Sparks were flying at the party. The conversation flowed. There was definite flirting. You shared a couple of drinks, and then a couple more. A little kissing and grinding on the dance floor. You’re into this woman. And you think she’s into you too.
Fast-forward a few hours, after she accepted your invitation to finish the evening with a nightcap at your place. But the heat you felt when you first started to make out has slowed down. You’re on your bed, half-naked. You’re buzzed. You’re turned on. You really, really want to have sex.
But there’s a nagging voice in your head holding you back. Is she not into you? Is she just quiet in bed? Is she drunk? Is she sleepy?
Your next move defines who you are as a man — and possibly your future. Do you have consent?
1. What Is Consent?
In this scenario, she’s not saying no. But she’s not saying yes, either.
This is not consent, despite what you may think. Consent is not the absence of NO. It’s the presence of YES.
Silence does not equal yes. Moaning does not equal yes. Drunken stupor does not equal yes. Asleep does not equal yes. The only thing that equals yes is yes, whether she’s saying yes out loud or saying yes by actively participating — taking off her clothes without being asked, taking off your clothes, guiding your hands, etc.
Consent is simple and unmistakable. It’s not something that needs to be interpreted through a thousand emotional and psychological filters. There really isn’t any gray area when it comes to consent. When you have it, you know.
You need consent for every sexual act, every time you have sex. If someone wants to kiss you, it doesn’t mean she wants to go down on you. If someone goes down on you, it doesn’t mean she wants to have intercourse. If she slept with you last weekend, it doesn’t mean she wants to sleep with you tonight. Even if you’re in a long-term relationship, you need consent each and every time.
Consent can be given and taken away — in the same sexual encounter. That’s not being a tease. That’s a person’s right to their body. If your partner started doing something that you didn’t want, you have the same right. If consent is taken away, stop what you’re doing — immediately. Some signs that consent is being taken away:
- “That hurts.”
- “Can we stop?”
- “I’m not really into this.”
- Falling asleep.
- A push on your shoulder.
- Suddenly going quiet.
If you sense that she’s not as into it as she was a few moments ago, you should stop immediately and ask your partner what’s up.
These are the basic elements that define consent. You can read more about them through this fact sheet from the National Violence Resource Center and its It's On Us campaign.
2. Why Consent Is Sexy
Consent might sound legalistic and dry and unfun. But in reality, consent is sexy. It’s raw. It’s enthusiastic. It’s hot. When you have consent, you know for sure that your partner wants to be with you. She finds you sexy. She craves your touch. She’s totally into what you’re doing. Consensual sex is the sexiest kind of sex there is.
You and the woman of your dreams are having wild, crazy sex. You’re turned on. She’s turned on. She’s getting closer and closer to orgasm. Your touch, your hands, your moves are giving her so much pleasure.
And all the while, she’s saying, “Yes, yes, YES!”
“I think about consent as a way to communicate with my partner during sex. It’s how we both know we really, really want to be having sex with each other,” says Erin O'Callaghan, a senior at University of Cincinnati.
Why would you want to have any other kind of sex? While consent is mandatory when it comes to sex, it’s also a key element of desire — the HELL YES you feel when a partner is 100% into you.
3. Sex Without Consent Is Rape
Consent isn’t just sexy, it’s also mandatory. More and more, men and women are calling out non-consensual sex for what it is: Rape. Though the definitions and consequences vary from state to state, any sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. This is a crime for which you can be charged, convicted, sent to jail, and then required to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.
Sexual assault is a crime for a reason. It’s one of the worst traumas that a human can endure. Regardless of gender, sexual violence leaves a lasting impact on a victim’s life. Survivors are more likely to face PTSD, depression, anxiety, and even physical health problems too.
This British video explains consent in a very clever, easy-to-understand way.
Unfortunately, given the state of youth hookup culture, consent and alcohol do not mix. If you drink and drive, you’re taking a risk that you might harm yourself or others. The same is true when it comes to sex. Just because someone is drunk does not mean they’re consenting to sex. In fact, a partner under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. Even if she says yes, you can still be held legally responsible for sexual assault. It’s not “regrettable sex” if she was too drunk to consent; it’s sexual assault, and you can be held legally responsible.
If you’re drinking, your judgment is impaired — as is your ability to ascertain consent. As a rule of thumb, if you’re too drunk to drive, you’re probably too drunk to have sex. Wait until the morning when you’re both sober, and able to provide an enthusiastic yes. It’s not worth the risk of harming someone else, and being responsible for rape. When consent is unclear, stop and get clarity. If you’re pressuring or cajoling a partner to engage in sexual activity, you’re out of bounds. If a partner’s resistance or lack of consent turns you on, you should seek professional help to stop yourself from hurting others.
4. Talking About Consent with Your Partner
One common misperception about consent is that talking about it comes off as administrative, boring, and unsexy. This could not be further from the truth.
Talking about consent is better than foreplay. Before you have sex, talk to your partner about what turns them on. Do they like a gentle touch or a firm touch? What are their favorite sex positions, fantasies, or props? Do they like to role-play? Talk about what turns you on, and what you imagine doing together.
Many people are curious about BDSM. This can be perfectly healthy and consensual — when you and your partner talk about it ahead of time and establish clear guidelines, including a safe word. Take some time to learn more about approaching BDSM safely — beyond just reading 50 Shades of Grey.
During sex, there are many ways to ensure you have consent. The most basic is asking questions like, “Is this OK? Can we proceed?” But you can get more creative than that as well. Here are some things you can whisper in your partner’s ear the next time you are having sex:
- "If you like what I’m doing, I want to hear you say yes."
- "I want you to enjoy every moment of us being together, so let me hear your voice."
- "Does that 'Mmmmm' mean you like what I’m doing?"
- "Do you know what I’ve always wanted to try? [insert sexual fantasy here] Would you be up for that?"
“Too many guys think talking about consent is technical and unsexy. Untrue.” says Leela Strong, a 34-year old woman from Boston. “Checking in as we go keeps sex hot – for both of us.”
Engaging deeply in consent with your partner will make you a better lover. When you talk about desires and know what your partner wants, you can be confident that you're giving them pleasure — which is a much better brag than simply that you slept together.
5. Talking About Consent with Your Friends
When you’re with the guys, it’s easy to fall into culturally defined ways of talking about women and sex — as conquests or objects. That’s not fair to the women in your life, and it probably isn’t what real life sex is like for you, either.
“It is important for men to challenge some of the norms that they have been taught -that being with someone who is incapacitated is okay or that what they may have seen in sexually explicit media is okay, says Nicole Daley, Director of the Start Strong Initiative, a federal program focused on healthy relationships. “Even if they don’t find that every moment is a full on advocacy moment… they can challenge their friends by letting them know making rape jokes is not cool.“
There are a lot of ways to talk about consent with your friends, and it doesn’t have to be a heavy or intense conversation. If you want to brag about sex, brag about how much she wanted and asked for it. Brag about how much she liked what you were doing — and how enthusiastically she consented.
You can also take steps among your group of friends when you are out at a party or a bar. If you see someone drunk and alone at a party — male or female — don’t assume that someone else is looking out for them. Take responsibility yourself to make sure they are safe.
Keep an eye on your friends, too. A friend doesn’t let a friend drive drunk, so why would you let a friend initiate drunken sex? If a friend is drunk and acting in creepy ways to women, take him home — don’t laugh it off. If he’s hitting on a woman who is drunk, you can either speak up or you can just create a distraction. Or find the woman’s friends and have them take her home safely.
Finally, show support for survivors of sexual violence and do so in visible ways. Wear a “Consent Is Sexy” T-shirt. Show up at an event to support an anti-sexual violence organization. Raise your hand at the next prevention workshop. If there are men or women in your life who have been sexually assaulted or abused, talk about what it’s like to support them. Find ways to open the door to a conversation about myths and misperceptions about sexual violence, and its impact on a survivor’s life.
Consent isn’t complicated. But it’s not talked about enough. What else do you want to know or learn about consent?
- Men Can Stop Rape offers online and offline resources for healthy masculinity, consent, and navigating sex in an alcohol and hookup culture.
- Planned Parenthood Consent 101 Videos
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can find support, resources, and advice through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or online.rainn.org. Trained volunteers are available to answer questions — big or small — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.