Part of our Sex Ed Series
Communication is the basic foundation on which healthy sexual relationships are built upon. So what does communication and consent look like?
What is Consent?
Consent in a sexual relationship means actively agreeing to be sexual (whatever that means to you) with someone, and it goes both ways. It is an agreement that is willfully given without any external pressure or factors, and should be communicated freely, clearly and coherently. An absence of a ‘no’ is not a ‘yes’. It’s important to note that consent is not just found in sexual relationships, either. Getting consent can happen in lots of areas of your life, like not sharing other people’s personal information without their permission, not touching people without asking, and not stepping over people’s boundaries.
Importance of Consent in Sexual Relationships
According to the CDC, “any type of sexual activity without consent is sexual assault/rape, and is punishable by law”. A sexual activity is called sexual violence when consent is not obtained/freely given. According to the surveillance data by the CDC, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime
For a sexual activity to be called as consensual, all parties must agree to sex willingly, every single time. If you want to get sexual with someone, it is important for you to know if the other person wants that too. Consent helps to set your personal boundaries and respecting those of your partner(s), and making sure that everyone is on the same page for any sexual activities that may occur. Consent is an ongoing process – you might agree to sex or trying something new earlier on and then change your mind – everyone has the right to do this.
The American Sexual Health Association describes that consent does not always have to be verbal, but discussing boundaries, expectations, and consent between participants at each sexual encounter is the best way to avoid confusion and respect boundaries.
Age and Consent
The minimum age at which a person can give consent for sexual activity legally is known as the age of consent. According to the Michigan State law, the legal age at which a person can consent to sexual activity is 16 years of age. It’s important to know the legal age to consent, because the consensual age and laws vary in different parts of the United States and different countries. Having sex with someone who is underage (younger than the legal age) is punishable by law.
Planned Parenthood uses FRIES to explain CONSENT!
- Freely given - Giving or getting sexual consent should be a choice which is made without pressure, manipulation, and influence (drugs, alcohol, person). Asking for consent over and over until they give the answer you want is not considered as freely given.
- Reversible - Anyone can take back their given consent at any time.
- Informed - In order for someone to consent to sex, each participant must be informed and say yes to each sexual act that is performed. Sharing your STD status with your partner(s) is also a part of informed consent.
- Enthusiastic - Consent is given not only because a person wants to participate in the sexual activity, but is also excited to participate.
- Specific - Saying yes to a particular sexual activity gives you the consent for only that specific sexual act. Indulging in any other sexual activity will require consent again. For example, consent for kissing is not consent for sex.
Check out the GVSU Center for Women and Gender Equity’s FRIES video for more!
According to the Office of Women’s Health, sexual coercion “is an unwanted sexual activity that occurs when someone is pressured, threatened, tricked or forced in a non-physical way to participate in a sexual-activity.” It can be verbal or/and emotional in the form of a statement that makes one feel pressured, guilty, shameful, or forced through subtle actions.
Examples of Sexual Coercion include:
- “If you really loved me, you’d do it.”
- “Come on; it’s my birthday.
- “Everyone thinks we already have, so you might as well.”
- “Here, have another drink. It will loosen you up.”
- “You know I have a lot of connections.”
Check out the federal Office of Women's Health's Sexual Coercion page to learn more about it.
Communication and Sex
Communication is the key to many problems, and so it is for a healthy, consensual, and pleasurable sex. Communication is the basic foundation to having a good sexual experience for yourself and your partner(s). It’s important to not only communicate with your partner(s) about your sexual needs, but also about your limitations.
Moreover, if you or a partner is reluctant about intensifying sexual encounters, then one should have a conversation and communicate about your comfort levels before advancing. It is important to remember the significance of checking in with your partner(s) during sexual experiences to make sure they are still okay with everything.
Here are some ways you can ask for consent:
- “Is doing ____ okay?
- “Does this feel okay?”
- “Is it okay if I do ___?”
Embrace Your Awkwards
Giving consent and getting consent may feel a bit awkward for some people, but even then it is important to communicate clearly in order to have healthy and consensual sexual relationships, and hence we say: embrace your awkwards!
Some of the examples of awkward sexual conversations are as follows,
- Want to try something new in bed? Try: Hey, I have been thinking, there’s this new thing I want to try. Do you want me to explain more? Would you be interested in trying something new? I can show you what I mean if you want. If you don’t want to that’s ok, too. Is there anything you want to try?
- Want your partner(s) to get STI tested? Try making it an experience for both of you instead of just asking your partner to do it: Hey, I have heard that many STIs don’t have any symptoms and that 1 in 2 sexually active young people get an STI before the age of 25. I was thinking that maybe we could get an STI test together.
- Finding sexual activity uncomfortable and want to try lube? Try: I love what we’re doing but I think that lube might make it even better. Would you mind if we use lubrication? I have some here.
Consent and conversations may be awkward and uncomfortable to some, but ultimately, sex should be a positive and pleasurable experience for everyone and communication can help make that happen!
By: Sonal Subhash Mandale, WIT Peer Educator