Understanding Consent: A Guide to Not Raping People

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August 24, 2012 by WAR

by Spencer Wharton

[trigger warning: rape, rape culture]

This should be the single most basic piece of sex education ever. By the time we graduate high school, this should be such an ingrained part of our morality that there’s never even a question about it. But unfortunately, it’s not, so I have to reiterate:

You never do something to a person’s body without their affirmative consent.

We think of rape as strangers hiding in the bushes or the shadows in dark alleyways, but that’s not the prevailing nature of the crime. Seventy-three percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, 38 percent of rapists are friends or acquaintances, and 28 percent of rapists are people intimate with the victim. This means rape primarily occurs in familiar settings, with familiar people. The victims are often women, although the Department of Justice reports that 30.8 percent of rapes reported in the U.S. were committed against men. What’s more, as Thomas McAulay Millar’s excellent analysis of the data shows, rapists are typically men who target their victims and take advantage of their intoxicated state to coerce them into sex. These men choose victims who they know well enough to know they won’t be outed. And they don’t think of themselves as rapists: as long as you don’t use the R-word, they’ll admit to having sex with people who didn’t want it, who were too intoxicated to resist, and by means of force and threats.

When rape is this prevalent in our society, it indicates there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how consent works.

You have no entitlement to anyone else’s body. You aren’t entitled to hug someone without their consent, and you sure as hell aren’t entitled to have sex with them without it. If you’re going to be physically interacting with someone else, everyone involved should be damn sure that they have consent for everything they’re doing.

Consent isn’t just the lack of a “no,” either. There are many reasons why saying “no” in a sexual situation could be difficult. Maybe that person is intoxicated and unsure what’s going on. Maybe they feel pressured to engage in the sexual activity and don’t want to let the other person down. Maybe they’re being threatened with harm if they don’t comply. Because there are a million reasons why a person wouldn’t say “no” to a sexual activity, even if they didn’t want it, the lack of a “no” isn’t enough. Valid consent is a constant string of “Yes!”—affirmative, enthusiastic, and freely given by someone who’s capable of making sound judgments.

What’s more, it’s crucial to understand the nature of consent. Consent isn’t just a binary switch for sex. You don’t flip it to “Yes” and have instant, permanent permission for whatever you want. Instead, consent is a constant, dynamic process. The only consent that’s valid is the consent being given right now. Just because someone consented last week to something doesn’t mean they’re still okay with it it. Hell, just because they consented an hour ago to something doesn’t mean they’re still okay with it.

Sustained consent also means that during sex, it’s everyone’s responsibility to check in every once in a while—both explicitly by asking questions, and by paying attention to body language. If someone has said “yes” but they’re wincing, crying, or otherwise seem uncomfortable, that’s a “no,” regardless of anything else. Sex should stop immediately. Better safe than sorry; if there’s a misunderstanding and everything’s fine, then you can start back up, but if things aren’t okay, then best to stop everything and work from there. It doesn’t matter why things changed—everyone has the right to withdraw their consent to any aspect of sex at any time for any reason.

This also means that consent to one act does not in any way constitute consent for any other. Consenting to oral is not consenting to intercourse. Consenting to exchanging sexts is not consenting to receiving sexual pics. The only valid consent is the consent being given right now, and if you change what you’re doing, you’d best be certain you’re doing it with permission.

It seems simple enough. And yet people, especially on college campuses, regularly avoid obtaining consent, often for a single reason: asking for consent isn’t sexy.

Or, as I tend to hear it, “But it kills the mood to make sure I’m not raping them!”

If you refuse to seek consent because you’re concerned it’s not sexy, then your vision of what’s hot is dangerously skewed. You’re putting your own desires ahead of those of your partner, saying that your enjoyment of sex a) doesn’t have anything to do with what your partner feels, and b) is more important than their comfort, health, and opinions. And if you justify this by claiming you can intuit what they want, then on top of all of the above, you’re acting like you’re infallible. That’s bullshit.

Consent should be as integral to our idea of what is hot as is anything else. And honestly, why wouldn’t it be? What could be sexier than knowing you’re touching your partner exactly the way they want to be touched—or being touched by someone who’s hanging on your every word? What could be hotter than a “YES!!”? Someone who shows they’re listening to their partner’s desires is showing they’re actively interested in their pleasure. If that’s not hot, then damn, I have no idea what is.

When you get right down to it, though, it shouldn’t matter if it’s sexy or not. Making sure you’re not raping your partner should take precedence over everything. Even if you can’t find a way to smoothly integrate it into your sex, even if asking it is awkward and clumsy, even if asking it brings sex to a screeching halt, consent is crucial. If someone asking for consent ruins sex that time, oh well. You’ll have another opportunity in your lifetime, I guarantee it. You can’t take back rape.

Luckily, it’s incredibly easy to make consent sexy, and it all has to do with maintaining open communication.

In 1993, Antioch College, in an attempt to fight date rape on campus, made waves by instituting a sexual offense prevention policy that required consent be “(a) verbal, (b) mutual, and (c) reiterated for every new level of sexual behavior.” This drew criticism from people who mocked it for being dry, cold, and utterly detached from the passion of sex, as if asking something like “Can I kiss you?” or “Is it okay if I take off your shirt?” were intrinsically unsexy.

If you can’t imagine how questions like that could be sexy, you have a very limited imagination indeed.

Consent can be sexy, and it’s all about the context. If you’re asking for consent, you don’t have to sit your partner down, look them square in the eye, and rigidly ask them if you can touch them there. Whisper it in their ear. Ask them between moans. Be honest and listen, of course—this isn’t about you, it’s about them—but even asking yes/no questions about consent can be hot.

Yes/no questions aren’t the only way to do it, either—provided you have baseline consent. If you’ve established consent for touching your partner, then the next step doesn’t have to be a series of questions like “Can I touch your nipples?” “Can I touch your neck?” “Can I touch your back?” Instead, you could just ask them how they want to be touched. “What do you want?” is an incredibly versatile question. If you listen to their answers and don’t mistake them for permission to do more than exactly what they say, that can be another extremely effective and erotic way of obtaining consent.

You can also freely give consent without waiting for your partner to ask you. Stare them down and tell them exactly how you’d like them to touch you. Or try telling them all their options when it comes to your body. They’re not obligated to do anything, of course, but letting them know what you want puts them in a better position in terms of consent, while also giving them hints on what you enjoy.

After being with the same partner for a while, you’ll learn what they like and are comfortable with. At that point, you can talk with them and figure out what needs verbal consent and what’s implied. But don’t assume, and unless you’re in an established relationship like this, this doesn’t even apply to you. Communicate.

Of course, anyone, long-term partner or otherwise, is always within your right to take away any previous consent, regardless of the reason. If you volunteer consent for an act and that changes, you have every right to say “no” or “stop”.

And if your partner says “no” or “stop”? Obviously, you stop. Immediately. This doesn’t have to be the end of the world. If your partner withdraws consent, it means one thing and one thing only: that what you’re doing isn’t okay. This doesn’t mean anything about you personally. Your partner’s consent isn’t about you, it’s about them. Stop what you’re doing, and if you’re confused, ask questions, but don’t take it personally. Recognize a “no” for what it is—merely feedback on what isn’t okay—and what it isn’t—an indictment of you as a person, an expression of loathing, or (necessarily) an end to the entire sexual encounter.

The takeaway message here should be this: affirming consent can be both easy and fun, and it’s absolutely crucial whenever you’re interacting with another person’s body.

I know this stuff is heavy. But I guarantee you, if you incorporate it into your sex life, you will have sex that’s far better and more gratifying for everyone involved. What’s more, by asking questions about consent and respecting your partner’s answers, you’re doing a damn good job of demonstrating you’re a decent human being.


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