What Is Consent, Really? Plus, How and When to Ask for It
Research suggests that a lot of people still don't really know.
The year 2017 may have gifted us Call Me By Your Name (and that wild peach scene) and the unicorn frappuccino, but nothing defined the year quite like the popularization of the #MeToo movement.
Chances are, you've tuned into the development of the #MeToo movement—the social movement against the sexual harassment and assault of women and nonbinary folks—at some point. Or perhaps you even book-clubbed two texts that recently took social media by a storm on the topic: Catch and Kill and She Said.
But even after widespread coverage of the staggering prevalence of sexual assault, research reveals that the public understanding of consent misses the mark. More than half (53 percent) of young folks (ages 18-25) surveyed in the U.K., for instance, don't realize that consent can be withdrawn once someone is already naked (yes, it can!). And only 13 percent said they'd feel comfortable discussing consent with their sexual partner.
And that's why we put together this clearly very necessary crib sheet to consent. Read up.
What Is Consent, Exactly?
According to our good friend, Merriam Webster, consent is the "approval of what is done or proposed by another." But this definition isn't just incomplete, it's inaccurate, according to Kai Werder, trauma-informed certified sex educator and author of the zine Beyond Yes & No: The Intimacy of Consent.
Consent is not something that can be given after something is done (as the MW definition implies). Rather, consent must:
- be granted prior to something taking place
- be ongoing
- be able to be withdrawn at any time
- be granted in the absence of any kind of pressure or coercion
Consent must also be enthusiastic. Why? Well, there's a g-i-a-n-t difference between something you're willing to do/try and something you actively want to do/try, explains Carol Queen, Ph.D., Good Vibrations sexologist, curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, and co-author of The Sex & Pleasure Book. "There are tons of reasons someone might say they're willing to do something such as fear of losing someone's love, even fear of being harmed," says Queen. "Enthusiastic consent pushes us much farther down the path towards actively desiring something."
So, here's the definition of consent that you should actually be using, according to Werder:
When to Ask for Consent
One of the most common misconceptions about consent is that it's ~just a sex thing~. (Or more specifically, just a P-in-V sex thing.) But let the record show that consent can (and should!) be given in non-sexual contexts as well. Why? For starters, respect! "When we ask for consent in all scenarios, including every activity, we're communicating that we respect someone's agency and autonomy," says Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.
Beyond that, it creates a culture in which asking for consent is normalized. "Asking for consent in everyday activities sets the precedent that consent is important, honored, valued and a required part of all interactions," they say.
Here's what consent in non-sexual settings might look like: saying, "May I pass through?" when someone is in your walking path, instead of pushing them to the side. Or asking your S.O. before posting a photo of them on Instagram instead of just doing it. (Related: Is It Illegal To Go Through Your Partner's Phone?)
And to be very clear, consent is ethically and legally required for all types of sexual activity.
Whether it’s kissing, outercourse, video sex, or anal, consent is a MUST. And it must be given before any new activity is introduced. "Consent is not transferable," explains Queen. "Consent to kiss isn't consent to have intercourse; consenting to vaginal isn't consent for anal; consent with a condom doesn't give consent for bareback." You also need consent before sending anything sexual via text, DM, etc.—that means asking before you send a nude or racy photo, or before sending sexually-explicit or -forward messages. (To learn more, take a look at your state's specific sexual consent laws.)
On a similar note: Consent for intercourse today does not mean consent for intercourse is automatically given in the future. Consent must be granted prior to every (!) single (!) encounter (!). Yes, even if you're married or in an LTR.
When Someone *Cannot* Give Consent
It's important to understand that there are instances when, even if the person says "yes," the law does not recognize their consent as valid. These include:
If they are under the age of consent: The age at which a person is legally considered to have the emotional maturity and autonomy to consent to sexual intercourse ranges from 16 to 18 years old (specific age varies from state-to-state). The intent of these age-of-consent laws is to protect young kids from sexual abuse. (To learn more about age-of-consent laws, I recommend reading this 2019 story from The Cut written by Lux Alptraum, author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex—and the Truths They Reveal.)
If they are sleeping: This should be obvious, but someone cannot give consent if they are not awake.
If they are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol: While it is possible to drink and still be coherent enough to enthusiastically consent to sex, consent cannot be given if someone is unconscious, slurring their words or otherwise unable to communicate clearly, does not have a grasp on what's taking place, or is making a decision they would not make sober.
If there is a power differential: If a person is an authority figure (think: professor or boss) to someone, any sexual activity that occurs between you is considered an abuse of power.
How to Ask for Consent
The dog farting while you're going down on your partner. A Weird Al song interrupting your sex playlist. Calling your new boo your ex's name (ugh, been there). These things are mood-ruiners. Asking for consent is not. Consent is sexy. And anything less is straight-up illegal and constitutes rape. Got it?
You can keep it as plain as, "Do you consent to having anal intercourse?" or you can try out one of these other lines, courtesy of Werder and Queen:
- "Just got a new toy in the mail, could I send you a ~sexy~ recording of me using it?"
- "Can I send you a nude? ;)"
- "I've been texting you while wearing my fave lingerie—can I show you?"
- "Are you in the mood for a sexy video date tonight?"
- "I'd love to relive our last time having sex together over sex. Are you up for an X-rated convo?"
- "Is now a good time to send you a cute booty pic?"
- "I want every touch to feel good to you. Do you like this? Do you want something different?"
- "I'd love to taste you. How would you feel about that?".
- "I'd love to watch you use your favorite vibrator, so if you have one handy please feel free to take it out and use it!"
What "Yes" and "No" Look Like In Practice
Here's where it gets tricky: Sometimes it's not as simple as "yes" and "no."
A "yes" might look like: "Yes," "Please don't stop," "Yes, please there!" or "I want you to." In some instances, yes may even look like an eager head nod. "Consent must be explicit," says Werder. So if your partner can verbally communicate you might say, "baby, I want to hear you tell yes" or, "I'm not going to do anything until you say yes."
On the other hand, "no" might look like: "No," "I don't know," "I'm not sure," "I want to, but...," "Maybe we should wait…," no response, or the person physically shaking their head no or pulling away.
"No" may also look like an unenthusiastic "yes," adds Werder. "If someone is saying 'yes' but it feels unenthusiastic, that's an indication to pause and check-in," they say. "If for instance, you ask for a kiss after a first date and the person says "yes" but you sense hesitation, you should stop." Same goes if you ask to send a nude and they reply "sure" or "I guess."
And remember: Consent is a continual conversation, not a one-off question and answer, says Werder. "If at any point you sense hesitance or you feel them slightly push you away, check in," they say. "You might need to switch positions or stop the play altogether, but you won't know unless you talk about it." (Related: How I Learned to Say What I Want In Bed)
Wait, So Can Consent Be Implied??
Implied consent is the (false!) idea that someone's actions or body language can stand in place of explicit consent, explain Queen. Think: Someone looking at your lips being read as an invitation for a kiss.
While "implied consent" is often used to defend against non-consensual behaviors (aka assault and rape) in the courtroom, Werder says, “true consent cannot be implied. Clarity is key.”
So, rather than assuming, you might ask, “Can I kiss you?” or “I noticed you were looking at my lips… do you want me to kiss you?” After all, maybe they weren’t looking at your lips, but the piece of spinach stuck in your teeth.
How to Accept a "No"
No doubt, hearing no (or one of its variations) can be a bummer! After all, you've just expressed your desires. "When we hear the word 'no,' our first thought is usually to internalize it and make it all about ourselves and our hurt around being rejected," says Werder. But in reality, receiving a "no" from someone—especially when it comes to sex—is all about them setting their own boundaries. "Their 'no' may have very little to do with you, and a lot to do with where they're at in life and what their desires are," they say.
So, rather than sulking at a "no" as you might be inclined to, "try to celebrate when someone tells you 'no' because it means that they know themselves well enough to know what it is they don't want," says Werder. (Related: How to Ask Your Partner for More Sex, Without Offending Them)
Werder suggests responding with something like: "Thanks for sharing your boundary with me!" or "Okay, is there something else you'd want to do?" or "I respect that."