These days, we talk a lot about sexual consent. If you’re not quite sure what it’s all about, this post can help you find the words to communicate consent. The following are some frequently asked questions about consent.
1) What if I am not sure what I want or I feel conflicted?
When your partner asks you about what you want, you may realize you don’t know. You also may find that one part of you is thinking “heck no!” and another is more like, “let’s go!” For example, sometimes your body is sexually aroused but your mind has some misgivings, or you like the idea of having sex, but just aren’t fully present in-the-moment. It can be confusing to you and your sexual partner if you’re feeling conflicted.
- In the moment, stop and take space to identify what you’re feeling.
- Reflect what might be coming up for you. Sexual activities outside your comfort zone can make you feel vulnerable in a way that’s positive and exciting or scary and threatening. How can you tell the difference between these two forms of vulnerability? What feelings, thoughts, and body sensations are associated with each of these experiences?
- Outside the heat of the moment, talk with your partner about what you were feeling and the need to stop. A respectful partner should appreciate your honesty and your needs.
2) What if my partner’s words don’t match their actions or I’m getting mixed messages?
Sometimes you may be perceive your partner’s communications as confusing. For example…
- Your partner says yes, but their tone of voice and/or body language don’t reflect an enthusiastic yes.
- Your partner says no, but then they go along with sexual acts that you initiate. They may seem to be enjoying these things when they are happening.
- Your partner says they don’t want certain things to happen, but then initiate those things.
- When you ask your partner what they want, they say they don’t know.
In example B, you need to take your partner at their word. Initiating sexual activity after your partner clearly states no is sexual assault. There are many reasons someone might seem “into it” that do not indicate consent. Physical arousal and response are involuntary and not necessarily linked to consent or desire. Someone also may go along with a situation because they are afraid of the person violating their boundaries and trying to appease that person in order to stay safe.
In examples A, C, and D, there are a number of reasons you may feel confused by your partner’s communication. Remember, they aren’t trying to confuse you or “lead you on.” Instead:
-Your partner may be internally conflicted and unsure of what they want. (See number 1, above.)
-Your partner may feel pressure to go along with things they aren’t fully comfortable with.
- When you feel confused, it is your responsibility to stop and check in with your partner about where they are and what they’re feeling. For example, “Hey, let’s stop for a minute. You said you just wanted to make out, but now you’re taking off clothes, so I feel confused. I want to make sure we’re both comfortable with where this is going.”
- In non-sexual situations, talk more about communication. Make sure your partner feels safe and comfortable setting boundaries with you, and ask how you can help create an environment where they kind of communication is possible. If your partner is not personally sure of what they want, ask them what kind of space and support they need from you to figure this out.
- Consistently affirm your respect for your partner and their needs, desires, and boundaries.
3) What do I do when my partner says no?
- Respect their no. Let them know you’re glad they felt comfortable telling you how they felt. Appreciate the honesty and safety you’ve fostered with your partner.
- Do something else! You might want to get out of bed or whatever romantic or sexually charged situation you’re in, or your partner may let you know what they DO want to do.
4) What if no is hard for me to hear?
Hearing no may be hard for a number of reasons. It’s different for every person, and you may want to identify why, and exactly what you’re feeling, like sadness, resentment, hurt, etc. In the moment, you still have to respect your partner’s “no,” though you can say something like “Hey. I appreciate you being honest with me, and I respect that. Thanks! I’m also having some hard feelings about this I’m going to sort out on my own. I can get back to you about them when I’ve thought them through more.”
Here are some more tips about handling no and dealing with hard feelings around that. If you’d like to learn more about healthy communication, see the LGBTQ Healthy Relationships Online Curriculum. If someone has violated your consent or that of a friend, see safe.unc.edu.
Anole Halper is a graduate intern with Student Wellness. They are getting a dual Masters in social work and public health. Their research interests include sexual violence prevention and LGBTQ health equity issues.