Can you believe it's April already? I sure can't. But spring is here and that means everything in nature is beautifully blossoming under blue skies. One other beautiful thing about April is that it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month!
You might be thinking, "That's not beautiful. That's scary! And maybe mean!" Listen, you're not alone. But I'm here to give you one really easy, universal tool to help avoid sexual assault and raise your awareness: Consent!
Even if you are not someone who has experienced sexual assault first-hand, April is a great opportunity to brush up on your know-how and practice asking for consent - and to practice dealing with any of the possible situations that might result.
The process of obtaining consent gets a bad rap. People may picture totally unsexy negotiations, lawyer-style, a la writing out a contract, over what you and your boo are about to do. It's not as bad as all that. Really, it's about using setting boundaries; and respecting boundaries once they have been set.
At its most basic, here's what consent looks like:
- Consent is your partner or partners saying "yes" to a given activity -- enthusiastically, and with no pressure or goading from any source.
- Whether someone says "no" or not, if they haven't said "yes," you don't have consent. Here's why:
Can you think of a time you didn't want to say "yes" to, say, going out with friends to the bar; but you felt that being direct and saying "no" would be uncomfortable, rude, and maybe offend someone, etc? In that situation, people frequently choose not to respond yes OR no, instead skirting around the issue or hinting at their feelings in other ways. Under enough pressure, in our bar-hangout scenario, you may have reluctantly been dragged out anyway, even when you'd have preferred to stay at home. And that's just in a casual setting of friends! In situations where sex and intimacy are involved, the stakes are higher, and both parties are more vulnerable. In this situation, the pressure not to bring on an uncomfortable or unsafe situation by saying "no" grows tremendously.
With that in mind, you can see why you do not want to wait for your partner to say "no" when they're uncomfortable.
Additionally, people frequently use "no" as often a component of kinky sex scenarios. If this is something that interests you, make sure you pre-negotiate this. Include a discussion about how you and your partner will communicate during sex about whether or not you are still on the same page.
- Consent starts small.
You can start by asking if it is okay to touch a person's back, or their shoulder or hand, for example. Whatever your and your partner's history, it's often easier to get into the habit if you start with asking consent for things that are not high-stakes, especially in environments where no person involved is likely to feel pressured to answer one way or another. Importantly, if your friend, partner, or another loved one is a survivor of assault, obtaining these kinds of small permissions is often particularly important to help them feel safe and comfortable with you.
- If sexy times are on the horizon, it's helpful to begin the dialogue about consent before you get down and dirty. You can even make it part of foreplay! Ask open-ended questions about things one or more of you might be interested in doing. Wh-type questions tend to yield more detailed pictures of what's got someone's car revving at that moment in time. That way, you aren't stuck just talking about what one person has thought to ask you about, and your person might be able to suggest even more exciting activities that you may not have thought of before negotiating! Everybody wins.
- You and your partner are never obligated to consent to any activity. You have the right to retract consent at any time. Your partner also has the right to give or retract consent at any time. It's a good idea to remind your partner from time to time that you are okay with the possibility that halfway through, they're not feeling it anymore.
- What do you do if you don't get consent? You may feel rejected and hurt. Maybe you feel angry. Whether your partner directly tells you "no" or not, you may not feel too good if they aren't excited about something that you wanted to do. All of your feelings are absolutely valid. You can feel those things and still respect your person's boundaries.
Think about it this way: If you were eating brussels sprouts and suddenly had the urge to vomit and didn't want them anymore, being force-fed the brussels sprouts is not likely to make for a lot of good feelings about either the food or the person forcing you to eat them.
In general, if your partner does not give consent, they're not devaluing you as a person, and they definitely aren't challenging you to pressure them into that activity. But you are absolutely entitled to your feelings, and you can examine them and hash them out on your own time. You'll feel better being open about your feelings and your partner will feel better having their boundaries respected.
- If your partner has retracted consent, it's a good idea to get in touch with them and figure out if they're feeling okay. If they are, negotiate consent for the next step; And if not, put your feelings on hold and have a chat with them to determine if they would like your help with self-care. They'll appreciate your compassion.
- If your partner does say yes: Great! Once your person consents, it's a great idea to fine-tune the boundaries of what exactly your partner is excited to do. As you enter into a sexual space, find ways continue the dialogue and make sure they're still okay with each step of the way. Avoid situations where they may feel pressured into silence. If your partner appears to be uncertain or disengaged, even during a previously negotiated activity, stop what you're doing and reconnect. This may be an indicator that your person is not consenting to an activity.
Well, that's about it! Hopefully this gives you some ideas about how to engage with your partner in a way that puts you both on equal footing and allows for maximum enjoyment. For additional consent tips, check out some sources like RAINN's guide to consent. RAINN also has a great guide about how to respond and stay safe when someone is pressuring you. With consent you can pave the way to a beautiful, blooming intimate life!