My introduction to consent was probably similar to yours: No Means No. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s common sense. But it is about as applicable to real-life sexual situations as Just Say No is to drugs – it might be a good starting point, but there is a LOT left out.
The antidote to rape culture, which includes everything from the normalization of misogyny to sexual violence, is the creation of a culture of consent. So how do we create the culture we want to live in? What actions can we take to make our world a safer place to exist for everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, class, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation?
1. FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE TALK ABOUT CONSENT: I’m not going to get all “Webster’s Dictionary defines consent as…” on you. Instead, let’s borrow Planned Parenthood’s excellent FRIES acronym. In the context of consent, FRIES stands for Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. If you spend the evening telling me how unattractive and lonely and rejected you feel; if you appeal to my empathy – and let’s be honest, lifetime femme conditioning – to make me feel like I owe you something, and then you ask if you can kiss me and I say “sure,” my consent was not freely given. Coercion can exist without an imminent threat of violence, and can often be as subtle as a guilt trip. If we’re having a hot make out in the Lyft after the party, but then I start to feel a little carsick and a lot awkward (and I can just imagine how the driver feels), I get to stop without question. The second you say something like “but the driver isn’t even paying attention to us” or “you were totally into it a second ago,” you are telling me that my consent is not reversible, and that my yes is a binding contract enforceable by you. If we meet online with a high match percentage, a good portion of which was predicated on our similar views about ethical non-monogamy, and then agree to fool around at my place, after which you tell me that *actually* your partner doesn’t know you’re out with me, and that things are complicated, you did not get my informed consent. We don’t have to tell our life stories before we bone, but if we leave out things that might cause a potential partner to otherwise say no (STI status, for example), we are not giving them enough information to make safe choices for themselves. If I’m sleepy and you’re rubbing my back and then suddenly you stick your hand down my pants, and I freeze, but don’t push your hand away, that is not enthusiastic consent. Just like an absence of “no” does not mean “yes”, an absence of “fuck no” does not mean “fuck yes.” Body language, facial expression, engagement, degree of alertness and sobriety all matter as much as the words we say. And if we’ve talked about our shared enjoyment of spanking, and every discussion has been about hand spanking, and you ask if I want to be spanked, so I close my eyes and stick out my ass, and then you whack me with your dad’s old fraternity paddle, that is not specific consent.
2. TAKE LESSONS FROM THE KINK COMMUNITY: Even the best sex education (and isn’t that an oxymoron?) provides limited information for actually talking about sex with the folks we want to see naked. And the less we communicate, the more likely we are to have our consent violated or violate the consent of others, even unintentionally. The good news is that a template for talking about these things already exists, in the form of BDSM scene negotiations. This is important to learn if you are interested in any kind of kinky play, but it is applicable to even the most vanilla interactions. A scene negotiation is, essentially, an outline of what two or more people have agreed to do together. You can find different examples online, but they include questions like: What do you definitely want to do? What turns you on? What are your hard limits? How do you practice safer sex? Do you have any triggers? How about medical conditions? What does it look like when you’re having a good time? What should I expect you to do or say if you’re not enjoying yourself? Questions like this can build up anticipation and excitement, while providing a less sexually charged environment to discuss desires and expectations.
3. DON’T LIMIT THE PRACTICE OF CONSENT TO SEXUAL SITUATIONS: If you have kids or spend time around little ones, let them decide if and when they want to kiss or hug people. Respecting their bodily autonomy and removing a sense of obligation from an early age goes a long way toward helping them feel safe and protected. If you meet someone new and you want to hug them, ask first, and give them a safe space to say “no thank you.” Practice asking things like “would you like more of this?”, “are you having a good time?”, and “what are your pronouns?” and then really listening to the answer. Replace your assumptions with questions, and see your habits start to change.
4. CALL OUT CONSENT VIOLATIONS AND THE ACCEPTANCE OF RAPE CULTURE: If there’s a rape joke in the trailer, don’t see the movie. If there are sexual assault allegations against a famous performer, stop supporting their work. If the president talks about grabbing women by the pussy, call Congress and vote in local elections. If you see someone groping a drunk person at a club, or slapping a waiter’s ass when they think no one is looking, tell them to stop. If you are not part of a marginalized group, it’s even more important for you to take action and speak up, because your personal safety is not at stake. Allyship is at its best actively supportive, especially in spaces with other privileged folks. “Locker room talk” doesn’t happen because all men are terrible; it happens because some men are terrible and the rest are afraid to speak up.
A culture of consent is one in which all people feel empowered to express their sexuality in healthy, pleasurable, affirmative ways. The best way to get there is to make space for these conversations in our relationships, our families, and our communities.