Consent is often talked about in sex positive spaces, but not all events, scenes and spaces treat consent in the same way. The familiar adage of 'no means no' isn't sufficient to deal with the complex dynamics and intricate emotional situations that arise. This article goes deeper into the psychology of boundary negotiation, asking for, giving, receiving and refusing consent.
Consent is not something you can always observe in an objective way, just by looking at someone or even asking for it. When your nervous system is well regulated, the existence of consent feels right in the body, and the absence of consent feels wrong. But some people have never had their bodily autonomy fully validated and respected, so their ability to recognise the feeling of consent in the body is hampered.
Frequently, there is an assumption from others that I would be into something just because I am in a space where others are doing it, or it is something I have done in the past. I might even create this assumption and expectation for myself. This is referred to as implied consent, and can easily lead to harm.
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Conscious and enthusiastic consent is always specific and retractable. Consent that is only implied, assumed or given under pressure, is not a goal anyone should be aiming for. Planned Parenthood created the acronym F.R.I.E.S, meaning consent needs to be: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific.
When you ask for something you want, be clear about the intention behind the question. Give the other person time to process and consider the reply. Their processing time may be slower than yours. It is best to give them an easy way to say no, with reassuring phrases such as "if you don't want to, that's totally fine" or "I won't be offended if it's a no".
When words are not used, or as a supplement to your words, remember to give time to consider your approach, not ambush them, and not express anger or frustration if your request is not granted. This approach is much more likely to build trust and good will, so even if you did not reach you desired outcome, there is a higher likelihood that they will trust you, remain friendly and perhaps want to do something else, or want to do what you asked for, another time.
If you are comfortable communicating verbally, it is good to be specific and precise. A good approach is to ask to know their boundaries so you won’t cross them. Someone that is trying to push to receive consent, will try to leave the boundaries vague and undefined.
If you find it difficult to verbalise your boundaries with regards to what you consent to, it is fine to ask for more time, or to ask them to check again later. If you are normally less expressive with your body language, let them know that in words before-hand. For example:
If you are the person doing an action to another, when someone is not responding to your touch how you thought they would, it is important to slow down, or stop altogether and check-in. You would not want to complete an intimate interaction only to find out that your partner had a negative experience, did not really connect with you or experienced a re-triggering of an old trauma.
Whether it is using words, or body language, a person will communicate their no to you, and it is your responsibility to pay attention. When we are very excited and focused on a specific outcome, it can be hard to notice when the reply we get is not what we want or expect. Whether it is using words, or body language, a person will communicate their no to you, and it is your responsibility to pay attention.
The whole point of asking for consent, is to allow the possibility of being refused. The more we can be happy and at peace with receiving a no, the easier it will be for the other side to feel comfortable and safe to say no. This means they will also be more relaxed to say yes, when they truly mean it.
It is important to remember that your consent can be retracted. Never feel guilty for changing your mind. Work on the connection with your body, so you know what it wants. The mind can play tricks on us, but if we are disconnected from our body, we won't know what it needs. If someone revokes consent that they have given you, it is not a rejection of who you are as a person, nor is it an attack on you. You can simply recognise that they have discovered a boundary they did not know about before. Let them know that it's ok to change their mind and that you respect their boundaries always.
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