It's probably fair to say that most of us think we're great at establishing consent. After all, no one wants to imagine they are encouraging people to do things they're not comfortable with – not just in the bedroom but elsewhere in life. If you ask around the office to see who wants to come to the pub after work, you don't want to think anyone's joining in just because you're the boss and they want to impress you.
But understanding consent isn't just about recognising a 'no' when you see one, it's a lot more interesting and complicated than that, and in order to practise consent in your everyday life, you need much more than just a one-off crash course in listening to people's verbal and physical cues. That's why I'm delighted that the theme for this year's Sexual Health Week is 'consent.'
What is Sexual Health Week?
Sexual Health Week is an annual campaign run by the FPA charity (previously known as the Family Planning Association – they've now dropped the 'family planning' bit because sexual health is about far more than just making (or not making) babies). Each year they pick a different topic in the field of sexual health, and offer resources and information to teach people a little more about it. Bloggers, press, and others join in and contribute their own thoughts on the topic, so we at SexToys.co.uk thought we'd contribute some of our top tips on consent as well as links to relevant products and resources you might like to check out during Sexual Health Week itself.
What is 'consent'?
'Consent', broadly, is the permission you give to someone (whether another person or yourself) to do a certain thing. It is most often used in a sexual context, i.e. “I consented to a spanking, because I get really turned on by spanking and the person offering me one made me crotch tingle.” But we actually seek and establish consent in many different places in our lives, from checking with people if a seat next to them is taken to sharing food, hugs, and household chores.
In a sexual context, the old adage was always 'no means no' – if someone has said 'no', whether to a kiss or sex or anything else, you should not put any pressure on them to turn that 'no' into a 'yes.' It might be possible to nag, cajole or pressure someone into bed, but we all know that doing this is wrong and can be incredibly traumatic.
However, as society has become better at talking about sex, we've started to have a more nuanced conversation around what 'consent' really means. Sure, someone might have said 'yes', but there are many factors that could influence that 'yes', not all of them consensual: the recent #MeToo movement throws up countless examples of things that people felt pressured to do because the person asking was in a position of power, or they feared for their livelihoods if they made their feelings clear.
How do I get better at consent?
As part of Sexual Health Week, the FPA charity will be publishing lots of resources on consent – including advice on listening, negotiation, how to understand and establish boundaries, and seeking enthusiastic agreement in a sexual scenario. Keep an eye on their website from 24th-30th September, and check out some of these great resources too:
MegJohnAndJustin.com – these two fabulous people have been giving excellent, kind, sound sex advice for longer than I can remember, and their work always has consent at its core. Their podcast tackles topics like changing relationship agreements and how to get laid all the while flagging consent issues in a way that is easy to understand and learn from. They will highlight examples of places where power imbalances can make consent more difficult to navigate, and give the kind of advice I could only have dreamed of when I was a teenager bumping up against consent questions for the very first time.
O.School is a relatively new platform for adult sex education, and they have a whole subsection on consent that is well worth checking out. Educators, bloggers, adult performers and more fabulous folks give video lessons on everything from establishing consent to saying 'no' and much more besides.
Alongside checking out the resources above, there are plenty of ways you can get into the habit of practicing consent in your sex life. Here are a couple of my top tips for developing the consent conversation in your everyday sex life:
- If you're having casual sex/relationships with people, the contraception conversation is a great way to establish open dialogue and make sure that you're listening to your partner's needs: discussing condom use and whether you need to use lubricant are two basics covered, but talking about this openly is also a great way to segue the conversation into more consent-focused questions. Asking what they enjoy, and how, for example – a much better, and more consensual way to have sex in the early days than just guessing.
- Whatever stage you and your partner at at, discussing their sexual preferences (including kinks like bondage, sexy lingerie, sex toys they like, etc!) is a great way to start laying the groundwork for enthusiastic and consensual sex. Looking through sex toy websites together (if they're up for it, of course!) can be a good way to explore their preferences and also open up about your own.
- While not everyone is going to be comfortable masturbating in front of a partner, if you and your partner are happy to do this then 'showing not telling' can be a good way to get a more detailed insight into what the other person likes in bed. Again, it's all about going further than simple 'yes/no' communication and understanding the detail of what your partner enjoys.
Above all, when you're thinking about consent during this year's Sexual Health Week, remember that the idea we just learn consent once and then never need to think about it again is a total myth: consent is an ongoing thing, one which we need to continue to think about even after we've tried a particular kink or slept with a particular person.
What someone does and doesn't want can change on a daily (and hourly!) basis, depending on their mood, the atmosphere, the way you suggest something, your evolving relationship and many other things. Practicing good consent is a lifelong commitment – and one that will stand you in good stead both inside and outside the bedroom.