Consent is a fundamental part of sex.
Consent means agreeing to an activity (in this case, sexual activity). To borrow Planned Parenthood’s acronym FRIES, consent has to be Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. Learn more about consent.
Practicing consent takes mindfulness and effort. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, take a moment to check in with yourself using these 6 questions to help you understand your own relationship to sex and consent.
1. What are your own boundaries?
In order to set boundaries, you need to know what they are in the first place.
Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. Label them “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.” In each column, write down specific activities or kinds of touch that you’re: ok with and excited about; definitely not ok with; and might be ok with under specific circumstances. Leave room at the bottom for thoughts, questions or fears, like “I’m afraid sex will hurt,” or “How can I talk about condoms?” Think through what you can do to address them, either alone or with your partner.
You can also use Scarleteen’s Sexual Inventory Stocklist, a detailed list of possible boundaries related to your body and sex, or look through a book on consent and write down any questions or thoughts you have. I like Cindy Crabb’s Learning Good Consent: On Healthy Relationships and Survivor Support.
Learn more about boundaries related to sex and relationships.
2. How do you react when your partner sets boundaries?
Do you assure them that it’s ok to say no? Or do you keep asking, hoping they’ll change their mind?
Pressuring your partner is never ok. If your partner only says yes after you’ve asked repeatedly or made them feel guilty (“You’re so beautiful—of course I want you,” “But I’m horny”), it’s not true, freely-given consent. You need to respect your partner’s right to make their own decisions about their body.
Ignoring your partner’s boundaries is a sign that you don’t fully understand or respect consent. Think about why. What are you feeling when you try to change your partner’s mind? Stop having partnered sex until you’re confident that you’ll respect your partner—ignoring someone’s boundaries can be deeply painful, and may be sexual assault. Talk to an adult you trust about what you’re going through.
3. How do you tune in to your partner?
Both partners have a responsibility to pay attention to and check in with each other. This means that it’s not just on one partner to say no. If you’re engaging in any type of romantic or sexual behavior, it’s important to be present in the moment.
When we become focused only on our own desires, or just assume that others are willing and enthusiastic, we fail to pick up on important cues from our partners, like sudden silence or pulling away. How do you pay attention to and check in with your partner? How does your partner communicate verbally and non-verbally?
4. How do you communicate in the moment?
Teens tell me that they’re often confused about what their partners want. Their partner will kiss and touch them, but withdraw or get upset when their partner tries to take their clothes off.
Often, this confusion happens because people misinterpret what their partner’s actions mean. It’s important to talk in the moment, so you both understand where the other is coming from. Be open, nonjudgmental and validating. Remember that agreeing to one activity (like making out) doesn’t mean that your partner is ok with other activities (like oral sex).
Sexuality and relationships are dynamic! These conversations aren’t a one-time thing, but something you’ll do continually, throughout your life.
5. Whose pleasure are you focused on?
Sex should be about both partners. If you always focus on your partner, and never on yourself, think about why. What can you do to change that? You deserve sex that’s fun, feels good, and meets both your and your partner’s needs.
If you always focus on yourself, and never your partner, ask yourself why. Think about how you can change that. For example, if you’re confused about what your partner wants, ask them. However, if you realize that you don’t care if your partner enjoys themselves, consider taking a break from partnered sex until you care about your partner, too.
6. What role do power and privilege have in your sex life?
Privilege and power influence all interactions, but can be especially powerful in sexual and romantic ones. Power can look like a difference in age, sexual experience, race, ability, gender, income, or other factors. Power and privilege are complicated concepts, and it may take some work to think through how they impact consent for you. Read the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s page on how power impacts consent, and what to do about it, here.
Zuleyma Rivera, LCSW is a clinical social worker with a specialization in children, youth and families, and in treating trauma in adolescents. Zuleyma has worked in community-based preventative services agencies and outpatient substance use disorder clinics, and as a home-based family therapist and school-based clinician. She is currently an outpatient clinical social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.