As you’ve probably heard, consent is the cornerstone of valid, healthy and ethical sexual experiences. Unfortunately, society is still grossly undereducated when it comes to sex, and fully understanding — let alone effectively practicing —consent involves a lot more than parroting the text-book definition of consent every college student is fed during freshman orientation. We have very little vocabulary to express ourselves sexually, and often little understanding of how to effectively use the vocabulary we do have available. Case in point: most people still use the word “vagina” to refer to the entire female-bodied genital anatomy (it’s called a vulva, by the way). If we don’t even know the proper names for our body parts, how the hell are we supposed to have nuanced conversations about the intricacies of consent?
Lucy Rowett, a certified sex coach and clinical sexologist, says that talking about consent shouldn’t be approached as some obligatory chore, but rather as a necessary ingredient in any valid sexual encounter, one that actually makes it better. “We need to learn how to have these conversations with each other where we can bring everything we want and need to the table, feel heard, and like we really can enjoy ourselves without feeling obligated.”
It might seem a bit daunting, but consent must be the bedrock of your sexual encounters in order for them to be ethical. Fortunately, consent can be broken down into more digestible, bite-sized items so you can start to form the whole picture.
According to Barker, the eight steps to having fully consensual sexual experiences are:
- Consent as the aim
- Informed consent
- Ongoing consent
- Relational consent
- Consent and wanting
- Awareness of multiple scripts
- Power awareness
1. Consent is the center of the conversation
Is consent a specific aim of the conversation? Putting consent first means not doing things and asking if they’re okay later. You’re actively taking the time to discuss what all parties involved would like to engage in. Every single person deserves this level of basic human respect.
Talking about consent often gets a bad reputation as something that “ruins the mood,” but asking for consent is not “unsexy”; it’s the only way to have sex that doesn’t violate another person’s boundaries. There is nothing more sexy than being a respectful and empathetic lover. Don’t get it twisted.
2. Informed consent
Is everyone aware of what they are being offered and do they have all the information they need to make a decision? “This is so important because consent is not just about saying yes to something; it is saying yes while also knowing what is happening,” Rowett says.
For example, if you want to engage in rope play or bondage, you need to be informed of the kind of play and the possible risks in order for your consent to be “informed.” Another example is a foot fetish. If you have one and don’t disclose it, instead asking your partner to wear high heels during sex without any further explanation, that isn’t informed consent.
3. Ongoing consent
Is the consent ongoing throughout the sexual experience both before, during and after the encounter? This is an incredibly important part of sex because it can often happen that someone initially says yes to something, only to decide they no longer want to continue doing that thing. If consent is not ongoing, there is the possibility of assault. “Consent isn’t just a one-stop shop of ‘Yes and No’ — it needs to be a dialogue,” says Rowett.
Check in. Communicate. Listen.
4. Relational consent
Is the relationship between the individuals one in which all parties can bring their needs, wants and boundaries to the forefront? “This matters because if a partner does not feel listened to or that they are being heard, the consent they are giving may not be authentic and may just be people pleasing,” Rowett explains.
For example, if one person is not having their needs met and doesn’t feel they have the space in their relationship to disclose this, that is not relational consent. For true consent to be given, the dynamic of the partners needs to be rooted in trust and safety.
5. Consent and wanting
Someone needs to be fully down to do something sexually for consent to be valid. This is usually where the term “enthusiastic consent” comes into play, which I tend to avoid because it can be rather reductive. The thing is, you can be open to trying something without being balls to the wall excited about it. Not all valid consent is necessarily enthusiastic. For example, we may be willing to try something, but are nervous or shy. This is a normal reaction to new sexual adventures.
Additionally, we may consent to some things we willingly do sexually for the gratification of the other person. That doesn’t mean that all sexual encounters should be like this, but they do happen. With all this being said, communication is absolutely essential. If someone seems unsure, is silent or says they’re reaching a limit, stop the action entirely and check in with your partner.
6. Awareness of multiple scripts
The point of having multiple scripts is to have other options for play on the table if someone decides the actions they’re engaged in are no longer wanted. Do all people involved have the ability to default to an alternative set of sexual actions (aka a sexual script)?
For example, if you’re having vaginal intercourse and your partner says, “Can we stop?” or “Can we do something else?” you can easily move into another form of sex (or cuddling, or watching Netflix, etc.). For consent to be valid, all people need to feel they have options outside of a one-act show.
7. Power dynamics
All relationships come with power dynamics that can impact consent. This is related to relational consent because it accounts for the dynamic between individuals. Power dynamics infringe on consent when one person has power over another.
This is what you must consider: Are all parties aware of the cultural, relational and personal power dynamics (and imbalances) within this interaction? Do these dynamics impact a person’s ability to give or revoke consent in a safe way?
Some examples of imbalanced power dynamics can include relationships with your boss, coach, teacher or someone who has control over your finances or livelihood. When this dynamic exists, any sexual relationship that comes out of it is likely to be inherently imbalanced. Therefore, consent is rarely given in a way that doesn’t come with strings attached.
Should we cross a line and violate someone’s consent (i.e., if we’ve behaved in a non-consensual way), are we able to confront this with the person, apologize and figure out a way to not make this mistake again?
Sex is not perfect and we will make mistakes. The key is being willing to hold yourself accountable and to do what it takes to regain trust. “Negotiating consent isn’t always a clean-cut process, either,” Rowett explains. “There will be misunderstandings, you will feel frustrated, and it will ‘go wrong’ from time to time. Think of it as a messy journey of being a human being rather than reaching the pinnacle of ‘perfect sex.’”
If you cross a boundary, stop what you’re doing immediately and connect with your partner. Figure out together what they need from you to rebuild trust. Humans aren’t perfect, but we can become better people by acknowledging our mistakes, both inside and outside of the bedroom.