Consent is Sexy
1) permission for something to happen or be done 2) agreement about an opinion or about something that will happen or be done.
1) to agree to do or allow something 2) to give permission for something to happen or be done.
This definition, taken from Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, explains consent in the simplest terms. However, sexual consent is multifaceted. In fact, when talking about true sexual consent, there are five things to consider.
Are both partners of relatively equal power? In a healthy relationship, one partner cannot have more authority over the other. If one partner is the teacher, boss, therapist, etc. over the other, there is already a power differential, and there may even be laws preventing a sexual relationship. Because of this inequality, there may be fear of losing a job, getting a poor grade, or experiencing another consequence if the person of lesser power doesn’t agree to sex. This is not true consent.
But what if one partner is significantly older than the other, or if one partner makes significantly more money than the other? Here are a few things to think about when answering that question. If one person is a lot older than his/her partner, there may be laws dictating whether a sexual relationship is legal. In Iowa, for example, someone 14 or 15 can legally consent to sex, but not with someone 4 or more years older than them. In an adult relationship, when someone is much older than his/her partner or makes significantly more money, it is important to look at whether decisions in the relationship are made together or if one person uses his/her age, money, or gender overrule the other and make decisions. Taking a close look at this and other ways power can be used to control relationships is important in determining if there is equality.
Do both partners agree to the same thing? Communication is a vital part of obtaining consent. Both partners need to be on the same page for there to be true consent. The best way to ensure this is to talk with your partner and to check in often. “Does this feel good?” “Should I keep going?” “Where do you want to be touched?” These are all great questions to ask when acquiring consent. Remember, silence does not equal consent, and it is the responsibility of the initiator to make sure consent is obtained every time.
Do both partners fully understand the consequences? This can be a tricky part of navigating consent. Both partners need to fully comprehend the potential consequences of what they are agreeing to do. This includes but is not limited to both positive and negative consequences such as sexual transmitted infections, pregnancy, rumors, feelings about themselves or their partner after the experience, etc. Each state has laws about when someone is old enough to understand these consequences and is therefore able to legally give consent. Find out the age of consent for your state by visiting Sex, Etc.
Are both partners uninhibited by drugs, alcohol, or developmental differences? A person is not capable of giving consent when they are incapacitated by drugs, prescribed or otherwise, or alcohol. Similarly, a person is not able to give consent if he/she has a mental disorder that precludes him/her from fully understanding the consequences. To learn the specifics of each state’s laws, visit rainn.org.
Now you may be thinking, “What if both partners are drunk?” Being drunk is not a defense for breaking the law. If someone is intoxicated and gets behind the wheel of a car, he/she is still held responsible for what happens. In the same way, if someone is mildly intoxicated and initiates sex with someone who is incapacitated, they do not have true consent and could be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Do both partners fully believe that any change in mind will also be fully respected? True consent can’t be achieved without both partners trusting that either could change their mind at any time, retract their consent, and know that their partner would honor and respect that decision. This goes back to communication, agreeing to the same thing, and equality in the relationship. Remember to check in with your partner as things progress AND continue to give honest feedback to each other. If you are getting mixed signals, ask about it. “I’m getting mixed signals. What do you want to do?” “Do you want me to stop?” These are valid questions that support true consent and can lead to stronger, healthier relationship.
These five factors are required for true consent
While it may seem like a lot, when true consent is achieved, it is all worth it and it is extremely sexy. Until recently, I used to believe the phrase “Consent is Sexy” was inaccurate because it made consent seem optional. I thought that consent had to be obtained and was mandatory, not sexy, and in some respects, that is true. When someone initiates sex with another, he/she is responsible for getting consent every time, regardless of the circumstances. However, the great thing about true consent is that it involves partner communication, respect, equality, choice, and honesty. When all of these qualities are met, consent is truly empowering, fun, and yes, sexy.