Thanks to the #MeToo movement, people are becoming more conscious of how they treat others' sexual boundaries. Yet there's still some confusion over what constitutes sexual consent. Even those with the best of intentions can disrespect others' boundaries if they don't understand how to respect them.
That's where Sexual Consent, a book forthcoming from MIT Press in May 2019 by blogger, activist, and University of the West of England researcher Milena Popova, comes in. Sexual Consent teaches readers the concepts and terminology that are essential to know if you want to practice good consent in your sex life.
"We tend to think of consent as this very binary thing," Popova tells Bustle. "It was either consent or it was rape, and there's a very sharp dividing line between them. That's the way the law thinks about it: If we can't prove it was rape, then it must have been consent, the end. But actually, like pretty much anything to do with sex, consent can be quite messy. It involves humans and emotions. And it's enmeshed in all sorts of social and power structures."
What makes consent even more complex is that even when people do seemingly consent, they're often consenting under pressure, either from a partner or from society, which isn't true consent. Consent is "shaped as much — if not more — by what we think we should do and want as by what we actually want," says Popova. "So, that legalistic perspective — it was either one or the other — isn't very helpful on a day-to-day level if we want to make sure the sex we're engaging in is genuinely consensual. On that level, we need to bear in mind that we and our partners are complicated, messy human beings, be attuned to each other's feelings and responses, and respect each other's boundaries."
Here are some terms and concepts from Sexual Consent that you should learn if you want to be the most respectful partner you can be.
1. Sexual Scripts
A sexual script is a societal idea of how sex is supposed to go. For instance, the dominant sexual script in American society goes something like "kissing, foreplay, intercourse." The problem with this is that it promotes a limited definition of sex, which in turn promotes a limited definition of sexual assault.
"Your bodily autonomy is still violated by being kissed or touched against your will, not only by being penetrated against your will," Popova writes. Therefore, we need to stop viewing activities like kissing and touching as expressions of consent for intercourse (which they're not) and view them as acts that require consent in of themselves. And we should't make assumptions about what someone consents to based on sexual scripts; we should take the time to find out what kinds of sex they enjoy.
2. Conditional Consent
Consenting to a sexual act does not mean consenting to every form of it at any time. For example, if someone consents to intercourse, they may only be consenting on the condition that a condom is used — which is why stealthing (non-consensual condom removal) is a form of sexual assault.
"Saying that consent can be conditional means that you can say 'yes, I want to do this with you, but only on these conditions,'" Popova writes. "Consent to penetration can be conditional on condom use, consent to oral sex can be conditional on the use of dental dams, and consent to having an open relationship or multiple partners can be conditional on regular STI testing. But there are also other situations where conditional consent applies. For sex workers, for instance, consent is conditional on being paid for their work." So, again, it's important not to make assumptions and to discuss the specifics of what your partner wants.
3. Contractual Consent
Unfortunately, our society often views consent as contractual — i.e., like an economic exchange. Contractual consent is "the idea that certain unrelated actions by one partner generate an obligation for another partner to engage in sexual activity," Popova writes. The stereotypical situation, for example, is that a woman provides sex in exchange for long-term commitment or financial support from a man.
The problem with this model is that it implies that one person owes the other person sex, rather than both people having it because they mutually want to. Even in cases like sex work where someone has sex to get something from their partner, this person always has the right to withdraw consent.
4. Continuous Consent
Speaking of withdrawing consent, anybody can always withdraw consent at any time. Consent must be continuous, which means that "you are allowed to change your mind about what you are doing at any point during a sexual situation, for any reason," Popova writes. This also means it's important to keep checking in with your partner to make sure they consent to each act you engage in.
If you're not comfortable with a sexual encounter, you can just say, "Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore," Popova suggests. You can also say something more specific to take the encounter in a new direction, like, “Let’s do something else that’s fun for both of us.”
5. Indirect Communication
People sometimes say that sexual assault victims should have been firmer in saying "no" to make it clear that the advances weren't welcome. But women are socialized to avoid direct communication like this, Popova points out, and often, subtler forms of communication are clear enough for the perpetrator to get the message — they just decide to take advantage of the indirect communication by pretending it's unclear.
After all, there are other situations where people accept indirect forms of "no." For example, to decline an invitation, you might say, “I can’t go out for a beer tonight, I’m playing football" or “Not right now, thanks, but maybe later," Popova points out. It's not always easy to just say "no." That's why affirmative consent, where only "yes" means yes, is a better standard than "no means no."
6. Non-Sexual Consent
The call to honor people's bodily autonomy applies to much more than sex. Teaching people about consent also means teaching children they don't have to hug their relatives, teaching adolescents not to pressure anyone to go out with them, and teaching people to ask before making physical contact with anyone.
Whatever your boundaries are, people should respect all of them just as they'd respect your sexual boundaries. "Preferring to be addressed by a nickname rather than your full name may be a boundary," Povova writes. "Being comfortable in small groups but not in large gatherings may be a boundary. Not liking certain foods or preferring handshakes over hugs are also examples of nonsexual boundaries we may set for ourselves."
7. Intimate Partner Sexual Violence
The stereotype of a sexual assault occurring at the hands of a stranger in a dark alley does not represent most assaults. In fact, one in 10 people has been the victim of rape by a partner, according to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Due to traditional views of marriage as the possession of a woman by a man, many people don't even realize that non-consensual sexual activity with a spouse or intimate partner is assault. Spousal rape is even treated differently than other kinds of rape in some U.S. states.
No matter how long you've been dating someone, it's important to make sure they consent to anything sexual you do together. "While in saying 'I do' you promise to do quite a lot of things, letting your spouse use your body for their sexual gratification whenever they want to is not one of them," writes Popova.
The #MeToo movement has helped more sexual assault survivors come forward and feel validated that what happened to them was wrong and not their fault. But we need to go further than that by practicing good consent in our own sex lives, and learning the nuances of affirmative consent is a good place to start. Talk to your partner about boundaries before you're even in the bedroom, check in with them while you're having sex, and talk about your sex life afterward to make sure everybody's feeling comfortable and respected.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.