A practical guide for giving, getting and understanding consent, so sex stays fun & feels good for everyone!
What is consent?
Consent is freely, actively agreeing to an activity. In this case, we’re talking about consent to sexual activity, but consent is important in contexts outside of sex, too. (For example, asking whether you can use someone’s phone.)
Consent is necessary for sex. Unwanted touch, especially if it’s sexual, can feel violating, triggering and painful. Without consent, sex is or may be rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse. This can be deeply painful and traumatic for the victim/survivor, and have a lasting impact on them. We talk more about dealing with sexual assault and nonconsensual experiences here.
As we go into more details about consent, it may seem complicated or challenging. Remember that at its core, consent is about being kind to your partner, treating them how they want to be treated, and making sure that sex is fun and feels good for everyone! It’s the responsibility of both partners to check in with each other and make sure the other is having a good time, not on one partner to say “no” if something is wrong. If you’re ever at all unsure whether your partner is into what’s going on, ask. Remember that it is always ok to say no, for any reason or no reason at all.
Silence is not consent. It’s not ok to assume that someone consents to an activity just because they don’t say anything. Consent has to be affirmative and enthusiastic. This means that someone has to actively say yes for there to be consent. It’s common to assume that if someone doesn’t say anything, then they’re ok with what’s happening. But that’s not always the case. Someone may be quiet because they’re nervous, don’t know how to say no, don’t feel comfortable saying no, are too drunk or high, want to please their partner, or for other reasons. If one partner checks out, stops responding, becomes silent, goes stiff, pushes their partner away, moves their partner’s hand, or sends any other signal that they don’t like (or just aren’t sure about) what’s happening, the other partner needs to stop and check in with their partner.
Consent is specific and ongoing. Sex includes a wide range of activities. When someone consents to “sex,” it isn’t a blanket go-ahead for their partner to do anything and everything. Consent for anal sex isn’t consent for penis in vagina (PIV) sex. Someone may enjoy having their hips or nipples touched, but not be ok with someone grabbing their hair, touching their neck, or any number of other things. Consent to sex with a barrier method is NOT consent to sex without a barrier method. Going home with someone does not mean they have given consent to sex. Taking their clothes off does not mean they have consented to sex.
Consent isn’t just for sex. Consent is important for all kinds of physical touch—kissing, holding hands, hugging, etc. Everybody is different, and something that seems like no big deal to you might be a big deal to someone else! Keep in mind that sex includes a whole bunch of different activities—not just penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex! When we talk about sex, we also mean oral sex (giving head, going down on, eating out, rimming), manual sex (fingering, hand jobs) and more.
Consent isn’t a one-time thing. Consenting to something once doesn’t mean consenting to it in the future. Someone might be excited about manual sex (hand jobs, fingering) one day, and not be ok with it the next. Keep checking in with your partner to see whether they feel good about what’s going on. There’s no reason to feel bad about saying no to something you’ve said yes to before.
Consent is reversible. Your partner may say they want to do or try something, but change their mind later. This means they’ve reversed their consent, and you need to stop. It’s always ok to say “no” after you’ve said “yes”—whether it’s a week, a day, or just a few minutes later. Your partner needs to respect your decision.
Consent is given freely. This means that if you pressure or coerce your partner into saying yes, it’s not really consent. Coercion could be asking for a sex act repeatedly, making your partner feel guilty for saying no, threatening your partner, making fun of your partner, or anything else that makes it difficult for your partner to say no. It is never ok to pressure your partner to have sex. If your partner is pressuring you to have sex, think hard about whether your relationship is healthy.
A relationship isn’t consent. No one owes you sex just because they’re in a relationship with you. You do not owe your partner sex just because you’re in a relationship with them. This also applies if you’re married. No one EVER owes anyone sex.
Sometimes, people CAN’T consent. If your partner is asleep, passed out, or too drunk or high, they cannot consent. There are also times people may not be able to consent for other reasons. In the United States, states have different laws about when someone can legally consent to sex. Often, when someone under 18 years old has sex with someone over 18 years old, it is considered rape or sexual assault. There are also laws about consent to protect people with certain disabilities. When one person has power over the other, consent may not be possible. For example, a high school student cannot consent to sex with a teacher, and a person who is hospitalized or incarcerated cannot consent to sex with an employee of the hospital or prison. Consent can also get complicated when one person relies on the other for housing, food, money or work.
What does consent look like?
Examples of yes
- Keep doing that.
- I like it when you…
- That feels SO good.
- Keep going.
- Don’t stop.
- I want to.
- I want this.
- I like that.
Examples of no
- I don’t want to.
- That doesn’t sound fun.
- I’m not sure.
- I would, but…
- I just don’t know.
- I guess.
- I don’t know if I’m ready.
- Yeah, but maybe not tonight.
- I want to, but…
- I would, but…
- Yes, but…
- That hurts.
- Hold on.
- Wait a sec.
- I’m not in the mood right now.
- I’m tired.
- Something feels off.
- [Pushes your hand away]
- [Pushes you back]
- [Moves their body away from you]
- [They stop responding]
- Yeah, ok. [After you’ve asked repeatedly]
- Can we pause for a second?
- Can we take a break?
- [Any signs of discomfort or pain]
How to check in with each other
Pay attention to not only what your partner says, but also non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues include body language, the way they move their body, eye contact, facial expressions and noises they make.
- How does this feel?
- What do you want me to do?
- Do you like…?
- Do you want to…?
- How do you feel about…?
- I like… How do you feel about that?
- Does that feel good?
- Does that still feel good?
- Do you want me to keep going?
- Is this ok?
- Where do you like being touched?
- Where do you want me to touch you?
- What do you want to do next?
- I’m interested in trying… Would you like that?
- Will you show me how you want me to touch you?
- How would you feel if I…?
- How would you feel about trying…?
- Is there anything we haven’t done together that you want to try?
- [If someone seems hesitant] Are you ok? Do you want me to stop?
Checking in before sex
Talking about what you both like and want to do is a great way to create a safe environment for everyone! Of course, you still have to communicate during sex, too.
- I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m ready to have sex. How do you feel?
- I would really like to have sex with you. How do you feel?
- Is there anything you know you’re not ok with in bed?
- I’m really excited about [sex act], but I don’t want to [other sex act]. How does that sound to you?
- What do you like? What are you excited to try?
- What do you want to do tonight? What don’t you want to do?
- I want to make sure you know I care about you. If you ever feel at all uncomfortable, please just let me know.
Signs someone doesn’t understand or respect consent
- Your partner isn’t paying attention to you. Instead, they’re only doing what feels good for them and ignoring what you want.
- They tell you what you’re going to do without asking how you feel about it. For example: “We’re going to [do this sex act] tonight,” or “Do this.”
- They move your hands or body to where they want them, without checking with you first.
- They don’t ask before touching you.
- They ignore you when you say no or express hesitation.
- They ignore boundaries you’ve set before. For example, they “forget” to put on a condom after you talked about using protection.
- They make generalizations, like “Everyone likes it when their partner takes control!”
Common Questions about Consent
What should I do if my partner says no or seems hesitant?
Stop. Do not continue having sex or being sexual with them. Let them know you’re ok not doing anything physical, and that you’re glad they told you they weren’t comfortable.
If they want to completely stop, you need to respect that. Ask them what they’d like to do instead. Make sure they know you’re ok with stopping.
Sometimes, your partner may just need a break. Give them the time and space they need. Reassure them that you don’t need to do anything else physical.
If your partner said yes but seems uncomfortable or hesitant, do not have any sexual contact with them. Ask if they’re ok. Tell them why you’re uncomfortable being sexual with them right now. Ask if there’s a different activity they’d rather do, like cuddling, watching a TV show or going to the park.
If your partner said yes but is drunk or high, do not be sexual with them. Tell them you don’t feel comfortable being sexual with them while they’re on drugs. Make sure they get home ok. If you want, you can tell them you’re excited to have sex with them some other time, when you’re both sober.
My partner and I have been together awhile. Do I really need to get consent EVERY time?
Yes. All the basic rules of consent (see above) still apply. Like we said, consent is about making sure everyone is excited about what you’re doing together. Hopefully, you still want that for your partner. (If you don’t, you shouldn’t be having sex.) Just because you know someone and what they like in bed doesn’t mean that you can forget about consent.
However, how you and your partner establish consent and check in with each other may change over time. When sex is new to you or your partner, or you’ve just begun having sex with someone new, it’s especially important to talk to each other and be really clear about what is ok and what is not ok. That’s because you don’t know them or how they express themselves. A groan of pain may sound a lot like a moan of pleasure. They may be naturally quiet during sex, or be silent because they’re uncomfortable. You just don’t know.
When you’ve been having sex together for a while, it may not be necessary to verbally ask every time you touch them. You’ve probably learned what they like, what they’re not ok with, and how they express themselves during sex. You both may feel more comfortable with each other, and therefore more comfortable communicating when something isn’t all right. Because of this, you may be able to rely more (but not entirely!) on nonverbal cues to establish consent. Non-verbal cues can be your partner’s body language, movements, eye contact, facial expressions, noises, and other cues about how they’re feeling.
Non-verbal cues are important no matter what, but it’s extra important to pay attention to them if you’re relying on them to establish consent. It’s still a good idea to talk to each other and verbally check in with each other. After all, what feels good one day may not feel good the next. When you try new things together, definitely use words to communicate.
But I thought people liked it when you’re bossy in bed!
Some people do, and some people don’t! You can’t assume what someone will like or be ok with. You need to talk openly with your partner about what you’re ok with and what you’re not ok with.
Sex without consent is sexual assault or rape. If you have been sexually assaulted or think you might have been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. What happened was not your fault. You may be feeling confused, hurt, unsafe or many other emotions. That’s all normal and completely ok. There are things you can do to take care of yourself and begin healing. We talk more about sexual assault and how to get help here.
This information is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services, only general information for education purposes only.