Eric Ginsburg (Greensboro, NC)
Courtesy, Yes Weekly!
Consent is usually discussed in the context of engaging in sexual activity with someone else, but can really be applied to interpersonal interactions in general. By defining what we mean by consent, it’s easier to practice, whether that means sleeping with someone or not crossing boundaries people may have around any number of things.
To understand what someone else wants and feels good about, as well as what they aren’t interested in, it’s easiest to ask questions. People often revert to reading body language or even vague comments rather than just asking something like, “Do you want to _____?” or “What if we did ______ or tried ________?”
Even if you’ve done something before with another person, it’s still good to ask them things like, “Is this okay?” to make sure you are still on the same page. It doesn’t just make for good consent — checking in means the experience will be better: questions (“Do you like it when I _______?”) and statements (“That feels great!”) lead both people to be more in tune with each other as an interaction is developing.
It’s not just about what someone else wants, but what you would like too. Sometimes people will passively wait for someone else to ask what they want before speaking up, and may still feel uncomfortable verbalizing their desires. By being open and honest about what you want, there’s less room for confusion and a better chance you’ll actually get it.
Go ahead, roll your eyes at how obvious this is, but if you are asking questions and communicating with someone about what they want, it’s crucial to practice active listening and not just hear what you want. By reiterating what we understand someone to be saying, even if it seems redundant, is a good way to make sure we’re listening well.
Talking ahead of time, outside of the context of a romantic or physical interaction, is a great way to draw lines between what we are and are not comfortable with. The boundaries don’t have to be permanent, though sometimes they are, but are parameters for what we are generally interested in and what crosses into assault.
While they won’t suffice on their own, in part because they’re easier to misinterpret, nonverbal cues are still a helpful part of understanding boundaries and consent. Sometimes even if people verbally consent to certain things, their actions will suggest otherwise, in their eyes, expression, body language or participation. Be aware of how other people are responding to your words and behavior.
Identify power dynamics
Consent is not possible where there is coercion, and it can be intentional or completely by accident, which is why it’s important to have this dialogue internally and with others. People can be coercive in a variety of ways, such as guilt or pressuring people into doing things they don’t want to do. By proactively identifying power dynamics, we can deal with them.
Be ready for no
Part of practicing consent is being ready for and accepting when someone says no or is not okay with something. “Maybe” and “I guess so” aren’t substitutes for “yes” and asking relentlessly until someone concedes is not consent either. Be comfortable and safe with each other — saying no should not be difficult, and should be expected sometimes.
Awareness of substances
Setting up boundaries and communication before getting into a situation where substances are involved is ideal, but this clearly goes against our socialization. Many people use substances as windows of opportunity to interact with new people, and some will use them as an excuse as well as a crutch. Learning to initially engage people when you’re sober means less drama and more fulfilling interactions, sexual and otherwise.