What is consent?
It seems that we are still in the process of having a national conversation about consent in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Consent is a fundamental requirement for many things, including any type of sexual activity, but it’s still shrouded in confusion for many people. Part of the reason for the confusion is that sex and sexuality is still such a difficult topic to discuss for many people.
One way of thinking about consent is the Affirmative Consent model, which is the idea that “yes means yes.” In more depth, this means that “consent is a voluntary, affirmative, conscious, agreement to engage in sexual activity, that it can be revoked at any time, that a previous relationship does not constitute consent, and that coercion or threat of force can also not be used to establish consent. Affirmative consent can be given either verbally or nonverbally.” (source)
For vanilla communities, this model may initially seem cumbersome and perhaps even unsexy, but there communities that have been using the affirmative consent model successfully - Kink and LGBTQ+ communities.
It has been suggested that there is less of a taboo around discussing sex in kink and LGBTQ+ communities, in part because these communities are outside of the mainstream and have had to create their own models of communication about sex. Consent is all about communication, and people who are into kink understand that communicating with sexual partners is part of sexual activity itself. Consent is not something to only discuss outside of a sexual encounter (although it is important to discuss limits and negotiate before scenes), it is an integral part of sexual activity itself.
In the kink community, consent is paramount. Consent is never implied - it is generally understood in the kink community that consent is an important discussion between partners and that it is ongoing. Saying “yes” to one activity does not imply a “yes” for all other sexual activity. It is crucial to negotiate consent before a scene and go over each participant’s limits and to check in during the scene as well.
Of course, this is not to say that the kink and queer communities are infallible when it comes to consent. There are perpetrators of violence in every community, and there are folks who are inexperienced or ignorant of the importance of consent during sexual encounters. However, the openness of communication around sex in the kink community is admirable and can teach us a lot about communication, consent, and boundaries in all sexual relationships. Folks outside of the kink community can use this as a jumping off point to have their own discussions about sex and consent with their own partners.
Tips About Consent from Kinky Spaces
1. Know your own desires and limits, and communicate them
Communication is key when it comes to consent, and in order to communicate your desires and limits, it helps to explore exactly what those are. One way to explore what you’re into is to make a yes/no/maybe list. This is a list of sexual activities, and you can categorize them based on what you’d like to try (yes), what you would not like to try (no), and what you aren’t sure about (maybe). These lists are commonly used in kinky spaces to negotiate scenes but can be applied to any type of relationship.
2. Be curious about your partner’s desires and limits and ask about them
Once you’ve figured out what you want out of your sexual relationship, you can then communicate them to your partner(s) and learn about their desires and limits as well. You can compare your yes/no/maybe lists and see where things overlap as a starting point for the conversation.
3. Keep Checking in Regularly
Consent is an ongoing process, not just one conversation. Checking in frequently about what your partner(s) are into can make sure that everyone involved is up to date, and it can help make sure you and your partner(s) have an enjoyable encounter.
4. Establish shared language to talk about desire and sex before, during, and after sex
Sometimes terminology can be unclear, or you might not be sure what something means or entails. Part of open communication around sex and desire includes making sure everyone involved understands what is being discussed. If there are terms you prefer to use, they can be included in your discussion of consent. You can determine safewords and/or signals to use during sex that can communicate your wants, needs and limits to each other.
5. Encourage and normalize shifts in desire and shifts in consent
What you’re into sexually can change, and that’s perfectly normal! This is part of the reason that checking in about consent frequently is ideal. In that same vein, consent can change as well. Just because someone has consented to something in the past doesn't mean they consent to it forever.
6. Reflect on power dynamics and roles and how that impacts communicating consent
Power dynamics are important to consider when negotiating consent. Some power differentials to consider are age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race. In these situations, it’s even more crucial to understand and give space for everyone’s desires and boundaries. Coercion does not equal consent, and if there is a power differential between partners, it’s important to discuss so everyone is on the same page.
In light of the recent political turmoil centered around sexual assault, you may be feeling triggered every time you read a bit of news or scroll through social media. Please know that there are resources out there to help survivors - you can call RAINN’s national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or live chat here.