“No means no.” We’ve all heard it, and generally, we can all agree on it. If someone says “no,” we don’t. If they say “stop,” we stop. If they say, “not now,” we wait.
But what if they are all over you, but you know they have been drinking all evening? What if things are getting hot and heavy for you, but you notice they are silent and staring blankly into space? What if you’ve hooked up with them before, but they say they only want to make out tonight?
You may be asking yourself, “How the heck do I navigate these blurred lines?” [We’ll save the Robin Thicke discussion for another blog post.] Perhaps it seems a little more muddled than simply listening for a no. The absence of no, however, is not the same as a [sober and enthusiastic] yes.
So what is consent, anyway?
In a word, consent is yes. Yes can look, sound or feel different for everyone, and it isn’t always in response to a question. Yes could include, “Please, baby, f*%& me now.” Yes could be an excited squeal or moan.
Consent is a choice. It is not something given due to manipulation, threats, or coercion. It doesn’t involve pressure or lies. Consent is knowing, voluntary, and informed. It can only be given when everyone involved is in a clear state of mind, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol or incapacitated in any other way. Heather Corinna at Scarleteen tells us that willingly and freely choosing does not include being in a situation where others involved have or have had, in our history with them, radically more power than we have and/or has not used that power to influence or guide our sexual choices... It means we feel able to say and accept yes, no, or maybe without fear, and that our limits and boundaries are completely respected.
Consent is a process. It can be given or taken at any time. It is not simply something we do or give once; it is an ongoing conversation. If someone consented to a sexual activity before, it does not mean that they have eternally consented to all current and future activity.It can always be revoked, even if someone already said yes, even if your partner is about to climax. If you and I are friends and you let me borrow your hat, that doesn’t mean I can just walk into your home and take it whenever I feel like wearing it. It doesn’t mean I can snatch it off of your head just because I saw you let another friend borrow it. And if you decided you were cold and wanted your hat back, you would probably think I was pretty disrespectful if I refused to give it back to you, ignored you, or said “Are you kidding me? You just told me I could use it!”
Yes Means Yes: Enthusiastic Consent
Respecting no is non-negotiable. But waiting for no leaves the onus on someone to stop the momentum. By seeking a yes, we’re changing the equation entirely. In fact, consent is much more than just yes or no. It’s a conversation that moves beyond a list of close-ended “yes or no” questions.
We can call this seeking enthusiastic consent. The Good Men Project puts it simply: Consider the difference between “Baby, please, f**k me now!” and “I guess… whatever.”
You might be thinking to yourself, “So, what, do I have to ask before everything I do in a sexual encounter? I don’t want to ruin the mood…”
I get it. Media, pornography, and our society teach us that sex is supposed to be hot, steamy, sexy… two people are just overcome with passion and rip each others’ clothes off and fall into bed for a perfect night of slow-motion love making complete with a soundtrack.
This, of course, is not reality. Sex involves communication. Sex is rarely perfect [in fact, it’s sometimes pretty awkward]. And there’s rarely a perfect soundtrack. Sex is more like a jam session. In a jam sesh, you get together with other musicians and watch, listen, and feel one anothers’ music in attempts to achieve a harmonious collaboration. Sometimes jam sessions can be magical, while others are just “meh.” The bottom line is that sex, like a jam session, involves open communication, being present, and collaborating with all other parties involved.
Thomas Macaulay Millar writes in the anthology Yes Means Yes! (eds. Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti, 2008) that we should shift from a commodity model of sex, which assumes one person has something to give up and the other is there for the taking, to a performance model of sex. The performance model, says Millar, is centered on collaboration:
Who picks up a guitar and jams with a bassist who just stands there? Who dances with a partner who is just standing and staring? In the absence of affirmative participation, there is no collaboration (p. 38).
A classical musician will jam differently than a musician rooted in hip hop, but that doesn’t mean they can’t collaborate and jam to produce a beautiful masterpiece. Maybe that masterpiece will seem odd to a blues musician, and that’s okay too: the blues musician can jam with different musicians to produce whatever they want.
So, this is all fine and dandy in theory, but how do we actually put these principles into action in our everyday lives? Here are some tips:
- Ask open-ended questions. What are you into? What turns you on? What is something you would like to try? What about X turns you on? Where do you want my hands on your body? What is off limits?
- Try a Yes, No, or Maybe Chart. You can start with these basics compiled by The Good Men Project. Feeling a bit more adventurous? Customize your own chart or explore some kinkier options. [Oh, and speaking of… SM is not abuse.] Consider your yes, no, and maybe’s on your own, then open the conversation up with partners.
- Check in. Checking in is important during any hookup, and especially if any party has experienced any sort of abuse in the past. The Consensual Project reminds us that checking in not only ensures the safety and presence of all parties involved, but it can also be erotic!
Checking in with your partner during a hookup allows people to express pleasure, express discomfort, change their minds, suggest new things, say yes, say no, or anything else. Check-ins are great way to stay present in the hook up. It can be as simple and sexy as an open ended question or as personal and intimate as “how are you feeling?”
If you have additional questions related to consent or sexual violence within the LGBTQ community, please call the Virginia LGBTQ Partner abuse & Sexual Assault Helpline at 1.866.356.6998 (m-f, 8am-8pm). The Helpline provides a free and confidential telephone service for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer or questioning callers looking for information or help regarding intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, and stalking.
Kaylin Tingle works as an LGBTQ Violence Prevention Health Educator at VCU, and is a member of the Richmond Area Partnership (RAP). Richmond Area Partnership (RAP),is a local initiative charged with assessing services available, identifying gaps in services and strengthening assistance available to LGBTQ-identified persons impacted by sexual and domestic violence. The group is also examining the impact of culture, especially Southern culture, on the experience of victimization and healing for LGBTQ-identified individuals.