It’s time to real, y’all. We’ve got to get real about consent so that we can all do better for ourselves and our sex partners. Consent can be such a difficult conversation to broach. Everyone has their own personal experiences with navigating or not knowing how to communicate about consent.
I don’t think I officially learned about consent until I was 22 years-old — which is crazy to me. But that’s the reality of our society: We don’t provide sex education in middle or high school. If we do, it’s focused on fear tactics around STIs and pregnancy. What we learn is completely heteronormative and not at all focused on providing comprehensive tools around navigating relationships, desires or sex. And then when we venture out into the world, it’s up to us to navigate a brand new world — which is often filled with a lot of expectations around sex.
I started my career as a sex educator because I want to change this narrative. I want to go into schools to provide this information to our young people. They are craving it. They are in desperate need of it. They feel the gaping hole with the lack of resources we provide around topics of sexuality and desire and consent. They want to know more, but adults are too afraid to talk to them about it (and often don’t know much more about consent than teens do). A lot of teachers and parents think that if we talk to young people about sex, they’ll turn into ravenous sexual deviants. Not true. In fact, the opposite happens. They’ll turn into responsible, respectful and informed humans who feel empowered to navigate relationships and sex with care and intention.
And so, since the majority of us still don’t quite understand consent and how to talk about sex with our partners—I’m here to help! This 101 guide to navigating consent is for people of all ages who are having sex. Whether you’re 18 and having sex for the first time or 63 and never received formal sex education—these tools will help you practice consent with more intention and care.
It’s a negotiation.
I know that sounds bland and dry and boring. You’re probably thinking, negotiations are what politicians do in the Oval Office to build international treaties and sh*t like that. Negotiations aren’t sexy. But they can be! Sex with partner(s) is an interaction between multiple people. And hopefully, if you’re about to have sex with someone, you want them to feel pleasure as much as you want to feel pleasure. It’s a two-way street, babe.
An example of this that I do in workshops teaching consent is one person asking another “I’d really like to massage your shoulders right now. Would you like that?” The other person then has the chance to respond and maybe they say, “I don’t want a massage right now but I’d really like to hold hands with you. Would you like that?” Then it goes back to the first person and maybe they enthusiastically say, “Yes, I’d love to hold hands!”
I know, this all sounds super PG and boring but we’ve gotta start with the basics. This interaction is an example of two people figuring out what they both feel excited about doing together. When you’re having sex with another person, you’re doing just that: Interacting with another person. One person shouldn’t just decide everything that’s going to happen without the other having a say. It’s a conversation, and a fun one at that. You get to explore your desires and find out what’s going to rock your girl’s world!
Consent can be withdrawn at any time.
This is key. At anytime when you’re having sex, either person can say no. It doesn’t matter if they just said yes to being spanked five minutes ago—now they’re saying no and that needs to be respected.
There is no gatekeeper of consent. It’s a conversation, not a yes or no question.
Oftentimes, the onus to “get consent” (i.e. get a verbal “yes”) is put on the more masculine person. Even in queer relationships, this is true. Like I said before, consent is a two-way street. It also isn’t simply about getting that verbal go-ahead. Sex is more nuanced than that. The both of you should talk about what kind of sexual encounter you want to have.
Do you want to play out a specific scene? Do you want to integrate BDSM? Do you have certain kinks? Or certain hard-no’s? Do you need an emotional kind of interaction right now? These are all amazing questions to ask each other so you can really dive deep and have incredibly hot sex.
No one person is the gatekeeper of consent. It shouldn’t be on one person to “get” consent and it shouldn’t be just about getting the green light to go ahead. Consent is an ongoing conversation.
Internalized experiences play into our negotiations.
We aren’t encouraged or taught how to talk about sex. So a lot of us don’t have the skills to navigate these conversations naturally — they take work. Consent is an added effort that should be a requirement but often gets treated like a side piece instead. Because assumed consent isn’t actually consent. And there is no such thing as a “grey area” when it comes to sex.
And that’s because our own nuanced experiences play a role in these conversations (or lack thereof). We all have internalized experiences that inform the ways in which we communicate about sex — whether that’s around performing gender roles, making assumptions based on body language, having triggers from past experiences, having body image struggles, and even our mental health can play a role in our sexual navigation. Our sexuality and desires are a part of our everyday lives, whether we are aware of that or not. So all of these outside influences are entering the bedroom with you. And they likely are playing a role in how comfortable you are with talking about sex.
Practice makes perfect.
I know it might sound kinda cheesy — but it can be helpful to practice these conversations in your head before you’re directly in front of the person you want to be f*cking. You can practice with your friends or in your head or in the mirror. Test out some of the questions below to get a feel for it.
Before you get into the sheets, here are some helpful questions to ask:
What kind of sex do you want to have tonight?
What are your hard no’s and absolute yes’s?
Is there anything I should know that triggers trauma for you?
How do you like to be f*cked?
I’d really like to f*ck you like _____. Do you like that?
It can be helpful to ask yourself these questions when drinking has been involved:
Can this person communicate clearly?
Are they coherent?
Are they sober enough to know fully what is going on?
Throughout your sexy time, ask things like:
Do you still want to do this?
Is this okay?
Do you need a break?
Are you having fun?
What do you want to do next?
Can I touch your _____ like this?
It’s hard to talk about sex if you don’t know what your desires are.
The thing about all this communication is that it relies on actually knowing what the f*ck you actually like when it comes to sex. And the majority of us are just clumsily flailing about trying to be cute and sexy while feeling steadily unsure about what kind of sex we like. We just want to have it, right?!
The majority of the people I talk to in my sex ed workshops want the ~answer~ to having better sex and better communication in relationships. And the answer isn’t something kinky or mysterious. It’s communication. Talk about it with yourself, with your friends and with your partners. The more you talk about it, the better you’ll be at figuring out this messy sex thing. Trust me on this one, babes.
Coercion is sexual assault.
Like I said before, there is no “grey area” when it comes to consent but people love to talk about that. What this “grey area” usually stands for is coercion.
When someone says “But please babe, I’m really horny” or “I’ll be really fast, I just need to have you right now” that’s coercion. When someone feels guilted into having sex or doing a particular sexual act they didn’t really want to do — that’s coercion. When someone asks over and over until their partner breaks down and says “yes” even though they didn’t really want to — that’s coercion.
If we are all absolutely honest with ourselves, we’ve all either done this, witnessed it or experienced it firsthand. If you’re horny and your partner doesn’t want to have sex, that’s not their problem. You can go masturbate. Or if you’re non-monogamous, you can sleep with one of your other partners. But do not mistake coercing someone into having sex as consent. It’s not. It is sexual assault.
This is just the groundwork.
This is all the bare bones of what consent is — in reality, these conversations will be incredibly nuanced and personal. But they’ll also be fun and sexy and explorative. Come back next week for Consent 202, where we’ll go over some tips and tricks to figure out your desires and to have more pleasurable sex!
Until then, happy (consensual) cuffing season.
Have more sex questions? Leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org and come back for more every Friday!
The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only and should not replace or substitute for any medical, or other professional advice or help. For concerns requiring psychological or medical advice, please consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist This column, its author, the magazine and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice contained within this column.