AnalysisSex, consent & sexuality

‘Talk to Me, Dammit!’: a guide to sex and consent

Art by Angharad Neal Williams
Let’s face it: sex is for the brave. 

Content warning: This piece discusses sexual activity and alludes to sexual violence.

Introduction: Communicating in the sexual domain

Why do we call it “sexual relations”? Well, sex is more than an activity: it is the relationship between two people for the time during which they perform acts that they both consider sexual.

This meaning can be ascertained in other words used to describe sex. There is an element of dialogue (vital for relationships!) implied in “intercourse” or the more obscure “congress”.

So why did our forebears like yapping so much? Because knowledge is power. And power is sexy.

Consent as a precondition

The first element of sex is consent. And there is no consent without communication.

Then what is consent? It is a subjective state of affairs: a state of wanting to perform the sexual activity being discussed. And there is nothing special about the definition of wanting: it is a form of positive desire, not affected by reluctance, fear or intoxication. Where does communication come in? Well, you and your partner have to believe (and reasonably so) that there is consent, which must be achieved by communication. Where we talk of “obtaining” consent, we mean the receipt of this communication.

Now that we know what consent is, let’s move onto application. Traditional models of consent are based on permission, and in part, that is why consent is seen as an awkward but necessary evil that lies as an obstacle to getting our rocks off. How utterly unsexy it is to ask such floppy questions as, “Do I have your permission to bone you?”

And this betrays a deeper misunderstanding about sex, one based on access by the sex-or to the sex of the sex-ee. There is no gatekeeper to your sex life. Your lover is not a cryptic sphinx on your path to Thebes.

Not to mention: sex is not unilateral. Sex, in each of its forms, is an act of mutuality. You’re having sex with a human being, not a parking spot.

Of course, I’m not discouraging you from asking permission. Consent is unsexy because people view it as only being permission, but it’s still a necessary part of it. Touching people without asking is against the law. It’s also plain wrong.

Besides, your lover might appreciate the deference that you show them. For some, it’s the opportunity to be coy, smart and sexy.

What I’m trying to say is that there’s more to consent than asking one question. To be sure that things are consensual, it is better to view consent as a mirror.

Think of yourself asking to receive oral sex. How would you do it? Of course, you could use the bare words, “Wanna go down on me?” But pay attention to yourself (a good general tip for all things sexual).

Are you speaking clearly? How much does your pitch vary? Is your voice loud or soft? Are you smiling as you ask the question? What gestures are your hands making? What are you doing to convince your partner that this is something you want to do?

Now, you’ve asked your burning question. As luck would have it, your partner has said yes. How did they do it? If they said yes with the same energy and body language that you could reasonably employ to ask the question, then you can be confident that they are consenting. Their enthusiasm to engage in oral sex is a mirror of yours.

Obviously, they might not derive the same pleasure from oral sex as you do. The key is that they communicated a level of willingness that you think would persuade someone that they actually want it.

And with this knowledge, you can spot a lack of consent, even where words may suggest its presence. Physically withdrawing, looking away from you, mumbling, staying motionless: these are all things that make us query whether someone wants to do something that they said they would.

Then how do we ask for what we want without asking a question? We can use the mirror principle in reverse. Imagine your partner offered to do exactly the thing you want them to do. Think about how you’d react, and use that as a guide to come up with the right words or actions to convey your desire to do that thing. The only thing you need to add is sufficient words or actions to define what the thing is. Depending on your ability in mime, you may yet again have to resort to words.

These words can just be a statement of your desires. “I’d love it if you went down on me” could work. It avoids, if you’re still icky about it, the negative cool factor of asking for permission, while giving your partner the chance to convey their interest. For added effect, your words can be said in a sultry tone and accompanied with exaggerated eyebrow movements.

Consent during sex

You may have thought you were out of the woods, but check again. Consent is a subjective state of affairs, and subjective experience doesn’t end when you start having sex. (How’s that for a dystopian novel?) Therefore, consent may vanish during sex as the desire to participate further fluctuates with time (and your experiences with that person).

Moreover, sex is not really just one act: it is an evolving performance of several acts and possibly an intermission. It’s likely that you, in the moment, want to try something that wasn’t agreed upon before. In such a situation, you absolutely must verify that your partner consents.

Whenever you need to reconfirm consent, the standard appears slightly lower, because you can take into account the fact that you’re already having sex as part of applying the mirror principle. Of course, you must still pay attention to any other factors that convey a lack of consent. These include, but are not limited to: batting away your hand, shaking of the head, a sudden change in breathing patterns or motionlessness. Even where you’re not changing things up, check in with your partner if you notice these signs, as they may indicate that they’re no longer consenting, or at least not enjoying themselves as much.

Actually asking for it

Once you’re in the thick of it, there will frequently be occasion to ask for you and your partner to do something a bit different. Perhaps you’ve found the perfect moment to reveal your diverse array of dildos. Or maybe the oral sex you asked for is being performed a little too zealously.

In the first scenario, you are proposing a new course of action entirely (i.e. from sexual activity devoid of dildos to sexual activity replete with dildos). Tackle this situation with the normal rules of consent.

In the second scenario, I need you to remember one thing. You deserve enjoyable sex. If you and your partner consent to a specific sexual activity, you are entitled to a version of that activity that makes both of you feel sexy and great.

If it’s your first few times doing the activity, it probably won’t be that way all the time. After all, practice reputedly makes perfect, and a little communication is all it takes to make the conversion.

Let’s move to communication in practice. Returning to the oral sex example, let’s assume your partner is particularly lost in the moment, to the extent that you feel teeth upon your genitals every so often. Assume also that you find this uncomfortable.

In this situation, it is perhaps tempting to rely on non-verbal vocalisation to convey your unease. After all, words are such blunt tools, and you don’t want to embarrass your partner. Yet, your moans of discomfort may be misconstrued as those of gratification, and your partner continues in precisely the same fashion, believing this practice to approach perfection.

Your best bet is to you use your words. If the teeth are causing pain, you can throw all decorum out the door. An appropriate response might be, “Watch your teeth”, or a good old, “Ow”. If the teeth are merely a distraction from your bodily pleasure, try to frame your words as a spontaneous idea, rather than a comment on your partner’s skill. Examples include, “Try it a bit slower”, followed by an erotic moan of approval. In fact, following up with other such encouraging responses lets you give shorter instructions, such as “Slower”, because it gives your partner the peace of mind that they’re still adequately skilled to pleasure you.

And of course, if the teeth become so unbearable that you don’t feel like having sex anymore, you are entitled to withdraw consent. A simple, “Stop” is effective in communicating a lack of consent. Of course, it remains your partner’s responsibility to check that you are consenting at all times.


Hindsight and feedback

Where you and your partner have sex habitually, it can often be valuable to reflect together on your sexual escapades with one another (or with other people if applicable).

Because you have the time to consider your point of view before going into these discussions, your partner will expect a greater degree of tact. You, of course, are entitled to the same. Moreover, these discussions must take place in a nonsexual environment, and the resulting level-headedness could mean that your partner will take criticism more personally without the heat of the moment to excuse a less-than-tasteful remark.

If there’s something about the sex you liked, then feel free to heap on the praise. “You’re so good with your hands/tongue/feet” is almost guaranteed to make your partner feel good about themselves, creating the incentive to keep on giving you the good stuff.

If you want to give constructive criticism, direct the focus on how you feel. There’s a reason why they call it “your truth”: nobody can deny what you alone can experience.  (By parity of reason, nobody can deny your lack of consent to a certain act.) Therefore, you can say something along the lines of “When you kiss me, I sometimes feel like I’m out of breath”, which is preferable to saying, “It’s like you’re choking me when we kiss”. Your partner is less likely to feel defensive, and it will be easier to discuss the appropriate adaptations to the kissing technique.


Let’s face it: sex is for the brave. If a little awkwardness deters you from having decent communication about desires and limits, sex is not the activity for you. (Due exception is made if this only applies to communication with certain people: just avoid sex with them.)

But for the brave and consenting, sex is an excellent pastime. My fellow sex-havers, be brave. Talk.

Justin Jones Li

The author Justin Jones Li

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