I don’t know about you, but I’m mentally exhausted by the multitude of sexual assault stories surfacing over the last few months—as we should be. Some of the stories shared through the #MeToo movement have triggered a range of emotions and questions; some may have come off as “gray areas.” How do we actually know when we’re giving or given consent?
So glad you asked. Sexual consent is when both parties agree to have sex—throughout the encounter. Let’s start with the basics—we’ll call it “Consent 101”—and then explore some less orthodox situations:
Do I Really Need to Hear a “Yes”?
Well, yeah. You do. Hearing “yes” from your partner is—and should be—sexy as fuck. Speaking personally, nothing turns me on more than a partner who respects my wishes and wants to know my needs. When the chemistry is there, then ask questions like, “Is it OK to touch ___?” or “Do you mind if I ___?” Some people might consider this a mood killer, but guess what? Jail time and being heavily judged by your peers as a rapist are definite libido killers.
If You’re Not Sure, Question It—and Actually Get a Confirmation
They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes, either. Again: You NEED confirmation from your partner. To assume is making an ass out of you and me; so take away the doubt and question it. And don’t stop there—actually get a solid answer. Most times, body language can tell you a lot, even without words. If your partner is getting tense, ask again.
Consent Isn’t Only Given by a Woman
Allow me to burst a few bubbles: Consent isn’t something that’s gender-specific. If you think women are exempt from being sexual predators, think again. And if you think men are excluded from being victims, you’re delusional.
Here are some alarming statistics: According to the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Assault, 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes—and 1 in 4 of those victims are under the age of 12. These statistics are not mentioned to make women feel that their issues don’t matter, but we need to acknowledge that men can be affected by sexual trauma, too. And we definitely cannot exclude the transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming populace from the conversation—a 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (pdf) found that 47 percent of transgender people are assaulted in their lifetimes.
Being the Same Sex Doesn’t Give You a Hall Pass
From personal experience, I’ve lost count of how many women I’ve had to check for attempting to disrespect my personal space. As a bisexual woman who owns her sexuality, I’ve found that some people fetishize my sexual orientation.
One night, while barhopping with friends, a plus-one from our outing put her hand on my breasts. Startled, I jumped back and immediately questioned her motives. Despite expressing how her repulsive actions made me feel, she instantly dismissed my feelings, suggesting that I “get over it.” She even pointed to my vagina, to imply that we have the same body parts. It ruined my night, and thankfully, others no longer felt comfortable bringing her to future functions. Violation of anyone’s personal space, same sex or not, is wrong—on a moral and legal level.
Consent for One Thing Doesn’t Mean Everything Is Covered
Just because I agreed to one sexual act doesn’t mean I consent to do other things. Also, what’s comfortable today may not serve as a kink tomorrow. Frankly, we can be in bed together in the buff, and it doesn’t warrant that we proceed any further than cuddling. If you can’t handle that, state your boundaries up front, too.
And While We’re at It, I Can Stop at Any Time
Hold tight to your barf bag, boys and girls, because there are plenty of people who believe that if you start, both parties are obligated to finish the act. I don’t care if you are five minutes away from climaxing; when I say stop, it means STOP. And it doesn’t make me a prude or selfish; no simply means no. If there’s even a possibility that your partner may want to slow down or is having second thoughts, with or without explanations, respect their wishes.
But in the BDSM World, No May Mean Yes
Despite the stereotypes, BDSM is a lot more than just whips and chains. It is heavily dependent on trust in your partner. For those unfamiliar with the abbreviation, it’s broken down into bondage, discipline/dominance, submission/sadism and masochism. As a “switch,” I learned quickly about the importance of safe words when engaging in sexual activities with partners. Prior to the act, you should truly know your partner’s desires and dislikes.
Most important, establish safe words and touches and understand their body language. Without this discussion, things can go terribly wrong fairly quickly. Because words such as “no” and “stop” can be viewed as “yes” in the submissive and domination community, these terms are typically avoided as cues to stop during the act. Words like “red,” “yellow” and “green”—reminiscent of traffic lights—are great word selections. Know the difference between BDSM play and assault.
Just a Thought: Avoid Vulnerable Partners
As an FYI, a heavily inebriated or exceptionally high partner cannot reliably give you consent. If your partner isn’t coherent and you perform sexual acts with this person, this can later be considered equivalent to rape. Alcohol and drugs can impair someone’s judgment severely. If the connection is truly there, ask and wait for validation when the other person is sober.
If They’re Not of Legal Age, Guess What?
Do I have to mention that minors also aren’t legally allowed to consent to sexual relations with an adult? On that note: Parents should consider having conversations with teens before they enter junior high school. On average, Americans lose their virginity at 17 years old, but they are experimenting far earlier, so it’s worth gradually sparking conversations about sex, protection and consent.
Parents: Don’t view it as giving your children permission to lose their virginity, but more about their safety. Sexual education in school is on the decline, and caretakers should feel comfortable taking the responsibility to answer questions that their children may or may not have considered.
Rape and Sexual Harassment Are NOT Your Fault
Above all, know that you didn’t ask for it. Rape and sexual harassment are not your fault. If you were raped or are uncertain whether you were sexually assaulted, please don’t hesitate to seek assistance from organizations like RAINN, which will connect you to support groups or a talk therapist. Reach out to local authorities if you ever feel unsafe from a sexual predator. Know that you’re not alone and that there are a host of places willing to help you through your trauma. We’re in this together.