African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase ‘Me Too’ back in 2006 when raising awareness about sexual abuse and assault in society. Now a global movement, #MeToo, alongside others like Time’s Up, continue to keep the subject of consent firmly in the public sphere. Sexual health charity FPA has taken a look into consent, and what it actually means.
What is consent?
Consent, simply, means agreeing to do something. When we’re talking about sex, consent means freely agreeing to sexual activity.
Before your get down to it
Before taking part in any kind of sexual activity, it’s essential that everyone involved agrees to it. This doesn’t have to be complicated – there are simple, and sexy, ways of giving and getting consent.
Asking for consent
Learning ways to ask whether a partner is enthusiastic and excited about having sex with you is key to a healthy sex life. Some people worry that asking for consent might “ruin the mood”. A better way to think about it is that giving and receiving consent is an essential start to any sexual activity – and you can aim to make it as fun and sexy as possible. Conversations about consent can sometimes feel awkward.
But there are different ways to ask that don’t have to be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. There are some easy ways to check if a partner is happy with how things are proceeding.
Ways to ask for consent include:
- Do you want me to…?
- Would you like it if I…?
- Is it OK if I…?
- How do you feel about…?
- Do you want to try…?
- Do you want me to keep going?
It’s surprisingly easy and sexy to ask someone “can I kiss you?” or “do you want to have sex with me?” Don’t be afraid of being direct. Being honest is the best way to understand what you both want.
Other Ways to Check for Consent
Reading people’s body language (non-verbal cues) is another way to check for consent. Non-verbal cues might include whether a partner is making eye contact with you, their facial expressions, whether they’re comfortable being naked, and whether they’re actively touching you and pulling you close.
Consent isn’t just about someone saying “no” to what they don’t want. It’s about you and a partner giving an enthusiastic “yes” to what you do want.
Always make sure you have a partner’s full, happy, and enthusiastic consent before engaging in any kind of sexual activity.
It’s important to remember that everyone has different ways to say yes and no. If a partner’s behaviour seems unenthusiastic, out of character or unusual then stop engaging in sexual activity and check how they’re feeling.
Why do I need to get consent every time?
Just because someone has said “yes” once, it doesn’t mean they say “yes” to every time or to every new sexual act. So check whether they’re happy to go ahead.
You have a right to say no to any sexual activity that you don’t agree with. Refusing consent can often feel difficult, so it’s important to be equipped with ways to do this too.
Sometimes refusing consent can be intimidating, or confusing, for example if you’re unsure or you’d like to say yes in the future, but not now. But you always have the right to say no and to have your decision respected.
It’s always OK for you or a partner to change your mind about saying yes at any point during sex. There’s never a point of no return.
If at any point the other person seems unsure about carrying on, stop, and don’t engage in any further sexual activity. Check in with them and see how they feel.
Asking for consent until “no” becomes “yes” is not enthusiastic consent. Asking multiple times can mean that you end up pressuring or coercing someone to do something they don’t really want to do. So ask once, and respect the answer you get.
Ways to say “no” include:
- I would prefer not to…
- I would rather not…
- I don’t know how I feel about this.
- I don’t think I’m ready for that.
- This isn’t working for me.
- Maybe another time, but not now.
- I would prefer it if we…?
- I would feel more comfortable if…
- I don’t want to do this anymore
Consent and the Law
Finally, there are a few things to be aware of when it comes to consent and the law.
The legal definition of consent in England and Wales set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, is that someone “agrees by choice…and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”
The legal age of consent is 16, but whatever your age, be aware of whether you or a partner are too drunk or high to consent, make sure a partner isn’t frightened to say “no”, and remember that no one can consent to sexual activity if they’re asleep or unconscious.
If you’re not sure, stop.
Consent in a nutshell
Making sure that both you and a partner are as comfortable as possible about any sexual activity before it happens is key in any conversation about consent.
There’s no bigger priority than everyone feeling safe, happy, comfortable and enthusiastic about having sex with each other.