Your guide to consent
Consent is a topic that should always be included in conversations about sex. Consent is essential to ensuring that all participants are safe, respected, and enjoying themselves. It’s also a way to establish body autonomy, healthy boundaries, and can help you map out a sexual experience you and your partner(s) are both comfortable with.
We asked RAINN some of the most common questions about consent, and they shared their expert insight on what consent means, and how to implement it in your own relationships.
Consent is about communication.
Consent is not as simple as saying “yes” at the beginning of a sexual encounter — it should be an ongoing check-in throughout the sexual activity you are participating in. Consent should be re-established every time a new position or action is introduced. Perhaps you ask, “Is this okay?” as you begin to massage your partner's breasts, or say, “How does this feel?” as you start to perform oral sex. These questions are not awkward and don’t “kill the mood” — they are a necessary part of safe, pleasurable sex.
Consent is not a binding agreement — you can change your mind and stop at any time.
If you establish consent with your partner, it is your right (and theirs) to revoke consent at any time. This does not mean you are going back on your word, being a “tease”, or being dishonest with your partner: it simply means that you are no longer comfortable and would like to try something else, go at a different pace, or stop altogether. Your reason for changing your mind is entirely valid and always will be. If your partner isn’t understanding of your boundaries, then let’s blunt: they are not a person you should be engaging with sexually.
You can use verbal and nonverbal cues to establish consent.
There are many ways to give consent, but whichever way you choose, it must have the same result: all participants agreeing to engage in sexual activity with a clear understanding of one another’s boundaries. While verbally agreeing to different sexual activities leaves less room for misunderstanding, you can use non-verbal cues such as nodding, removing someone’s hand from your body, putting up a hand to stay “stop” or shaking your head “no”. If your partner does not understand and/or doesn’t respond to your physical cues, it’s important to vocalize your boundaries and remove yourself from the situation. At the same time, you should be receptive to your partner's non-verbal cues, and if you’re unsure of what they are trying to convey, ask them if they are comfortable.
You should always ask for consent, even in a long-term relationship.
If you’re in a relationship, it may feel like you don’t need to bring up consent, considering you’ve already established that you care about one another. However, this is not the case! Consent should always play a part in your communication, even if you’ve had sex 300 times before. Consent may not be communicated the same way it was the first time you had sex, but it’s still important to establish what your boundaries are. For example, if your partner wants to skip the movie and go straight to a hookup on the couch, it’s okay to say, “Hey, I’m actually not feeling like having sex right now,” and your partner should respect your boundaries. Sexual preferences and appetites can change: just because you loved giving blowjobs last week doesn’t necessarily mean you want to give one this week. Removing sexual expectations from your partner is a healthy way to make room for our ever-evolving sexual preferences and needs.
No always means no.
When it comes to sex, “no” means “no”. We know that saying the word can feel difficult, especially when it goes against our natural instincts to not hurt someone’s feelings. But guess what? Saying no is kind. It’s kind to your body. It’s kind to your state of mind. And it's kind to your partner because it lets them know that their actions are making you uncomfortable. You can also find a way to say “no” that feels right to you, such as, “I am not comfortable with this, let’s stop,” or, “this isn’t working for me, I want to try a new position.” However you wish to communicate is up to you, but always make sure that it’s a statement, not a question, and it’s clear in communicating that you would like the action to stop.
There is a legal role of consent.
No matter what term you use to establish your boundaries, consent often plays an important role in determining whether an act is legally considered a crime. It’s important to take time to research and understand the legal definitions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse in your state, and you can do so by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database. Educating yourself can be helpful in identifying unsafe cues or illegal actions, so you can swiftly say “no,” exit the situation, and report it.
Consent is empowering.
Consent is not a buzzkill. It’s not overdramatic, And it’s not rude to your sexual partner. An American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, and one of the most significant actions we can take to change this statistic is to educate ourselves and spread awareness of the ways we give and receive consent. When we say to practice “Safe sex”, that doesn’t just mean preventing pregnancy and STIs — it also includes consent, which is essential to making sure all participants feel comfortable and respected.