Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people confused, nervous, or scared about consent. They’re asking the question, “What exactly counts as consent in sexual relationships?”
Here’s an important image I want you to hold onto through this article:
When you go to get your haircut, and you sit down in front of that mirror, what’s the first thing a new stylist will ask you?
Probably something along these lines: “What are we doing today?” Or, “How do you want it cut?”
They are asking for both your permission and your direction in how you want your hair cut, styled, curled, or colored. If they ask, “What do you think about a mohawk today?” and you say, “No,” then they would give you the mullet like usual. If you seemed indecisive, they would work to figure out if you were up for trying it or wanted the usual. If you replied, “I was hoping you would suggest a mohawk” then you could start shaving your head and getting the styling gel ready.
Yeah but we’re not talking about haircuts.
Right. When we talk about consent in sexual relationships, it’s important to understand that it’s not just about sex. It’s grounded in a deeper concept: that you as an individual have personal sovereignty over your own body.
Which is to say, you get to choose what is done or not done to your body. You are in charge of it.
A doctor can’t operate on you without permission, except in very narrowly defined situations.
A hairstylist can’t accost you on the street and blow dry your hair.
A tattoo artist can’t hold you down and put a picture of Snoopy on your bicep.
Personal sovereignty says you get to choose what is done to your body: how you are touched, how things are altered on your person, the color of your hair, whether you accept hugs or prefer not to have them.
You have the right to control what happens to your own body. It is yours, not someone else’s. No one else gets to make decisions about your body.
But my lawyer says consent is….
Listen, lawyers say a lot of things. This is not a legal document. The precise definition of consent from a legal standpoint varies from state to state and nation to nation. What we’re talking about here is the concept of consent, what it is, and how it works. If you’re a paralegal this may be helpful in your personal life, but maybe not in the professional context.
Okay, let’s talk about consent in sexual relationships.
I sometimes see consent framed as, “Well, my partner didn’t say no.” It reminds me of when I was in grade school riding the bus and this high school kid came over and asked me if I wanted a “hot oven.” I said I didn’t know what it was and he boxed me in the ear. Then he asked if I liked swimming pools and when I said yes, he spit in my hand. I never said no, but I promise you I had not given consent, either.
One of the big weaknesses of the “they didn’t say no” definition is that it doesn’t cover things like people who are drunk, or unconscious, or impaired in some way. It doesn’t cover people who are scared, or pressured, or blackmailed. It can make it about “how much can I get away with” rather than “what would we like to do together.”
I’m a big proponent of “enthusiastic consent” in sexual relationships. Which is to say, there should be desire on the part of both parties. Consent is about communication between two people. It’s not about avoiding a “no” it’s about discovering a “yes.”
You could say, “I would like to do this thing. How do you feel about that?”
If you get anything less than, “Yes, I would like that, too” (Or, “I would be up for trying that” or even, “Let’s see how it goes”) then that’s not consent.
Yeah but what if they start out enthusiastic and then they become less than enthusiastic as things continue?
Consent can be given, but it’s not forever. Consent can be given, and consent can be withdrawn, too.
This one time I was getting my hair cut and the electric razor was rusty or something and it was ripping instead of cutting. So I said, hey, I’m done. I don’t want you to cut my hair anymore. I can withdraw my consent. If I say stop, the stylist needs to stop. In the same way, you or your partner can withdraw consent for sex even if you’re right in the middle of the act.
Also, consent is not forever. If you got your haircut once and ran into the stylist at the park, and they came over and started running their hands through your hair, you would be rightfully concerned. Just because someone said yes to sex (or a specific sexual act) in the past doesn’t mean you automatically have consent next time.
If someone withdraws their consent and you keep going, that’s called non-consensual sexual activity. That’s the “nice” word for it. Other words, depending on what happens, could be sexual assault, or rape.
Yeah, okay, but what if they’re dressed in a way that makes it super clear they want it?
That’s not consent.
What if it’s your girlfriend/boyfriend?
That’s not consent.
What if it’s your spouse?
Also not consent.
What if I just paid for a huge meal/bought them an extravagant gift/paid their way through college?
It sounds like you’re saying someone has to want to have sex and also SAY that they want to have sex.
Yeah, more or less.
So if someone says yes I’m good.
Wait there’s more?
Yeah, okay, so we have to talk about capacity for consent. When someone is drunk, or high, or otherwise mentally impaired, they aren’t able to give enthusiastic consent (or consent at all).
Also, children aren’t able to consent to sex. And yes, by the way, this is reflected in our legal system. So if a fifteen year old is begging an adult to have sex, and the adult acts on that, that’s rape.
Okay. So they have to want it, they have to say “yes”, and they have to be ABLE to say yes.
Yeah. You also have to consider things like authority imbalance. Like, if you’re the boss and you ask your employee if they want a kiss, and they say yes because they feel it could impact their Christmas bonus, then that’s not consent. Your employee feels pressured. Teachers and students. Religious leaders and parishioners. Any situation where you have authority over someone else makes consent more difficult to discern.
Wait, wait, so you’re saying even pressuring someone could move you out of the territory of consent? But they said yes!
Okay, let’s go back to the haircut thing.
You go in, and your stylist says, “I think you’d look great with a perm.”
You say no, you definitely don’t want a perm. It’s too expensive. You don’t like the heat. You are afraid of curls. You hate chemicals in your hair.
But the stylist keeps saying, “No, no, you should really do this. It will be amazing. You should do it. It will look great. You’ll love it. It will be awesome. Come on! Let’s do it.”
They won’t leave you alone and finally you say fine. I guess. You sit there with a big frown on your face. You grudgingly sit there while they get you ready. You pay for it at the end, but you’re pretty mad about the whole thing.
Is that enthusiastic consent? No.
Yeah, but what if it turns out they really like the perm?
Nope. You don’t get to force people to do something because you think they’ll like it. You’re violating their sovereignty. And also, this is a big lie: “They’re saying no, they’re fighting it, but eventually they’ll like it.” Look, there are physical responses of pleasure that can come to someone even if they hate what is happening to them. Pleasure is not consent. If someone is telling you to stop doing what you are doing, but you can tell it feels good you need to stop.
The flip side can be true, too… someone might not be getting a lot of physical pleasure out of having sex with you, but maybe they just like being close to you, or they want to make you feel good. Pleasure and consent aren’t always connected.
It seems like seeking consent could be a real mood killer.
Actually, enthusiastic consent is sexy. To know that your partner really wants to do this with you is hot. To be respected and to know that your partner is there to make sure you get what you want, that’s sexy.
Okay, I think I get what you’re saying. Enthusiastic consent means the person really wants to do this. They’re capable of making that decision. They’re not being pressured, it’s what they really, really want.
Yeah, that’s right. Just remember, consent is about communication. Make sure your partner wants to do the things you’re doing.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments?