This blog post was originally published on June 16, 2015.
As many of us know, UNC-Chapel Hill adopted a new affirmative consent standard in August 2014, meaning that, rather than “no means no,” UNC enforces a “yes means yes” standard—where consent is defined as the clearly conveyed, enthusiastic, conscious, non-coerced “yes.” It is the responsibility of person initiating the activity to receive affirmative consent, and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not lessen that responsibility. Consent can’t be treated as binding; if your partner and you say that next Friday you plan to have sex, you should still check in with your partner next Friday to make sure they consent. If, next Friday, your partner decides they do not consent, you cannot try to hold them to what they said the week before or make them feel guilty in any way for changing their mind. Also, consent to one activity is not consent to another (so, for example, consent to oral sex is not consent to vaginal sex).
I’ve found in my experience conducting One Act trainings that a lot of students struggle to understand the affirmative consent standard, and have a lot of questions about how it works in practice. Many of us are much more comfortable relying on body language, so enforcing a policy that heavily relies on verbal communication can be daunting.
But how do I ask? Won’t it kill the mood? Isn’t that awkward? Don’t you just know when someone wants to have sex? Is it really necessary to ask permission every step of the way? Does this mean that anytime I don’t explicitly ask permission, they can just regret it and call it rape?
Those are all questions I’ve been asked, on several occasions, by several students. A lot of those questions stem from a “but I just want to have sex” mindset, when the mindset should revolve around what both you and your partner enjoy doing. Affirmative consent isn’t about making things awkward, it’s about making sure your partner really does want to do what you want to do.
So how do you ask? Here are some suggestions:
“I’d really like to do ____, do you want to?”
“How do you feel about trying/doing ____?”
“Does this feel good to you?”
“Are you interested in doing ___?”
“Are you enjoying this?”
“I like doing _____. What do you like to do?”
The possibilities are endless, so have fun with it! Remember that sex should be an ongoing conversation, where you check in with your partner to make sure they are excited about and are enjoying everything that is happening.
But what about just knowing when someone is consenting to sex? Why this change? Why use an affirmative consent standard, when, for years, relying on body language has been considered acceptable?
It’s simple: there has been new research that indicates people are likely to freeze up when they feel scared, threatened, or traumatized. While most of us are familiar with flight or fight, there is actually this third chemical reaction in our brains – “freeze.” Because of neurobiology, people may not be able to speak up and say “let’s stop,” so they just disengage and wait for it to be over. Using an affirmative consent standard takes into account what happens in our bodies on a cellular level. Beyond biology, social norms may impact some a person’s ability to speak up. Statements like “maybe later,” “I’m tired,” “not right now,” “let’s just watch a movie,” or even silence are indicators that a person doesn’t actually want to have sex, despite none of those being an explicit “no.”
If you ask someone if they want to have sex with you (or do any other activity) and they say no, you didn’t “kill the mood.” You simply gave that person an opportunity to tell you that they didn’t want to have sex. Rejection usually doesn’t feel good, but neither does hurting someone. Affirmative consent is sexy. So play around with how you ask for consent, figure out what way is most comfortable to you, and practice good communication with your partner(s)! Being able to talk about what you are interested in doing together gets easier, and affirmative consent is sexy! Remember: even if you do find it awkward, a few seconds of feeling awkward is worth preventing harming someone.
If you’re worried that your partner may confuse regret with sexual assault, here is a great blog explaining why that likely won’t happen.
Can you think of any more ways to ask for consent? Post below in the comments!