MALLORY YU, HOST:
Hi. This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Mallory Yu. I'm here to talk about consent and sex. It's an important subject whether you're just starting to have sex or whether you've been sexually active for years. Most of us have heard the phrases no means no or, more recently, yes means yes. Or you might remember this viral video released by the Thames Valley Police in 2015, which compares consent to tea.
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GRAHAM WHEELER: If you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don't want tea and you are able to understand when people don't want tea, then how hard is it to understand when it comes to sex? Whether it's tea or sex, consent is everything.
YU: They're short and catchy, easy to remember, but every person is different. Every person's sexual history is different. And these three-word phrases or analogies can't really capture the complexity of what it means to consent to sexual activity or touch.
HEATHER GARDNER: There is no magic list of questions. There is no script that's going to work for every single person.
YU: That's Heather Gardner. She works with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, or NCSF, and gives consent workshops. A lot of people talk about consent like it's a transaction, like you get consent, and you're all good. But it's not that simple. Gardner likes to reference a comic by an artist who goes by Robot Hugs. It's called building consent castles.
GARDNER: The concept is that you go slowly and build the things that are OK with you and your partner, and over time, those things become solidified, so to speak. Those things become a part of the makeup of your dynamic or your relationship. So building a castle is a great comparison because castles are often - you know, back in royal times were always being added to and built onto. And it's the same thing with your relationship and discussing not just intimate things, but everything about your relationship and how it will work and how it will be.
YU: In this episode of LIFE KIT, we'll talk to experts about what consent is and what it can look like. We'll have suggestions for how to break the ice and get past the awkwardness. And we'll talk about how we can practice consent not just in our sex lives, but also in our everyday interactions with the people around us. If that sounds like your jam, stick around.
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YU: So before we can really dive in with practical advice, I want to make sure we're all on the same page. The framework that I and the sex educators that I talked to are all working from is known as affirmative consent. Kristen Jozkowski is a sexual health professor at Indiana University's School of Public Health.
KRISTEN JOZKOWSKI: My definition of consent is an affirmative - often or ideally verbal, but doesn't have to be verbal - agreement to engage in sexual behavior that's neither coerced nor occurring when someone is too intoxicated, whether that be through alcohol or drugs, to make a decision about sexuality.
YU: And coercion isn't just threats of physical violence. It's also emotional or social pressure to say yes or not say no. Jozkowski says the approach to consent as a way to prevent sexual violence or assault began around the 1970s.
JOZKOWSKI: There was a real push toward a mantra that people are probably familiar with now, no means no. And this was built on some different social movements and events that had happened where women were being assaulted and there was sexual violence that was being largely ignored. People were blaming, you know, women or victims for, quote, "causing" their assault. And so this mantra of no means no became popularized to really emphasize that when you say no, that means stop. That means, you know, going forward is assaultive.
YU: Of course, we should say anyone, not just women, can be coerced into sex or touch they don't want to have. That video I referred to earlier that compared consent to tea uses this framework, focusing on situations where a person might not want a cup of tea, or sex.
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WHEELER: If you say, hey, would you like a cup of tea, and they're like, you know, I'm not really sure, then you can make them a cup of tea, or not, but be aware that they might not drink it. And if they don't drink it, then - and this is the important bit - don't make them drink it. Just because you made it doesn't mean you're entitled to watch them drink it.
JOZKOWSKI: So shifting that thought process - I have to refuse; if I don't refuse, then it's not assaultive - so that puts the onus on the victim to be explicit in their refusal - to a yes means yes model, which suggests you need to be affirming and explicit and active in terms of communicating consent.
YU: So this episode is meant to help you think about sexual consent in your own life, maybe in a way that's new for you. That doesn't necessarily mean if you haven't been practicing consent in the way we're discussing here that you're doing it wrong or that you've been having nonconsensual sex. Maybe you've been wanting to try something new with your partner, or maybe you want to learn how to speak up better for yourself.
Now, 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 your sexual consent has been violated in any way, you are not at fault. And if you need to be connected with a trained support specialist in your area, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. That's 1-800-656-HOPE, 1-800-656-4673.
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YU: If the idea of all this thinking and talking about sex you want and don't want is making you squirm, that's OK. It can feel vulnerable. Maybe you've been hurt in the past. Maybe you're shy. Maybe you've just never talked about it before.
Takeaway one - to get over the awkwardness, put in the reps. It's natural to feel awkward because, well, most of us aren't used to talking about this stuff. Heather Gardner with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom says it's a lot like working out.
GARDNER: Working out used to be awkward for me until it became a normal part of my life.
YU: It's like getting that muscle memory, right?
GARDNER: Yes, right. So it would be, I guess, your consent memory and your good consent - best practices for consent memory that you should train your brain to do these things, to think about your own boundaries, as well as other people's boundaries, and to try to just put those in practice. And if it's someone, for instance, who has never had that sort of habit in their life, obviously, it's going to be awkward in the beginning.
YU: And just like lifting weights or improving your yoga form, practice, practice, practice.
GARDNER: So if you, for instance, are wanting to have that discussion with someone that you're not comfortable, ask someone that you are comfortable with that you're close to if they're willing to maybe have a practice discussion with you so that you can see how it sounds out loud and see what those responses might be that you might need to then respond to and et cetera. Those are good ideas that I think - and those are things that I give to people who, for instance, are friends of mine that have young adults or teenage children that need to have these conversations.
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YU: OK, maybe you don't have someone you feel comfortable practicing with. Try saying the words out loud to a pet or a stuffed animal. I personally like to think through conversations while I'm in the shower. The point is to get yourself used to how it feels for you to say no, or I don't like doing ABC, or I love XYZ, in a low-stakes environment, so when you're ready to have sex with someone, whether they're a one-time hookup, a casual fling or a committed partner, you're ready to talk about it.
Takeaway two - try to understand and know what your boundaries are. Christina Tesoro is a sex educator and therapist who has led a lot of consent workshops for high schoolers. There's this helpful game she likes to play to get the ball rolling. They break the group up into pairs, then give every person an index card with some rules on it.
CHRISTINA TESORO: You know, I like a red M&M, but I don't like green ones, or, like, I need to eat, like, a blue one at the same time as I eat a yellow one. And so they have all of these sort of, like, idiosyncratic rules. And then you have to work with your partner to figure out, what kind of navigation do we need to do where we each get to eat the color that we like and we get to do it together, because not everyone's preferences are the same? You know, some people have a real hard no on a blue M&M, and other people can, like, you know, be like, oh, well, I've never really tried this before, but I'd be open to this green M&M.
YU: Tesoro says it's a lighthearted exercise where everyone ends up eating a ton of candy. It's also meant to give students an idea of what it feels like to navigate boundaries with another person, advocating for their desires or saying no in a way that's fun and accessible. When the exercise is over, she opens up a discussion where they talk about how it felt.
TESORO: Did you feel embarrassed? Did you feel frustrated, you know? And then talking about it from the perspective of, OK, now, what would it be like to have a similar conversation about, you know, how far you want to go if you're hooking up with someone? Like, what if you want to, like, only make out, but you don't want to do anything else? Like, what are these feelings of sort of asking for things, being told no?
YU: And this talking doesn't have to be too serious either. It can be fun and even sexy to hear, touch me here, kiss me like this. What if we tried X instead?
Now, what if you've never even thought about this? Tesoro says that there are great tools on the Internet for helping you figure this out. One that they really like is from scarleteen.com, and it's called "Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist." It's available in both English and Spanish, and we'll link to it on our episode page. It's a thorough list broken up into categories, like Body Boundaries - how clothed or unclothed you want to be, eye contact during sex. Other categories include safe sex behaviors - like putting on condoms or using dental dams - words, terms you like to use to refer to yourself. Then there is a category for Physical and/or Sexual Activities, from giving and receiving general massages to types of sex to spanking or scratching.
TESORO: And you can sort of do an inventory for yourself. You know, what do I feel really excited about? What do I feel curious about but I've never tried or I, you know, need to feel more trusting or more safe with someone before I feel comfortable trying? And then what are my hard noes? And, like, having a very open conversation with a new partner - you know, where do we have things in common? Where do we have things that are different where, like, it could be a fun, you know, stretch for me to try this? Even though I've never really tried it before, I've thought about it before because my partner's into it.
YU: Tesoro works with many trauma survivors. She says it can be a challenge for them to feel safe in new relationships.
TESORO: Really asking yourself what kind of support do you need around triggers if that's something that is likely to come up. And also, like, what do you feel comfortable communicating to a new partner? 'Cause I think even in the communication of triggers, having an established sense of trust is really important because it can be very vulnerable to talk about previous experiences where consent has been violated, if there has been any violence.
YU: This doesn't mean that you need to disclose the particulars of your trauma either.
TESORO: Saying I don't like to be touched that way should be enough and, I think, is a good litmus test for whoever your partner is, where, like, if you get pushback on that, I would consider that a red flag.
YU: That brings us to takeaway three. Consent should be navigated and 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.
Now, the framework of affirmative consent isn't perfect. It's built on what sexual health professor Kristen Jozkowski calls the miscommunication theory, which, for one thing, is limited in its scope. It focuses primarily on heterosexual sex - that is, men and women having sex with one another.
JOZKOWSKI: Essentially, the miscommunication theory posits that either women are not communicating their consent clearly enough and men are misunderstanding it, or men don't really know what consent looks like. And, therefore, there is a misunderstanding that results in assaultive behavior, assaultive situations.
YU: Jozkowski says research suggests that's not really the case, that soft refusals, like coming up with an excuse or deflecting, even nonverbal refusals, like pushing away, turning your head to avoid a kiss, crossing your arms, are generally understood for what they are.
JOZKOWSKI: No, people have a really refined ability - you know, men especially have a really refined ability to understand people's refusals, even those that don't include the word no. And it's unlikely that the vast majority of sexual assaults are occurring because of a straight-up miscommunication. There's a lot of other factors that might contribute to various, you know, forms of sexual violence.
YU: Some of those factors include physical threats or unequal power dynamics, like who has more say in decision-making, or communication in the relationship. Financial status, age, one's profession and career can all play a part in creating these unequal, even unhealthy power dynamics. And this matters because one partner might feel they don't have the ability to explicitly refuse an act - in other words, not saying no - or they might feel pressured to say yes and go along with something they're uncomfortable with, or they may simply freeze up and be unable to say anything.
Jozkowski says most sexual assault occurs with someone who the victim knows - a friend, an acquaintance from class or work.
JOZKOWSKI: And so when you have some level of trust, even if it's just someone you know from class, you don't generally expect them to do something against your will or that you don't want to happen. And so when you're maybe processing some of your thoughts and you're maybe even saying no and this person's not listening, that's quite surprising and unexpected. And people may freeze up. They may not really know what to do because they're not expecting someone else to continue pursuing sex post-refusal. So you have all of this complicated, you know, messiness.
YU: Even under the best circumstances, sex can be messy and confusing. All sorts of things are happening chemically and physiologically, and emotions are heightened. Consensual sex and touch can still feel bad. Maybe you tried something new and realized you didn't like it. Maybe it's a touch you've enjoyed before and don't anymore. Maybe you were enjoying yourself, and suddenly you're not. Heather Gardner with the NCSF says it can be difficult to do in the moment.
GARDNER: It's easy to do with someone that you're intimate with in a long-term relationship or in, you know, maybe a more casual, you know, circumstance - just having a text or email or discussion after and saying, hey, that was fun. This thing wasn't as great for me this time. Maybe I'd like to try it again, but I might just want to stop doing that.
YU: Our last takeaway - consent is applicable not just in your sex life, but in your everyday life. Practice consent in nonsexual situations, too. One example Gardner likes to use is hugging.
GARDNER: I think the newer practice of asking people before hugging, where that used to just be a normal greeting, and now I see and hear so many more people, back when we were hugging each other prior to COVID - even getting together with friends, I see people put up their hands and say, hug, as if to ask, do you want a hug today, or is it OK to hug in greeting, rather than just going in for the hug that we've sort of all always done as a habit, I guess, that we were always taught that this is the friendly greeting or the familial greeting - to change that to see if the person even wants it is such a much better step in the right direction of consent overall.
YU: Therapist Christina Tesoro says her mom taught her and her little brother about consent from an early age, and it had a huge impact on the way they understood their right to say what happened to their own body.
TESORO: Both me and my little brother were always really clearly told, you know, we don't have to do anything with our bodies that we don't want to do. So that means that we don't have to kiss grandma hello if we don't want to, which, you know, my mom made it very clear that, like, that's OK. So I think, like, really educating and modeling for children, giving them the power to say yes or no, or even giving them options like, you know, you don't have to kiss grandma hello, but do you want to, like, go give her a high-five? So seeing someone say on their behalf, I'm going to protect your bodily autonomy, is really powerful.
YU: From sexual encounters to setting work boundaries or even planning COVID get-togethers, it's important that people respect your agency.
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YU: So to recap, consent is a framework to help you navigate your own bodily autonomy and the bodily autonomy of everyone around you.
Takeaway one - reflect on your own wants, needs and boundaries. Scarleteen's "Yes, No, Maybe So" checklist can give you a good starting point for that.
Takeaway two - practice what feels comfortable for you to say about those wants, needs and boundaries so you can be prepared in the moment.
Takeaway three - consent should be free from emotional and social pressure - in other words, coercion. And remember, it is not your fault if someone violates your consent.
And our last takeaway - consent should be practiced in everyday situations, not just in the bedroom.
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YU: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes, including one on how to talk to children about sex and another on what your teen wishes you knew about sex ed. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And now, a completely random tip, this time from LIFE KIT listener Jennifer (ph). If you've been out chopping down a tree or cutting firewood...
JENNIFER: After you've got sap all over your hands, you can wash them using any kind of vegetable oil or even margarine, and then wash your hands with regular soap, and the sap comes right off.
YU: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Mallory Yu. Thanks for listening.
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