What is Consent?

Article by · December 7, 2016 ·

At its core, consent is an act of communication — but for reasons I’m not sure any of us truly understand, sex is an area in which many of us struggle to communicate.

By Angie Rowntree

On its face, consent seems such a simple thing. In our daily lives, we seek and acquire consent from each other on a constant basis, in countless contexts.

Sitting in a line of cars at a stop light, I wave in a driver waiting to leave an adjoining parking lot. With a nod and a smile, she slips into traffic in front of me. Without my initial wave, who would just assume they’re being let into the line, risking a collision and all that comes with it?

It’s a clumsy analogy, but you get the point: Day to day, minute by minute, mutual consent is the underpinning of the social transactions which make our human worlds go round, whether it’s delivered in the form of a waving hand or a signed contract.

So why does consent, usually such a simple thing, a thing we forge, honor, negotiate and renegotiate almost constantly, seem to get so complicated in a sexual context?

At its core, consent is an act of communication, and for reasons I’m not sure any of us truly understand, sex is an area in which many of us struggle to communicate.

We feel awkward, we get tense, we worry about offending, putting off, or inadvertently filling with feelings of rejection even partners with whom we’re quite familiar and very much in love.

I’m generalizing, of course, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over years of my own relationships, as well as in the context of directing adult films, it’s communicating about sex is something which doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, myself included at times.

The good news is, communication is something at which we all can (and do) improve, including communicating about sex and consent.

If you’re in a long term relationship which is strong and stable, you likely communicate well with your partner, sometimes verbally, sometimes with no more than a glance.

Think back to the beginning of the relationship, though, and chances are you’ll realize the easy, comfortable communication you enjoy now as a couple wasn’t there right off the bat. Things on which you and your partner now share an understanding and possibly don’t even need to communicate about anymore were less assured, so you needed more explicit communication in areas where it’s now basically implicit.

When it comes to sexual consent, the unfortunate fact is a lot of people seem to think it’s a two-position switch which gets flipped only once, or like a traffic light which once it turns green, stays green going forward, no matter what.

In truth, sexual consent is something which must be communicated, mutually understood and respected as a series of discrete decisions and interpersonal transactions. When your partner consents to having sex, you can’t assume this means she or he is automatically on board with every sex act in which you wish to engage, or something your partner somehow can’t retract if they become uncomfortable, or find unenjoyable any particular sex act to which they’ve already consented, after it has actually begun.

Just as communication is inextricably bound to consent, so too is respect, because it doesn’t particularly matter whether you’re listening to your partner if you don’t respect what they’re trying to communicate to you.

For some people, the idea of gaining consent for each aspect of a sexual encounter sounds painfully unsexy, but I believe this is because they’re thinking about it like a checklist on a clipboard, rather than as the joy of getting to know and understand their partner on a deep and fundamental level.

There’s no reason communicating openly before, after and during sex should be stilted or awkward, especially when lovers are exploring together and getting to know each other sexually.

Sure, it can be a little frightening to be the one who initiates communication, particularly if you’re discussing something you haven’t tried together before, but it can also be exciting, as it bears the possibility of introducing a mutual pleasure both of you might not have experienced otherwise.

In an ideal world, we’d all be able to read our partners’ minds, or simply sense exactly what they want, when they want it, how they want it. But this isn’t an ideal world, it’s a human world; in order to understand each other, we need to reach that understand through communication, through listening, and through respecting what we hear.

Communication and consent are not complicated, but in a sexual context, they can be difficult — but it’s also worth every effort we have to make to achieve them, because when you reach a sexual understanding, when you experience the mutual pleasure which comes with clear communication, with shared respect, you unlock an experience as magical and joyous as anything humans are capable of experiencing.

So don’t dread communicating with your partner about sex and don’t let fear of rejection hold you back from exploring sex and exploring each other. Trust and love each other, trust and love yourself, and if at first you struggle with communicating about sex, just take it slow and let your understanding blossom over time.

Above all else, listen to your partner, respect their choices and make sure they listen to and respect you, too. This is the best path to not just great sex, but great relationships as well – be they for life, or for one night.

Originally published on HuffingtonPost. Reprinted with permission.

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