Ask Scott: When Do I Know I Have Consent?

Content warning: sexual assault

Dear Scott,

I consider myself a relatively intelligent guy.  I was wondering if you could help clear up a little disagreement I’m having.  I’ve talked with friends and girlfriends alike and we seem to not see eye to eye on consent.  We just do not seem to agree on what terms consent is reached.  What about when both people are drunk?  Are they consenting to each other or not?  Isn’t consent pretty obvious?  It should be easy.  Whenever I scrutinize or question consent, my friends just sputter and huff and puff about me condoning sexual assault and not understanding the “issue”.  I simply want answers, not to be screamed at.  –Consent to Confusion

Dear Consent,

The issue itself is consent (or lack thereof) which may explain the testy reactions from your friends and partners. While it is not wrong to question what terms consent is agreed upon, perhaps it is the manner in which you scrutinize or “question” consent.  Part of the problem here is that consent isn’t necessarily confusing, yet for some people, it baffles them.

So keep these three things in mind: consent is explicit, enthusiastic, and constant.  If it is not all three of these things at once, it is not consent.  

Are you or someone else drunk?  It’s not consent.  

Are you or somebody else freezing up and unable to speak after being touched or kissed?  That’s not consent either. 

Are you communicating with your partner, making sure they are comfortable and that all of these three criteria are met?  No?  Then it’s not consent.  

So what about explicit, constant, enthusiastic consent?

Explicit: Are they telling you yes?  Are you saying yes?  Are you verbally communicating that what is going on is okay with you?  Is your partner?  Simply asking, “Is this okay?” or “Can I do this?” These are fantastic ways to get explicit consent without compromising your sexy times.  If you are truly wondering if your partner consents to what is going on, it literally never hurts to ask; but it can definitely hurt when you don’t.

Constant:  This is along the same lines as explicit, except where explicit consent is qualitative, constant consent is quantitative.  Are you constantly checking in on your partner to make sure they’re okay with what’s going on?  Are you and your partner promoting a space where either of you could say no and stop whatever is happening? Are both you and your partner regularly (say, every few minutes) checking in to see if the other is okay and wants to keep going?  There are ways to talk about this without compromising your sexual pleasure — without having to whine, gaslight or otherwise dance around asking for consent.  I say this because there’s always some guy who whines or complains about it not being sexy to ask for consent or to talk like this in bed.  Wanna know what’s really not sexy, my guy?  Having a partner who fundamentally disrespects your being by not getting consent to do things to, or around, your body.  Friend, just keep in mind that any sexual contact that is not consented to is sexual assault, which is a lot worse than a few conversations during sex.  

You actually don’t have to stop having sex to make sure the person you are having sex with wants to keep having sex with you. You can literally ask –while still having intercourse them– if what you are doing is okay, if they like it, what you could do to make them feel better, etc.  In fact, most people prefer when their sexual partners check in on them — yes, even during sex, especially during sex.  It shows that the partner cares about more than just getting their rocks off, which can be extremely sexy to a lot of people.

Assuming you have consent is an issue.  Just because you’re having sex with them now doesn’t mean they want to keep having sex with you at the moment, or in the future, etc.  Because people change their minds, especially in the middle of things.  Sure, it’s frustrating to have a partner who asks you to stop having sex with them, especially when you were really into it.  Wanna know what’s more frustrating?  Having a partner who willfully ignores your wants and needs and uses you as a vessel for their carnal pleasure without considering any input from you whatsoever.  Perhaps this is why your friends get a bit upset at your questions about consent — it implies that you don’t already give it.

Enthusiastic: It can be a bit muddled, understandably, as not everyone who gives enthusiastic consent stands on a chair and shouts about how much they are willing to do the do with you.  But enthusiastic consent is important because it covers an area of consent that the other two conditions do not: ACTUALLY wanting it.  You see, someone can explicitly and constantly be giving consent, but they can still not actually want whatever is happening.  When this happens, it’s usually called coercion.  Essentially, someone bargains, bribes, threatens, or otherwise convinces a subject to consenting to whatever it is they want to do.  They may be getting explicit and constant consent (though oftentimes not) but it’s usually not enthusiastic — that is, the person, even though they said yes, and kept saying yes, were not enthusiastically saying yes.  They are not saying yes on their terms.

By promoting enthusiasm, explicitness, and consistency in your consent, you are telling your partners that you care about their well-being and their safety. In doing this, you are promoting a space where both you and your partners can feel safe in saying no. That’s pretty much what consent boils down to: not only saying yes, but providing the ability to say no. If you cannot or will not provide this for your partners, perhaps taking a break from the dating pool is in order.