Saying Yes to Consent: You deserve a healthy, happy and safe sexual life

Grace Sheehy

Saying yes to Consent

My grandmother used to say “fun isn’t fun unless it’s fun for everyone!” She wasn’t talking about sex, but she could have been. The only way to make sure sex is fun for everyone is by making sure everyone involved is enjoying it and wants to be there – by getting consent. Despite the fact that most of us never learned about it in sex ed class (although luckily students in Ontario now will, thanks to the new curriculum!), consent is one of the most important elements of a healthy and happy sex life, and a crucial step in establishing that everyone is enthusiastically taking part in any sexual activity.

By now, many of us have heard the rally cries of “yes means yes” and “no means no”, chanted at events like Take Back the Night around the world. These phrases have been huge in establishing that everyone has the right to say “NO” to anything they don’t want to do and that consent should be enthusiastic. At the same time, these phrases lack the nuance to elucidate all of the grey areas of consent in real life – which is not always as clear as a yes or no. It’s increasingly becoming common knowledge that you should establish consent before proceeding with any intimate activity with someone else. But how many of us check in with our partners before, during, and after sex? Why is it still so hard to talk about what we want and don’t want, whether with our partner of two years or a one-night stand?

Somehow, we manage to talk about sex all of the time while never really talking about it at all. In our sex ed classes at school, we may have learned how to put on a condom (best case scenario) but we never learned how to negotiate safe sex. We learned that we should wait until we’re “ready”, as if all of a sudden, we cross a threshold and will always be ready and willing to do what we’ve done in the past, no turning back, no changing our minds, rather than learning about “readiness” as an ongoing process, and being prepared for the continuous conversations required in a healthy sexual life, within and across relationships.  

To make matters more complicated, consent isn’t just about saying “yes” or “no”; sometimes, even when someone does say “yes”, their body language might say otherwise. Maybe we don’t want to disappoint our sexual partners, maybe we’re too nervous to speak up, or maybe we thought we would be into something and then changed our mind part way through. We owe it to our sexual partners to tune in fully to their non-verbal cues and body language, beyond just what they’re saying, and to get past our own desires to ensure that they are comfortable as well. We also need to remember that consenting to one thing does not mean consenting to everything, which is why checking in and giving each other regular opportunities to say how we’re feeling is key.

Talking about sex is hard. It requires us to be open and vulnerable, but firm and brave at the same time. Sometimes, it’s easier to just not do it and assume everyone is on the same page. This is fine until it’s not – until someone’s not on the same page as you and you (or they) leave a sexual encounter feeling upset, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty, or violated. And no one wants someone to leave what should be a fun time with them feeling like that; the stakes are much too high.

So, this is a call to be brave. To say what you want and what you need (and to respect your sexual partner’s’ wants and needs as well). Here are some practical (and hopefully not too awkward) things you can say to establish consent before, during and after sex. Try them out, and figure out what works for you and your partner. For instance, some people might like to be asked every step of the way, and some might display their enthusiasm in a more physical way – it’s up to you to determine what works best for you!

–          Do you like it when I….?

–          I like it when / I don’t like it when …

–          How do you feel about trying …?

–          Can we talk about doing …?

–          It makes me feel good/bad when you …

Remember: practice makes perfect, and talking about sex only makes it better. And the consequences of not doing it can be huge. Rape doesn’t always look like we think it does, and since survivors of rape are most likely to have been raped by someone they know, “fighting off” a rapist can be much more complicated in real time. Women often default towards de-escalation of a situation over punching someone in the face. Meanwhile, our cultural narratives around rape rarely contain space for survivors of rape who are men, transgender, or gender non-conforming, despite these groups facing high rates of violence and sexual violence in particular.

Consent is not optional, and we need to stop pretending it is. Insist on it, embrace it and enjoy it. You deserve a healthy, happy and safe sexual life – let’s say yes to that!