In 2015, the Thames Valley Police in the U.K. released a video that went viral, comparing sexual consent to tea. You wouldn't force someone to drink a cup of tea and you wouldn't pour tea down a sleeping person's throat, they reasoned, so why would you do the same with sex?
"Whether it's tea or sex," the video summed up, "consent is everything."
Many of us have heard the phrases "no means no" or "yes means yes." These phrases are short and catchy, easy to remember. But they can't really capture the complexity of what it means to consent to sexual activity or touch. They imply that consent is a transaction, something one "gets" and it's all good to go. But it's not that simple, because every person is different and every person's sexual history is different.
It's helpful to think of consent as a continuous navigation between sex partners to help ensure that everybody involved is OK with what's happening and actively (if not enthusiastically) participating.
Here are some tools you can use:
Start with definitions
Kristen Jozkowski is a sexual health professor at Indiana University's School of Public Health. She — as well as the other sex educators who spoke to NPR — uses the framework known as affirmative consent, meaning an affirmative agreement to engage in sexual behavior. That agreement can be saying "yes," pulling someone closer or kissing back.
Jozkowski says it's important to note that this agreement cannot be made when a person is too intoxicated, through alcohol or drug use, to make a decision about sex. And consent isn't affirmative if it's made through coercion, which includes threats of physical violence as well as emotional and social pressure to say yes or to not say no.
Put in the reps
If the idea of all this thinking and talking about what sex you want and don't want is making you squirm, that's OK! It can make you feel vulnerable.
Heather Gardner, with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, says it's a lot like working out. And like lifting weights or improving your yoga form, practice helps.
"Ask someone that you're comfortable with, that you're close to, if they're willing to maybe have a practice discussion with you so you can see how it sounds out loud," she suggests. And if you don't have someone you feel comfortable practicing with, try saying the words out loud to a pet or stuffed animal or while you're taking a shower.
The point is to get yourself used to how it feels to say "no" or "I don't like doing ABC" or "I love XYZ" in a low-stakes environment, so when you are ready to have sex with someone — whether it's a one-time hookup, a casual fling or sex with a committed partner — you're ready to say the words out loud.
And in the moment, this doesn't need to be too serious. It can be fun and sexy to hear "touch me here," "kiss me like this" or "what if we tried 'x' instead?"
Know your wants, needs and boundaries to better communicate them
Sex educator and therapist Christina Tesoro says there are great tools on the Internet that can help you figure this out — like Scarleteen's "Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist." (It's available here in Spanish.)
"You can do an inventory for yourself," Tesoro says. A checklist like this is a good opportunity to ask yourself, "What do I feel really excited about? What do I feel curious about? And then what are my hard no's?" Knowing what you want and what you don't want in bed can help you better communicate with your sex partner(s).
Tesoro works with many trauma survivors, and she says it can be a challenge for them to feel safe in new relationships. It's helpful to have an idea of your trauma triggers and what you might need from your partner if those triggers are likely to come up, she says. "And also, what do you feel comfortable communicating to a new partner?"
This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to disclose the particulars of your trauma. Communicating your boundaries can be as simple as saying, "I don't like to be touched that way."
As your understanding of this concept evolves, it could change the way you think of your own past experiences, positively or negatively. If you have been harmed or sexually assaulted in the past or if your sexual consent has been violated in any way, you are not at fault. And if you need to be connected with a sexual assault service provider in your area, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673.
Consent should be given freely, without pressure
Your body is your own, and you have the right to say no without being challenged. You shouldn't feel pressured to say yes either, and it isn't right if someone in your life makes you feel this way.
Jozkowski, the sexual health professor, says the research suggests that soft refusals — like coming up with an excuse not to have sex, pushing someone away, turning your head to avoid a kiss — are generally understood for what they are: no.
"People have a really refined ability to understand people's refusals, even those who don't include the word 'no,' " Jozkowski says. "There's a lot of other factors that may contribute to various forms of sexual violence."
Some of these factors include physical threats or unequal power dynamics in a relationship. Financial status, age, one's profession and one's career can all play a part in creating unequal, even unhealthy power dynamics in which one person has more say in decision-making or communication in the relationship. When this imbalance exists, one partner might feel they don't have the ability to explicitly refuse an act by saying no, or the person might feel pressured to say yes or go along with something they're uncomfortable with — or the person may simply freeze up and be unable to say anything.
Practice consent in nonsexual contexts too
Consent is applicable in your everyday life — and with people of all ages.
Tesoro's mom taught her and her little brother about consent from an early age. They didn't have to hug or kiss grandma hello.
"My mom made it very clear that that's OK," she says. These small gestures demonstrate to children from an early age that their bodily autonomy is important and can be powerful. Tesoro says it had a huge impact on the way they understood their right to say what happened to their bodies.
The podcast version of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen.
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