What Sexual Consent Actually Looks Like

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
One evening a few years ago, I was walking down a sidewalk when I was attacked by a young man riding a bike. He came up behind me and hit my butt so hard that I fell forward and hit the ground face-first. My heart races recalling that night — just as my heart raced more recently, when the guy I was dating came up behind me and slapped my ass. It startled me and I let him know. “Please don’t ever touch me like that again,” I told him.

“Why not?” His amused expression changed to one of frustration. “Your butt just looked so nice that I felt like hitting it."

I stared hard at him. He had never said something that made me feel as objectified as I did in that very moment. I wanted to make it very clear that without my consent, his ass-slapping was not okay — and never would be. I tried to remain calm as I explained that I didn't mind getting spanked on occasion. As long as I knew it was coming, it was often an enjoyable part of sex. But we weren't having sex and he hadn’t gotten the go-ahead. “I don’t see why I can’t just hit your butt when I want to,” he protested. “We’re dating!”

The next day, he was sincerely apologetic, but his failure to see my point of view was the beginning of the end of our relationship. We stopped dating shortly after that.

Before my body is touched, I must give permission, no matter the context. Every person deserves that autonomy. Consent is not an assumption or a “maybe,” it’s an enthusiastic “yes.” It’s explicit permission to do something. Some people believe that there is such a thing as “implied” consent, or consent inferred from someone’s actions, but in my opinion, “implied” consent is simply a euphemism for a lack of it.

Confusion around consent lingers. When I taught classes as a sex educator at Babeland, the subject of consent was a mystery to many who hadn’t been given vocabulary or education around either sex or consent. And I’ve slipped up, too: A few years ago, I had my own sour experience when I didn't specifically seek verbal consent and instead took a guy’s physical response — his erection — as a sign that it was okay for me to make a move.

People’s boundaries shift and change over time, which is why it’s so crucial to not assume that just because one thing was agreed upon at one point, it’s okay all the time.

Granted, this guy and I were naked and making out, but when I reached for his hard cock and he recoiled, telling me he wasn’t ready to be touched, I realized I'd taken his erection as implied consent — and that it wasn't okay.

I think he knew I wasn’t acting maliciously, but that faux pas was an indicator that we needed to slow down. Was my crotch-grabbing “harmless” because I was a woman initiating sex with a man, or was I guilty of something serious? I believe that regardless of our genders, if the two of us had talked about boundaries before we entered the bedroom, we wouldn't have found ourselves in that awkward situation. Instead, we had both been drinking and tried to assume what the other person wanted and intended when we could have simply told each other what we wanted with actual words.

Does this mean that every time I want to do something sexual with my partner, I need to ask for consent — no matter how many times we’ve done it before — you might ask. According to the definition of consent, that's exactly what it means. I do believe, however, that once you have an established connection with someone, there is a bit of wiggle room and the flow of communication doesn’t need to be so formulaic. At the same time, checking in about sexual needs and wants, even if you’ve been with the same person for years, shows respect for that person and the desire to fully understand him or her. Every partnership is different and setting your own relationship rules is fine, as long as you understand that the rules may change at any time.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What’s more, consent doesn’t need to be some robotic, verbal contract. A lot of people get tripped up thinking about consent as following a strict format (“Am I allowed to do X?” “Yes.” “Am I allowed to do Y?” “No.”) when it can be a fluid, ongoing conversation between all parties (although that yes-or-no format is a perfectly legitimate way of communicating consent). Consent and dirty talk, for example, are not mutually exclusive.

In reality, an enthusiastic “yes” can be expressed many different ways (and expressing yourself is so much sexier than expecting someone to read your mind). For instance, instead of asking “Do I have your consent to perform cunnilingus?,” saying “I really want to taste you” communicates that same desire and creates a space for dialogue.

Consent is a two-way street. My ex-boyfriend non-consensually smacked my ass, which he shouldn’t have done in the first place, but the real red flag was his continued neglect of my boundaries once I'd made them clear. Now, when I have a long-term partner, I make sure to set my boundaries right away: “Hey, any time you want to fuck me, I’m down with that,” I say. “If I’m ever not in the mood, I’ll make sure I make it very clear.”

You may withdraw consent or qualify it at any time; for instance, saying something like, “You can kiss me whenever you want to when it’s just us, but if we’re around my work friends, please don’t,” expresses consent to one action (kissing) but within limits (not when with coworkers).

People’s boundaries shift and change over time, which is why it’s so crucial to not assume that just because one thing was agreed upon at one point, it’s okay all the time. Maybe that means creating a “yes, no, maybe” list of what's okay and when; perhaps you agree to revisit the topic every month.

However you go about it, realize that performing a sex act without consent is sexual assault. Consent isn’t just about asking yes/no questions. It’s about respecting your partner’s wants and needs and expecting the same back — and nothing is sexier than that.

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