- What is it?
- How does it affect me and my partner?
- How do I do it?
You can’t have sex without consent, because without consent there is only sexual assault. While we all think we understand consent, last year’s AAU Sexual Climate survey shows that the number of sexual assaults here on campus matches the national level, which is considered epidemic. It’s time to go back to basics about communication, respect, assumptions, and the role alcohol plays in being able to give or understand consent. Check out the images and information below to ensure you know what’s what about sexual consent!
PHASE 1: Know what consent is and isn’t
The Role of Alcohol:
Alcohol and other drugs impair the ability to consent to sexual activity. But how can you gage whether your partner is too drunk to consent? Here are signs that someone is incapacitated by their alcohol consumption:
- They cannot move
- They cannot speak coherently, or their speech is slurred
- They have an unsteady gait, cannot stand, or cannot walk
- They are vomiting
- They are unconscious
- They are “blacked out” – or in a period of total memory loss. It won’t be evident in the moment that someone is not making memories of what they are doing. But behavior that is out of character for the person, like loss of inhibitions and poor judgment are indicators that someone is in a blackout.
Because it impairs judgment, alcohol or other drugs can cause an initiator of sexual activity to misread cues about or disregard another’s consent. But similar to other criminal activity, impairment is no excuse to break the law.
Consent is a Process:
Consent is a process, even within a relationship and within a series of sexual activities. As soon as one person is no longer desiring a particular activity, respect for that person means the activity stops. Communication is key, and ideally it begins with verbal communication. It is also very important to look for and interpret non-verbal communication correctly. If you see your partner flinch or look away or get quiet, for example, and you aren’t sure what it means, stop and ask. You aren’t ruining the mood, you are setting a mood of mutual respect and caring!
Ask and Respect the Answer:
Verbally asking for consent, and then respecting the answer, is the surest way to prevent sexual assault. Rejection might sting, but it is better than being accused of sexual assault. Starting the conversation can lead to knowing exactly what your partner wants sexually, and creates the foundation for emotional safety and mutual pleasure from a sexual encounter.
Verbal coercion is NOT consent! Consent should be voluntary and enthusiastic, with no convincing necessary!
No one can assume that because their partner wanted a sexual activity last week, they will again tonight. No one can assume that because someone engaged in activity like flirting or kissing, or even other sexual activity, that their partner wants the type of activity they have in mind now. No one can assume, period!
Repeat, No Assumptions:
Repeat: No one can assume, period! You don’t have consent unless you have verbal affirmation or acts unmistakable in their meaning to each sexual act that you want to engage in. A smile or a caress can mean a lot of things, including that the person is into you, but not necessarily into that at the moment.
PHASE 2: Understand the benefits of consent and the risks of sexual assault
Asking and abiding by a partner’s answer before engaging in sexual activity conveys respect. Think of all the times we ask for consent in everyday situations. Do you mind if I sit at your table? Can I borrow your phone? We ask because we acknowledge other people’s right to choose. That right is super-important when it comes to sexual intimacy.
If it feels awkward at first, keep practicing! Interpersonal communication skills improve the more they are used. Having sex when all parties are sober means we have the judgment to say what we want and don’t want, and to correctly interpret the desires of our partner(s) too.
Trust and Safety:
We are more relaxed and comfortable around people we know we can trust, and we trust people who have our best interests in mind and respect our autonomy. When no guilt, manipulation, or pressure are involved, we can feel safe and in control of our own bodies. And if we’re initiating sex, engaging in consent means knowing we’ve done our part to ensure no harm comes to others or ourselves.
We get to express just what we do and don’t want. We don’t have to pretend we like something when we don’t.
Enhanced Sexual Pleasure and Connection:
When everyone feels respected, sex is much better for all involved! We’re free to experiment, ask for what we want and focus on pleasure rather than on protecting ourselves. And sober sex means our brains – our most important sex organs – are fully engaged.
Risks of Sexual Assault:
Sexual assault creates trauma for the violated person. Consequences like injury, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, ongoing headaches, gynecological or gastrointestinal issues, inability to sleep or concentrate, flashbacks, recurring nightmares, anxiety, depression, dropping out of school, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation are possible. Committing sexual assault could mean arrest, prosecution, hefty legal fees, a ruined reputation, suspension or expulsion from school, and loss of an intended career. Our community suffers because distrust between people grows, people are less productive, people can be less present for others around them, and at the current high rates of sexual assault that we suffer, our community begins to accept sexual assault as the norm rather than understanding that we have the power to change.
PHASE 3: Try these strategies for communicating about consent
The Two-Step Method
The Two-Step Method encourages assertiveness and discourages aggressive and manipulative behavior that results from asking over and over again until a partner is worn down into saying yes. No one should feel pressured to say yes.
Step 1: Ask for what you want
One of the most important parts of this model is asking honestly for what you want. Be as clear as you can. Don’t ask someone to come over to “hook up” unless you have both agreed on a very specific definition about what that means. Think about how you can incorporate asking into your foreplay and “dirty talk.” Because it adds to a feeling of safety, asking can be very sexy!
If you ask and hear a no, think of it as just good information, and tell yourself you can respect an honest answer. Being rejected by a potential sexual partner may not feel good, but at least you know the answer rather than assuming you can move forward and then sexually assaulting someone. Proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Ask for something less
Just because someone doesn’t want to do the same thing as you want sexually, doesn’t always mean the person isn’t in to you. It’s okay to ask one more time for something less. If you get another no, it’s time to stop asking. That way you avoid pressuring someone into something they aren’t ready for. Better yet, use Step 2 to ask what your partner would like to do. Maybe you’ll both agree on that!
Ask Your Partner What They Want
Sex is about pleasuring both yourself and a partner, and people can be into very different things. As long as it is consensual, it’s all ok! Communicate so that you are familiar with what pleasures your partner.
Keep Checking in with Your Partner
If you are moving from one level to another, or changing up the type of sexual activity, it’s always a good idea to check in with your partner to be sure they are still ok with new stuff.
Use Will/Want/Won’t Charts
There are literally hundreds of things that count as sexual activity, and Will/Won’t/Want charts will help expand your horizons! Google will won’t want charts and you will find a variety of charts. SmartHotFun.com is a good site to learn more about them, because they have directions on how to use them. They are divided up by whether someone is giving (purveyor of pleasure) or receiving (beneficiary of bliss) pleasure, and by whether sex toys are involved or not. If you are using them with partners, each partner should complete their own chart, which will take some time. Then get together to compare charts. Anything on a Won’t list for either of you is off limits, and you can negotiate what you will do and what you might want to try. All other rules about consent still apply – someone can withdraw or not give consent at a particular time, etc.