by Leigh Montavon, World Association of Sex Coaches Certified Sex Coach
My introduction to consent was probably similar to yours: No Means No. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s common sense. But it is about as applicable to real-life sexual situations as Just Say No is to drugs – it might be a good starting point, but there is a LOT left out.
The antidote to rape culture, which includes everything from the normalization of misogyny to sexual violence, is the creation of a culture of consent. So how do we construct the culture we want to live in? What actions can we take to make our world a safer place to exist for everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, class, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation?
Here are a few ideas that can help us all create a culture of consent:
Fully understand what we mean when we talk about consent.
Rather than spouting the dictionary definition of consent, let’s borrow Planned Parenthood’s excellent FRIES acronym. FRIES stands for Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. All five of these conditions need to be met to ensure an experience where everyone is actively consenting.
Here are some examples of when consent isn’t fully Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. If you spend the evening telling me how unattractive and lonely and rejected you feel; if you appeal to my empathy to make me feel like I owe you something; and then you ask if you can kiss me and I say “sure,” my consent was not freely given. Coercion can exist without an imminent threat of violence, and can often be as subtle as a guilt trip.
If we’re having a hot make out in the cab after a party, but then I start to feel a little carsick and a lot awkward (and I can just imagine how the driver feels), I get to stop without question. The second you say something like “but the driver isn’t even paying attention to us” or “you were totally into it a second ago,” you are telling me that my consent is not reversible, and that my yes is a binding contract enforceable by you.
If we meet online with a high match percentage, a good portion of which was predicated on our similar views about ethical non-monogamy, and then agree to fool around at my place, after which you tell me that *actually* your partner doesn’t know you’re out with me, and that things are complicated, you did not get my informed consent. We don’t have to tell our life stories before we get physical, but if we leave out things that might cause a potential partner to otherwise say no (STI status, for example), we are not giving them enough information to make safe choices for themselves.
If I’m sleepy and you’re rubbing my back and then suddenly you stick your hand down my pants, and I freeze, but don’t push your hand away, that is not enthusiastic consent. Body language, facial expression, engagement, degree of alertness and sobriety all matter as much as the words we say.
And if we’ve talked about our shared enjoyment of spanking, and every discussion has been about hand spanking, and you ask if I want to be spanked, so I close my eyes and stick out my bum, and then you whack me with your dad’s old fraternity paddle, that is not specific consent.
Take lessons from the kink community.
Even the best sexual education provides limited information for actually talking about sex with the folks we want to see naked. And the less we communicate, the more likely we are to have our consent violated or violate the consent of others, even unintentionally. The good news is that a template for talking about these things already exists, in the form of BDSM scene negotiations.
This is important to learn if you are interested in any kind of kinky play, but it is applicable to even the most vanilla interactions. A scene negotiation is, essentially, an outline of what two or more people have agreed to do together. You can find different examples online, but they include questions like: What do you definitely want to do? What turns you on? What are your hard limits? How do you practice safer sex? Do you have any triggers? How about medical conditions? What does it look like when you’re having a good time? What should I expect you to do or say if you’re not enjoying yourself? Questions like this can build up anticipation and excitement, while providing a less sexually charged environment to discuss desires and expectations.
Don’t limit the practice of consent to sexual situations.
There are easy ways that you can practice consent everyday. If you meet someone new and you want to hug them, ask first, and give them a safe space to say “no thank you.” Practice asking things like “would you like more of this?”, “are you having a good time?”, and “what are your pronouns?” and then really listening to the answer. Replace your assumptions with questions, and see your habits start to change.
If you have kids or spend time around little ones, let them decide if and when they want to kiss or hug people. Respecting their bodily autonomy and removing a sense of obligation from an early age goes a long way toward helping them feel safe and protected.
Call out consent violations and the acceptance of rape culture.
Going beyond your daily habits of practicing consent, you can help bring awareness to consent violations as well. If there’s a rape joke in the trailer, don’t see the movie. If there are sexual assault allegations against a famous performer, stop supporting their work. If the president talks about grabbing women by the pussy, call Congress and vote in local elections. If you see someone groping a drunk person at a club, or slapping a waiter’s ass when they think no one is looking, tell them to stop.
If you are not part of a marginalized group, it’s even more important for you to take action and speak up, because your personal safety is not as much at stake as others’ might be. Allyship is at its best actively supportive, especially in spaces with other privileged folks.
A culture of consent is one in which all people feel empowered to express their sexuality in healthy, pleasurable, affirmative ways. The best way to get there is to make space for these conversations in our relationships, our families, and our communities. When we understand the nuances of consent, communicate more clearly with our partners, practice consent in our day-to-day lives, and take active steps to speak out against consent violations, we are doing our part to create the culture we want.