Trigger warning: mentions of victim blaming and sexual assault.
Two of my exes had the best of intentions and ended up sexually assaulting me anyway. (Sexual assault is any non-consensual sexual activity). How does that happen? Because a lot of people are really bad at consent. Why are we not teaching this in sex ed?! Here are some badly attempted (and downright failed) consent practices and how to do it better:
Do first, ask later.
This one grinds my gears, and it should be obvious why. It’s very common for people to “test the waters” and hope the other person is okay with it. In movies, people fall into bed together and magically know exactly what the other person wants without saying a word. This doesn’t work in real life and it’s a terrible idea! If the other person is not okay with what was done to them, it’s sexual assault plain and simple. Jesus, just use your words. What do you think is worse: asking a simple question or risking scarring the other person for life? That’s what it really comes down to.
The fix: Whoever initiates a sexual activity has the responsibility to first obtain consent. So ask first. Always. For example, ‘Would you like me to ___?’ ‘How do you feel about ___?’ ‘Is it okay if I ___?’
“Let me know if I ever make you uncomfortable.”
People who say stuff like this may have good intentions, but it’s not enough. Similar to the last point, conversation doesn’t start until the action has already been done. If the person is not okay with what was done to them, they were sexually assaulted already. Here, there is a huge risk for sexual assault unless more is done.
The fix: refer to the last point. Be proactive. In addition, you can establish safe words with your partner. They’re words or signals agreed upon between two people beforehand. They can be used to communicate a person’s needs and comfort levels. For example: red can mean stop, yellow can mean slow down, and green can mean all clear. Or squeezing their shoulder twice can mean wanting to continue but at a reduced intensity. Another example is one person nonverbally asking to take the other person’s shirt off by lifting the bottom a few inches. If the other person raises their arms, that means “Get me out of this thing!”
Not talking about boundaries regularly.
There’s a big risk of sexual assault here especially if people don’t ask for consent before acting. How is one supposed to respect boundaries if they don’t know what they are in the first place? Talking about boundaries can be awkward at first, but once you get used to it, it gets much easier. Shoot, it can be downright hot.
The fix: The most important thing is to first reflect and know your boundaries before communicating them with your partner. I’d recommend making a yes, no, maybe list.
But what about actually talking with your partner? One option is a sit down conversation where you get it all out at once. You can even share your yes, no, maybe list with them if you are comfortable with that.
It can also be done in smaller steps such as saying ‘Let’s just stay like this for a while.’ ‘I’m okay with you touching me here but not there’, ‘I’m not comfortable with ___’, ‘I’m not ready for ___ yet.’
Coercion isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of begging until the other person gives in, complaining about “blue balls” and not being sexually satisfied (I’m just going to add that you don’t owe your partner anything. Ever), pressuring them (for example, encouraging the other person to “expand their boundaries”), making the other person feel guilty for saying no, and more…
The fix: If they say no or don’t seem 100% into what you want to do, leave them alone. That’s it. Don’t negotiate. Don’t try to convince them. Just respect their decision. A coerced “yes” is not consent.
The all or nothing mentality.
Many people wrongly assume that making out means they’re consenting to sex too, or having sex once means they automatically are okay with it at any time in the future… or something along those lines, since this applies to more than sex. My point is, consent is given for one activity at a time. One moment at a time. Even if you’ve had sex with the same person 100 times, you still need to ask for consent the 101st time. Even if you’re in the middle of a hot makeout sesh and you think you know where it’s going… you don’t. You don’t know what the other person’s boundaries are.
The fix: Ask every time. No matter what. Never assume.
Thinking silence and not fighting are consent.
Silence is not consent. Silence is not consent. Silence is not consent. There are many reasons someone might not speak up: fear of retaliation, freezing up (a common response to sexual assault), feeling like they “owe” their partner something, not wanting to ruin the moment, fear of being called a prude… In addition, fighting back can lead to worse violence in some situations, the person may freeze up or… it might not even be necessary because not all sexual assault is violent in the first place.
The fix: Asking before doing anything and also checking in with them. For example, ‘Are you enjoying this?’ ‘How does that feel?’ ‘Do you want me to keep going?’ ‘You look uncomfortable. Are you okay?’
Thinking that “no” doesn’t always mean “no.”
“No” does not mean “yes.” “No” does not mean “maybe.” “No” does not mean “convince me.” It just means “NO.” End of story.
The fix: If they say “no,” you stop. If you lay a finger on them after that, it’s textbook sexual assault.
Thinking that people can “ask for it” nonverbally.
The only way to ask for it is to literally ask for it. Drinking, taking drugs, flirting, dressing provocatively, sleeping around, walking alone, being alone with someone in a bedroom, etc. Are not “asking for it.”
The fix: Don’t make assumptions. Ask them what they want.
Assuming that sexual activity is “owed” in a relationship.
Within a relationship and even a marriage, people still have ownership of their own bodies. People in a relationship are under no obligation to satisfy their partner whenever.
The fix: Ask for consent no matter what the relationship is or how long it has lasted.
Assuming sex workers are “up for anything.”
Sex workers (strippers, prostitutes, etc.) can be sexually assaulted, too. They are in charge of when they do business, with who, and how it is done. Just because they are getting paid, it doesn’t mean they have no agency. That’s why you can’t go into a bakery and demand gyros. It’s not one of the services they offer. Sex workers are humans too. They have boundaries and they deserve respect.
The fix: You guessed it. Ask for consent.
Other ways to talk about sexytimes:
- Giving feedback: ‘That feels great’, ‘I’m not into ___, would you try ___ instead?’ ‘It turns me on when ___’
- Reflecting afterward: ‘My favorite part was when we ___,’ ‘I didn’t really like ___. Next time would you ___ instead?’
- Talking about fantasies
- Protip: You and your partner can agree that it’s not necessary to ask for consent for certain things. This must be discussed and agreed upon beforehand. An example is me telling my boyfriend that he can kiss me without asking whenever he likes as long as we’re not in public. This is only recommended for the “little things” (kisses, hugs) not “big things” like taking clothes and having sex.
Have fun practicing your consent! 😉
Thank you for reading this article. You can find my full backstory here.