When we talk about consent, it’s often in the context of sexual assault and/or intimate partner violence. While these are definitely conversations that we should be having, not enough people are talking about why consent matters in healthy relationships, and that’s not good. The thing is, consent affects long-term relationships on a daily basis. Many people, myself included, have experienced non-consensual sex at the hands of a long-term partner, and that's unacceptable. Just because you’re partnered-up with someone doesn’t mean you’ve consented to everything they like in bed. It doesn’t mean they have the right to coerce your consent. And it doesn’t mean they get to do whatever they want to you without first obtaining your permission, either.
What’s equally important to remember if you’re currently in a long-term relationship, or ever plan to be in a long-term relationship in the future, is the fact that consent between long-term partners isn’t always specifically about sex. When you share a life with someone, both of you need to be cultivating an ongoing discussion about your boundaries with exes and friends. Both of you need to work toward creating a space where you feel safe expressing what you want your relationship to look like, sexually and otherwise.
Both NYC-based relationship coach, Effy Blue, and St. Louis-based sex therapist, Angela Skurtu, agree that consent is a big deal for couples. Here's what the two relationship experts have to say about why consent matters in long-term relationships.
Consent Is Mandatory, And It Improves Communication
One of the most dangerous misconceptions about consent in relationships is the idea that you don't really need to talk about it unless someone wants to have anal or have a threesome. Another scary (but popular) falsehood about consent between couples is the belief that you don't need to obtain consent from your partner simply because they're your partner.
Let me be clear: neither of these widely accepted notions are true. Consent can change from minute to minute, so it's really important that you and your partner keep the lines of communication open when it comes to all things sexual. "In an ideal world, how consent looks in a relationship, especially around sex, is an ongoing communication," Blue tells Bustle. "It's not about 'can I do this to you?' ... it's an ongoing dialogue about sex and sexuality and boundaries and desires."
Consent Applies To More Than Just Your Sex Life
Consent, as it pertains to relationships, isn't just about your sex life with your partner. It can also be about how you and your partner conduct yourself with exes and friends. Skurtu tells Bustle that the monogamous couples she sees tend to assume their partner has the same boundaries that they do, but that's often not the case. "A big piece of what people have to do is be very clear about the lines," Skurtu says, "Like, what is your boundary? What's OK? What's not OK?"
The fact is, you and your partner might have different ideas about what constitutes flirting and/or cheating, and you both need to be able to consent to the roles that other people play in your relationship. So consent in relationships isn't just about the sex you and your partner are having. At it's core, obtaining consent in your relationship is literally just communicating with your partner about the behaviors each of you are comfortable with — whether they happen inside or outside of the bedroom.
Consent Is Healing
For anyone who's experienced sexual trauma of any kind, consent isn't just mandatory, it's a crucial part of the healing process. In fact, Skurtu says she instructs all of the survivors she works with to consent at every step of their sexual experiences for this reason. Skurtu tells Bustle, "A person who's been affected by trauma needs to be able to do that [consent] every step of the way ... and have a partner who's totally respectful of that."
Skurtu says emphasizing the importance of consent is one of the ways she helps her clients re-experience their sexual desires, too. She encourages the survivors she sees to go into sex fully focused on what they can get out of it. This way, trauma sufferers are consenting for themselves — rather than just for the sake of their partner's pleasure. "Being able to stop and re-consent in a moment, sexually, is something that's very healing for a person who's been affected by trauma, because that's the one thing they didn't get when they were traumatized," Skurtu explains.
When Consent Is An Ongoing Dialogue, Nothing Is Assumed (Or Boring)
When consent isn't an ongoing dialogue in your relationship, the relationship itself will become one giant assumption that's rarely questioned. This isn't healthy or stimulating for anyone involved, which is why it's important that you and your partner feel like you're able to consent (or not) to the details of your relationship on a regular basis.
Relationships (especially monogamous ones) come with societally-prescribed default settings, but just because those norms exist doesn't mean you and your partner shouldn't be talking about what you want and need from each other on a regular basis. As Blue puts it, "The default settings of monogamy really prevent us from having some deep conversations and agreeing on things that we really may need or want." Blue continues, "Anything that gets you away from the default settings, and makes you have conscious, active decisions, is good for the relationship."
If you and your partner aren't talking about your relationship, then neither of you are truly consenting to how it's going. Having regular check-ins with each other will prevent either of you from feeling like you're relationship has been defined by someone else's standards instead of your own.
If Consent Is Valued, You'll Both Feel Safe Asking For What You Really Want
Blue says it's crucial to "create a space in a relationship where all requests and all responses are welcome." Of course, this space can only exist if you and your partner are, as individuals, in touch with what you're really into sexually. Regardless, when consent is valued in your relationship, it's far more likely that you'll feel comfortable asking your partner about introducing new positions/partners/toys into your sex life. Valuing consent should make it easier for you to listen to your partner express their sexual desires and boundaries, too. Blue says when the exchange of sexual questions isn't an issue in your relationship, you can both ask for anything — because it's always a request, never a demand.
When there's zero pressure to say "yes," you and your partner have freed each other from the fear of being pushed into doing something that you might not be 100 percent onboard with. And if you're the one asking the questions, you don't have to fear being shamed or judged by your partner, because no question is off-limits. Basically, when consent is the cornerstone of your relationship, there's nothing that you can't ask for in bed, because it's understood that nothing goes down in the bedroom until both of you have actively agreed to it. Now that's hot.