Navigating Consent in All of Our Relationships

This post is meant as an invitation to explore the concept of consent within all areas of your life, in addition to that of healthy sexuality. It is about heightening our awareness, individually and collectively, of the way consent underlies and permeates many, perhaps all, of our interactions. This conversation is my contribution to an ongoing dialogue meant to open your eyes to how influential consent is during both profound, life changing moments, as well as during mundane exchanges. It is about understanding that the ability to navigating consent is a skill set, which can and should be practiced intentionally.  

What is Consent?

In the broadest terms, consent is giving or granting another person, or other people, permission. Ultimately, it’s about respecting boundaries, preferences, and desires.

Many cameras on a wall facing two women

Do you have any apps on your phone? If so, it’s likely that you’ve given multiple companies consent to access your location, contacts, and photos. Have you ever clicked a box that granted permission for a company to use your images in marketing or promotion? Individuals engage in dialogue around consent, as do organizations and nations.

Culturally, we’ve been moving toward granting consent more freely, more cavalierly. What was, at one time, considered fairly private information, reserved for one-on-one conversations with a few trusted and close friends, is now posted to public forums and social media. People regularly accept collection and use of personal information and tracking of virtual behavior without a second thought. Frequently, we may be giving blanket consent without realizing the implications.

When letting a sexual partner take a nude photo, someone is consenting to that person, and only that person, viewing the photo later. The consent does not extend to that person emailing it to their friends or posting it publically, online. Revenge porn is beyond the scope of the original consent. Likewise, organizations shouldn’t assume blanket consent. When giving a company permission to use your data, do you check the user agreement to verify whether information is being collected strictly to improve the platform? Or, are you unknowingly consenting to your information being sold to other companies?

Setting Boundaries as We Navigate Consent

Larger cultural shifts, with respect to privacy and personal boundaries, impact our perceptions and our social interactions in a variety of ways.

In the context of physical contact, consent is about autonomy. You, and only you, have the right to decide who can touch you, when you’ll be touched, and in what ways you’ll be touched. We see physical boundaries negotiated, respected, and violated all the time. Physical boundaries are negotiated within families, between colleagues, even amongst strangers.

Cars on street

A stranger may initiate a boundary negotiation by standing, or driving, uncomfortably close. If someone feels the car behind them is too close, they might speed up to create more distance, slow down to heighten the awareness of the other driver, or change lanes to resolve the situation. If this negotiation is not handled respectfully, it might lead to angry words, gestures, or violence. There are a multitude of reasons that strangers end up in negotiations over physical space. In part, because people have different assumptions, preferences, and rules of etiquette. What one considers an appropriate distance to follow, another may consider rude or inappropriate. 

Power differentials add layers of complexity when granting permission amongst colleagues. Employees might feel pressure to allow things beyond their comfort zone, due to actual or implied influence over performance evaluation, retention, or advancement opportunities.

After reaching an agreement on price, a seller extends a hand to ‘seal the deal’. The buyer reaches past the hand and pulls the seller into a hug. Given the power differential, was this a violation of the seller’s physical boundaries? Colleagues not only negotiate physical boundaries whenever they greet one another with a handshake or hug, but at other times as well, such as when they are deciding how to arrange office furniture.

Dental work

Some professions require physical contact with clients. A dentist, for example, might touch the inside of someone’s mouth almost immediately following an introduction. Paramedics might touch an unconscious person, without an introduction.

As our understanding and awareness of consent has expanded culturally, healthcare professionals, and others, have had to reassess their policies and practices around obtaining permission.

How does a patient or client give consent?

The first step is to ask the question, such as:

‘Mr Brown, is it OK if I check your blood pressure now?’ The following responses are considered as offering ‘consent’:

  • the patient saying ‘yes’ or something similar (‘all right’, ‘OK’, etc.)
  • the patient nodding assent
  • the patient rolling their sleeve up to receive the cuff.

adapted from First Steps for Health Care Assistants, Consent
Royal College of Nursing

Non-Sexual Touching

When people work in professions that regularly involve intimate touching, they are often trained to be very clear in expressing the details surrounding what they are about to do and why. These types of conversations are intended to alleviate the awkwardness and nervousness that patients sometimes experience by setting a tone of professionalism. Reducing or eliminating surprises clears up confusion and ambiguity.

Mother with infant and toddler

Within families, parents might insist children accept hugs from relatives, or allow their hair to be disheveled, even though they have no desire to tolerate these things. Their discomfort, resistance, and potential embarrassment is dismissed, pushed aside without regard. They are stripped of their autonomy with respect to their own bodies. They are denied the ability to decide, for themselves, who touches them and in what ways.  

Navigating consent is not just about sexual intimacy, it’s about negotiating and setting boundaries as we interact throughout our daily lives. Reframing how we approach consent, in practice, requires addressing our preconceived notions about boundaries, desires, autonomy, and privacy.

Our perception of consent begins in early childhood and is modified, expanded, and sometimes re-written as we move into adulthood. The assumptions we have around consent, particularly those that were part of our early childhood socialization, may affect our professional lives, as well as relationships with friends, family, and romantic or intimate partners.

Sexual Interactions

When we’re in the bedroom (or the many other places sexual intimacy occurs), consent refers to an enthusiastically communicated willingness, without hesitation or reservation, to participate in a specific sexual activity.

Consent is about having a choice and a VOICE.

V – Voluntary

For a sexual act or activity to be consensual, all parties must enter into it voluntarily. If pressure, manipulation, deception, or coercion are involved in the prelude to sexual acts or activities, they were not entered into voluntarily.

O – Ongoing

We are responsible for constantly checking on consent. Consent to one sexual act or activity does not imply consent to other sexual acts or activities. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason. This applies to duration. Someone may decide two minutes into kissing another person that they are no longer interested.  It also applies to recurrence. Someone willing to engage in sexual activity on Friday may decline the same activity, with the same partner, on Saturday.

I – Informed

Sexual partners have a right to be aware of the risks around sex and the relational circumstances of prospective lovers. This includes sharing sexual histories, disclosing any sexually transmitted infections, being upfront and honest regarding relational intentions, and being forthright about current commitments.

C – Clear

Healthy sexuality involves clearly communicating what activities are being suggested. It also involves being upfront about levels of interest. ‘Playing coy,’ feigning disinterest, is not conducive to the establishment of consent.

E – Enthusiastic

“I suppose I could” does not indicate an enthusiastic willingness to participate. Someone jumping up and down and saying, “PICK ME! PICK ME!” does. It is important that intimate partners lean firmly toward the “HELL YEAH!” end of the enthusiasm spectrum. Desire should be conveyed verbally (what you’re hearing), non-verbally (what you’re seeing), and kinesthetically (what you’re feeling).

Consent becomes even more vital in the context of intimacy and romantic relationships

Indicators of Consent, or Lack Thereof

Establishing consent requires hearing, seeing, and feeling outward demonstrations of willingness to engage.

Interpreting what you HEAR

Consent sounds like:

  • “Yes!”
  • “Don’t stop!”
  • “More!”
  • “I want you!”
  • “Could you please do that thing with your tongue?”
  • “Right now!”
  • “Please!”
  • “That feels sooooooo good!”

It Doesn’t Sound Like:

  • “No”
  • “Maybe”
  • “I’m not sure”
  • “I’m scared”
  • “I’ve never done that before…”
  • “I want to but…”
  • “I thought I wanted to”
  • “Oww”
  • “I’m not sure I’m ready”
  • SILENCE
Interpreting what you SEE

Consent Looks Like:

  • Moving towards, meeting partway
  • Eye contact
  • Leaning in
  • Revealing
  • Smiling
  • Blushing

It Doesn’t Look Like

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Creating distance (with body or pillow)
  • Fear
  • Hesitation
  • Subtle covering of body (with arm or sheet)
Interpreting what you FEEL

Consent feels like:

  • Actively touching
  • Initiation
  • Pulling closer
  • Responsiveness
  • Complementary movements

It doesn’t feel (like):

  • Avoiding touch
  • Tension
  • Becoming limp
  • Pushing away
  • Recoiling
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Hesitation

Navigating Consent through Open Communication

If healthy sexuality is the goal, we must learn how to be more proactive in establishing consent, rather than simply being prepared to pause, and check in, or discontinue sexual activity when a line may have been crossed.

Woman holding condom

Taking a more proactive approach to consent requires creating relationships where open and honest communication can take place. It involves listening intently, with all of our senses, to the words, body language, tone of voice, and movements of others, as they respond to our words, actions, and movement. It requires respecting the boundaries of others, and gracefully accepting rejection, without questioning or demanding explanations.

Conversations about sex and intimacy are becoming less taboo and stigmatized, allowing greater scrutiny of how we deal with navigating consent, and other related topics, in ways that are more nuanced than ever before.

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