Establishing Mutual Consent (WLC Toolbox)
By: Fox Monstera, #WeLoveConsent Communications & Social Media Intern, DanceSafe, Sloane Ferenchak, #WeLoveConsent Coordinator, Editor
#WeLoveConsent seeks to help dismantle rape culture and build a consent culture within the electronic music and nightlife communities. #WeLoveConsent initiatives and services focus on building a consent culture and reducing the incidence of sexual violence in nightlife settings through consent education and bystander intervention. As part of these initiatives, we are publishing a #WeLoveConsent Toolbox Blog Series which focuses on providing the fundamental knowledge our community needs to practice affirmative consent and to help us build a consent culture in the electronic music and nightlife communities.
Consent: What is it, and Why is it Important?
To begin, let’s define consent. Sexual consent is establishing and respecting the boundaries of all people involved in a sexual situation. Consent is an informed, explicit, and affirmative decision made freely and actively by all parties to engage in mutually acceptable and desired sexual activity. Consent is all about communication and respect, should ideally be verbal, and can be supported by actions that create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Establishing consent involves communicating wants and boundaries, with the understanding that at any time, these boundaries and desires can change, and that change needs to be respected. Any person involved has the right to change their mind and stop the interaction without guilt or fear of repercussion or violence.
So, why is consent important? Learning the importance of consent and how it’s established is necessary for engaging in sexual experiences with others. Respecting the boundaries, desires, and needs of others allows everyone to enjoy the experience without fear or harm. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t explicitly taught lessons about healthy relationships, sexual boundaries and advocating for our needs and desires. This lack of education and discussion contributes to the prevalence of sexual assault in America and the rape culture that helps maintain it.
Sexual assault, which is sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent, is pervasive in our society, and it affects people of all backgrounds and identities. It can result in long-lasting such as STI transmission, increased anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD and other health-related concerns. Let’s look at the real-life reach of rape culture by examining some sexual assault statistics in America:
- Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted (RAINN).
- 1 out of 3 women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.
- Several studies report between 14-16% of males have been sexually assaulted by the age of 18, while other studies report that 1 in 75 men experience sexual assault (NSVRC).
- 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experience sexual assault in contrast to 35% of heterosexual women.
- 37% of bisexual men and 26% of gay men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner (HRC)
- 47% of trans people have reported experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes, (HRC).
These numbers increase when you account for the intersections of race, disability, gender, class, and queer identity. It is important to note that due to stigma, harassment and a dominant rape culture, sexual assault is heavily underreported, especially by marginalized groups. These numbers do not reflect a portion of people who haven’t felt safe enough to come forward to report their experiences. Too many people are getting hurt because of the societal ignorance around consent which perpetuates rape culture. We can’t control the world around us but we can learn how to bring more awareness, respect and compassion into our interactions.
Establishing Consent vs. Getting Consent
STEP ONE: EVALUATE THE SITUATION TO DETERMINE IF CONSENT CAN BE ESTABLISHED
Consent is fundamental to having mutually pleasurable sexual experiences. When enthusiastic, explicit and informed consent is established, everyone involved can understand the boundaries that must be followed for everyone to feel safe and comfortable, which helps everyone have a wonderful, sexy time. What does establishing consent look like? First of all, as common sense as this may seem, this needs to be said: It is MANDATORY for the people you want to get sexy with to be awake, and in a mental state to be aware and able to process what is happening. People involved must be aware and understanding of the situation for consent to be valid.
It is especially important to keep this in mind when engaging in substance use. If someone has consumed substances, you can’t make judgments about their capacity to establish informed consent. When someone has consumed substances, their judgment and inhibitions are altered, as is their ability to perceive the situation in the way that they normally would. This means that if someone says “yes” while intoxicated, they might not have agreed to the same things had they been sober, making their consent potentially invalid.
Don’t engage with people if you aren’t sure of their mental state. If they might be intoxicated but you aren’t sure, ask (with the awareness that intoxicated people may not be able to accurately assess their level of intoxication). If they are intoxicated and you haven’t had sober conversations about having sexy time while on substances, it’s best to wait until all parties are sober to talk about your desires and boundaries before sex. Navigating this situation could look something like: “Hey, I think you’re really cute and I’ve loved dancing with you all night but I think we’re both a bit intoxicated. I’d love to talk about some sexy time in the morning when we’re both sober. How does that sound to you?”
It’s important to remember that the amount of substances someone has had is also not a reliable indicator of someone’s mental state. We all have different tolerance levels and our bodies process things differently. No matter how excited you are, when in doubt, wait until all parties are sober.
Overall, consent is about respecting the people you’re interacting with, their minds, bodies, and feelings. The absence of “no” does not mean “yes!” Only an aware, enthusiastic ‘yes’ means yes– end of story. Expressing your desires and boundaries and being open to discussing and respecting those of your partner(s) is crucial to establishing mutual consent where everyone can be pleasured in a way that minimizes the risk of harm and boundaries being crossed and maximizes pleasure.
STEP TWO: MAKE SURE YOU’RE APPROACHING SOMEONE FROM A PLACE OF RESPECT
Consent is about respect. One way to respect your sexual partners is to see them as people rather than as an opportunity for a sexual experience. Let’s explore the idea of subject-object consciousness, an idea proposed by a radical queer activist, Harry Hays. He saw subject-object consciousness as a main structure in heterosexual sex culture. Subject-object consciousness, or seeing the other people you’re interacting with more as objects for pleasure and use rather than full embodied people, results in the sexual objectification of the others. Viewing people in this way creates emotional barriers that result in dehumanization and prevents deeper connection and intimacy. When you only see someone as a means to fulfill your desires, you are ignoring large parts of their existence and experience which prevents you from getting a deeper understanding of them.
Subject-subject consciousness, on the other hand, is the practice of seeing all parties involved as subjects with autonomy. It’s the awareness that you’re interacting with someone with thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are just as real and vivid as your own. When you can incorporate this thought process of mutual experience and respect into your consent practices, all people involved feel seen, their desires and boundaries are heard, and sex is a lot more enjoyable because everyone knows everyone is having a great time and feeling safe. This is especially important in the context of power dynamics. While practicing respect, consent, and subject-subject consciousness, it is important to think about the power dynamics at work in the situation. It is the responsibility of people with power to provide all relevant information leaving it up to the other person(s) to decide what is best for them. (We will expand more on navigating power dynamics in an upcoming article in the #WeLoveConsent Toolbox Series titled Introduction to Navigating Power Dynamics.)
Let’s examine this in practice. When you see someone you’re attracted to and want to approach them, it’s important to put yourself in the position of the person you’re approaching to see whether you’d like to be approached the way you might be planning, recognizing that what you are comfortable with might not align with what they would be comfortable with. Catcalling or objectifying someone in your approach is more than rude, it’s harassment. Keep in mind some groups experience higher rates of catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment and it’s important to be aware of this power dynamic when you approach people. “Hey, you’ve got a great ass, you make me want to bring you back to my place” reads very differently than “Hi, I noticed you from across the bar and I think you’re really attractive. I’d love to have a drink with you and see where that goes.” Respect drastically shifts the conversation and allows for a better connection between all involved parties.
STEP THREE: ASK FIRST!
Do you see a cutie at the club that you want to go dance with? Go for it! But don’t assume because they smile at you or are dancing near you that they are consenting for you to kiss or touch them or grab their butt. Always ask first before you touch someone! Bodily autonomy is the idea that a person has full control and decision making power over their body, who touches it, how it’s touched and for how long. Nobody has the right to touch or use another’s body without the explicit consent of that person.
Asking first and checking in needs to happen in any situation where you want to be intimate with someone. Maybe you and some friends have had an awesome night at a concert and are cuddling and massaging each other after a night of partying. Although you might all feel cozy and fuzzy, just because you’re all lying down together doesn’t mean you can touch anyone without asking them first. Consent is continuous which means you should ask first before making your next move.
STEP FOUR: ESTABLISH CONSENT RATHER THAN GETTING CONSENT
Often, we hear that we need to make sure we get consent from our partner(s). At DanceSafe, we’d like to challenge this sentiment and instead encourage our community to mutually establish consent.
How are they different? Getting consent can imply that consent is a blanket statement and once you ‘get it’ you can have sex with someone and do what you want. Operating under the premise that getting a ‘yes’ is the go-ahead to have your fun with the other people removes the autonomy of the other parties involved. If you just get a yes but don’t talk about what all parties want/don’t want out of the experience, boundaries can be accidentally crossed. Crossing people’s boundaries is never any fun, and can have painful, long-lasting repercussions.
Consent as an ongoing conversation, or establishing mutual consent, depicts a deeper level of connection and understanding of the needs, desires, and respect for all involved. This is accomplished by discussing how all parties wish to give and receive consent, discussing the desires and boundaries of all partners, continuously checking in with all parties during an experience, and being intentional in your language so that there is more room for the co-creation of the experience.
When establishing consent, keep in mind that not everyone interacts with consent in the same way. There are different ways to establish and maintain consent. Make it a conversation! Ask your partner(s) how they prefer to give and receive consent and advocate for yourself by communicating your own boundaries. This decreases the chance of accidentally violating your partner(s). For example, you may be consistently comfortable moving between different situations using non-verbal cues, but that doesn’t mean that your partner(s) feels the same way. Discuss when you’re comfortable using non-verbal cues and when you want to establish verbal consent. It is crucial to understand how your partner(s) want to navigate consent during sexual experiences so that nobody feels violated.
After you’ve discussed how you wish to communicate consent, start a conversation about your sexual desires and boundaries. At times, people feel that having a conversation about consent and boundaries is awkward and can take away from the feelings, emotions, and sexiness from a situation. It’s understandable to feel nervous or uncomfortable being explicit about our desires and boundaries since we are not taught to do so, and see so few examples around us of how to navigate these situations. However, talking about your desires and boundaries doesn’t need to be awkward. It can be fun and sexy to learn how to advocate for yourself and hear what your partner(s) want!
Being able to have a conversation about what you want to do with your sexual partners, what you’d like them to do with you, and what you all don’t want, can lead to much more pleasurable sex, with less anxiety and worry. After all, the goal is to have mutually pleasurable experiences for all parties. It’s much better and more fun to know someone’s boundaries than to accidentally cross them while trying to please them. Talk about a mood killer! Plus, knowing how your partners want you to pleasure them is both exciting and helpful!
Let’s be real, navigating consent can be downright sexy. For example, “I love it when people bite my neck while they’re kissing me, can you do that too?” or “Hey cutie, you mentioned enjoying restraints, is that something we’d like to do tonight? If so, let’s talk about boundaries with that and have a safe word.” (We’ll be discussing how to make consent sexy more in depth later in this series.)
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that consent is continuous and that you should be checking-in with your partner(s). Checking in during play is crucial to maintaining comfort, a sense of safety and a positive experience for all involved. Asking “Does this feel good?” “Want me to keep going?” “Do you want me to fuck you harder?” can be really sexy and lets everyone know what’s going on in the moment.
If someone has consented to having some sexy time but what that includes hasn’t been clarified to everyone involved, there could be misunderstandings about what’s going to happen and what’s being desired. One person’s perception of what sex is can be different from another’s. For example, if Jerome has been crushing on Julian and they are finally ready to get sexy, there are a few things to think about before jumping into bed. If Jerome says “yes” to having sex with Julian, that doesn’t mean that all the things that Jerome wants do with Julian are mutually desired. It’s important for both Jerome and Julian to discuss their desires and boundaries so they are on the same page.
This also provides an opportunity for both parties to define terms. Perhaps Jerome uses the term sex to loosely refer to all sexual encounters while Julian specifically uses the term sex to describe penetrative sex. Again, consent is always ideally verbally expressed, which is much clearer than relying on body language cues, and is usually a clearer representation of someone’s wants and needs in the moment.
To wrap it up (no pun intended), consider the following questions when establishing consent. If all involved have discussed what they want and don’t want, have you discussed how all of you want to be asked before moving between those activities? Have you expressed whether or not you’re okay with relying on body language cues for doing things you’ve already agreed upon without requiring additional verbal consent? What happens if one of you wants to try something new that wasn’t discussed?
Sex and physical intimacy can be really pleasurable, fun, enriching experiences. Whether you have a committed partner, multiple partners or are enjoying life and playing around, practicing consent makes sex so much better and more fulfilling for everyone involved by creating a comfortable, safe, and respectful atmosphere to have fun.
It can take practice to get used to being explicit with desires and asking partners before you do something, but when everyone feels that their consent and needs are heard and being respected, everyone can have much more enjoyable time. Sex is fun and can be messy, and learning how to respect yourself and the other people involved can take some time and unpacking of norms that our society perpetuates. #WeLoveConsent will continue to delve further into the nuanced components of having sex and hooking up with integrity as we continue to build a toolbox for establishing consensual sexy time. Stay tuned for our upcoming articles and follow us on social media!
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