On a recent Monday night, I made my annual three-hour drive to teach a consent workshop at one of the UW schools. These events are my favorite part of my job. I believe that consent is the most important part of sex, and thus learning how to ask for and give consent is vital to any comprehensive sex ed program. Any time I have the opportunity, I drive to a college, university, community group, burlesque show, bar, or festival to discuss the nitty gritty of “yes” and “no.” This workshop has some group interaction built into it, complete with a couple of non-sexual roleplaying exercises. The whole thing is designed to be fun, and to last about an hour and a half. But on that particular Monday, I was done in about 50 minutes. The interactive parts of the night had been met with silence, and the roleplaying was a flop. Standing at the front of the room, I wasn’t sure if they were mortified because we were talking about sex, or bored because they’d already had plenty of lessons about consent.
At the end of my discussion (complete with slide show), I like to take anonymous questions from the audience. “Write down anything you’d like to know about sexual health or sexual pleasure, orientation questions, or identity issues,” I say. Typically I get a smattering of questions about squirting, fisting, condoms, kink, and vibrators. On this particular night, every 3×5 card that came back to me had a question about consent. So they wanted to know more, but they didn’t want to participate during the talky-talky parts of the night. While that’s kind of deflating when you’re in the middle of a presentation, it’s ultimately just fine because these folks wanted more information.
These are some of the questions I was asked that night:
So you’re saying that I’m just supposed to ask before I kiss her?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You ask out loud, “Can I kiss you?” It gets easier the more times you do it. And if she happens to say “no thank you,” rejection also gets easier the more times you experience it.
When you’re on a date, is there a way to know what you both want without explicitly saying it?
Nope. Whether you say the words out loud, write them down, text them or use ASL, you need to clearly communicate what you’d like and make sure your date wants the same thing.
What if consent is a given in your relationship? Like, we already know what we like and don’t like. How would you introduce the topic of consent again? Is it even necessary?
Honestly, I think it’s important to touch base fairly regularly. You can do this over breakfast, or on a car ride, or anytime you’re hanging out and feeling close. It’s as easy as, “Hey, I really like the way(s) we have sex. How about you? Anything we should change?”
When someone is persistently asking you to do something, and you keep saying “no,” but then you eventually give in, is this consent?
No, this is not consent. This is coercion. You are allowed to say “no.” When it comes to sex, there are really only two answers. “Yes” means yes. Everything else means no. Obviously “no” means no. So do answers like, “not right now,” “I’m not sure,” “I have a boyfriend,” “maybe,” “I don’t think so,” or really anything that isn’t “yes.”
I’ve been with my partner for over two years. Sometimes they get upset if I say I don’t want to have sex. Healthy or nah?
Nah. Not even a little bit healthy.
My boyfriend never gets upset when I say “no.” He just smiles and says I’m the perfect girl for him. But sometimes I feel really guilty because I want to make him happy. Is this normal?
I think this is the normal result of growing up in a culture that tells young women that other people’s happiness is more important than our own. But it shouldn’t be normal. Instead, we should live in a culture where we value ourselves enough to confidently say yes or no to sex based on what’s best for us, and not on what will make other people happy.
I don’t really ask for consent out loud when I’m with a girl. I’m really good at reading people—everybody says so. I just watch the body language and I can tell when the time is right. You know what I mean?
I know what you think you mean, but there’s a really important thing you’re missing. If you refer to the question just before yours, you’ll see that most women in our culture are more concerned with pleasing others than taking care of themselves. We are taught to value the happiness we give others, and we are rarely taught how to pursue our own happiness. Additionally, women in our culture know that we are always at risk of being assaulted. (No, not All Men. But yes, absolutely All Women.) Because of this, we know that often we should just go along with things because it’s the safer choice. It’s far riskier to upset a potential attacker. The combination of these two things means that unless you ask for consent directly, you may end up having sex with someone who didn’t really want it at all.
If you’re in an older relationship, does consent change? How does it change?
If you’re an “old married couple” (so to speak), you probably do have a really good idea about what will bring both of you to orgasm. That’s because you’ve likely been doing the exact same thing for years. *yawn* Consent is necessary because it ensures that no one is having sex they don’t want to have. One of the other benefits is that it can help keep sex interesting in a long term relationship. If you get in the habit of talking about sex, it gets pretty easy to also say things like, “Have you ever thought about XYZ? Would you ever want to try it?”
There are some great books about consent, if you’d like to learn more. Learning Good Consent, curated by Cindy Crabb, is a short zine appropriate for teens and young adults. Yes Means Yes, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti with foreword by Margaret Cho, strives to envision a living in a world where consent is the norm and people of all genders are free to live sexually fulfilling lives.
Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her a question at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll get back to you with an answer.