Jems are:
- A clear head (achieved through sobriety, for example, and/or mindfulness practices)
- Planning ahead
- A safety net made up of friends, family and/or community we can call upon and trust
- Having the resources (like money!) to take care of ourselves.
For example, having a way to get home from a date with a new person—without depending on them—is very important. This could be as simple as carrying enough cash to take public transit, a cab, or a car service home, and knowing the route (asking in advance where you are meeting up or choosing the location yourself). Or, we might drive ourselves or have a friend on the line who can pick us up. It can also be great to “share your location” with a friend (a feature on most smartphones) when going on a date with a new person. Little things like these can go a long way, giving ourselves more independence, protection and agency, and empowering us to experience what we want and walk away from what we don’t want.
Sometimes sex can bring up thoughts, feelings, memories, and associations that we didn’t know were in us. Oftentimes this is a welcome, pleasurable experience—part of the reason we fuck. At other times, this may feel uncomfortable, and even triggering. If a sexual experience triggers something complex in you, Jems recommends self-compassion, gentleness, and patient reflection as you process what has happened. Therapy and therapeutic tools such as journaling and meditation, as well as talking with trusted friends, can be great allies to help you process. You might discover a boundary you didn’t know was there. It’s very common for people to not know they have a need until it’s not met, or a line that can’t be crossed until it has been crossed. Once you’ve discovered this about yourself, you can take the knowledge forward—asking for what you need, want or don’t want in all future encounters.
In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into things that hinder our ability to consent. In some cases, if someone feels they want to “take their consent back,” they might have been in a situation where they weren’t able to consent or where their ability to consent was in an uncomfortable grey area. Let’s unpack this further with the intention of becoming more empowered, consent-able subjects...
What are some things that hinder us from being able to consent? How can we become more empowered consent-able subjects?
There are many factors that can hinder a subject from being able to consent, even while they may seem—on the surface—to be consenting to or “going along with” a sexual encounter.
We are going to look at some of these factors, because understanding them is major in how we become more empowered, consent-able people—and more responsible partners.
Drugs and alcohol
Drugs and alcohol have the power to change how we feel, think and act. According to the law, legal consent is sober consent. Being drunk or high is not an excuse that gets people off the hook for sexual assault—we are still responsible for our actions if we hurt people when we are inebriated. If you and/or your partner are blackout drunk or high, neither of you can engage in consensual sex. Blackout sex is non-consensual.
It’s common for some people, especially young people, to hook up while drunk or high. We are not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. The responsible consumption of small amounts of legal drugs and alcohol by persons who are of age to consume it can be a healthy part of one’s sex life. Small doses of marijuana, for example, have been reported to increase sexual drive and improve satisfaction with orgasm in some women. Some people find a glass of red wine relaxes them—and relaxation is associated with greater pleasure and orgasm. Large amounts of alcohol, however, can result in sexual dysfunction, the inability to maintain an erection or cum in people with penises, and the inability to “get wet” or orgasm in people with vaginas, the same goes for many street drugs.
It’s always good to reflect on why we do what we do. If you’re turning to drugs and alcohol to have sex because you’re nervous about or afraid of having sex, it might be more valuable to you, long term, to explore and dismantle your fears.
Fear and trauma
Did you know that fear can keep us from being able to consent? Have you ever heard of the “fight-flight-freeze-fawn” response? This is the body's natural physiological reaction to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events. Basically, when something scary or threatening is happening around us, or when a trauma is triggered, our brain and body start firing signals and messages to help us survive and get to safety. This process can happen so fast and so instinctively that we might not even realize it. It’s an ancient survival tool that our body-mind connection has developed.
Researchers have identified four core ways that people respond to extreme stress. The first is fight, when people respond to a perceived threat with aggression and/or violence. The second is flight, running away from the danger. The next is freeze, when people are unable to move or react when faced with a threat. And the last is fawn, when your mode of self-defense is to please others to avoid conflict. All of these responses can be relevant to sex and consent, but freeze and fawn are especially relevant. Can you guess why?
Consent is all about communication, right? It’s also about being able to feel ourselves, so we know what we need to communicate and why. If we are scared or triggered and go into freeze mode, how can we communicate consent and dissent (the fact of not consenting)? Freeze mode can literally feel like your whole body, sometimes even your mind, is frozen: you can’t speak, act, or move. If you notice your partner going into freeze mode, it is your responsibility to stop the hookup and check in on them. If someone is in freeze mode, they cannot consent.
Fawn is a common stress response in women, femmes, and other vulnerable subjects who have faced or might fear violence in a conflict. When in fawn mode, people want to please others, not because it brings them pleasure, but because they feel it’ll keep them safe from harm. In a sexual situation, a person in fawn mode might use words and gestures of consent, not because they want to have sex, but because they fear saying no. Fawn mode was only recently added to the list of extreme stress responses. We are still learning about how it operates. Knowledge of the fawn response can help individuals reflect on their relationships. It can be helpful to ask yourself: “Do I really like this person and/or want to hookup, or am I trying to please them because I fear what will happen if I do not?” Because it can be hard to discern if another person is fawning because they genuinely mean it or because they are currently experiencing a trauma or are triggered into trauma-response, it’s vital that we build trust in and an awareness of who our partner(s) are that extends beyond the confines of a hookup. It’s also why it’s so important for women, femmes, vulnerable people, marginalized people and people who have experienced trauma to engage in healing work, self-reflection and self-empowerment—and for the people and culture around them to support them and lift them up.
Although it can be, going into fight, flight, freeze and/or fawn mode is not necessarily a sign that someone has experienced a sexual trauma and is triggered. It could also be a symptom of a general culture of fear around sex, bodies and intimacy. There are so many fears associated with sex: fears of not being attractive enough; fears of being too experienced (slut shame) or not experienced enough; fears of getting STIs or pregnant before you’re ready; and even fears around consent.
Because of its associations with the #MeToo movement, sexual assault and call-out culture, “consent” has come to feel scary to many people. When something is unpleasant or scary, we might want to ignore it all together; that’s a version of the flight response. If we want to have great sex, that is, consensual sex, we need to release the stigmas, shame and fears about sex and the body that culture has programmed into us. We need to change how we think about sex and consent.
Gender and sexual orientation
Gendered power dynamics and the stigmatization of certain sexual orientations may inhibit people’s capacity to consent. We addressed this a little bit before when we talked about how women and femmes may go into the “fawn” trauma response. Although gender norms are changing at a rapid clip and vary from culture to culture, it’s still common in many cultures for people who are assigned female at birth to be raised to be agreeable, submissive, passive, and sweet, while people who are assigned male at birth tend to be empowered with a greater sense of autonomy, independence, assertiveness and entitlement from the people and pop culture around them, sometimes to the extent of encouraging violence, putting their needs, will and desires above those of others. This can result in imbalanced sexual dynamics and breaches of, or miscommunications around, consent.
In our experience, sexual consent is most commonly talked about as something that men or masc-presenting-people seek from women or femme-presenting-people. The underlying message of this norm is that men/mascs are more interested in sex than women/femmes; that sex is something to be extracted from women/femmes; and that women/femmes are the gatekeepers of sex and pleasure, which is held in their bodies. This is just one example of a toxic norm that can be challenged by expanding our ideas about what sex, gender and consent are!
Dave Shanfield of Goodparts once made a great comment to the Jems team about how consent is a natural extension of gay male dynamics—compared with straight sex at least—because it’s way more common in gay hookup culture to discuss your preferences, like whether you’re a top, bottom or vers (whether you receive or give penetration, or both). In straight dynamics, it’s often assumed that the woman is a bottom and the man is a top, and that there’s no need to discuss preferences regarding penetration, let alone anything else. In fact, women can be tops or vers/switch, just as men can be bottoms or vers/switch, not to mention of course that many people are nonbinary, fluid and genderqueer, and we are all so unique with preferences and limits, which may not align with gendered stereotypes! This is not to say that gay or queer sex is perfect and free from breaches of consent. It’s just that queer people are often more in the habit of inventing and re-inventing sex and gender dynamics to suit their own instincts, pleasures and truest selves. When you occupy a normative or dominant identity such as heterosexuality or a cis gender, you might have to choose to unpack what’s toxic about it, or what's simply not for you. Jems encourages you to do that work.
Age and power dynamics
There are other power dynamics besides gender that can limit our capacity to give and receive fair consent, for example age discrepancies, economic inequalities, social capital gaps, differences in hierarchical labor positions and insecurities (such as poverty or low self-esteem).
First, let’s talk age: Age of consent laws vary from nation to nation, state to state and province to province. A quick Google search will let you know what the age of consent law is in most areas. Generally, age of consent laws are designed to protect young people (usually, children and teenagers under eighteen) from becoming intimate with “adults,” whose power relative to the young person is deemed as potentially coercive or imbalanced. Sex with a minor is often called “statutory rape,” if not child sexual abuse, and it’s a punishable offence. Age of consent laws have been far from perfect. In the past, many jurisdictions held a higher age of consent for same-sex sexual activity (or anal sex) than for opposite-sex activity (or vaginal sex). There were also age of consent laws that could be circumvented by an older person marrying an otherwise underage person. Usually, this was an old man marrying a young teenage girl in a religious context. In most jurisdictions, such laws have been called out as homophobic, misogynistic and predatory, and the laws have changed. Whether you agree with the age of consent law in your area or not, it’s worth reflecting on why an older person having sex with an “underage” person could be understood as a form of rape.
When you’re a minor, you are often dependent, structurally, financially and emotionally, on elders. If your housing, food and other survival needs, including core emotional needs, need to be met by adults, then you are in a vulnerable position relative to said adults. It might be harder (arguably impossible) for a young person to say “no” to a sexual dynamic with an older person if they feel (consciously or unconsciously) that their survival depends upon it. The young person might also be impressionable, taken in by the safety, structure and access the older person provides, not to mention the talents, influence and knowledge of someone with simply more years on Earth.
This kind of power imbalance doesn’t only happen with age. Other gaps in power could be one person earning a lot more money than the other; one person having a lot more popularity, clout, social contacts and social access than the other; or one person being another’s teacher, boss, manager, or workplace or school superior. In an ideal world, people in power would be conscious of their influence and be careful not to exploit it. Those with greater privileges, access and resources would be mindful of that and would go out of their way to level the playing field and to maintain ethical boundaries. Unfortunately, this does not always happen! Some people seek to gain money, clout and power in order to exploit, use and abuse others. Predators often target people who are insecure and more susceptible to coercion. Insecurities could be from childhood trauma and abuse; from living in a fat-phobic, transphobic, racist or otherwise discriminatory culture; or from actual financial insecurity, lacking the resources to support oneself.
There are more and more legal protections for employees, students and other vulnerable people. This is what the best of the #MeToo movement was about. Society as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of protecting, educating and empowering young people and people from marginalized identities and communities. It can be helpful to study how power, attraction and communication function in your life. While it’s very common to be attracted to people in power like celebrities, star teachers, conventional “attractive” people, wealthy people and other socially-sanctioned “success” stories, you should never feel pressured to be intimate with anyone because you think they’ll provide you something that you lack or because you fear they will punish you socially, financially or physically if you do not. You are so valuable and so important! Never forget: we are all made of stars.