Consent Is the Communication You Need Before Having Sex

Public speaking — the art of thinking, and expressing yourself clearly — can help you everywhere, from the board room to the bedroom!

And that’s a good thing because, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ve probably noticed that sexual desire makes all of us stupid.

Add to that the usual difficulties that people have communicating clearly, and you’ve got an opportunity for misunderstandings, misbehaviors, misdemeanors, or worse. (And that’s not even getting into the problem of bad people acting badly. I’m talking about the mess that well-meaning people can create when sexual attraction is involved.)

What’s the solution for this problem? It’s called consent — the idea that before anything sexual occurs, the concerned parties should be very clear that everyone has agreed to participate.

But even consent, as many have found to their sorrow, can be a tricky concept: If you don’t say “no,” is that consent? If you say yes, but then change your mind, have you consented? Are there situations in which consent can’t be given?

With the holidays (read: booze!) coming up, these are more than abstract questions. So here, as a public service, are some thoughts about consent and communication.

Consent is a Moving Target

According to Planned Parenthood, consent is:

  • Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
  • Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
  • Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
  • Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).

There’s No Substitute for Saying You Agree!

Planned Parenthood’s advice goes on to specify:

You get the final say over what happens with your body. It doesn’t matter if you’ve hooked up before or even if you said yes earlier and then changed your mind. You’re allowed to say ‘stop’ at any time, and your partner needs to respect that.

Consent is never implied by things like your past behavior, what you wear, or where you go. Sexual consent is always clearly communicated — there should be no question or mystery. Silence is not consent. And it’s not just important the first time you’re with someone. Couples who’ve had sex before or even ones who’ve been together for a long time also need to consent before sex — every time.”

Are There Times When Consent Isn’t Possible?

There are some situations in which consent just can’t happen. These include situations in which one or both people are:

  • Drunk, using heavy drugs, or otherwise impaired
  • Unconscious or asleep (come on, shouldn’t this one be a no-brainer!???)
  • Under the legal “age of consent” (which is different state by state, so check!)

What Are Your Choices When You’re Asked to Consent?

In movies and romance novels, couples are often shown as being equally, completely enthralled with each other.

That’s good entertainment; but in real life, things are usually more lopsided. Often, one person is lobbying for an encounter while the other is still trying to suss out how they feel.

If someone is asking for your consent, it helps to know that you have three clear options:

1. “Yes, I would like to do that.” (If you’re not sure, or have any doubt that the other person understands the reversible nature of consent, spell it out. Say, “I think I’d like to try what you’re suggesting, but I reserve the right to change my mind or stop at any time. Do you agree to that?”)

2. “Sorry, I’m not interested” (or, if you want, “Thanks, but I”m not interested.”) Just be aware that any hard pushback at this point is a big red flag. It can be hard for women to hold onto ‘no’ when a man lays the guilt (or name-calling) on thick. But think of it this way: If you tentatively offer to sell someone your car, and then change your mind, do they have a right to come back screaming about how you’re a tease and you owe it to them to go through with the sale??!)

3. “I’m not interested in what you’re suggesting, but how about if we do this other thing instead?” This is called a counter-offer, and it’s a great move when you’re interested in the person but not the proposed activity.

What’s Your Status? (And Tell the Truth!)

Having AIDS or an STD is no shame, but it also shouldn’t be a secret.

If you’re thinking of asking someone for consent, you need to disclose your health status, whether or not you’re using birth control, and what safer sex practices you require.

Without this information, the other person can’t give truly informed consent, and you’re cruising for a serious problem when it comes out that you misled them by staying silent about something important.

Doesn’t All this Consent Stuff Take the Fun Out of Sex?


It’s actually more fun to have sex that you know won’t end in an ugly tangle.

And consent conversations don’t have to be a drag. They can be light, even flirty (as in this parody of the 1944 Frank Loesser song “Baby It’s Cold Outside”), as long as the bottom line is clear:

As with all good communication, the trick is to be clear, be concise, be honest, and most importantly, listen to the other person and ask them to clarify if you don’t understand.

For a very small effort, you can reap a very big gain — and save yourself a world of hurt in the process.

So Happy Holidays!

And make them even happier with consent!

Image by Tanja Heffner | Unsplash
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