What is the meaning of sexual consent: how to give and ask for consent
What is consent?
Wilrieke: “Right off the bat, this is an interesting question. I see it as a mutual agreement with fully informed consent on what’s about to happen. What I mean by that is that all parties involved are fully aware of what’s about to happen and they consent to said thing happening. A good example is, you’re on a date and your date partner wants to kiss you, but they don’t tell you about any other relationships they have at the moment. You might kiss that person on the date, whereas, if you knew they were having other relationships, you might’ve withheld your consent in kissing that person. It’s, therefore, also important to check whether there are other parties involved who would have boundaries for what you’re about to do.
Why is consent so important?
Wilrieke: ‘Consent is absolutely vital in my experience. It’s our autonomy, confidence, and integrity. Can I be the boss of my own life, or are there other people who’ll decide for me what I do and don’t want? Can someone else make that decision for me? It’s important to learn how to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected as a child. If you don’t already learn how to do this from a young age, it can create problems later in life. This is my personal experience as well, growing up in an environment where personal boundaries weren’t always accepted and/or respected. Even now, as an adult, I still struggle with this sometimes. This is about more than just sexuality, it’s about life really: knowing what kind of job you want, how to react if your boss asks you to work overtime, the type of relationships you have. Listening and having a conversation is so much more important than simply stating your own needs, or the other way around, simply following someone else’s needs.’
How do you discover your own boundaries (and not just after the fact)?
Wilrieke: ‘This is the question I pay most attention to in my workshops. How do you know what you want and not want? In school, we don’t really learn anything beyond how to not get pregnant and sick from sex. But at a surface level, the interaction between two people, we learn next to nothing. But how do we learn about this then? Especially in a society where we are quickly taught that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and you still have to ‘kiss that one aunt goodbye, even though it makes you feel uncomfortable’. Boundaries are often ignored and as a result we find it difficult to feel our boundaries. As we grow older, it gets harder and harder to connect with our own body and we are mostly stuck in our heads. But your body actually tells you what it wants and doesn't want, sometimes quite clearly as well. Fortunately, we can learn to read the signs our body gives us. There are several exercises you can do but this is a nice and easy one on how to listen to that inner voice.
Many people grew up without having their boundaries respected. As we get older, we’re stuck in our heads and act like we are ‘supposed to act’. That voice is not your ‘inner voice’ which communicates your feelings. To get more in touch with your own feelings, you should listen to your body more. But how do you go about doing that? You can do an easy exercise to practise this.
When do you ask for consent?
Wilrieke: ‘I would like to give people some homework to work on: don’t assume. Many people find certain ways to have sex completely normal, as a result, they’ll continue until they hear a ‘no’. But what you need to realize is that a lot of people ‘freeze up’ and can’t say no. This is my tip: just have that conversation and simply ask beforehand. You’ll feel safe if you exactly know what’s going to happen and you’ll see how good it feels to know the boundaries of your partner as well. The experiences you share this way are more intense and sensual. It’s so much easier to relent when there’s trust.’
How do you ask consent?
Wilrieke: 'It is important to never assume. No matter how good you are at ‘reading’ someone, you can always make mistakes. And the chances you’ll truly damage someone are big. That what you ‘read’ in someone else’s body language or eyes, might be a trauma response (think of freezing up) or a pattern of ‘people pleasing’. You can ask consent in many different ways and it doesn’t have to be or feel awkward at all. It’s because we don’t frequently do this, that many people feel this way. You can make asking consent sexy, or part of the play. There’s so much experimenting you can do.’
How do you ask consent without it becoming ‘interview’-like and without taking away from the ambiance?
Wilrieke: ‘I often hear that people are afraid of ‘ruining the mood’ and making things awkward. But asking for consent can be really sexy as well. Asking questions such as ‘can I touch your ass’ or ‘can I run up my hand underneath your shirt’ are not awkward at all and can even feel arousing. You could also ask more broad questions, such as ‘can I touch you wherever I see skin tonight?’ This way you can prevent this ‘interview’-like feeling.
'To give and ask for consent is defining the playground'
Consent can also come in the form of a statement, to which the other person can react. It’s important to remember that this is only a possibility if you know that your partner also has the room/ability to decline should they want to. You can opt to do this in the form of a game. Like Betty Martin’s ‘Three-Minute Game’ as part of the ‘Wheel of Consent’.'
How do you deal with a ‘no’ without it getting uncomfortable?
Wilrieke: ‘Rejection is seen as something negative in our current society, whereas I see rejection as a badge of courage. My tip: Thank the person rejecting your offer. They are able to set and adhere to their own boundaries and they trust you to respect them. Rejection is not fun, but it also gives you the opportunity to look for someone who would like to do things with you the way you want to. And repetition works here as well, the more often you’ll hear ‘no’, the less you’ll view it as a flat out rejection.'
What is non-consensual?
Wilrieke: ‘As soon as there are ‘mind-altering-substances’ at play, such as drugs and alcohol, consent is automatically withdrawn. This is also true if you have a so-called ‘sex brain’, your boundaries blur and it’s more difficult to think clearly. A good example is skipping the use of a condom in the heat of the moment, whereas you would normally never have intercourse without one. In that state of arousal it’s more difficult to state your boundaries, so my advice is to have this conversation before your underwear comes off. Especially if you are sharing the bed with a new partner. But ‘freezing up’, or the opposite, experiencing heavy emotional reactions, also retract consent. Another example where I’m critical in deciding if proper consent is given, is between various types of power dynamics in relationships. Think of boss-employee or teacher-student dynamics, but also of other skewed power dynamics caused by money, status, or age etc. Should the power dynamics be uneven, but feelings of sexual attraction or love still develop, it’s important to pay extra mind to the relationship staying integrer. ‘Love makes blind’ so asking advice from people dear to you, is not a bad idea.’
Any final tips?
Wilrieke: 'There are a lot of tips, but most importantly remember that ‘no means no’ and your ‘no’ counts just as much as the ‘no’ of your partner. And if it concerns your body, your voice counts the most and the last say in the matter is yours.’
Wilrieke Sophia is an intimacy educator and provides workshops in the areas of informed, inclusive consent through her own platform www.exploringdeeper.com. She has also given a Ted Talk on the subject which you can view here.