6 Things That Don’t Constitute Consent (And 3 Things That Do)
Imagine you and your crush sitting on a bed. You’re making out, feeling a lot of sexual arousal. You stop kissing, gaze deep into their eyes, take a breath, and speak:
“I want to have sex with you so bad right now.”
Your crush blushes, puts their hand behind your neck and pulls you into a deep kiss.
“Great,” you think. “We’re going to have sex.”
Only, you’re not. Because here’s what just happened: Your crush isn’t ready to have sex, but they don’t know how to tell you that — they’re embarrassed, they’re scared of hurting your feelings and they don’t have a lot of experience talking about sex — so they tried to return the moment to just kissing.
But you misread the gesture, leaving you in a complicated situation of two people who want different things out of a moment of intimacy, but who don’t know how to talk through those different desires.
RELATED: Here’s What You Need to Know About Consent
Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is all too common, and unfortunately, it often ends when people struggle to understand what constitutes consent, and which kinds of responses can look like it even when they aren’t.
AskMen spoke with three experts to better understand what consent is and isn’t, as well as how to navigate situations like the above one.
Why Talking About Consent Can Be Complicated
Depending on your experience, you might be wondering why something as simple as saying “yes” or “no” might be complicated.
But for many different reasons, consent is actually an incredibly difficult topic to discuss, even for people who’ve been having pleasurable sex for years or decades. One of the most important ones is the tension between wanting your partner to be happy, and wanting yourself to be happy.
If you’ve ever gotten into a disagreement with a partner while trying to pick a lunch place or a movie to watch, you might have a clue that getting two people to agree on an outcome that’ll make them both equally happy can be tricky — and it’s no different when it comes to sex.
“We’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings,” explains SKYN Condoms’ sex and intimacy expert, Gigi Engle. “When it comes to sex, we aren’t given a very fruitful vocabulary to work with. You may not want to do something, but the other person really wants you to, and so you just go along with it. This leads to really bad situations for everyone — including feelings of regret and violation.
If things are going to proceed, she says, “the only correct answer to ‘Do you want to do X sexual thing?” is “Hell yes!” or some variation of the sort.”
Otherwise, it’s time to try something else, or even stop what you’d been doing altogether and find out how the other person’s feeling.
For Kayla Lords, a sexpert for JackandJillAdult.com, wanting to make the other person happy is only half the story.
“Turning someone down for sex can feel very uncomfortable for some people, especially women who may be worried about the reaction they’ll get from the person who wants to have sex with them,” she says. “On one end of the spectrum are concerns about disappointing someone or being labeled a ‘tease,’ and on the other end of that spectrum is the very real fear of violence.”
RELATED: Understanding Women’s Fear of Male Violence
As a result of these worst-case scenario fears, Lords explains, “people may say things like, ‘I don’t know’ or they suggest something else instead of saying ‘No.’”
Of course, women aren’t the only ones who can feel pressure to have sex.
Due to boys being told at a young age that they need to be dominant in order to be considered manly when growing up, many men can be hesitant about turning down sex in situations they feel they ‘should’ say yes.
According to licensed therapist and mental wellness advocate Jor-El Caraballo, this reality “ties into long-held stereotypes about virility, which are closely tied to masculinity and how men see themselves and their value as humans.”
“Not choosing to perform, for many men, has led to shaming and humiliation by partners, which most men feel compelled to avoid at all costs,” he adds. “We also don’t often think of sexual coercion happening to men but we do know that manipulation from both female and male partners is possible.”
Things That Don’t Constitute Consent
By now, you might be aware that just because someone seems like they’re giving consent doesn’t mean they actually want to go along with what’s happening. That subtle, polite deflection might actually be covering up a giant, glaring “no.”
But what does that idea look like in practice? In order to give you a clear grounding in signs that you both need to stop and take a moment to figure out what you both want before proceeding, here are seven things that don’t constitute consent (even if you think they might).
1. An Outright Negative Response
Could sound like: “No,” “Stop” or “Don’t do that.”
If your partner says anything that clearly indicates that they don’t like what you’re doing, don’t want to continue, or don’t want to do what you’re proposing, you should absolutely not push forward anyway.
Doing so constitutes sexual assault at best and rape at worst, which are both criminal acts, in addition to being almost certainly traumatic for your partner to experience.
It’s also important to note that consent isn’t transferable. Your partner may have been enthusiastically into taking their clothes off and making out, but uncomfortable with penetration, or comfortable with penis-in-vagina sex, but not comfortable with anal.
If they tell you to stop at any point, you need to stop immediately.
2. An Uncertain Response
Could sound like: “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure” or “I guess.”
Even if your partner doesn’t voice a clear “no,” they might just lack the confidence to admit that they’re against what you’re suggesting.
If you propose trying a certain move and get a response that sounds like one you’d expect to hear from a kid who’s being told to do a chore they hate, don’t take that as a sign that you should move forward or convince the person. Instead, take it as a sign to ask them what they’d like instead.
“If your partner hesitates, looks uncomfortable, pulls back or tries to steer the moment or conversation in another direction, those are very clear signs you don’t have enthusiastic consent,” says Lords.
3. A Mixed Response
Could sound like: “I want to, but we shouldn’t” or “I feel bad for saying no”
Rather than a neutral-sounding response, a partner can respond in a mixed way by indicating some desire to consent while still feeling guilty, conflicted or otherwise simultaneously expressing a negative feeling. In short, instead of a “maybe,” you’ll get both a “yes” and a “no.”
However, Lords points out “resistance that isn’t a clear ‘no’ doesn’t mean you should press until you get the answer you want. Instead of waiting for ‘no,’ only move forward when you’ve got a clear ‘yes’ — it should be enthusiastic in some way.”
So even though a half-hearted “I want to, but” can sound like the permission you’ve been craving, that doesn’t mean it is.
It’s also important to remember that the negative portion of their response is just as important as the positive one, if not more. Again, consent isn’t consent unless it’s fully and enthusiastically given without hesitation, hemming or hawing. If they’re not completely into the idea, don’t push for it.
4. A Non-Verbal Negative Response
Could look like: Slapping your hand away, covering themselves up, moving away from you
If you try something sexual and the other person uses their body to turn you down, well, that’s also not consent.
They may not feel capable of using their words, but if they’re stopping you from doing the thing you want to do, they’re showing you clearly that they’re not interested. That’s when you back off ASAP, even if they had been consenting up until then.
5. No Response at All
Could look like: Someone in a trance or catatonic state
Lots of sexual action takes place without actual conversation taking place, but as people might mistake the lack of negative response for the presence of a positive one, that opens up a space for lots of potential misunderstanding.
Even if the other person is letting you do exactly what you want without stopping you in any way, that’s not a sign that they’re into it. More so, it’s just that they’re not feeling capable of asking you to stop.
When you’re having sex, you should always try to remain conscious of your partner’s response. If you’re too focused on your own pleasure and experience, it’s easy not to notice if the other person goes quiet. That could be a sign that they’re seriously not enjoying themselves and might be having a legitimately traumatic experience.
People who are enjoying sex will let you know by being engaged and involved. If you notice your partner being unusually silent, stop what you’re doing immediately, check in and don’t try to continue unless they confirm enthusiastically that they want you to.
6. Any Response From Someone Who Can’t Consent
Could sound like: “Age is just a number,” “OK, fine, I’ll do what you want,” drunken slurring
Under the definitions of consent, it’s not just something that has to be enthusiastically given. It also has to be given by someone who’s legally old enough to have sex with you, who’s not being coerced or pressured into it and who’s of sound mind and not inebriated.
Essentially, sex with a minor, sex with someone you’ve pressured or threatened into consenting and sex with someone who’s drunk or high to the point of not being fully conscious are violations of consent.
Things That Constitute Consent
Conversely, enthusiastic, freely given consent is usually easier to recognize. It’s the same energy that you get from someone who’s being offered a taste of their favorite food, a free ticket to a concert by their favorite band or a cold drink of water on a brutally hot day. There typically won’t be a ton of ways to misunderstand it.
But just so you’re clear, here are some things that do constitute consent:
1. An Enthusiastic Verbal “Yes”
Could sound like: “Yes,” “Hell yeah” or “F*ck yes, I want to!”
This one is the easiest to recognize and understand.
Ask someone if they want to have sex with you (or if they want you to do a certain sex act with them), and if they say “yes” in a way that communicates enthusiasm, you’re in the clear.
2. A Demand for Sex
Could sound like: “F*ck me right now” or “I want you so bad”
Of course, the word “yes” doesn’t technically need to be present in order for someone to enthusiastically consent. They could simply be letting you know how bad they want you, even before you express any desire of your own.
3. An Enthusiastic Non-Verbal Yes
Could look like: Initiating genital touching, taking your clothes off, taking their own clothes off
Technically, nothing needs to be said at all if it’s clear that both partners are into it. If the other person is actively initiating sex with you physically, that’s a clear sign that they’re consenting. However, if you’re not sure, there’s no harm in making sure — for instance, you could use one of the examples from the below link:
RELATED: Clever Dirty Talk Phrases That Are Also Sexual Consent Questions
How to Talk About Consent in Bed
Still not 100 percent clear on how to approach talking about consent with a sexual partner? That’s OK. As you read earlier, consent can be a complex and tricky thing to talk about.
“Misinterpretation is not an excuse for crossing someone’s boundaries,” says Engle. “If you have any doubt that this person is anything less than super into it and is telling you to touch them and how much they want you, it’s not consent. If at any point you think, ‘Hmm, I wonder if they like that?’ — ask them! If there is any hesitation or you’re worried, stop immediately and communicate with your partner.”
In order to avoid mistaking consent for one act for consent for a different sex act, Engle adds to “check in before each sexual act.”
She suggests asking questions like:
“‘Do you like that?’
‘Can I touch you here?’
‘What do you like?’
‘What do you want me to do to you?’”
“These are all questions that help guide you to fully satisfying, mutually safe sexual experiences.”
Caraballo adds that “we really should be aiming for enthusiastic consent on the whole.”
Checking for body language cues can be a huge tell in recognizing that your partner isn’t 100 percent into what you’re doing or suggesting.
RELATED: 3 Reasons It’s a Good Idea to Wait Before Having Sex
“Does your partner hesitate to say yes?” he asks. “What might their eyes be saying to you as you ask for consent? Are they looking at you or away? Are they moving away from you or leaning in? Seeking congruence in both physical and verbal consent is helpful. This can help provide space to further check in and not only ask for consent, but also things like asking your partner,
‘How are you feeling right now?’
can help create a more open dialogue, not just the minimal ‘yes’ that we’ve been told to believe is sufficient.”
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