I recently was asked a question about consent: Do we assume consent is given until revoked, or do we assume that there is no consent until verbally given? And that’s a tough question to answer. At first glance, the first option seems dangerous. What if someone is unable to revoke consent because they are drunk, asleep, afraid to do so, or have feelings or guilt or obligation? But in situations where we’ve been with a partner for some time, we make these assumptions. I don’t ask my husband for a kiss, I lean in and snag one. The second option seems the best because it ensures consent, but it can be cumbersome and unnecessary. Do I stop mid-kiss to ask if tongue is alright? Do I stop to ask if an ass grab is ok? Or do I negotiate the entire physical encounter before it begins? That’s tricky because what if one partner changes his or her mind mid-encounter.
This whole debate reminds me of an episode of the Chappelle Show where Dave Chappelle has a would be sexual partner sign a legal document giving consent. This is a funny example of how extreme we can get when we talk about consent, but I don’t like extremes. Answers to complicated situations like this always lie somewhere in the middle or there is a better third, fourth, or fifth option. In this case, there are definitely other options.
We can’t deny that consent can be confusing when you’re first trying to develop a physical relationship, but developing closeness, in general, isn’t easy either. When trying to develop long term relationships, it’s best to work on developing honesty and trust in your relationship, that includes negotiating a way to give and revoke consent that doesn’t feel risky to one or both partners. Most of us actually do this when developing relationships and just don’t realize it. I don’t have to ask for a kiss from my husband not because he’s obligated to kiss me but because we’ve built up trust, respect, and honesty in our relationship. I know that he likes my kisses, and he knows that he can revoke that consent at any time without harming our relationship. And the same goes for sex. I can try to initiate a sexual encounter with a high level of assurance that I’ll be successful, but we’ve created that space in our relationship that allows each of us to say no without risk of angering the other person or destabilizing the relationship. Our way of communicating isn’t based on assuming consent. Instead, it’s about feeling safe to say what it is we want and don’t want from each other. Each couple will communicate differently, but as long as each person’s wants and needs are addressed and respected, then consent can be negotiated successfully without going to each of the above extremes.
Still, no relationship starts this way. In the beginning, I think asking for consent is the best route. It clears the air of any confusing signals from a partner, and it begins this process of creating an honest and trusting relationship. I also think that anytime you want to try something new, asking for consent is the best course of action. Yeah, these conversations can be awkward, but ultimately the conversation itself and the subsequent physical encounter will be more rewarding for both partners.