SEX & RELATIONSHIPS | 4 minutes

How to navigate consent without spoiling the moment

By Emily Reynolds

- Enthusiastic consent is not a ‘mood killer’, it’s what all sexual experiences should start with

- “Consent is an ongoing conversation between those involved, which can change at any point”

One of the best things about sex? How varied, dynamic and personal it can be. People’s personalities, their likes, their dislikes, their experiences, their techniques — they all differ, meaning no sexual experience is the same.

But there’s one thing that’s essential, no matter what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with: consent. It’s a vital part of any healthy, safe and mutually respectful sexual relationship. You can have sex however you want with as few or as many gadgets and gizmos as you like, but consent is the one thing that’s required every single time.

But as the topic has become more and more discussed in the wake of #MeToo, many have felt — despite wanting to do the right and decent thing — confused about how to navigate it. Here’s what you need to know.

Understand what consent actually is

Consent is a widely used word — but do we actually know what it is?

“In very simple terms, consent is the mutual agreement and permission to do something and continue,” says Kate Moyle, a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist. “It’s an ongoing conversation between those involved, which can change at any point.”

She also points to the concept of enthusiastic consent, which she believes “all sexual experiences should start with.” This means you should make sure the person you’re sleeping with really wants to be there — after all, the absence of ‘no’ does not equal consent. You can pick this up through body language, as well as through old-fashioned verbal communication.

Enthusiastic is the key word here. If someone says “maybe later” or “I’m not sure” or otherwise doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves, stop.

Some sex education organisations also use the FRIES approach to explain consent, which argues that it has to be Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. You can read more about the model here in a post by US non-profit organisation Planned Parenthood.

The fact that it’s reversible is key — someone can withdraw consent at any time, no matter what they’ve previously agreed to.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Any healthy sexual relationship starts with communication, says Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at relationship charity Relate.

“It’s important — particularly at the start of a relationship but really at any stage — to make sure you’re on the same page,” she says. This isn’t just about sexual communication, either — it’s about a wider ability to be “healthy, respectful and caring” to one another.

It might seem awkward to talk to a new partner about these things but Major believes it’s key. “It really is the most sensible thing to do,” she says. “That way, you’re both establishing a basis from which people can easily change their mind.”

It’s best to have these conversations in “the cold light of day,” no matter how awkward it seems. “You might think, ‘Let’s wait until we’ve had a great night out and we want to take things further.’ Whilst that might work for some people, it creates the opportunity for confusion. Being upfront, clear and honest is usually the best way to determine what you’re both up for.”

Jamie, 28, agrees. “I used to be of the school of thought that consent wasn’t actually something you had to talk about explicitly — that you could tell when someone was into it and when they weren’t,” he explains. But when he met his girlfriend, she insisted they have a frank conversation before they slept together.

“She basically explained to me that there had been loads of instances where she’d not said anything and gone along with something despite not really wanting to,” he says. “It sounded horrible. She was really insistent that we were clear about what we did and didn’t want to do before anything happened. It completely changed the way I think about consent.”

Not sure how to do this? Directly asking what is and isn’t okay, explicitly agreeing or disagreeing to certain activities or asking, “Do you want to carry on?” when the type of sexual contact changes are all good practice.

Realise consent is a process, not a question

Consent is never just about a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, nor is it a question that you ask or answer only once.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons why someone might consent to a particular sexual act on one occasion but not another. There are also plenty of reasons why they might not want to have sex at all.

“We are currently changing the understanding of consent as being a fixed ‘yes’ that happens at the start of a relationship, to understanding that it can change and be communicated at any point,” says Moyle. “That means that someone could start by saying yes, but change their mind. Consent can be withdrawn.”

Regularly checking in with your partner and asking them directly what they do and don’t want to do is vital — and can make your sex life better while you’re at it. Communicating about sex — whether that’s a discussion about particular likes and dislikes or a navigation of what is and isn’t acceptable — can lead to more creative sex and a better understanding of what your partner likes.

“Honestly, I think it makes our sex life better,” Jamie says. “That’s not the point of these kinds of conversations, obviously — but it does. We’re much more likely to tell each other what we want or anything we fancy trying because we have that base level of communication about sex. The most important thing is that we both feel comfortable, but it does have other benefits too.”

Never assume

As Moyle points out, consent is an “ongoing conversation... which can change at any point.” Just because someone has consented to something in the past, doesn’t mean they want to do it now. Their judgement may be clouded by drugs or alcohol; acts you and an ex felt were a normal part of your sexual life may not be part of a new partner’s sexual repertoire.

They may simply not want to have sex — and they’re in no way obligated to justify that choice. ‘No’ does not mean ‘convince me’.

“It’s about understanding, being clear and accepting that just because you want to be sexual, it doesn’t mean your partner does,” Major says.

This advice also works if someone is drunk or under the influence of drugs.

“When in doubt, act cautiously and don’t assume,” Major says.

The bottom line

Worrying about whether a discussion of consent will ‘ruin the moment’ is besides the point. It’s essential to make sure that both you and your partner feel safe and are comfortable with what’s happening.

And instead of thinking of consent as something to be asked for or given, it’s best to look at it as an ongoing process that helps make up a healthy sexual relationship. Communication is part of what makes a relationship safe, happy, healthy and fun — and whether you’re telling your partner how you’re feeling or asking them what they’re comfortable with, that’s equally true.

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