To be honest, I struggled with the title for this blog post on enthusiastic consent.
My first inclination was:
Consent: A How-To Guide for the Sexual Predators Pretending They Don’t Understand Social Cues
But that title was much too long. So then I considered:
Consent: A How-To Guide for the Socially Inept
But I thought that might be too mean. If you’re reading this, I’m glad my final title convinced you to click on my blog. You might think it’s still mean of me to share my working titles, but apparently some people are just so clueless about social cues that people like me have to spell everything out. Also it’s a woman’s responsibility to speak clearly and directly, specifically describing exactly how she feels, or any misunderstanding is immediately her fault.
(Can you tell I’m furious about the widespread victim-blaming in response to the Aziz Ansari story?)
Let’s talk about enthusiastic consent.
Why Enthusiastic Consent?
It is waaaaaay past time to move past the “No means no” guideline. Obviously, if your partner says no, or stop, or other negative words… then stop. But before initiating sexual activity, or introducing a new sexual act into your relationship, wait for your partner to give an affirmative yes. “Yes means yes” is much better than “No means no” because you’re waiting for affirmative consent.
That said, a Yes still isn’t the same as enthusiastic consent. If you ask for sex 9 times, and your partner says no 9 times, but on the 10th ask, your partner says yes… your partner is just sick and tired of your badgering. Your partner doesn’t actually want to have sex with you.
Legitimate question here.
If you’re hesitant about enthusiastic consent as the baseline standard for sexual activity… why?
If you don’t want to get enthusiastic consent from your sexual partner… why?
Why do you want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you?
I’m completely serious here. Frankly, I’m bewildered that more people aren’t asking these questions.
Enthusiastic consent is Not. That. Hard. It’s really not. Just make sure that your sexual partner is into it. That’s all you have to do.
How do you ask for enthusiastic consent? How do you give enthusiastic consent?
I’ve shared multiple suggestions and scenarios to help you have a better sex life.
Note: In the scenarios below, I use different genders. I hope this signifies that consent is for everyone, not just for men pursuing heterosexual sexual activity.
Asking for Consent
A first kiss
I know three sexy approaches to kissing your date for the first time.
- This is a rule I’ve heard many places before, and a quick Google search indicates I should credit the movie Hitch. You go 90% and let the man go 10%. In other words, lean in for the kiss, but not quite all the way. If your partner is into it, your lips will touch. If he’s not, you have given him the time and the space to turn his head so your lips brush his cheek. Or the time and space to pull away from you.
- Ask! I know some people whine that this “ruins the moment,” but trust me, if you asking ruins the moment, then there wasn’t actually a moment. Look him directly in the eye, smile, and tell him you want to kiss him. Then raise your eyebrows, lick your lips, and ask him if that’s okay.
- This is basically a combination of the first two. Tell him you want to kiss him and then move in slowly for the kiss. He knows what you’re going to do, and, again, he has time to stop you if he’s uncomfortable.
I kissed my husband after our second date. We were sitting in his car outside my apartment. We both agreed that we had enjoyed a lovely night together, and we both agreed that we wanted to see each other again. I took off my seat belt, shifted very intentionally in my seat, reached out my right hand to his head so my fingers were in his hair and my palm was along his jaw, tilted my head, and leaned in to kiss him. It only took a few seconds for Dan to kiss me back, and a few more for him to start running his fingers through my hair.
If he has not started kissing you back after about five seconds, pull away and talk to him! If you did your best to get nonverbal consent before the kiss, and you pull away with a lack of response, then you’re okay.
The problem is if you keep going, even when he is non-responsive. At that point, you are clearly ignoring his nonverbal cues to prioritize your own desires.
More than a kiss
Here are some tips to progress from kissing to sexual touching.
- Move slowly! If y’all are making out, fully clothed, don’t just immediately grab her breasts, her butt, or her crotch. Starting on the outside of the clothing, explore her body slowly, starting with her back, hips, and sides. If she doesn’t move your hands away, if she doesn’t stop kissing you, and if she does respond to it, then you can try touching her butt or breasts. Again, moving slowly is key! Always give her time to move your hands away or tell you to stop. Always pay attention to her reactions. If she moves your hands away, then keep them away. If she pulls back from you, then check in with her.
- Ask her questions. “Do you like that?” and “Is this okay?” are always good. “Should we move this to the bedroom?” implies that some clothing will be removed, but receiving a “yes” to this question is NOT equal to consent for everything and anything. Give her a chance to remove her own clothing.
- Talk dirty! This can be the sexiest part of consent. “Do you want me to [INSERT SEXY STUFF]?” can be SUPER hot. Just wait for an enthusiastic yesssssss before proceeding with [INSERT SEXY STUFF].
If she ever pulls away from you, or moves your hands, or says anything negative, STOP what you’re doing. I should not have to move your hands away from my crotch three times in an hour. That is not okay. Nonverbal consent does exist, but if you have any doubts, ASK your partner.
Naked sexual activity
How do you get consent for different forms of sexual activity? Remember, consent for one type of sexual activity is NOT consent for other sexual activities. You need enthusiastic consent every step of the way.
- Ask for consent. You should get verbal consent before proceeding with sexual activity that involves genitals or penetration in any way. Again, you can be sexy about it. “Can I feel how [INSERT ADJECTIVE] your [INSERT GENITAL SLANG] is?” Wait for an enthusiastic yesssssss before touching your partner’s genitals.
- Watch your partner for nonverbal cues. How is your partner responding? Are they interested and engaged? Great! Are they initiating any activity? Great! Or are they still, not moving much, not making sounds, looking bored or unhappy or vacant or scared? Stop. Talk to them.
- Ask about safe sex and contraception. Is she on hormonal birth control? Will he wear a condom? Do either of you need to wash your hands thoroughly before digitally penetrating the other person? Enthusiastic consent for safe sex does not mean consent for sex without protection.
A real-life example of enthusiastic consent
Dan and I had our first make-out session after our third date. During this time, we demonstrated both verbal and nonverbal consent for everything.
Dan came up to my apartment to grab his dinner leftovers from my fridge. He waited in the living room for me while I took a pit stop to the loo. When I was done, he stood up and said, “Well, I guess you’d like a good-night kiss.” I nodded eagerly and said yes. He walked over to me, and we started kissing. And kept kissing. And kissed some more.
That is an example of asking for and giving verbal consent.
Dan’s hands rubbed my back and my sides and then ever so slightly dipped down to the top of my butt and back up again. His ran his hands up my stomach and briefly over my boobs. This was all over my clothing. I responded by pulling him closer to me.
That is an example of moving slowly and waiting to see how your partner responds.
Eventually his hands slipped below my shirt.
Eventually he unhooked my bra. At which point I pulled away and said we could continue making out elsewhere, since we had been making out while standing for at least half an hour, probably an hour at that point. I then offered the couch, the large chair, and my bed. Dan told me whichever one I preferred. So I took his hand and pulled him into my bedroom, where I took off my shirt and pulled off my bra. Dan then took off his shirt, I sat on the bed, pulled him to me, and we started making out again.
That is an example of asking for and giving verbal consent.
In this entire narrative, Dan and I are both interested and willing participants in our make-out session. We both use a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues to give consent.
The burden is always on the initiator to ask for (and receive!) consent before any sexual activity, but being proactive about giving consent and talking about boundaries is an important aspect of a healthy sexual relationship.
With a casual date or hookup
Be up front about your boundaries. Seriously, this has been so helpful in my own life. The first time I made out with this guy in France, I told him in the middle of us kissing, “Before I take my shirt off, you know we’re just making out, right?” On a first date with a guy I met from OKCupid, I told him before we started kissing that I wasn’t interested in sex or any sexual activity below the waist. Both guys were great about it. In both those scenarios, I initiated. As the one initiating, I felt it was imperative that I verbally discuss with my partner what I was willing to do, which also gave them the opportunity to respond verbally with what they were willing to do.
If you are interested in sexual activity, say something. Be up front about what you want to do. “I’m interested in taking this further if you are” opens the conversation to discuss what you both want.
Be suggestive. Stop kissing and make a sexual remark about other things your mouth can do.
Respond vocally when you like what your partner is doing, especially if they initiated contact.
Don’t make your casual hookup try to guess what you’re thinking or feeling.
Don’t play games and say things you don’t mean. A good partner will take you at your word that you don’t want to do something.
In a relationship
- Talk about sex and boundaries when you’re not having it. Early in our relationship, I told Dan the activities I was and was not comfortable doing in front of our parents and our siblings. He told me what he was and was not comfortable doing in public, period. We’ve had other conversations since then, like when I can tease him, and when it’s a bad idea. Before we were married, these conversations included our boundaries for alone time, since we were saving coitus for marriage. Now that we’re married, we still discuss our boundaries. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with everything!
- Give consent sober. This one might get me some feminist flames, but it works for my marriage. I usually get tipsy/drunk off champagne or wine at weddings with open bars. And after a night celebrating my friends’ marriage, and dancing, and flirting with my husband, I’m usually in a very flirtatious mood. Thus I tell Dan before the wedding about how much I’m looking forward to being alone after the wedding. I give consent for tipsy sex before I drink a drop of alcohol. And sometimes I change my mind, which Dan always respects.
- Waking someone up for sexual activity can be really fun, but you have to be careful that your partner is into it. If you wants to rouse your partner by arousing them, start by cuddling. Proceed with gentle touching and light kissing. How does your partner respond? Are they making happy noises and cuddling you back? Great! If your partner doesn’t respond after a few minutes, or they verbally express their disinterest, then back off. Some people enjoy being woken up with oral sex, but do not assume your partner wants this! Not only should you discuss this in advance, but it’s better to discuss this shortly before it actually happens. Yes, it is less of a “surprise” by talking about it, but then you don’t sexually assault your partner. I’d call that a fair trade-off. Even if you have agreed to it beforehand, don’t jump in immediately. Cuddle up next to your partner and run your hands along their body, near their groin, but not touching their genitals. Wait for their response. This gives them a chance to change their mind or express consent.
I know this has been long, but honestly, I barely even scratched the surface on how consent can be sexy. If you’re worried about it being awkward, ask yourself this: Would I rather sexually assault someone I like, or ask first if this is okay? If you’re a decent human being, the answer is easy.