9 Sex Educators & Experts On The One Thing They Wish People Would Understand About Consent
A year into the mainstream #MeToo movement, questions about consent continue to arise in infuriating ways. From bad faith arguments, to "playing devil's advocate," to just plain playing dumb, meaningful conversations about consent have been derailed, undermined, and stifled at seemingly every turn.
The truth is, consent isn't just about avoiding criminality. It isn't something that we should be taking about only in the context of sex. And it isn't solely about obtaining permission for something we want. There are as many ways to negotiate consent as there are ways to practice it, and even the ways in which we go about asking are up for discussion.
Because the conversation is so vast in scope, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless in terms of ever "getting it right." But what if consent isn't about getting it right, or about being perfect, or about never inflicting harm? What if it's just about developing interpersonal intuition through practice, taking accountability when harm is perpetrated, and simply actually caring about other people?
Below, sex educators share the one thing they wish people would understand about consent, to reframe the conversation into something productive, rather than getting bogged down in distracting "whataboutism." Here are a few ways to start thinking about it.
1. It's About Way More Than Legal Protection
"It's important to remember that consent is only the bare minimum for sex. It's essential that both parties agree to whatever happens — but that only puts you on safe legal ground, and there's a lot more to sex than that. Start with consent, absolutely. But also layer on playfulness, curiosity about your partner, and caring about their feelings and their pleasure. Consent makes sex legal; those other things are what make it good." —Jill Whitney, LMFT
2. It's Not Just 'A Nice Thing To Do'
"It's not just a 'nice thing to do' or something one can opt out of considering. There are a lot of people who don't realize that consent is not a one-time agreement at the start of an encounter with someone, but a living, shifting thing between all parties involved. Agreeing to one thing doesn't mean agreeing to anything else or even agreeing to that same act again at some other time. A fantastic side effect of communicating clearly during sex and making sure everyone involved is enthusiastic and excited is that the sex is generally light years better than when we make assumptions or agree to do things we aren't interested in." —Domina Franco, sex educator
3. Don't Take 'No' Personally
"As a sexual health counselor and relationship therapist, I wish people understood that hearing 'no,' or not getting the consent they hoped for, doesn't have to be a personal rejection or a reflection of them as a person. I think that if we all took 'no' at face value, more people would feel comfortable to express their truth without fear of repercussion, and the folks who hear 'no' may have the space to be more psychologically flexible." —Alana Ogilvie, LMFT
4. We Put More Emphasis On Obtaining Consent Than On What It Actually Means
"I wish people knew that sometimes even prematurely asking for consent can be a violation of consent or boundaries. This is the product of a culture that only teaches to ask, especially when the asking isn’t always realistic. While it’s great that we’re talking so openly about consent, it will get us into trouble if this is the only tool of measurement for a sexual encounter. Obtaining consent, or an enthusiastic yes, is not a fail safe for leaving others unharmed. Trauma and consent are not conditional. Trauma need not exist with the presence of a no or the absence of a yes.
Asking for consent can make it all about the person asking — all about what they want, for which the other party acts as the gatekeeper. Ask yourself what it is that the other person wants or desires from the situation at hand. What is their experience going to be? Now more than ever, men have a delusional fear that they’re going to be falsely accused of sexual assault. This fear makes people act with their own best interests in mind, instead of thinking through what leads to allegations.
What if we thought of consent as not hurting others? Yes, we should be conscious of and continuously ask for consent. But consent isn’t that simple and it shouldn’t be. We should make an effort not to hurt others, but hurt is going to happen. You’re going to make mistakes. Yes, even you. It is how we respond to them and adjust that defines us." —Lola Jean, sex educator
5. You're Allowed To Change Your Mind
"The one thing that I wish people understood about consent is that even when consent is freely and enthusiastically given, it doesn't mean someone can't take it away. Whether in an intimate sexual encounter or an emotional conversation with a family member, you are always allowed to change your mind about consent. Just because you excitedly told someone that it was OK for them to kiss you, doesn't mean that two minutes later, you can't decide to tell them to stop. You don't need to have a reason or an explanation, you're allowed to just not want to, even after you already said that you did! If you feel safe with the person or people, then communicating and processing what you're feeling can be a great way to transition out of any awkward feelings. But you don't owe anyone anything, not even an explanation if you don't feel comfortable giving one. Perhaps you're not even sure what your reasoning is! Just knowing that you changed your mind is enough of a reason." —Arielle Egozi, founding member of Women of Sex Tech
6. Learn To Read Body Language
"Consent needs to be something that is negotiated as an ongoing contractual agreement even after sex has started. So this means we need check-ins, and we need to be picking up body language as ways that someone can communicate nonverbal non-consent. If my partner's body is feeling stiff, if they are avoiding eye contact with me, if they are no longer making enjoyable sounds, then I may need to stop the activity I am doing in order to check in and make sure everything is OK. Some folks dissociate during sex because they have traumatic sex histories. Each person requires something a little bit different to feel safe and comfortable in a romantic or sexual experience, and the only way we can understand our partners better is to open our mouths and our hearts and communicate." —Sonalee Rashatwar, MSW LCSW MEd
7. Consent Is Worth Learning About
"One thing I wish people would understand about consent is first that it's actually a concept worth understanding! It's incredibly dangerous and sad that most adults have never had consent explained to them — what it is, what it looks like, why it's important. I could rant about all the nuanced things I wish people would understand about consent (that not getting sexual consent is assault, that consent is part of a broader concept of respect for bodily and personal autonomy, that age-appropriate consent education should be a part of formal education from day one, that consent is not just a sexual concept and we need to be practicing it in all areas of life...). But if I had to choose just one thing I wish people understood, I'd start from the beginning and say I wish people understood that this is important and worth understanding and learning about." —Dr. Jill McDevitt, sex educator
8. Learn To Deal With The Feelings That Hearing 'No' Stirs Up
"We do ourselves a disservice when we allow consent to be a word that only applies to sexual situations. We model, experience, and negotiate consent daily. When we understand this, we take the fear and awkwardness out of the consent conversation because we have an existing script. Perhaps most important, consent isn't solely about saying yes or no. It's about hearing (and respecting) someone else's answer — and learning to live with disappointment or frustration if the answer isn't what we want. I think it is this last part that people need to understand more than ever before." —Logan Levkoff, Ph.D
9. Recognize Every Relationship Where Your Consent Is Violated
"So many of us are in friendships, work relationships, or families where people ignore our boundaries, take away our decision making power, minimize the things we want to do, and leave us feeling used and awful. As we talk about building a consent culture, we need to practice it in all of our interactions. " —Dalychia & Rafaella, Afrosexology