It seems like consent should be really important to sex. Why does it seem so complicated?
Great question. Over the last decades, consent discourse has shifted. Consent used to focus on “no means no,” a model in which basically, if no one said “no” to sex, it was considered consensual. The “yes means yes” model gained popularity when a book by the same name was published in 2008. “Yes means yes” is affirmative consent, where the people involved in a sexual encounter say “yes” and consent to each escalation, and it’s even been made into law in California and elsewhere.
But while “yes means yes” might mean there’s consent, it doesn’t say anything about how everyone feels about it. That’s why there’s now enthusiastic consent, where it’s not enough to just say yes to a sexual encounter – it’s only enough to say “fuck yes!” In enthusiastic consent, partners, whether for two hours or twenty years, must not only say yes to everything they’re doing but also must be excited about it. It’s the difference between “sure, I guess you can xyz” and “xyz sounds like so much fun, let’s do it.”
Why do people feel weird about enthusiastic consent?
That’s also a great question! The answer is because if you’re not used to practicing enthusiastic consent it can seem like it’s going to be really, really awkward. (It’s not, I promise!) “You mean I have to ask before I kiss someone for the first time?” “You mean I have to ask before I kiss someone for the fortieth time?” “Do I have to ask before I put my hand there?” “What about there?” If you’re new to enthusiastic consent or have just spent a few minutes reading about it in the media, it can seem like sex with enthusiastic consent is stilted, doesn’t flow naturally, and would pull everyone out of the moment with each check-in.
It’s actually the opposite.
Okay, so what does enthusiastic consent actually look like? How do I practice enthusiastic consent?
If you aren’t used to speaking up with your words during sex, starting to do so can sometimes feel really self-conscious-making, embarrassing, or uncomfortable. It gets easier over time, and practicing speaking up and checking in for enthusiastic consent will help you speak up and check-in during sex in all sorts of ways, which will also make you better at it.
First, make sure everyone is in a place where you can each consent. This means being sober enough, in a good mental state, and in positions where there are no consequences for saying “no.” You do not need to be 100% sober to consent, but if you can’t drive safely because you’ve had too much to drink, you can’t consent to physical touch. For instance, if you meet someone in a bar and they’ve had one or two drinks and tell you they want to fuck you, you can use your judgment. If they’ve drunk, you can say “not tonight, I think you’re fantastic, let’s exchange numbers and go from there.”
Then, just ask. Some of the hottest words in the English language are, “Is it okay if I kiss you right now?” Here’s why: unlike just going for a kiss, if it’s a yes, the person will turn their head towards you, rather than not realizing what you’re about to try and looking away as part of their conversational body language. It’s much easier to have a good kiss with someone who has a half-second to prepare for it. Also unlike just going for it, you now know that the person you are about to kiss is as excited about it as you are. This is especially important for first kisses, but it’s useful all the way along. You want to kiss them right now, but what do they want? You can’t know unless you ask.
Then, keep asking. Whether you’re sleeping together for the very first time, introducing a new sex act for the very first time, or doing something familiar with someone familiar, communication is key to your mutual good time. Express your interest or desire, and find out how your sex partner feels about it. In the moment, you don’t have to ask, “can I put my hand here?” every time you move your hand half an inch. But you do need to check-in before introducing anything new. And if it’s something you haven’t don’t together before, it can require extra care.
Let’s say you want to use a double-ended strap-on dildo during sex. How do you get enthusiastic consent?
For a first-time encounter, this can look like having a conversation about what you want to do together, ideally outside of the moment in which you’re about to do it. For instance, if you meet at a bar, talk about what you might do together before you’re heading back to your place. Then, a simple “what do you want to do together?” can open the conversation. Listen, and share. You can also take the opportunity to check in about safer sex practices. Bring up the strap by saying something like, “I have this double-ended dildo I’m really into that I’d like to use together. How do you feel about that?”
In a more established relationship, open the conversation outside of the context of sex by saying something like, “Hey, I wanted to share something with you that’s been on my mind. I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether you’d be open to exploring sex toys. There’s this one that looks interesting and fun to me, this is how I feel about it, but I want to learn how you feel about it.” Genuinely listen to your partner’s response, and ask questions that come from curiosity.
Enthusiastic consent doesn’t need to be complicated. Just stay curious about what your sexual partner feels and wants, express what you feel and want, and come together where you line up.