This is an article of mine that was originally posted in Feministing’s community blog.
Note: this letter emphasizes that going slow physically is okay because that’s what 15 year-old me was comfortable with. Going faster is also okay as long as people are consenting.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Dear 15-year-old me,
You’re approaching that time in your life when you begin dating boys. I’m so excited for you! Spoiler alert: you’re going to have some wonderful boyfriends in the next few years. However, I’m here to talk with you about something serious that’s lacking from your sex-ed course. Yes, I know that is the last thing you want to talk about but hear me out – if I’d known this information back then, my life would’ve turned out much differently. All I want to do is tell you about one wonderful word: consent.
Consent comes from the notion that you are in control of your body. No one else gets to tell you what you can and can’t do with it. Relationships may be all about compromise, but your body is the exception. Never forget it. I know you want to make your future significant others happy, but the right person will be satisfied with however much or little you choose to share with them. And trust me, there are plenty of people out there who are willing to go glacially slow physically. Go at whatever pace you feel comfortable with, because there is no such thing as going too slow, and saying no is never rude no matter how many times you say it. Finally, if someone makes you feel rushed or like you owe them something, RUN.
Essentially, the definition of consent is giving voluntary, unambiguous, sober, freely given permission to do a specific sexual activity at a certain time. Let’s break this down a little. First off, people can change their minds and their lines of consent can change. This means that even in the middle of an act someone can decide they’re not into it anymore and withdraw consent. There’s also this idea out there that if, for example, two people are making out after a party, they’re doing it because they want to have sex. False. Consent to one thing does not mean consent to everything. Consent must be obtained every step of the way. Even if two people have done something before, that doesn’t mean it can be assumed that they’ll always want to do it again. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean a person is entitled to anything either, even if they’re married. Consent must always be given. It’s not optional no matter what the circumstance.
There are a few situations in which consent cannot be given even with a verbal yes. These include: under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, if a person is asleep or unconscious, if they are coerced and if there’s a power difference (such as a teacher, boss, famous person or when there’s a large age difference). Make sure you’re familiar with the age of consent in your area. Anyone under this age cannot consent to any sexual activity.
Okay, now that we have the technical part finished, let’s move on to the more interesting part. I like to look at consent in two ways. The first is that it leads to a lot more satisfaction. Let’s use the analogy of wanting to go to a movie with a friend. Person 1 says “I want to see something funny.” Person 2 says “Alright, but I don’t like romantic comedies.” Person 1 says they want to see a movie with a certain actor in it. Both people are expressing their likes and dislikes. Eventually this will lead to them finding a movie that they will both enjoy. Keeping the lines of communication open ensures that both people are getting what they want and that they’re having the best experience possible.
The second way to look at consent is that it prevents bad things from happening. If people are familiar with each other’s boundaries and consistently checking in with each other, they are less likely to make the other one uncomfortable. Situations like that where a line is crossed are profoundly awkward at best and terrifying at worst. To be frank, any non-consensual sexual activity is sexual assault. If this happens to someone, it’s never their fault. Whoever is initiating has the responsibility to make sure there’s consent first.
Now you may be wondering, how exactly do I talk about consent in the real world? I’ll be honest. It can be awkward the first few times. However, I promise it gets easier with time. In fact, it can also be pretty hot. So don’t be afraid to practice! Before talking with a partner it is important to be familiar with what you are and aren’t okay with doing. One way to begin reflecting on your own boundaries is to make a yes, no, maybe list.
Once you’re ready to talk with your partner, these are some examples of what consent can look like:
- Checking in: ‘Are you enjoying this?’ ‘How does that feel?’ ‘Do you want me to keep going?’ ‘You look uncomfortable. Are you okay?’
- Giving feedback: ‘That feels great’, ‘I’m not into ___, would you try ___ instead?’ ‘It turns me on when ___’
- Asking permission: ‘Would you like me to ___?’ ‘How do you feel about ___?’ ‘Is it okay if I ___?’
- Setting boundaries: ‘Can we 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’
- Safe word: a word or signal agreed upon between two people beforehand. They can be used to communicate a person’s needs and comfort level. Some examples:
- Red: stop, yellow: slow down, green: all clear!
- Squeezing the shoulder twice: wanting to continue but at a reduced intensity
- Feel free to create your own safe words with your partner
- Reflecting afterward: ‘My favorite part was when we ___,’ ‘I didn’t really like ___. Next time would you ___ instead?’
- A sit down conversation: If you’re comfortable with this, it can be a great way to get all your boundaries out in the open at once. Not sure how to get started? Try sharing your yes, no, maybe list with your partner.
A few more miscellaneous things before we part. First, make sure your partner understands consent. Many people think they understand consent but don’t, and others avoid talking about it out of discomfort. Be on the lookout for these people and tread carefully. Second, start talking about your boundaries early in a relationship. If you’re not comfortable going in depth, you can start with something simple like “I want to take things slow” or “I’m not comfortable doing anything more than ___ for these first few weeks.”
Armed with this information, the physical part of dating should be a much less nerve-wracking experience. So go forth and have fun practicing your consent!
Your 22-year-old self.
For two more great overviews of consent and other resources, check out these videos and articles:
- Laci Green: ‘Wanna Have Sex? (Consent 101)‘
- Sexplanations: ‘Eff Ya Tea Time!‘ (Consent is like tea)
- 4 Sexy Ways to Ask for Consent
- 7 Ways to Talk About Sex With Your Partner
Thank you for reading this article. You can find my backstory here.
Related content: Figuring Out This Consent Thing…