What is consent? Seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? But if you were put on the spot right now to respond, how would you define it? It’s alright to struggle coming up with a good answer because although “consent” is a word that we are hearing more and more of these days, there aren’t enough in-depth conversations about what it actually means – especially in the context of relationships.
Even when two people have been in a committed relationship for years or decades, neither of them are obligated to have sex or engage in sexual activity. What they consent to do or not do is their choice and their choice alone. Even if they have consented to something once, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have consent to do it again.
“Everyone has times when physical or sexual closeness is unwanted and, even within intimate relationships, that choice should be respected,” said Jolene Cardenas, Director of Communications & Development for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault – a supporting organization of Stand Up Colorado.
Although an overwhelming majority of us wouldn’t intentionally engage in sexual abuse, that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve the sex in our own lives. This involves gaining a complete understanding of what consent is, engaging in healthy communication about sex with your partner and respecting each other’s boundaries.
Yes Means Yes
The primary lesson that most of us are taught growing up is the old adage, “no means no”. Unfortunately, this approach fails to adequately establish true consent where sexual activity is a mutual decision between both people who feel safe and respected. Even if an incident doesn’t fit the primary definition of “violence”, many sexual assaults occur through manipulating and coercing someone into going along with it despite discomfort or feeling unsafe.
“Yes does not necessarily mean ‘yes’, if it is not freely given,” Cardenas said.
Although there have been pushes over the past 25 years to establish “Yes means yes” as a legal standard for consent, it isn’t just about creating new rules and laws. It means changing our culture to one that values healthy sex and promotes sexual activity that is grounded in mutual respect, safety and comfort.
Talk About Sex
One of the most common concerns about getting consent is that it will ruin the mood, but in fact, the mood is best when both people feel safe, comfortable, respected and free to communicate what they want and don’t want to do. Dr. Jenni Skyler – a board certified sexologist who provides sex, marriage and family therapy at The Intimacy Institute in Boulder – emphasized the importance of engaging in open communication to healthy sex in relationships.
“Otherwise, we’re in the bedroom and we’re making a lot of assumptions and hoping our partner is a mind-reader – which they often are not,” she said. “We are operating by social scripts of what we think sex should look like without actually communicating what we want, what we need, what are our boundaries.”
But what if we’re in the heat of the moment, you ask? Getting consent doesn’t have to be a formal procedure with a question like, “Do I now have your consent to commence sexual intercourse now?”. There are many ways to establish consent, including actions that many couples commonly engage in without formally identifying it.
“That it’s somehow unsexy to ask to move on to the next step I think is an untrue assumption,” Skyler said. “You can say in a very sexy way, you kind of purr or moan or just even ask, ‘hey sweetheart, how do you feel about doing the next step,’ or, ‘how do you feel about switching gears’. I think sexiness is correlated with confidence. If you can say something or ask something just to make sure you’re both on the same page and say it with confidence, then it can be sexy.”
Learn Each Other’s Boundaries
Healthy sex is about respecting each other’s feelings and boundaries, especially when you don’t see eye-to-eye on them. Both people should feel free to openly share things that they like or don’t like with each other. Establishing and discussing those boundaries is integral to healthy sex in relationships.
“It’s key to getting needs met and feeling safe,” Skyler said. “Communication is about safety. Safety allows for connection and connection allows for intimacy.”
If you are with someone that is uncomfortable performing a sexual activity that you desire, there is no excuse for pressuring them into doing it. Even when you think they are comfortable with it, you should check in with each other before, during and after sexual activity.
“What I tell my couples is as you start experimenting together, it’s important to have language for the gray,” Skyler said. “I often give them language of just green, yellow, red. Green is absolute go, red is absolute no and yellow is not sure, let’s go slow, let’s be curious, let’s be tentative and you might find that it’s a total green or total red. Just having language going into it is super helpful.”
Sexual Coercion is Relationship Violence
Everyone has different preferences when it comes to the bedroom but it’s not OK to pressure or force someone into having sex or performing an act that they are uncomfortable with. That is known as sexual coercion and is a behavior that is common in abusive relationships.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 10 people in Colorado experience sexual abuse in a relationship during their lifetime1. The U.S. Department of Justice also found that more than 2 in 5 women in physically abusive relationships experience sexual abuse2.
“It is a way for a partner to exert control or power over the other,” Cardenas said.
If you have done this with a partner before, it’s not OK but it is OK to ask for help. You can contact the Stand Up Colorado Helpline where our Colorado-based, trained professionals are waiting to answer questions and connect you with support resources in your area. Call 885.9StandUp (855-978-2638) or visit our website to chat with them online.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report (2017).
2 U.S. Department of Justice. Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Finding from the National Violence Against Women Survey. (2016).