Consent is so much more than “no means no” – so let’s explore how to give and receive consent. Just as importantly, let’s discuss how to keep consent sexy so you can empower yourself and your partner(s) with clear boundaries and have sex that satisfies everyone.
What is consent?
Consent is agreeing to do or experience something. But it’s not as simple as being asked a question and answering “yes.” There are a couple of conditions that must be met.
- Consent is only possible if you’re fully and equally engaged in the exchange. Your partner can’t consent if they’re incapacitated, triggered, intoxicated, or otherwise “checked out” of the conversation.
- You can’t consent to what you don’t understand. You need to make sure your partner is knowledgeable about what’s being asked (for example, they can’t consent to rimming if they don’t know what rimming means), relevant risks (such as STI exposure), and your own boundaries (like what barrier methods you use and have on hand.)
- Consent is predicated on feeling safe to say no and supported in changing your mind at any time. If there are potential repercussions to saying no (even as minor as being nagged to “just try it”) then no isn’t actually an option. And if no isn’t an option, neither is yes.
In other words, a “yes” given under duress, ignorance, coercion, or false pretenses, is not consent. A neutral or non-answer is not consent. Not saying “no” isn’t consent. Consent doesn’t have to be joyous and enthusiastic; it’s okay to have different desire/interest levels as long as every participant is still comfortable engaging. But consent can’t come from obligation or cajoling. Consent has to come from genuine, unmanipulated willingness.
Why does consent have to be “ongoing”?
Consent is not a permission slip, or a blanket yes/no answer to a question like “do you want to have sex?” Sex encompasses a wide range of activities. The specifics (such as what sex acts in which order) have to be negotiated.
Some people discuss specifics ahead of time. This is especially useful for rough or kinky sex (which requires safety prep and boundary negotiations), trying something new (such as pegging or bondage), or for neurodivergent people who prefer to plan things ahead.
Many people (especially those in long-term sexual partnerships who have become familiar with their partner’s boundaries) feel things out as they go. That’s okay too, as long as you’re giving each other the space and time to give a level-headed answer to a notable change of pace or activity. (For example, you can’t pause mid-cunnalingus to ask if your partner wants to immediately roll over and have anal sex for the first time, especially if you’ve never discussed anal sex before.)
Even if you’ve discussed specifics ahead of time, consent needs to be continuously reaffirmed throughout sex. Moods can shift, things can come up (such as trauma or dysphoria being triggered), and people can change their mind.
To summarize: consent is an ongoing exchange, a shared responsibility to communicate intentions (“I wanna go down on you”), provide boundaries (“okay, but I want to hop in the shower first”), and respect those boundaries (“sure, I’ll wait.”)
How do I make sure I have ongoing consent?
When the topic of consent comes up, there’s often some pushback from people who feel that asking for consent is “robotic” and “ruins the mood.” But unless it suits your negotiation style, you don’t have to use blunt phrasing like “I would like to use the Manta Penis Stroker on you. Do you consent?”
In fact, a lot of consent conversations come up naturally in dirty talk. Dirty talk (as in the filthy things you murmur to your partners) often involves expressing desires. While it’s a great way to arouse your partners, it’s also a way to communicate your intentions. For example:
- Asking for a blowjob: “I’m so hard right now, I can practically feel your throat…”
- Asking to give a blowjob: “I can’t stop thinking about how good you feel in my mouth.”
- Asking to switch to a larger dildo: “You’re taking that dildo so good. I can give you something bigger to really work you open, if you want.”
- Asking to take a larger dildo: “That feels so good. I want more. Can we use the big Splendid?”
Another method that fits naturally into sex is the playful invitation. This is an easygoing, flirtatious way of communicating a desire and seeing if your partners are interested. Keeping it casual helps lessen the pressure, too. For example:
- Holding up a wand vibrator and going “eh?” with a raised eyebrow, but holding it like you’re prepared to set it back down immediately if they don’t answer in the affirmative.
- Kissing one or twice down their stomach to indicate you’re moving towards their crotch, then looking up under your lashes to make eye contact. If they don’t answer in the affirmative, you can kiss your way back up instead.
How do I make sure I have ongoing consent?
As important as getting consent is, it’s just as important to give it. Consent requires equal participation from everyone involved. A “yes” is just as crucial to an encounter as a “no” is, because it helps establish what your boundaries are and what you want to experience or do.
Like asking for consent, it’s easy to affirm your consent to your partners in ways that don’t feel jarring or mechanical. For example, making an enthusiastic sound, such as a moan or whispered swear. You can also bodily respond by moving into position, arching eagerly towards them, or touching them positively (like gripping their hips) to show you’re engaged.
A verbal “yes” can be sexy and flirty, too. For example:
- “Mmm, baby, that sounds so hot.”
- “Yesss, I love the thing you do with your tongue.”
- “I’m wet even thinking about it.”
- “That idea really turns me on – can you gag me too?”
Saying “no” can be daunting, especially if it seems like your partner is really excited about something. But “no” isn’t a disappointment – it’s an opportunity to have better sex that suits your needs as well as your partners’. A few examples of saying no while still maintaining momentum:
- “That sounds sexy, but maybe a different time? I’m in the mood for something gentler.”
- “Mmm, I’d rather we keep going like this, you feel so good…”
- “Can we do it doggy style instead?” or “How about we do it doggy style instead?”
- “I’m not really into that. What else did you have in mind, because I’m really horny for you.”
What are some ways you communicate your intentions during sex? What are some ways you communicate your consent? Give us some ideas in the comments below!
Betty Butch (they/she) is a queer sex and relationships writer. By blogging about their experiences as a fat, trans, autistic person, they hope to help change the narrative of who has sex and what sex "should" be. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.