As the woman behind the blog Killer and a Sweet Thang, Eileen Kelly is committed to giving young people the sexual education she never got, addressing topics like intimacy, love, health and issues we may not feel comfortable talking to adults about. This month, she’s tackling consent.
In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, there’s no doubt that consent or lack of consent is on everyone’s minds. 2018 has been a wild year so far. As we entered this new year in the height of The #MeToo Movement, 2017 had lit the fire that has allowed for numerous industry execs to fall from the top of the pyramid and come face to face with the results of their actions. Both A-list celebrities and people just like you and me have publicly identified their abusers and demanded justice. Things moved very fast. One moment, an actress was calling out her director for groping and the next, people in positions of power were getting sued for sexual assault in an industry that has spent who knows how many years covering up this level of staggering sexism and harassment! It seems that we’ve all been thrown into this conversation on CONSENT. You may be asking… how did we get here? How, in America — one of the richest nations in the world — do we possess the highest rate of campus assault and how, in America, is a movement just now shedding light on how many people have been affected by the violation of consent?
Let’s go back to the basics and break it down a bit.
What Even is Consent:
Consent is an agreement between partners before and during sexual activity, granting permission to engage in certain activities. Consent must always be freely given (not coerced), and all partners must feel like they have the ability to say yes, no, or stop at anytime.
Consent isn’t Always Verbal:
I do stress normalizing verbal consent, and getting into the swing of always verbally communicating what you need. However, it doesn’t always show up in a verbal way. Negotiating consent in a nonverbal way can be tricky; not everyone is good at reading body language, and no one is a mind reader. There are some tell tale signs that your partner is enjoying (or not enjoying) whatever is going on. The trick is to start slow and build up the activities. Check in with your partner, look at their reactions. Are they going in for a kiss? Are they smiling?
Perhaps the biggest indicator of consent when it’s nonverbal is watching out for any signs that your partner is uncomfortable or doesn’t want to continue. Are they freezing up? Are they turning away? Try to read their body language and see if anything they’re doing is the same as a “No.” If this is the case, just check in with them. “Is everything okay?” “Do you want to stop?” Even saying something encouraging like, “We can stop for a bit and just cuddle if you want.”
If their body language is hard for you to read, and you can’t tell if it’s a yes or no, then the best thing to do is to stop. Don’t assume that they’re into it just because they’re not verbally telling you ‘no.’ Personally, I practice both verbal and non-verbal practices in my sex life.
Verbal Consent can be Sexy!
Consent can be asking your partner if “this feels good,” or if your partner “wants you to do this to them.” Giving consent can take place in a similar fashion: “I love it when you do that,” “I’m getting so wet/hard,” “Can you do that a little softer/harder.” Communication is the basis of all sexual activity. If you can’t communicate what feels good, how can you expect your partner to please you (and vice versa)? People aren’t mind readers!
Most conversations on consent assess the person who is initiating the action. However, it’s important to remember that with every sexual encounter, it takes two to tango. You are your own best friend and best advocate. Get comfortable and actively practice saying “yes” and “no.” We each have a responsibility as a sexual being to provide consent as well as secure it for ourselves. I stress the importance of letting your partner know that you’re into the action. Remember to be honest! You define your own “yes” and your own “no.”
Learning to Say No!
Saying “no” can be awkward and difficult. But you deserve to be engaging in activity that you WANT to be doing and that makes you feel good and comfortable. Try to look at it from this perspective: you wouldn’t want your best friend, younger sibling, etc, doing anything they weren’t comfortable with, right? You wouldn’t want them to hook up with someone because they were afraid of offending them by saying no or moving into activities that don’t feel good because they don’t want to disrupt the mood? Well, why do you deserve anything less? It really just takes practice. You can start slow and say no in a nonverbal way. This can look like: moving your body away slightly, turning your head. You can also say things like, “I’m not really into that” or “I think I want to take things slower.” If the person isn’t getting your cues then you can say a more forward “no” or “hey, stop.” Remember that doing nothing is NOT a clear “no.”
When Consent isn’t Respected:
I believe this section deserves a whole article because it’s much too important to cover in a small paragraph but if your “no” is not being respected the best thing to do is to leave the situation. Obviously, this isn’t always possible. But if you can, get up and leave. You don’t owe this person anything and if they aren’t respecting your boundaries, you should get out of the situation as soon as possible. Unfortunately, most often when consent isn’t respected is also when proper consent can’t be given because one or both partners are under the influence. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself boundaries when it comes to drinking or doing any other activities that alter your state of mind. For example, I don’t hook up with anyone after three drinks because proper consent can’t be giving when anyone is drunk.
Setting up personal rules and boundaries before going out will make you feel more empowered in the situation because you will have a plan already set. Have a plan set in place so you feel safe in certain scenarios. Tell your friends where you’re heading and who you are going out with. If they haven’t heard from you in an hour, ask them to call. If you’re leaving from a party with someone you don’t know, smartphones have great options of “Find Your Friends” or location services you could put on for the night. This will give you peace of mind. If you feel that you are in danger, call the police. Screaming is a good option because the person will most likely be startled and back away from you. This gives you the opportunity to escape the situation, as well as drawing attention to the perpetrator if anyone is around. Get to a safe place then call the your friends, family or the police so they can help you get home safely.
How We Can Change Things:
Consent shouldn’t be a topic you address one day in middle school and never revisit. It should be an ongoing conversation; we learn with practice. This is a conversation parents need to be having with their children as well as instilled in school curriculum. Did you know that California is the only state in the United States that requires consent to be taught in high school? We need change and we need it now. Consent needs to be taught in all schools at a young age and then revisited year after year. With young kids, this would start with “hugging” or “touching.” If Sally doesn’t want Mary to touch her, then Mary shouldn’t touch her. Simple things. We don’t need to bring sex into the equation until later on. If kids grow up with this mindset, then our future generations will be more comfortable practicing consent and understanding bodies as autonomous.
Everything that has been going on the media shows how flawed the current system is. If you have never been given tools to actively know what consent looks like, then how do you expect someone to know what to do if your “no” is not respected? When we lack these skills or knowledge, then we go into shock in these situations. However, if we normalized conversations around this topic then if we ever got into a negative situation, we would know what’s happening and how to navigate ourselves to safety. You can better advocate for yourself by staying informed and by practicing active consent in all your hookups and relationships.
One of the main challenges with addressing consent is our national discomfort to speaking about sexuality and our bodies. If we could normalize this, then people would better communicate when they get together. We need to relearn as a society what healthy communication and sexuality looks, sounds, and feels like — and how we get there.
We are taught “yes” or “no,” but it goes beyond that. We need to teach our kids and confront ourselves how to navigate simple sexual dialogue and communication: “NO, I don’t want to have sex but I’m really turned on so let’s just make out.” You are your very own ally and advocate, you define your own “yes” and your own “no.”