Consent Series Pt. 1: It’s Not About Sex

We need to stop thinking about consent as a strictly sexual topic.

This week, I’m kicking off a series of posts about consent. It won’t be the only thing I write about for the next few weeks, but expect it to come up a few times.

For Part 1, I want to cover some consent basics, including why consent actually has very little to do with sex.

What is Consent?

According to Merriam-Webster, consent is—

verb

1: to give assent or approval AGREE

2: archaic to be in concord in opinion or sentiment

noun

1: compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another ACQUIESCENCE

2: agreement as to action or opinion

Despite the fact that sex isn’t mentioned in these definitions (or the examples Merriam-Webster provides), consent and sex are persistently intertwined in our broader conversations.

Search ‘consent definition’ online like I did, and the top organic result is from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. After a few dictionary entries, the next results are from a sexual violence prevention program and Planned Parenthood.

Obviously, consent is important when it comes to sex. Lack of understanding and exercise of sexual consent is exactly why RAINN and other organizations for survivors of sexual violence exist.

But I think one of the hurdles we’re facing in the effort to normalize consent is that we package the conversation together with human sexuality. Consent isn’t just about sexuality, however—far from it.

What Consent is Really About

Photo by Keira Burton

Beginning in 2020, people all over the world had to adjust to new norms when it came to touch and proximity with others.

Who was comfortable standing within six feet of whom? With or without a mask? Who was comfortable elbow-bumping, hand-shaking, hugging? With or without handwashing or sanitizing—and before or after?

We also had to get comfortable with communicating our own boundaries around these things, of course.

All of this was us renavigating boundaries, consent, and desire for connection given our new and often isolating circumstances.

But while navigating consent around proximity and touch in this context felt new, we had actually been doing it our whole lives. Think about your pre-pandemic preferences on things like:

  • the amount of distance between people waiting in line
  • ‘finger foods’ at parties and buffets
  • double-dipping chips into dip
  • people covering their coughs and sneezes

Even before 2020, we each had our own comfort level with these things in shared spaces. We’d navigate consent around them however worked for us, standing at a distance that felt comfortable, for example, or saying things like “Hey, are y’all okay with double-dipping or no?”

Why did we do this?

Because we care about and respect people’s boundaries. It’s the decent thing to do.

Desire, Boundaries, and Consent: The CEO vs. The Hot Date

Photo by cottonbro

Consider the difference between getting consent for a meeting and getting consent for sex.

If an entrepreneur wanted to meet with a CEO, they’d have to schedule a meeting using the accepted channels and hope for an alignment of the CEO’s schedule, bandwidth, and willingness to meet. The CEO might refuse or cancel the meeting, and while that’s frustrating or disappointing, it’s their prerogative. The entrepreneur must accept that.

If the meeting does happen, the entrepreneur will show up on time out of respect for the CEO. They may even wait beyond the scheduled meeting time if they really want it. While in the meeting, they’d likely conduct themselves in a respectful manner unless the CEO gives them a reason not to.

This is a negotiation of desire, boundaries, and consent:

  • Desire. The entrepreneur desires a meaningful interaction: a meeting with a particular person. This meeting will require the person’s time, presence, and attention.
  • Boundaries. The CEO has an assistant, a schedule, and their own personal boundaries around meetings, how they’re arranged, and who gets one.
  • Consent. The CEO consents to a meeting, indicating mutual desire. The entrepreneur acts respectfully, perhaps even effusively so if they really want the interaction to go well.

Now, say this same entrepreneur wants to take their dinner date home to have sex—a desired and meaningful interaction.

There’s no reason why they can’t propose that idea and, with the same respect they extended the CEO, accept that their date’s obligations, schedule, and willingness to have that interaction affect their decision. While a refusal or even last-minute cancellation once they get home might be frustrating or disappointing, that is the date’s prerogative.

If things do move into the home, there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to continue to treat their date in a respectful manner, assuming that the date is doing the same. If the date decides to end the interaction, they’ve stated a boundary, and that should be respected and accepted.

If we can respect a CEO’s boundaries when scheduling a meeting, we can respect people’s boundaries when requesting a sexual interaction.

If we want someone’s professional time, presence, and attention, we roll out the red carpet. Our conditional access to the CEO’s office is not considered unreasonable, and we easily respect their boundaries.

Why would we treat wanting someone’s time, presence, and attention for sex any differently? We’re still

  • expressing desire for an interaction,
  • hoping that desire falls within another person’s boundaries,
  • and that the desire is mutual.

If it is mutual, and someone agress to sex, why would the respect end there—if not for the idea that consenting to sex strips someone of their respectability?

Consent is about respect.

Photo by Monstera

People in the highest positions of power understand consent. If you don’t agree, hear me out.

Ever heard of consent contract law? How about the No Disclosure Without Consent Rule?

All those executives, celebrities, and politicians with consent violations of a sexual nature? They understand consent just fine when it has to do with their business, wealth, and privacy. In fact, they hire entire legal teams to protect their consent and avoid violating the consent of people they do business with.

Why? Because lucrative ideas, reputation, authority, wealth, and other things of that nature give them and others power—and they respect power.

So when public figures get caught in a violation of sexual consent, this isn’t an issue of understanding.

It’s an issue of respect.

The ‘Inconvenience’ of Consent

Photo by August de Richelieu

Opponents of consent culture insist that asking for consent creates an unnecessary barrier to something that should come naturally. In their eyes, sexual attraction between two people follows a ‘natural progression’ that doesn’t require explicit consent. To ask for consent, or to vocalize your own, would ruin the mood.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I disagree.

I do believe that there are people out there who are incredibly good at nonverbal communication. When people with this skill find each other in the right context, they can move seamlessly and wordlessly through the process of navigating desire and boundaries and have the kind of amazing, consensual sex you see depicted in movies. (Or, they amicably part ways if their desires and boundaries are a mismatch).

But I would argue that the vast majority of people do not have this level of nonverbal skill. And of those who do, they do not always find themselves attracted to someone as evenly matched in this kind of communication.

I think the more likely reason people see consent culture as inconvenient is because they don’t want to hear ‘no’.

The disappointment of ‘no’…

Listen, I get it. Hearing ‘no’ is hard. Especially if you really, really want something.

Getting a ‘no’ can hurt. We can feel rejected, shot down, or just not good enough. Whether it’s a job opportunity, vying for creative recognition, or getting a date, not getting what we desire is hard.

This problem compounds in communities where bullies are free to circulate toxic ideas about what determines a person’s worth. Others can pile on the negativity, reinforcing our insecurities and making it even harder for us to put ourselves out there again.

If and when we do try again, a ‘no’ is even more difficult to take.

Free of bullying and toxicity, ‘no’ would be easier to bear. Still hard, but at least not seen as a reflection of our self-worth. In fact, we’d be greateful to hear ‘no’, and understand that recieving a ‘no’ indicates that a person trusts us. They don’t want an interaction, and they feel comfortable being honest with us rather than appeasing the request out of obligation or personal safety.

Hearing ‘no’ is a desireable outcome if the person we’re asking to interact with doesn’t want to interact.

Too often, we hear stories of people who hear ‘no’ and keep pushing, trying to find the avenue to ‘yes’. These people clearly do not care about the other person’s boundaries or respect them. Instead, they see the other person as a means to getting what they want, and are willing to ignore their boundaries to get it.

Saying ‘no’ requires trust.

With that existing culture around consent in mind, saying ‘no’ is a skill that many of us don’t get enough opportunity to safely practice. In fact, most women—half the planet’s population—have a hard time saying no according to psychologist Kathryn J. Lively.

This is due to social conditioning. Girls are often socialized to put others’ feelings above their own needs. Saying ‘no’ is considered by many to be ‘unladylike’, so many girls never get to safely practice doing it.

Over time, girls learn that others’ desires are more important than their boundaries. They bring this lesson into adulthood and may have a hard time saying ‘no’ even to things they know they don’t want.

This phenomenon, of course, is not limited to women. People of all gender identities can have life experiences that teach them that saying ‘no’ often doesn’t matter.

Hearing ‘no’ is hard, especially in toxic environments, but boundary breaches can be far more traumatic than not getting what we want. If we respect someone and want something from them (time, attention, touch), ensuring their mutual interest is the bare minumum we can do.

A Note on Rejection: It is possible for rejection to trigger previous trauma. If the thought of hearing ‘no’ makes your chest hurt, causes you to dissociate or makes you angry or emotional, it may be worth it to talk to someone about potential sources of this pain.

Exercise 1: Saying ‘No’

Popular culture doesn’t show us many examples of people asking for consent, people clearly saying no, and that no being respected.

Even when we do get a request for consent (yay!), the answer seems to always be yes, reinforcing the idea that a ‘no’ isn’t a desireable outcome and denying us an opportunity to see what gracefully accepting a ‘no’ could look like:

Kristoff asks for consent (yay!), but of course Anna says yes. How would Kristoff would have responded to ‘no’?

Saying ‘no’ is a skill that requires practice. Some of us get to practice as children, others must do so as adults.

In order to practice, we need safe spaces where ‘no’ will be respected and accepted with grace. These are spaces where saying ‘no’ is not only allowed, but encouraged if you’re not 100% comfortable with an interaction or a request to interact.

Sadly, some of us don’t have access to many safe environments for this kind of practice. If that’s the case for you, this exercise below can be practiced in the safety of your own home, alone or with trusted loved ones.

Come up with a few requests to say no to (i.e. “Can I have a hug?”, “Will you go to the movies with me?”, or touching someone’s shoulder). Practice using these verbal and nonverbal ways to say no in your mirror or with a friend:

  • “No thank you.”
  • “I’m not comfortable with this.”
  • “Can you give me some space?”
  • “I said no. That’s my final answer.”
  • Take 3 steps back
  • Remove their hand
  • Shake your head and/or finger no
  • Go stand next to and/or tell someone you trust

Feel free to revisit and use these whenever you need them. It’s okay to practice saying no to things.

If you hear or see these things from someone you are interacting with, pause what you are doing. They may be communicating discomfort, possibly with something you’ve said or done. Recognize and honor that person’s boundaries. If appropriate, apologize and/or thank them for knowing and clearly communicating their boundaries.

As we move through a world where many people haven’t been able to safely say no, it’s on us to ascertain that we have a definite ‘yes’ before initiating interactions with people.

Exercise 2: Hearing ‘No’

If you think you could use some practice at hearing and accepting ‘no’: good for you! Most of us could use this practice; it’s just hard to admit it.

You’ll need a partner for this exercise. Try to find someone who also wants to practice hearing ‘no’, so you can take turns. In this exercise, the answer is always ‘no’.

  1. Face your partner. Ask for something relatively low-stakes. You can choose to ask for an elbow bump, a hug, or to dance for example. You can also ask verbally or nonverbally, or both.
  2. Recieve a ‘no’. Your partner will verbally or nonverbally deny your request.
  3. Take a breath. Pause and notice what it feels like to get turned down. Then, thank your partner for being honest with you about their boundaries.
  4. Switch roles. Make sure each of you gets a turn or two. Repeat all steps until you feel done.

When you are finished, if either of you really needs an elbow bump, a hug, or a quick dance, feel free to ask your partner. Of course, if they say no, respect that. Find a way to work out those wiggles on your own.

What Makes a Good ‘Yes’

Photo by Kindel Media

Clearly communicated consent means anything that isn’t an explicit ‘yes’ is a ‘no’.

Unclear and ambiguous responses are a ‘no’. If we feel like we have to convince someone to do something, it’s a ‘no’. This is because we respect, trust, and empower others to ask for what they want and actively offer the things they want to offer.

We don’t try to convince people they want to do something. We respect their boundaries and thank them for their offerings. 

But yes, of course, feels really good.

What does a clear yes sound or look like?

  • “Yes, I’d like that.”
  • “Sure, but here are my boundaries.”
  • “I’d love to!”
  • “Thanks for asking, let’s do it!”
  • Nodding head
  • Reaching out an inviting hand
  • Moving into an accommodating position
  • Accommodating the request

Everyone is always allowed to say yes or no to a request. If you are ever not sure whether you want to say yes, try saying “Not right now—ask me again later,” to give yourself time to think about it. (If you don’t want to be asked later—that’s a sign that you actually mean ‘no’!)

If you’re ever not sure whether someone is consenting to your proposal, assume that they are not. Wait until you receive a clear signal that they are excited to move forward before taking action.

Most people are adept at asking for and giving consent for non-sexual interactions. Having conversations, sharing a meal, and watching a movie are things most of us feel comfortable navigating consent around, for example. With practice, we can become this comfortable navigating consent around sex, too.

Consent: It’s About So Much More Than Sex

Let’s face it: we’re weird about sex. The fact that we know how to negotiate consent and do it every day in non-sexual scenarios, but then drop it to the wayside once sex is on the table is evidence.

Generally speaking, we don’t feel comfortable talking about sex. It’s not ‘polite conversation’. That makes talking about sex and consent hard. But we can start the journey by practicing good consent communication today.

Remember that people’s time, attention, touch, and presence are valuable. When coming from a place of respect, we wouldn’t demand these valuable things from someone who wasn’t explicitly offering them—we’d ask! And we’d respect their answer.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss what bystanders who witness breaches of consent can do. Subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss it!

Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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