Consent is one of the most fundamental parts of sex, but we spend surprisingly little time talking about it.
Many people are simply taught the phrase “no means no.” Don’t get us wrong, this is still a good lesson. When someone says “no” or “stop,” you have to respect that—otherwise it’s assault. But leaving consent at “no means no” creates a lot of misconceptions about consent and erases some of its most important parts.
Consent is more than a word (or lack thereof)—it’s a conversation. Here are some common misconceptions about consent and what you should understand instead.
1. You only need consent for sex.
Consent is absolutely necessary for sex (of all kinds—not just penetrative), no question. But it’s also important for other touching: kissing, hugging, holding hands, and other physical and romantic activities. People have all sorts of different comfort levels with touch, and you won’t know someone’s until you ask. They may be completely comfortable with hugging—but only when it’s not a surprise. And maybe they love kissing—so long as it’s not in front of other people. It’s important to get consent before you touch someone else in any way. It’s also important to get digital consent (for example, before sending a nude).
2. If they don’t say “no,” it’s ok.
A key part of consent is that it is enthusiastic. Not outright saying “no” or “stop,” does NOT mean that everything is alright. Everyone involved shouldn’t just be ok with what’s going on—they should be excited about it! That’s pretty common sense, right? You don’t want to be having sex with a partner who is only there to please you—you want them to enjoy themselves, too!
The attitude that everything is fine until someone says “no” also places a pretty heavy burden on a partner to speak up when they feel uncomfortable. In reality, it’s both partners’ responsibility to check in with each other. Pay attention to each other’s facial cues and body language. Does your partner seem comfortable and excited? Or are they checked out and silent? Is that grimace in pleasure, or in pain? If you’re not sure, ask! Even if you think you’re sure, ask! NEVER assume that something is ok just because your partner hasn’t said “no.”
This is especially true if your partner has been drinking alcohol or doing drugs. If someone has passed out, they cannot consent. If someone cannot walk straight or they are slurring their speech, they cannot consent.
3. So long as they eventually say yes, it’s ok.
You’ve been asking your partner to go down on you repeatedly for the last two weeks, and they finally say yes. That’s awesome, right? Wrong! So, so, so wrong. Again: Consent has to be enthusiastic. Asking repeatedly for a sex act (or anything else) is pressuring your partner. It is coercive and potentially assault. If your partner seems hesitant, talk to them about it. Reassure them that they shouldn’t do anything they feel uncomfortable with. Healthy relationships do not involve coercion. They require respecting each other’s boundaries and openly communicating with each other.
4. You only need to ask once.
Consent can be withdrawn at any time. It doesn’t matter if you said yes last week or two minutes ago, or if you’ve had sex/kissed/hugged/whatever before (even more than once!). You still have every right to say no, and your partner needs to respect that. It’s not ok to assume that just because your partner said yes yesterday, they’ll still say yes today. Check in with them, and make sure they are excited about what’s going on.
5. People (especially women) like having their consent violated.
There’s this idea out there that despite “politically correct” discussions on consent, people like it when their partner takes control and just “goes for what they want.” This idea encourages sexual assault, which is really messed up. And even though it is applied to everyone, this argument is most often made about women when they have sex with men. This reinforces harmful stereotypes that women are always passive and men are aggressive. It’s true that some people (including guys and people who identify as trans or non-binary) like being dominated in bed—and that’s totally cool! But you can’t just assume that your partner will enjoy that. You need to talk about it and obtain consent beforehand. It is never ok to ignore consent.
6. Clothes can signify consent.
Someone could be walking through the streets completely naked and it would still be wrong to touch them without their explicit permission. What someone wears has absolutely nothing to do with how much they want sex or whether it’s ok for you to touch them in any way.
7. Consent is robotic and unsexy.
Some people push back on the idea that you need consent for each individual sex act because they think it’s just not realistic. Usually, it seems like these people have a weird vision of what consent looks like. They seem to think it involves two people sitting and planning out exactly what kinds of touch are ok before they move a muscle. But that’s not what consent needs to look like (even though it totally can if that’s what works for you!). Instead, it can look like touching the other person’s belt and asking, “Is it ok if I take this off?”, “Does this feel good?”, “Will you touch me here?” or “Do you like when…?”
Consent is a conversation that takes place before, during and after sex, and it’s incredibly sexy! It means that both people are expressing what they want and what their boundaries are—helping ensure that everyone feels comfortable and has a good time. Check out examples of how to check in with each other, what no can look like, and what yes can look like.
A version of this article was originally published in November, 2016.
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.