When YES might actually be NO! Considering enthusiastic consent.
Today’s blog is not aimed at sexually experienced adults, perhaps in long-term relationships, or at least comfortable and confident about their sexual choices (although it can’t hurt to read it and remind yourself of the facts); my thoughts for today reflect very much the information I like to share with young people as part of their sexuality education sessions. Maybe they are just starting out on their sexual and relationship journeys or they could be ready to take a relationship to the next level. It’s basically a part of our programs called ‘Sexual Health and Decision Making’, and ‘Healthy Sexual Relationships’.
Most middle high school students (years 9 or 10) in Victoria will be aware of the laws about sex and sexual touching. They know that there are clear age limits for having sex and they know that if someone touches you sexually, without your agreement (consent), this is unlawful and therefore a crime. So the issue I want to raise today is something sometimes called ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT.
Knowing why consent is important is really worthwhile when starting a sexual relationship. There are verbal and physical cues as well as things you can say if you want things to slow down or stop. When alcohol and drugs are involved it can be very difficult to give genuine consent, so the bottom line is to have a conversation and not to pressure someone if they don’t feel ready.
Until fairly recently the concept of enthusiastic consent has been a quite popular subject for bloggers, feminist workshops, even student programs in universities and colleges. At this time of year, with long summer school holidays fast approaching and Christmas parties and beach holidays and heaps of unsupervised free time coming up, it seems to be a perfect time for our teens to revisit (or be introduced) to this topic.
Enthusiastic consent is an easy idea to understand: it moves beyond “no means no” into “yes means yes” for this sex act or action at this time. It’s all about communication, about what a person wants to do – sexually. It’s also about being sure that your partner wants the same thing – at the same time. It’s about admitting that someone who is asleep cannot give consent, someone who is affected by drugs or alcohol may not be making the same decisions they might make when they’re sober. It’s very much about mutual respect and consideration and it is not about coercion! Nobody should have to do anything which makes them uncomfortable (physically, emotionally) and it’s important to respect equally a yes or a no.
In a nutshell, I’m talking about enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement. I’m talking about a “yes, I’d like that” compared to “I don’t know. I guess so. If you think I should.” Or even silence.
The concept also requires that consent be given to each piece of sexual activity, meaning that a yes to one thing (such as vaginal penetration) does not mean consent to another (like anal penetration). It also means that just because a person agreed to a sexual act once, it doesn’t mean they always agree to that act. You need to ask again (and again and again). Basically, we’re saying, “Yes! I want this!” or, “No, I don’t think I want to do that,” and we’re asking each time “Is this ok?” To do these things is to be respectful of not only your own bodily autonomy, but also your partner’s. It’s just common courtesy, really. To give enthusiastic consent doesn’t mean you have to scream that you want it at the top of your lungs; it’s more that an unsure or hesitant yes is not enthusiastic consent, and needs to be considered and discussed.
If you are unsure that your partner wants to do the same things as you do, or they’re just going along with it, lack of enthusiasm means you need to stop and clarify – it doesn’t necessarily mean they are saying no, it just means you need to make sure it’s a yes for everyone involved. You will also need to clarify if you notice other clues: If your partner freezes, pulls away or moves your hands away. If they go limp or passive, if they seem reluctant or less than fully present. Maybe they’re not making any move to remove clothing or help with access. Stop whatever it is you’re doing. Treat “maybe” as “no.” Let your partner make the next move, if there is a next move. Trust that if “maybe” really means “yes,” they’ll find a way to let you know.
Legally, sex can only happen when both people consent. It’s not an option. It’s not only the law, but literally the minimum standard of human decency.
Fortunately, this coincides nicely with what you need to have truly awesome sex:
- A partner who feels safe with you.
- A partner who IS actually safe with you because everyone is as protected as possible from unwanted pregnancy and STIs and can be trusted to respect limits.
- A partner who is really, really into what is happening.
So, to summarize:
- Whenever you have sex, you need to make sure that your partner is just as enthusiastic about having sex. In other words, that they give their full consent.
- One of the best ways to determine if someone is uncomfortable with any situation, especially with a sexual one, is to simply ask.
- If you get a negative or non-committal answer to any of your questions or if your partner’s body language suggests a lack of enthusiasm then you should stop what you are doing and talk to them about it.
- Take your time, make sure you are both comfortable; and talking about how far you want to go will make the time you spend together a lot more satisfying and enjoyable for both of you.
- You always have the right to say ‘no’ and you always have the right to change your mind at any time regardless of how far things have gone.
- Drugs and alcohol can affect people’s ability to make decisions, including whether or not they want to be sexual with someone else. This means that if someone is really drunk or high, they cannot give consent. Being with them in a sexual way when they don’t know what’s going on is equal to rape, because they cannot give informed consent.
And finally, for parents; teaching your child about consent and respect and boundaries non-sexually, from a young age, (can I borrow your pencils? Is it ok for aunty Meg to give you a hug? I won’t touch your Lego creation etc etc) is a great start to raising teenagers who start the discussions, know which questions to ask and who will respect the answers they are given.