People talk about consent as though it’s complicated. Sure, no means no, but does yes always mean yes? What if she said “yes” but doesn’t seem into it? What if he says “no” but really wants it? What if she says “yes” based on psychological issues without informing her partner about those issues? When does “Do you want to make cookies?” mean “let’s fuck?” What happens when one or more parties regret or just don’t enjoy whatever they’ve agreed to? All of a sudden everyone who wants to be conscientious about getting laid is either a lawyer, or afraid of lawyers.
I see posts like this one about being terrified of overstepping bounds or not being what one’s partner desires*. Or a tweet asking what consent feels like**. They make me wonder how much baggage the word has picked up, and why we seem so willing to let our partners’ consent be the sole factor in our decision to do sexy sexy things with/to/for them.
Can we stop it already? Consent is a very simple concept. I’m just going to go with the OED’s primary definition: “Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.” That’s it, folks. Consent is permission without coercion. If you ask your partner, “hey, can you start the laundry?” and he says “sure,” that’s consent. If I growl “I want to bite your collarbone,” a “God, yes,” is consent. If he shifts to an open posture that gives access to his collarbone and/or draws my face towards it, that’s probably consent. Nonverbal communication can be clear and unmistakable***, but if (like me) you’re paranoid or terrible at reading it, adding a “may I?” and waiting for some form of verbal “yes/mhmm/please” or a clear nod can guarantee that you’ve got consent. If the answer to “I want to bite your collarbone” is “be careful not to leave marks,” you have provisional consent: biting yes, bite marks no. If the answer is “no,” well, that can be disappointing, but aren’t you glad you said something instead of diving in and chomping on someone who didn’t want it?
There are situations people seem to find genuinely confusing. They can be confusing, not because consent is hard but because there are other factors one ought to consider other than simply getting one’s partner’s permission.
A person can consent without having desire. This is no fun. If I say “let’s fuck” and my partner says “meh, okay, I’ve got nothing better to do,” that’s consent. It’s not enthusiastic by any means, but consent requires only acquiescence, not desire. Now, if I know my partner isn’t in the mood and is just acquiescing, that’s a hell of a turn-off. So I can try to create a sexy mood, or change my mind about initiating things****. What I can’t do (if I’m fair and rational) is accuse my partner of lying about consent. That’s not my call.
Conversely, a person can have desire without consenting. People can lust after each other, harbor crushes, flirt, or fall in love and still not consent to doing all the things they both fantasize about. Maybe one or both of them is in a monogamous relationship (cheating is wrong, folks). Maybe their religion says no sex before marriage. Maybe one of them wants casual sex and the other wants a relationship–if two people attach very different meanings to an act, it can break a friendship. Maybe it just seems like a bad idea to one person or the other. Doesn’t matter. The point is, no means no even if the person saying no desperately wants to say yes.
A person can consent when he or she should not. Yup. People screw up, and it’s allowed. If someone in a monogamous relationship decides to cheat, that person is consenting to do things he should not even though he knows better. If a person is sexually traumatized or self-medicating self esteem issues with sex, that person is consenting to do so even though it is not a good idea from a mental health standpoint*****. That said, a competent adult has a responsibility to provide partners with relevant information before diving into the fun stuff. Two people are capable of consenting to having an affair, but if the non monogamously attached party doesn’t know about the boyfriend/wife/significant other, he’s acting on incomplete information. Now, I realize things come up that we wouldn’t anticipate and it’s no one’s fault. A good rule of thumb? If you feel like you should bring it up, if you know a partner would want to know about your [insert relationship status, mental or physical health issue, or other here], speak up.
The common objection is that talking about sex ruins the moment. Asking for consent, clarifying desire, these detract from the moments we see in too many movies where people all just magically know exactly what their partners want. It’s bullshit. You know what ruins the moment? Having a man say “let’s bake cookies,” and then hover expectantly without saying what he actually wants while you try to give him tips to improve his oatmeal-raisin related skills******.If you can’t talk about sex, you can’t practice good consent. Anyway, dirty talk is hot. There’s no reason getting consent can’t be sexy as hell.
The thing is, getting your partner’s consent is necessary, but it is not sufficient. One’s own consent matters, too, and if you don’t feel secure in your partner’s desire or mental state or relationship status, you don’t have to consent. That’s right, you can decide not to go through with an act based on any criteria from the logical to the paranoid, even if you have desire and your partner consents. Is it fun? No. Is it hard? You bet. But it sure as hell beats telling your partners that you don’t respect their ability to make adult decisions.
*This paranoia is completely legitimate and I do the same thing all the fucking time. People should care about their partners’ experience as well as their own. My point here isn’t that you shouldn’t worry about your partners’ secret wants, desires, thoughts, or anything else. It’s that those things are not consent.
**Consent feels like having agency and responsibility for one’s actions, and clearly communicating one’s decision to engage in the activity/ies consented to.
***I expect some disagreement on this point. I’d like to refer again to the definition of consent here: “Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.” There are non-verbal cues that unmistakably show agreement. Nods mean “yes.” Moving in close and tilting your face to avoid nose-bumping means “yes” to kissing. This is important in part because the converse is also true: shaking one’s head means “no.” Turning away or putting a hand up to block a kiss means “no” to kissing. I’m sure many people’s gut reaction to this is going to be “but sometimes body language is ambiguous!” Yeah. Sometimes it is. I’m referring to specific, universal nonverbal signs of invitation and agreement. Not all body language can be interpreted to replace verbal communication. Body language should never be interpreted to override verbal communication. If there’s ever any doubt, ask! “May I..?” “Do you want..?”
****Or have unenthusiastic sex, I guess, but why?
*****we’re talking about competent adults here. Mental illness of a severity to prevent the ability to consent at all negates this. But if a person can hold a job, feed and clothe himself, and be otherwise vaguely responsible for his own life, he can own his own sexual decisions as well.
******True story. And yeah, we had sex. I lectured him about using his words first, though.