Picture the scene: you’re about to have sex. Good for you! But before you get going, there’s something you’ve got to do first. You need to get enthusiastic consent from your partner.
April is designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year’s campaign is about preventing sexual violence through conversation, and the tagline is: “It’s time… to talk about it! Talk early, talk often. Prevent sexual violence.” The focus is on child sexual abuse prevention, but it’s a lesson that can be applied to sexual violence prevention in general. The characteristics of healthy sexuality need to be taught so risks and harm can be identified. The sex education that children and teens receive places a lot of focus on STDs and contraception, and not enough on actual sex and its workings. If kids don’t know about consent, how can they respect it or practice it? If kids don’t know what assault is, how can they prevent it?
So, back to you, and your imminent sexual experience. You know, I hope, that if they said “no”, you need to stop, because anything you do after that point is rape. But you also need to realise that consent is much more than simply saying “no”. “No” can mean a myriad of things. It can mean that the person is too scared, too shy, too embarrassed to say anything else. It can mean that they’re too intoxicated to say anything at all. And if you have sex with someone who doesn’t want it, because you didn’t make absolutely sure that they did, then that makes you a rapist too.
We need to not only place a greater focus on consent, but move the focus away from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” Because “yes” really is the only thing that means “yes.” Silence doesn’t mean “yes.” “Maybe” doesn’t mean “yes.” “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “yes.” In fact, as far as you need to be concerned, they all mean “no.”
Unless someone gives you enthusiastic, informed consent, then you need to assume that they do not want to have sex with you, and until you receive that “yes,” you should not be trying to have sex with them. Even if they’ve been making out with you all night. Even if they told you that they wanted it earlier. Even if you’re in a relationship. Even if you’re married. Even if you’ve already had sex with them. Even if you’ve already had sex with them that night. Nobody is guaranteed sex with anyone, and nobody is obligated to have sex with anybody. You need to make sure directly before you have sex that whoever you’re with still wants it. And that includes not assuming that, if, say, they consented to oral sex, that they consent to sexual intercourse. Or that if they consent to having vaginal sex, that they consent to having anal sex.
Basically, you need to talk to them. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
So maybe you don’t get it. But that kills the mood! It’s not sexy, it’s awkward, to ask these sorts of questions. Which is funny (not really), because the fact that getting consent is considered so unsexy and awkward can be attributed to the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the first place. I mean, what could be more sexy than knowing that the person that you want to have sex with wants to have sex with you? Unless you want to rape, or, unless sex is something that you feel entitled to. All it takes is a simple question, a simple “wanna fuck?” or an “are you into this?” And what it achieves goes so much further.
But we’re in a relationship/we’re married, you say. I know their body language well enough. Which might be true. In fact, it’s possible to guess that someone you’ve never met until that night consents, judging from the signs they give off, too. But don’t take anything for granted. You can’t make assumptions, and like I said, it could result in you being a rapist. The fact that this could even be considered a worthwhile exchange for not asking one little question says way too much about society.
It’s a vicious cycle, too. If consent is considered unsexy to attain, then it must be considered unsexy to give. And if you feel obliged to have sex, and that the consequences of not doing so are worse than doing so against your will, why would you report that as rape? Make no mistake: it is. And this is why we need enthusiastic consent. More generally, this is why we need to talk about healthy sexuality, and why we need to teach it.
Consent, or the absence of it, is at the heart of sexual violence. It needs to be at the heart of ending it, too.
If you are interested in learning more about consent and healthy sexuality, the below resources are a great place to start:
+ Project Respect, a youth-driven program aimed at preventing sexualised violence
+ Sexual Assault Violence Prevention, Vassar College’s initiative for the prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking on its campus
+ If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse of any kind, please don’t hesitate to talk to someone. Contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) for help and for resources.