Oh boy. Consent is one of those topics that can be a bit daunting to get into. Consent is both very simple and very complicated. So what’s a quick and dirty trick for wrapping your head around consent? Just remember this: nobody owes you access to their body, and you don’t owe that access to anyone either. Let me go into detail.
Consent comes into play long before sex is even part of the equation. Consent is required in all of your interactions with, well, anything alive. Consider this: you have a family cat who loves to be pet on the chin, but hates belly scratches. You’re petting her one day on the chin, and she’s purring happily. But then you start to scratch her stomach. She shifts away from you, makes a displeased rumbly cat sound, and lies on her stomach so that you can’t reach it. Then, your cat decides that she doesn’t want to be touched by you at all anymore, and she takes off. At this point (I hope), you leave the cat alone. Consent played into your interaction with your cat here: you were petting her on the chin, and she showed her consent by purring happily. You moved your hand down to her stomach, and she withdrew her consent by shifting away from you, covering her stomach, and making that unhappy rumble sound. Then she left you, withdrawing her consent to be touched entirely, and you respected that she didn’t want you touching her anymore.
The key to understanding your cat’s consent in this situation is to recognize that your cat is a being entirely separate from you: her wants and needs don’t correspond to yours. The same applies to humans. If you’re visiting your young nephew for the weekend, and you go to give him a kiss but he shields his face with his hands, that’s a pretty good indicator that the kid doesn’t want to be kissed. Again, it’s necessary here to understand that your nephew is an autonomous being who can choose for himself when and by whom he is touched.
It should be obvious at this point that empathy is a requirement for understanding consent. Consent is a necessary part of all of your daily interactions with other people and animals, and if you fail to recognize when someone has expressed verbally or nonverbally that they don’t want to participate in a certain activity or interaction, then you’ve violated their consent. You know the old saying, “Treat others how you want to be treated?” We have a nasty tendency to misunderstand it. It doesn’t mean, “Treat everyone else exactly how you want to be treated,” because everyone’s needs and wants are different from your own. Instead, it means that you should take the time to try and find out what the other person wants, and then treat them accordingly—that’s understanding consent.
Planned Parenthood uses a very simple acronym to outline five of the most important components of consent: FRIES. Consent is 1. Freely given, 2. Reversible, 3. Informed, 4. Enthusiastic, and 5. Specific. Let’s bring this back to the cat example. Your cat gave and withdrew her consent freely. You didn’t threaten, coerce, or manipulate her into allowing you to touch her (it’s hard to coerce a cat), and she clearly understood that she could leave you without risking the loss of her home or her access to food and safety. Secondly, your cat withdrew her consent once you began petting her on the stomach instead of on the chin. This means that, although she initially consented to being pet on the chin, she reversed that consent once you tried to touch her stomach. When she got up and left you, she withdrew her consent to be touched by you entirely. We’ll leave the third component for the moment, because it’s tricky to discuss informed consent using a cat as an example. Fourth, when your cat was purring happily while you scratched her chin, she was demonstrating her consent enthusiastically. Mere tolerance doesn’t equal consent—consent needs to be demonstrated with enthusiastic agreement, like a “yes,” a nod, or some other affirmative gesture or sound, not with a resigned sigh. Lastly, your cat’s consent was specific: you could touch her on the chin, but you could not touch her on her belly.
Now, let’s bring sex into the discussion. Consent doesn’t just factor into the decision to have sex once, it comes in again and again. Sometimes, consent takes an explicitly verbal form: “Do you want to have sex with me?” “Yes!” “Sweet.” But often, it’s not that explicit. This is where your empathy comes in. Try carefully to observe your partner’s behaviour and their body language. Check in regularly. Many couples practice this without even realizing it: every time you ask your partner if a specific sex act is okay, if a specific sex act feels good, or if they want a specific sex act, you are providing them with the opportunity to either give or withdraw their consent.
Just remember FRIES. Your partner’s consent must be given freely, without any pressure. Someone cannot give consent if they are pressured, coerced, manipulated, threatened, or if they are in an altered mental state. Their consent must be reversible, meaning that if they change their mind even after you’ve started to have sex, you need to respect their decision and stop. This also means that your partner can refuse to perform an act that they’ve performed in the past. Your partner’s consent must be informed—if you’ve lied to them about who you are or about what sexual acts you intend to perform, their consent has been violated. Your partner’s consent must be enthusiastic. “No” isn’t the only thing that means “no”—silence means “no,” uncertainty means “no,” nervous body language means “no.” And the only thing that means “yes” is an enthusiast, freely given “yes.” That “yes” can be verbal or non verbal, and it can take different forms, but it must always be enthusiastic and affirmative. Lastly, your partner’s consent must be specific. Your partner can agree to one act but not to another. Consent is required for every act, every time.
Here’s a list of things that don’t equal consent:
- If you’re in long-term relationship or marriage with the person—even if you’ve been sleeping with someone for the past ten years, you both still have the right to withdraw consent. Simply being in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean that they automatically give their consent.
- If you’ve had sex with the person before—consent needs to be renegotiated every single time.
- If the person is drunk or high—if your partner is in an altered mental state, they aren’t in a position to make decisions that impact their own health or safety.
- If the person is asleep or unconscious—unconscious people cannot make the decision to have sex.
- If the person is wearing revealing clothing—a person’s clothes have absolutely nothing to do with their decision to have sex.
- If the person accepted a drink from you—you could buy the person a damn mansion and they still wouldn’t owe you sex.
- If a person said yes at first, but then changed their mind—maybe they were into it at first, but now they’re not. It’s your responsibility to respect that.
- If a person said yes because you lied about something—if you lie about who you are, about your relationship status, about whether or not you’re wearing a condom or are on birth control, or about anything else that might impact a person’s decision to have sex with you, then it’s not consent.
- If the person is a minor—do I need to explain this one? Don’t have sex with minors!
- If you’re in a position of power—if someone’s career, education, immigration status, freedom, safety, etc. is dependent upon you, they cannot give you consent.
Consent doesn’t have to be complicated. Just remember to be empathetic and respectful, and to pay attention to the other person’s needs. Your sexual gratification should never, ever come before another person’s wants, needs, or safety.
References: plannedparenthood, “Understanding consent is as easy as FRIES…” Planned Parenthood, n.d., http://plannedparenthood.tumblr.com/post/148506806862/understanding-consent-is-as-easy-as-fries-consent; Weiss, Suzannah, “7 Things You Might Think Are Consent That Aren’t,” Bustle.com, Bustle, 2 Nov. 2015, https://www.bustle.com/articles/120588-7-things-you-might-think-are-consent-that-arent.