What is sexual consent? An active process of willingly and freely choosing to participate in sex of any kind with someone else, and a shared responsibility for everyone engaging in, or who wants to engage in, any kind of sexual interaction with someone. When there is a question or invitation about sex of any kind, when consent is mutually given or affirmed, the answer on everyone’s part is an enthusiastic yes.
Whether we walk, bike, skate, wheel or drive, when we’re on the road there are traffic lights, signs and signals we know we and everyone else needs to pay attention to. We also know we need to clearly give our own signals: when we turn, we use a turn signal for good reason, rather than muttering under our breath that we’re going to be turning or just veering left in an intersection without signaling. All of that helps keep us and others from crashing or getting run over: we all agree to follow and give those signs as part of an ongoing, mutual agreement to help keep each other safe. As well, if we want to get somewhere, we usually have to pay attention to signs: if we keep ignoring the signs that say “Dead End,” or don’t read street signs at all, we’re not likely to be able to get to where we meant to go.
Most of us understand being in transit means there’s a possibility of getting hurt, hurting others, having a good time turn into a bad one or just not getting to where we intended, and to try and prevent those outcomes, we need to follow basic rules of the road like being attentive to and actively giving clear signs and signals. Just like it’s important on the road, it’s important between the sheets.
Willingly and freely choosing means we and our partners feel able to make and voice any choice without being forced, manipulated, intentionally misled or pressured. It means we’re in an interpersonal environment where what we want is mutually meaningful, and where we aren’t in a situation where the other person is not in a position where they 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 and our partners are and feel safe. It means we feel able to say and accept yes, no, or maybe without fear, and that our limits and boundaries are completely respected. Feeling free and able to say yes and to say no isn’t only important to keep from getting hurt or hurting others: it’s important because a big part of a satisfying, healthy sex life and sexuality, one people enjoy, is grounded in free choice.
Participating means everyone is an active, whole part of what is going on. It means we or a partner are treated like a whole, separate person, not like a thing someone is doing things to. If consensual sex was a sport, participating would mean that we’re out on the field running around with the team, not sitting on the bench while people throw balls at our heads.
What about enthusiasm? Sex that people really want and fully participate in does not tend to be a whatever or something we need to be dragged into. When we have strong sexual feelings and want and feel ready to put those feelings into action in some way, we experience that as a strong desire, much like we can feel when we’re hungry and smell our favorite meal cooking. When someone shares our sexual feelings and also wants to put them into action at the same time, it’s mutually exciting. Sometimes younger people express they have a hard time figuring out when they are and are not feeling sexual desire. While sexual desire doesn’t always look the same way, so that’s not simple to explain, when any of us really, truly wants to engage in something sexual, we’ll feel enthusiastic, stoked and excited, not apathetic, bored, fearful or doubtful.
If you want one word to define consent with it’s yes. Consent is a yes a million times over, for the love of all things sparkly, awesome and delicious, and not a minute longer if you want to do it too, please, yes. Everyone’s yes doesn’t always look or sound the same, of course, but there are often common threads. There also isn’t always a question, exactly, to say yes to. Sometimes yes is inviting someone else to do something with us. Sometimes it’s saying what we want, even if the other person says no or not now. Sometimes yes is using hands to pull someone closer, or an excited squeal or moan. A yes with words is a lot easier to understand and know as consent than some other kinds of yes.
Consent isn’t something we just do or give once: it’s something we’re doing (or not) in every moment of every sexual activity. If someone consents to one thing, that doesn’t mean they’re consenting to anything, just to that one thing. Consent is also always something we or others can revoke: in other words, everyone gets to change their mind, at any time, including after they’ve already said yes.
Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes, explains that well here: “Sexual consent isn’t like a lightswitch, which can be either “on,” or “off.” It’s not like there’s this one thing called “sex” you can consent to anyhow. “Sex” is an evolving series of actions and interactions. You have to have the enthusiastic consent of your partner for all of them. And even if you have your partner’s consent for a particular activity, you have to be prepared for it to change. Consent isn’t a question. It’s a state. If, instead of lovers, the two of you were synchronized swimmers, consent would be the water. It’s not enough to jump in, get wet and climb out — if you want to swim, you have to be in the water continually. And if you want to have sex, you have to be continually in a state of enthusiastic consent with your partner.”