top of page

Let's talk about consent

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Conversations around sex typically include conversations around consent. And, for the most part, people have embraced the necessity of consent in fostering healthy sexual experiences. Indeed, consent is considered the most important and universal principle of sexual health. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about consent in some detail, focusing on the different forms of consent, differentiating intention and impact, and discussing ways to navigate consent.

Consent is at the heart of any healthy sexual relationship. It is the explicit and ongoing agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity. Consent must be voluntary and can be withdrawn at any point during the encounter. Emily Nagoski discusses different types of consent. Consent can be enthusiastic: moving beyond mere agreement to the genuine excitement and eagerness to participate in the sexual activity. This might look similar to “wanting sex”, which we’ve talked about in a previous post. Consent can also take the form of willing consent. This might look like agreement to do something sexual in response to caring about another person who wants sex (even if you don’t specifically desire them sexually in this moment); feeling sure you’ll enjoy it or be glad you did it if you say yes; thinking desire for sex might come when you start engaging in sex; or wanting to connect with important values you hold about sex. Consent can also be unwilling: this is where you say yes to sex because you fear the consequences of saying no; when you hope saying yes will mean the other person will stop pestering you or pressuring you; when you not only don’t want sex, but also don’t want to want it; when you say yes to stop the other person from withdrawing or disconnecting or being unhelpful around the house or with the kids. Consent can also be coerced: where you have sex because you’re threatened with some terrible consequence if you say no; when you might be hurt for saying no; when you have a felt experience of dread for saying yes.

From a psychological and emotional perspective, consent is crucial for sex. In fact, it’s one of the 6 principles of sexual health outlined by Doug Braun-Harvey, a certified sex therapist and expert in treating out-of-control sexual behaviors. Consent is what allows for safety, empowerment, creativity, and adventure during sex. It fosters trust between partners and enhances emotional intimacy. It allows people to make decisions that align with their boundaries and values. It enables people to prioritize their emotional well-being while nurturing open and respectful communication with their partners. It establishes a foundation of respect and equality in a relationship and promotes a mutual understanding of each other’s needs and desires.

Importantly, consent is an ongoing conversation, one that has to be continuously negotiated, renegotiated, and given. This is true even in committed relationships, where partners might already believe they are intimately familiar with each other’s desires and boundaries. Despite this familiarity, the necessity of ongoing communication and mutual agreement is crucial.

Intention vs. Impact

When it comes to consent, people often talk about enthusiastic consent as being the “best” form of consent and that enthusiastic consent is healthy and positive whereas non-consensual sex is traumatic and negative. On the surface, this might seem true, but there is a lot more nuance to this conversation. Sometimes consensual sex might be experienced as traumatic and negative, such as when a person chooses to have sex, perhaps even enthusiastically, but subsequently experiences shame, guilt, or distress associated with that choice. And sometimes non-consensual sex feels positive, pleasurable, and satisfying. This might be when someone grabs you for a kiss that you didn’t discuss or ask for, but that you then find yourself enjoying and wanting more. Do we conclude the first person must not have really consented otherwise they wouldn’t be feeling these negative feelings, and the second person must be unconsciously traumatized because how could they possibly enjoy such an experience without their direct permission for the touch?. Such a conclusion seems overly simplistic and removes the complexity from these encounters. Instead, it’s important to recognize that consensual sex can still be harmful, and pleasurable sex can still emerge from poorly negotiated consent. This is where intention and impact become important. Intention here speaks to the motivation, mindset, or frame of mind of the person who initiates sex. Impact speaks to the way the experience affects the other person. Wonderful intention doesn’t guarantee positive impact, nor does poor intentions predict traumatic impact.

This conversation becomes important because it encourages us to recognize the two individuals involved in the sexual experience. The question of intention tasks the initiator with grappling with the question of, "Is my behavior appropriate, safe, or acceptable? How should I make decisions in this moment? What choices are legally, ethically, or morally available to me right now? Is what I’m doing acceptable and am I doing it in an acceptable way? Am I acting in a way consistent with my values, or the values of my community/society/peer group/family/religion, etc…?" The question of impact provides the responder with a framework for understanding their personal experience in the sexual encounter: "What was this like for me? Was this positive or negative? Did I enjoy it? Did it feel good? Is it consistent with who I want to be and how I want to show up? Did I understand what I was getting into? Do I want to do something like this again? Were external factors influencing my decisions?"

The reason a conversation like this is necessary goes back to something we spoke about in a previous blog post: the urge to find a “cause” for our feelings and the tendency to locate that cause in the other person. We have a natural tendency to attribute our feelings to identifiable antecedents, which often means assigning blame to the people around us. And while there are certainly times when blame, responsibility, and accountability are necessary such as when someone engages in behavior that violates the boundaries or dignity of another person, we also need to be able to tolerate difficult conversations where we separate the effect from the encounter. We need to be able to say, “this impacted you in a negative way” without also concluding “and it’s the other person’s fault.”

Consent often centers the conversation on the appropriateness of Person A’s (the initiator) behavior. And, certainly, this is an important conversation to be had. But the appropriateness of Person A’s behavior isn’t the only predictor of Person B’s experience, so expanding the conversation beyond obtaining enthusiastic consent to reflecting on the experience as a way of informing future sexual encounters is important too.

Negotiating Consent:

  1. Open communication: effective communication is the cornerstone of consent in any relationship. Discuss desires, needs, preferences, and boundaries openly and honestly. Encourage each other to share changes in comfort levels and preferences as they arise from a place of non-judgment.

  2. Checking in: regularly check in with your partner about sex. This is something that can be done outside of the context of sex, for instance having monthly meetings where you discuss your sex life and explore what’s working or not working for each of you. This is also something that can be done during sex itself to ensure that each partner is feeling comfortable with the sexual experience. Keep in mind that consent can be taken away at any time and there doesn’t need to be a “reason” for it. You are allowed to say no at any point in the sexual encounter without needing to justify yourself.

  3. Nonverbal cues: while verbal communication is vital, paying attention to nonverbal cues is equally important. Attune to each other’s body language and reactions and check in if you get the sense that your partner isn’t enjoying the experience.

  4. Resolving discrepancies: disagreements or misunderstandings can happen. If one partner expresses discomfort or withdrawal of consent, it’s crucial to stop immediately and engage in compassionate conversation to understand and address the issue.

  5. Consent isn’t permanent: consent can be withdrawn at any point, even within committed relationships. Both partners must understand that they have the right to say no or stop an activity if it becomes uncomfortable or unwanted. Boundaries often evolve over time. Just because consent has been given for something in the past, doesn’t mean you must give consent for that thing again.

Although talking about consent is crucial in any relationship, one of the challenges to doing so is the discomfort many people feel around conversations about sex. If you feel intense discomfort, embarrassment, or awkwardness having any dialogue about sex, the task of negotiating consent isn’t going to be an easy one. This discomfort around sex is often deeply ingrained in many cultures and societies. Many communities share the (implicit or explicit) message that sex is a taboo topic, something “we” don’t talk about, something that isn’t appropriate to discuss with others, something secret or perhaps even shameful. When someone grows up surrounded by overt messages such as these, it’s easy to see how these types of narratives around sex will follow someone into adulthood. But covert messages around sex have a profound influence too: when sex is talked about in hushed voices, or you get a disapproving look when you ask a question about sex, or when a parent looks horrified or angry if they find out their teenage child began experimenting sexually.

Along with these cultural messages around sex often comes a lack of education. Inadequate sex education can leave people feeling ill-equipped to navigate conversations around sex and consent. Anxiety or uncertainty about how to approach these topics, what words to use, what questions to ask, what ideas to consider can make it difficult to even broach these topics with a partner. Personal insecurity might also show up: talking about sex can evoke feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. You might worry about being judged, saying the wrong things, revealing too much about yourself, or not being “normal.” The fear of judgment is often a profound deterrent–worrying about being scorned, laughed at, mocked, or rejected by peers, family, or society can deter individuals from discussing their needs and concerns openly. This might especially be the case considering the media often portrays idealized versions of sex and relationships, leading to unrealistic expectations that can cause people to feel inadequate, unsure, or embarrassed about their own experiences.

This is where we can go back to the idea of “willingness.” If we wait around until our discomfort around sex disappears, we might never have the chance to advocate for our needs. If we insist on using our feeling of discomfort as an indication of the appropriateness of our behavior, we might never insist on having these important conversations around sex for fear of being too invasive or burdensome with our partner. Instead of waiting for the time to “feel right”, or for us to feel “comfortable”, or for the discomfort or awkwardness to go away, try to access your willingness to approach this discomfort because it moves you closer to something that’s important to you, such as advocating for yourself/needs/boundaries, addressing breakdowns in your relationship, or getting help for a less than satisfying sex-life. Bring your discomfort along for the ride as you make choices that help you lead a value-driven life that brings you meaning and fulfillment.

Consent is an ongoing and evolving process that is central to creating positive and respectful sexual experiences. Research underscores the significance of open communication, active engagement, and mutual respect in obtaining and maintaining consent. In committed relationships, although partners might have a deep understanding of each other, ongoing communication and respect for boundaries remain essential. Consent isn’t just a legal requirement, it’s a foundation for healthy and satisfying intimate relationships. By prioritizing open communication, understanding relationship dynamics, respecting each other’s boundaries, and finding your own “willingness” to do things that might bring discomfort when it’s in the service of your values, individuals can work toward facilitating sexual encounters that are built on trust, respect, and mutual enjoyment.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page