In late-July — in 2017 — Slate correspondent Will Saletan sent out a tweet that threw half the internet into a rage spiral. Responding to Maxine Waters' explanation of what consent actually sounds like, Saletan suggested that parents teach their daughters "to say 'no' firmly and mean it." The main issue with his message (of which there are many) is that it suggests a woman's tone of voice could be to blame if she were to be sexually assaulted. But it also brings up the fact that we're still arguing about what consent looks and sounds like.
It should come as no surprise that we're feeling the need to shift away from the traditional consent teachings of "no means no." It should be obvious that any kind of no is a no, so the nuance that's more important is any that's clouding around a "yes." Enter, enthusiastic consent: The only kind of consent you should accept when it comes to sex.
"Enthusiastic consent would mean that someone was excited about the sexual activity they are engaged in," says Terri Poore, policy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. "They're sober enough to make a decision; they're able to indicate that they're interested in sexual activity, and they aren't feeling coerced." It's basically attempting to invert the "no means no" idea into "yes means yes," which shifts the paradigm to one that requires communication between partners — and an affirmation of any sex act to come.
It's eliminating the idea of a "passive yes" (which includes things like someone removing their clothes) and is replacing it with outright declarations that someone is enjoying a sexual experience, before it continues.
Poore says the idea of enthusiastic consent can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around, because of the different ways in which women and men are socialized. "Women have been historically socialized to not proactively communicate interest and willingness for sex," she says. But men can also fall victim to their socialization. "Men aren't taught that they're allowed to say, 'I don't want to go further than this,' which makes them susceptible to sexual violence as well," Poore adds.
So how can you ensure that both you and your partner are engaging in enthusiastic consent? Poore suggests changing when you have conversations about sex. "So many people ask after the fact, 'Did you like that?'" she says. "Instead, we should be having these conversations before or even during sexual intercourse." Before you sleep with someone, talk about what you like in bed and what is an absolute boundary for you. "It doesn't have to be completely clinical or sanitary," Poore says. In fact, talking about what you want in bed can be a major turn on, which can lead seamlessly into some sexy foreplay.
It's important to check in during sex, too — especially if you're moving into a more intense position. "Asking, 'Is this okay?' or, 'Does this feel good?' are easy ways to check how your partner is doing during sex," Poore says. She also points out that it's important to keep an eye on your partner's body language. "If they suddenly tense up, or you sense a bit of fear or discomfort in their eyes, it's always better to check in than to keep going."
And just because you've consented once doesn't mean you've consented forever. "People are allowed to change their minds — be it in the middle of sex or two months down the road," Poore says. The most important thing to remember about enthusiastic consent is that it's all about communication. "It takes leadership and respect, but that doesn't mean there can't be an erotic element to consent," she says.
It's important to know that your partner is just as interested and willing when it comes to sex as you are. After all, what could be sexier than hooking up with someone who is clearly excited about getting to hook up with you?