The Ins and Outs of Sexual Consent

Yes Means Yes
Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this series, you learned about what consent is and the importance of taking responsibility in sexual situations to verify that the other person is consenting to the activity. Now, it’s time to learn how to apply that understanding. In Part 2 below, you’ll learn different ways in which consent is often expressed and some important warning signs that consent is lacking. 

“No” Can Be Said in Many Ways

In Part 1, we learned that the “No means No” approach to consent education has a major limitation: a person doesn't always say "no", although it may be what he or she is thinking. It’s important that we learn to develop our communication skills so we can express how we feel, including what we want and what we don’t want, but we also need to understand the reasons why people may not say “No” when they mean it. Here are some examples:

  • Fear – A person is afraid to say “No.” The other’s reaction, social judgment or physical safety can be the cause of this fear.
  • Shame – A person is ashamed of his or her lack of desire or willingness to be sexual, and may be reluctant to verbally express non-consent.
  • Uncertainty – A person is unsure whether he or she wants to engage in sexual activity. They may be working it out in their head, and might not put on the brakes with a verbal refusal. Uncertainty is a sign that readiness is lacking and it means "no".  
  • Past Trauma – If someone has been abused in some way, he or she may have difficulty voicing non-consent. His or her ability to express desires or needs have been negatively affected by the traumatic event(s). A person may enter a state of panic when triggered to recall or relive the traumatic even. This shuts down communication ability.

We advocate a “Yes means Yes” approach to consent education. It’s not whether or not the other person says “No,” but  whether or not they say "Yes". With this approach, you acknowledge the fact that “No” is not always verbal, and that a firm and clearly conveyed “Yes” is the only way to truly have consent. You take responsibility on your end – the responsibility of making sure your partners are completely ready and willing. 

Ways “Yes” May Be Expressed

The best way to verify consent is by hearing a verbal “Yes” from a partner (or another form of verbal affirmation – “I would like to,” for example). There are other ways a person indicates willingness, and these are helpful when determining if consent is present or not once the consensual sexual act begins. The following are indications that a partner is consenting:

  • Verbal “Yes” or other affirmative statement 
  • Responsiveness – touches back (in an affirmative way)
  • Smile/happy facial expression/showing favorable reactions
  • Pulls you closer
  • Makes eye contact (in addition to other positive indications)
  • Nods yes

It may seem that a person’s bodily responses to a sexual activity – an erection or vaginal wetness for example – indicate consent, but they’re not reliable indicators. These physical phenomena are typically signs of arousal, but they can occur without true sexual intentions. Even if someone is sexually aroused, he or she may not want to engage in sexual activity. It’s better to rely on solid indications of conscious agreement.

Please note: Relying on non-verbal cues to verify consent should be reserved for people who have spent time together, who have established good communication and who have trust between them. People who have not been together for a long time should talk about what they are and are not comfortable with and what they do and do not want before engaging in any sexual activity.

Long-term couples should renew this conversation occasionally. People’s desires and comfort levels may change. Some people may, once in the moment, not be comfortable doing what they originally agreed upon. It’s important for every couple – a new pairing or long-term partners – to understand the different ways that “No” can be expressed. 

Ways “No” May Be Expressed

There are many ways a person indicates non-consent, some obvious and some subtle. Here are a few you should know:

  • Verbal: “No,” “Wait,” “Stop” or other refusing statement
  • Unresponsiveness – verbally non-responsive and/or physical withdrawal (“freezing up”)
  • Looks sad, indifferent or confused
  • Silence or sounds of displeasure
  • Pushes you away
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Shaking the head no

When in doubt, you need to STOP the activity you’re doing and ASK.

“Is this okay?”

“Would you rather not do this?”

“Do you want to do something else instead?”

These are easy ways to find out if consent is in play. If your partner is unsure how to respond, or does not respond, that’s a clear indication of “No.” 

Accepting Non-Consent

If your partner doesn't want to engage in sexual activity with you, either at all or in the way you want, it’s natural to feel disappointed and physically frustrated. It's difficult to respond gracefully when you have these feelings, but the moral and sexually responsible thing to do is to accept non-consent wholly and without resistance.

What does that mean? It means not lashing out angrily or making a show of your frustration in an attempt to make the other person feel guilty. It means not trying to convince your partner to change his or her mind. Show the person that you respect his or her desires and needs fully and don’t try to push the person to feel differently.

This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to ask questions. You may wonder why a person doesn’t want to do something with you, what that means, what's behind their thinking. Just be sure if you ask, you convey your acceptance of the other person’s “No.” Your question shouldn't be an attempt to convince or pressure. If it’s a very emotional moment for one or both of you, the question is best left for a time when you’re both calm and comfortable and can discuss things in a reasonable way.

Recap: The Ins and Outs of Consent

We hope this 2-part series on sexual consent drives home the following points:

  • Never Assume. Sexual consent is the free, full and active agreement to engage in sexual activity. Don't assume it to be present based on past experience with a person (or anything else, for that matter). It must be renewed and re-verified continuously. People’s needs, desires and comfort levels can change, so each new activity and encounter should be approached only after consent is clear.
  • Verify Your Partner’s Wishes. It is your responsibility to know your own readiness and willingness, and to verify that of your partner’s as well. Your partner may feel uncomfortable, pressured, uncertain or nervous without you realizing it; that’s why obtaining clear consent before and throughout sexual activity is important.
  • Be Clear in Your Understanding. You can create significant problems in your life, and your partner's, by making mistakes in this area. Consequences of your inappropriate actions can cause hurt feelings, a lack of trust, and even legal ramifications (including incarceration).
  • Never Without Consent. Sexual activity without consent – however prevalent – is never okay. Another person’s body is not an object of conquest, and it doesn’t exist to give you pleasure. There is a human being within that body. Each person has complete rights over his or her body and owes you nothing physically.
  • The Law Applies to You. There are laws relative to consent concerning age and decision-making capacity, and they apply to everyone. It’s your responsibility to be informed about the consent laws that apply to you.
  • “Yes” is Verified and Re-Verified in Several Ways. There are different ways in which consent can be expressed and understood, and you now know what they are. They include both verbal affirmation and body language. New partners should rely on verbal communication to verify consent, while people who have established communication and trust may rely on body language.
  • “No” Comes in Many Different Forms. Non-consent can be expressed and understood in different ways, and you know what those are, too. They include verbal refusals and body language. It’s important for everyone – whether with a new partner or in a long-term relationship – to know signs that consent is lacking, so they can STOP the activity and ASK.
  • Choose the Better Alternative. Verifying “Yes” beforehand, and continuously, is better than waiting to hear or see signs of “No” (though such signs are important to familiarize yourself with). “Yes” is a clearer indicator that consent is present than a lack of “No.”  
  • Always Respect Your Partner’s Wishes. Respond to nonconsent with respectable acceptance. Open communication about sexual readiness and preferences is important for a healthy relationship, and acceptance doesn’t mean that you can’t ask questions. It just means that questions should be asked in a way that doesn’t pressure your partner. If emotions are running high, save the conversation for a later time.

Review the points above and make sure you fully understand all of them. That way, the next time you find yourself in a sexual situation, you can conduct yourself in a fully responsible way. The key is to always respect your partner. Remember, there are two people involved in sexual activity, and both of their desires, needs and comfort levels merit equal consideration.

Written by Amee LaTour


Part 1:
The Ins and Outs of Sexual Consent
A Conversation We Need to Have

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle