Progressing Beyond “No Means No”
A sex-positive, forensic psychologically informed guide to seeking sexual consent.
Consent, as a word, has probably never seen as much airtime in Australia as in recent weeks. There is good reason for this, with a rolling wave of allegations of rapes and assaults rolling out of Canberra, private schools and other bastions of power and privilege. There has been a renewed call for engagement with education about consent in intimate relationships and the bulk of the conversation focuses on the need to impart this education to boys and male adolescents, within the domains of school (nb: I disagree, this is why).
Why “no means no” is never enough.
Consent education largely focuses on “no means no”, but there are many reasons why this is problematic. The much vaunted phrase of “no means no” is very simplistic. No is a difficult word for most of us to say. Consider the last time a friend asked you to do something you didn’t want to do. Did you say a clear, direct and simple no, or did you engage in a social white lie about being busy? Did your friend push you to change your mind? How much more difficult would it be to say no when you are more vulnerable (e.g., possibly unclothed), when you have commenced the initial stages of the activity you are saying no to, when the person you are saying no to might become angry, or when you carry the weight of cultural expectation that once you say an initial yes, you have to keep saying yes.
If we boil consent down to the simple phrase of “no means no”, we return responsibility for stopping assault to victims.
Many of my clients with a history of sexual assault report that they did not say no at the time, because they were terrified, because they froze, because they wanted to be polite, or because they were intoxicated and unable to do so. Other victims are unable to say no because they are too young to know what is occurring, because they are asleep or because they are disabled and have limited comprehension of sex.
This emphasis on needing to say no as the main facet of consent causes victims of assault significant difficulties, as it often results in them feeling responsible for the assault.
We often spend many therapy hours unpicking the minutiae of the fight/flight/freeze threat response, the very strong biological drive that means we will all sometimes freeze at times of distress and will therefore be unable to say no. Instead of no, I much prefer an emphasis on the phrase “yes”. Seeking and explicitly waiting for a yes at each stage of a sexual encounter, ensures shared responsibility for all partners in a sexual encounter. It allows all parties, with varying levels of power and privilege, to consent. It enshrines the principles of equal sexual pleasure for all parties and it allows for sexual activity to take place only once an explicit yes has been received, which will go some way toward mitigating the impact of the freeze response.
Seeking sexual consent: A 7-step primer.
There are some general guidelines I use when teaching clients about sexual consent. Oddly enough, I use these same guidelines for both perpetrators of sexual violence in my forensic work with perpetrators and clinical work with trauma victims — because perpetrators will usually over-ride boundaries (sometimes due to a range of distorted beliefs about the sexual script and act) and victims often find it very hard to identify when sex is a yes for them, and to know how to say no. I encourage both men and women to use these guidelines with their partners of any gender.
Ask the questions verbally the first time you engage in sexual activity with someone or touch someone.
The main questions at this stage involve determining whether someone is comfortable with you touching them (this is also important for non-sexual contact — not everyone wants to be hugged — ) and how much contact they desire (someone may be okay with kissing, but not with having their clothes taken off). Some simple ways of asking these questions include:
“I was wondering if I can kiss you?”
“Would you feel comfortable with a hug?”
“Are you ok with this?”
Yes, you will feel vulnerable and worried before asking these questions — it is often easier to just swoop in for the kill and hope for the best — but remember that vulnerability is powerful and that we all have the capacity to tolerate difficult feelings and rejection. Remember that a no can be a blanket no, or a “no, not now”. An “I’m not sure” is a no. Seek an enthusiastic yes before proceeding.
Ask at each stage of a sexual act.
Self-explanatory. A simple rule of thumb involves seeking consent each time a new activity is introduced or usually- clothed body part is exposed or touched (e.g., it is often ok to touch someone’s forearm or hand while kissing them without stopping to ask for consent, but not ok to touch their breasts or penis/vulva without asking).
Remain attuned to non-verbal body signals, if in doubt, stop and ask.
Sex is about pleasure — if your partner appears to be withdrawn, frozen, distracted, not overly responsive, disengaged or if you notice that they are pulling away, just STOP. It might be helpful to reflect to your partner what you noticed at this point to check on their responses. A script for this might be, “hey, I stopped kissing you because I noticed that you have been very quiet and I felt like you pushed me away — how are you feeling? Are you ok with this?” It is very important that you receive an affirmative and enthusiastic verbal yes, if you decide to proceed after stopping.
Remember that consent can be withdrawn at any stage.
Self-explanatory. Blue balls are not a thing and people are entitled to decide when they want to stop. Sometimes people start feeling uncomfortable during a sexual activity or experience pain, shyness or discomfort. I always encourage people to stop at this point in time instead of pushing through — save the stoicism for a dental clean and remember that sex is about pleasure.
Remember that consent needs to be provided for each sexual encounter with the same person.
(Though the conversation is likely to be shorter and less detailed over time, once comfort, safety and relational sexual norms have been established). In more established relationships, people should still seek consent either non- verbally, by being attuned to their partner’s responses and interest or even verbally — think “hey, I would really like to have sex today, are you up for this?”
A no at any stage, is an immediate signal to stop, regardless of any activities that may have been consented to previously.
Remember that consent needs to be provided for each new sexual act within an established relationship.
That threesome you want to have? It needs to be discussed, negotiated and planned before occuring — ideally at a time when you are both sober. It is especially important for consent to be sought for sexual acts that involve the other person’s body (i.e., you probably don’t need to seek consent before pulling out your new vibrator during a partnered sex session, but you do need to ask before using anal beads on your partner) or if sexual acts involve the more unusual or kinky (note — nothing wrong with kink at all, it is just important to consider that everyone will have different levels of comfort with various activities).
Remember that someone can’t consent to sex when asleep, or substance affected.
A generally good principle, though this can sometimes be a bit difficult to assess and navigate as there will likely be times when one or both partners are intoxicated and want sex. A good rule of thumb — if someone is unconscious, non-responsive or cannot walk, stand or talk clearly — they cannot consent, even if they have previously consented to sex. If they can still enthusiastically participate and communicate — you are good to go (though I still usually recommend that people wait for all parties to not be too intoxicated before having sexual contact for the first time, to ensure that consent and interest hold).
Some simple non-sexual steps toward creating a culture of consent and respect.
As a simple starting point in relation to creating greater consent and respect in our lives, we can all, regardless of gender, start to more explicitly seek permission within all of our relationships, instead of merely waiting for someone to say no. Some examples of this might be:
“Do you feel comfortable if I close the door?”
“Is it ok if I hug you?”
“Do you mind if I share this picture of you online?”
“Do you feel comfortable talking about this right now?”
“I enjoyed our date, would you like to see each other again?”
These are questions we can all ask. By asking these questions and giving people the agency to say yes or no and just as importantly, responding with grace and dignity to a no, we are beginning to model and live the principles of consent and respect. Most younger children learn through social modelling and watching the adults around them and this is more likely to have an ongoing impact on cultural attitudes about respect, both within and without intimate relationships, than a single class at school.
If you are interested in exploring principles of enthusiastic, sex- positive consent in more detail, I recommend attending one of the excellent workshops at Curious Creatures in Melbourne, Australia, or at a similar school near you. Not affiliated with them, just a fan of the work they do and think it is important to have many more sex-positive conversations about consent and pleasure.