In intimate relationships, practicing consent means communicating about touching and boundaries. Consent is essential for a wide range of activities—holding hands, cuddling, oral sex. (As an aside, consent is also important in non-intimate contexts, like disclosing someone’s gender or any other information that a person may want agency over. But this article is just about sexual and/or physical intimacy.) One reason communication is important is that sex and intimacy may mean different things to different people in the same relationship, and can sometimes change over time for each person.
FORGE’s definition of consent is the communication of an affirmative, conscious, and freely made decision by each participant to engage in agreed upon sexual or intimate contact. Consent means overtly conveying – through words or actions – a clear willingness to engage in sexual or other intimate contact. Consent is active and cannot be inferred from silence, passivity, or a lack of resistance. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time (including in the middle of sex!).
Here’s a lot more information about consent.
This article will share information about consent as a process, the practice of doing all you can to ensure your partners are consensually engaging in intimacy.
Consent is important and essential in all relationships. When relationships have one or more person who is trans and/or who has experienced trauma, like sexual assault, communicating clearly and making sure everyone is on the same page is particularly important, because folks may have complicated relationships with their bodies and a harder time communicating what they need in order to feel safe around sex.
Consent is a powerful way for trans and non-binary folks to learn to feel safer in bodies that can feel foreign to them, to find a new relationship to their embodied selves. It is also a gift to be practicing consent with trans folks and survivors, allowing them to find this new possibility for safety and comfort in their skin. In reality, it’s rewarding to everyone to feel empowered to own our bodies and share with others where our boundaries are.
Even though consent is important, sometimes it’s hard to know how to practice it. Media has taught us that sexual consent looks like two conventionally attractive non-trans, heterosexual celebrities making silent eye contact across a room, just “knowing” they both want to do it, and getting down to business. In reality, sexual consent is NOT a silent, psychic power that only movie stars have OR magnetic eye contact that can magically remove clothes. As with most communication about important, confusing subjects, communication about sex usually involves words. People are often concerned that verbally communicating about sex might “ruin the mood.” That’s because sexual consent is not a skill most folks have ever learned. So cut yourself some slack with the learning curve! The truth is that even if these conversations may be unfamiliar, what’s a little unfamiliarity or initial awkwardness to ensure you and your partner feel safe?
Consent is also sexy! It can be deeply affirming (and hot) to have someone ask if they can kiss you. When we know our partners’ yeses are enthusiastic and authentic, intimacy isn’t just emotionally safer, it’s more exciting and fun.
The chart below can help you find the words to communicate consent in any relationship, even casual ones. Note that it’s important to communicate not just about sex and intimacy—but about communication itself! Miscommunication can happen, especially in the heat of the moment. For example, if you ask consent in one way (“Is it okay if I touch you here?”) you may get one answer, and if you ask another way (“Would you like it if I touch you here?”), the answer may change. So having an ongoing dialog about how the communication is going is part of practicing consent.
|When||Communicating about Communication||Communicating about boundaries and desires|
|Before||“What’s the best way for me to ask what you’re into?” |
“What words do you like to talk about yourself? I want to be mindful of your gender and any discomfort you might have with your body. So, what should I call your chest? And for compliments, do you like words like ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’ or something else?
“So how will I know if you’re feeling good about something we’re doing? …And how about if you’re not? I want to make sure you’re into it.”
“Let’s check in every few minutes while we’re making out. I like to mix it up and chat sometimes too. Does that sound OK to you?”
|“So, tonight, I really only want to make out, ok?” |
“How far are you thinking you’d like things to go tonight? I know you have to get to work early tomorrow.”
“Are there parts of your body that you really like or don’t like to have touched?…Are there specific ways you do and don’t like them touched?”
|During||“Was that a good sound or a bad sound?”||“Are you into this or do you want me to change it up?” |
“How is that?”
“Could you do this instead?”
|After||“I noticed you seemed kind of quiet. Was something wrong? I just want to make sure that worked for you. And if not, we can do stuff differently next time.”||“How was that? What would you like me to do differently next time? Cool! Thanks for telling me!” |
“That was fun! But some things that happened weren’t my cup of tea. For example….”
Having these conversations about consent gives everyone involved a greater opportunity to be true to themselves in expressing their needs and boundaries. Our culture doesn’t prepare us for some of the issues and complexities that may come up when we open up those conversations. This section is intended to trouble-shoot some of those issues as well as prepare you for them.
Troubleshooting The Complexities of Consent
1 What if I am not sure what I want or I feel conflicted?
When your partner asks you about what you want, you may realize you don’t know. You also may find that one part of you is thinking “heck no!” and another is more like, “let’s go!” For example, sometimes your body is sexually aroused but your mind has some misgivings; or you like the idea of having sex, but just aren’t fully present in-the-moment. Because we think of consent as a yes-or-no thing, it can be confusing to you and your partner(s) to notice internal division and complexity.
- In the moment, stop and check in with yourself. Take space from your partner if you need.
- Within yourself, reflect on what might be coming up for you. Things outside your comfort zone can make you feel vulnerability in a way that’s positive and exciting or scary and threatening. How can you tell the difference between these two forms of vulnerability? What feelings, thoughts, and body sensations are associated with each of these experiences?
- With your partner(s), talk about it outside the heat of the moment and explain that sometimes you need to stop. A respectful partner will appreciate your honesty and your needs.
2. What if my partner’s words don’t match their actions or I’m getting mixed messages?
Sometimes you may be perceiving your partner’s communications as confusing. For example…
A. Your partner may be saying no, but then they might go along with sexual acts that you initiate. They may seem to be enjoying these things when they are happening.
B. Your partner may be saying yes, but their tone of voice and/or body language may not reflect an enthusiastic yes.
C. Your partner may say they don’t want certain things to happen, but then initiate things they said they weren’t interested in.
D. When you ask your partner what they want, they may say they don’t know.
In example A, you need to take your partner at their word. Continuing on with those sexual acts will likely make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and will be overstepping the boundaries they’ve set. After someone has said no, continued sexual activity may constitute sexual assault.
There are many reasons someone might seem “into it” that do not indicate consent. For example, physical arousal and response are involuntary and not necessarily linked to consent or desire. Someone may also go along with a situation because they are afraid of the person violating their boundaries and trying to appease that person in order to stay safe. (These feelings can happen even in trusting relationships where there is no history of abuse.)
In examples B, C, and D, there are a number of reasons you may feel confused by your partner’s communication. Remember, they aren’t trying to confuse you or “lead you on.” Instead:
-Your partner may be internally conflicted and unsure of what they want. (See number 1, above.)
-Your partner may feel pressure by you, society, family, or themselves to go along with things they aren’t fully comfortable with.
-Your partner may be feeling pressure from you because of your overt or subtle communication (see 4, below.)
-Some traumatic experiences can lead survivors to shut down and do what is expected by others. This is because, when someone’s voice and boundaries are consistently ignored by a past abuser, they may learn to stop expressing their desires and boundaries. This is a valid survival strategy. To help your partner heal and communicate their needs more fully, consistently affirm your respect for them and their needs, desires, and boundaries.
-Sometimes folks who have marginalized identities (like being trans, a person of color, or a person living with a disability), they are more likely to feel disempowered because they have been frequently told their voices do not matter. (The reality, of course, is that EVERYONE’s voice matters!)
Tips: When you feel confused, it is your responsibility to pause and check in with your partner about where they are and what they’re feeling. For example, “Hey, let’s stop for a minute. I’m feeling confused, you said you just wanted to make out, but now you’re taking off clothes,. I want to make sure we’re both comfortable with where this is going.”
- Practice talking more about communication when you aren’t in the middle of sexual situations. Make sure you and your partners feel safe and comfortable setting boundaries with each other, and ask how you can help create an environment where each of you feel that kind of communication is possible. Similarly, if your partner is not personally sure of what they want, ask them what kind of space and support they need from you to figure this out. Consistently affirm your respect for your partner and their needs, desires, and boundaries.
3. What do I do when my partner says no?
- Respect their no. Let them know you are glad they felt comfortable telling you how they felt. Appreciate the honesty and safety you’ve fostered with your partner because this no means that their yeses are credible.
- Do something else! You might want to get out of bed or whatever romantic or sexually charged situation you’re in. Talk with your partner about what else you can do together that would feel fun and safe.
4. What if no is hard for me to hear?
Hearing no may be hard for a number of reasons. It’s different for every person, and you may want to identify why, and exactly what you’re feeling, like sadness, resentment, hurt, etc. In the moment, it’s still important to respect your partner’s “no,” though you can say something like “Hey. I appreciate you being honest with me, and I respect that. Thanks! I’m also having some hard feelings about this I’m going to sort out on my own. I can get back to you about them when I’ve thought them through more.”
Our culture has taught us that our worth and the worth of our relationships depend on sex. While it is understandable that we may have internalized that, to be present for the folks in our lives, we are called upon to ask ourselves: what would it look like to foster a new sense of self-worth that is not dependent on sex? What are other sources of value within yourself and your relationship?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but practicing consent is not a simple yes or no. It is a conversation with ourselves and our partners— an act of exploration, discovery, and affirmation.
It is a process, a practice, and hopefully, a good time.