July 16, 2020 · 16 minute read
Many years back now I was invited to a party that some new friends were throwing at their apartment in DC. The hosts called it a “snuggle party”, somewhere in between an absolutely platonic cuddle party and a full-on sex party -- and there I was, having never been to either of those. When I look back on that moment, I realize that I was about to experience a radical departure from what I had been taught about touch and consent.
At that point, my understanding of consent was largely limited to sex, and sexual consent was determined thusly: “Does everyone involved want to have sex? In absence of a no, proceed; if you hear a no, stop.” My experience as a cisgender woman who had mostly had sex with cisgender men was that I was the one deciding whether I was a no or not. But this party was different. No one was having sex. And there weren’t any cisgender men invited. And yet, consent was at the center of all the activities at the party.
The party was well-organized, with an opening circle and ground rules about how guests were to interact with each other. The biggest of these was that you were required to ask for consent before you touched anyone, in any way, and ask again for every new kind of touch. You did not proceed with any physical interaction without a verbal, enthusiastic, “yes.”
This didn’t disrupt the “mood” in the way I feared that it might. The party was a playground of sensual touch. Being asked and saying “yes” was freeing. Because we were all giving and obtaining permission for all touch, it felt really safe, and I felt eager to explore, even though most of the attendees were people I had just met. The rules helped me worry less that I would accidentally hurt someone or make them uncomfortable, and made me feel more confident in communicating and enjoying receiving exactly and only the touch that I wanted.
I felt encouraged not only to set and respect limits, but to tell people who were interacting with my body what felt good, and to ask others what felt good. It started a revolution for me on what consent is really about, and what is possible when you practice excellent consent. And how absolutely sexy it can be to be so clear on what exactly you want to do with someone else and what they want to do with you.
This is such a radical shift from how I used to engage with consent. Many of us have received the message that the reason to pay attention to consent is specifically so that you don’t accidentally rape anyone, and you need to get an explicit “yes” to cover your ass so that your partner doesn’t press criminal charges against you. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that we treat consent like a somber mood-killer or that it seems onerous or disruptive to the flow of things.
But my experience at that snuggle party long ago was such a revelation, I decided to start practicing continuous consent with all new and established intimate partners. Here’s what I learned:
Obtaining consent by prioritizing a clear yes from someone before doing anything with or to them is so that everyone can freely choose the experiences they are having together. The result? Discussing and freely choosing the things you do with someone increases the likelihood that the experience will be enjoyable!
I’m serious. The sexual experiences I have had since practicing continuous consent has been hotter, more satisfying and more fun. It’s especially been valuable to me as someone on the ace-spectrum. My inconsistent interest in sex combined with responsive desire, plus the numerous harmful and conflicting cultural messages about sex that I grew up with, has meant that even when I want sex it can be fraught with anxiety. Continuous consent has often been a magic antidote for that. So I want to invite you, dear reader, into this incredible practice. A lot of educators have created wonderful resources around the basics of good consent: easy-to-understand analogies, videos showing consent in action, even sex worksheets. What I’m offering though is specific to how consent can be applied to people in long-term relationships, because there, we often stop. We presume consent is implied or we think we know without words. In my work as a relationship coach, largely working with non-monogamous folks, I’ve found that we often don’t. So I have crafted the tips below to how you can practice consent in the context of an established relationship.
Especially when engaging in heterosexual sex, talking about the kind of sex you want before doing it not a thing we’re taught or have modeled for us. Instead, what we’re expected to execute is a non-verbal, non-negotiated, in-the-flow encounter that we navigate using a complicated algorithm in our heads that helps us figure out what is and isn’t okay. This algorithm is based on what we’ve been culturally told we can reasonably expect, what we assume that people are stereotypically up for and what they like (and this is often gendered and performative), combined perhaps with observed responses we’ve gotten from past partners, and of course what our current partners seems to be signaling to us with as we try a new thing… do you feel exhausted yet? And of course the only way you know if you got it right is if there’s been no objections and hopefully some expression of pleasure, and from there you can assume that this thing you did is okay, and that you have ongoing permission to try it again until you’re told not to. And should you be on the other side of this and be up for something one day and not up for it the next, you run the risk of your partner getting confused, disappointed, frustrated, or even hurt.
The result of that framework can end up pretty damn stressful. I used to feel frozen when something that I didn’t like happened during sex, especially if it was something I knew they were trying to do to please me, because I didn’t want to disrupt the flow or disappoint my partner. I would even sometimes avoid a sexual encounter altogether, even though I was in the mood to be sexy, because I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a certain aspect of it. Like maybe I was in the mood for some genital touching, but not for penetrative sex. I had this belief that if I initiated anything with my partner, I was implicitly communicating that I consented to everything that might follow, and I was so worried about when I would have to put on the brakes and what would follow from that.
I would also sometimes even shut down or get uncomfortable receiving any physical affection with a partner because of the worry that it’s just a lead-in to sex that I wasn’t sure I wanted. I had this belief if I started a heavy makout session with a partner or we got naked and cudded that there was an intention for more underneath, and that by giving and receiving that touch, I was implicitly communicating that I wanted sex. This disrupted my ability to relax and just enjoy the sensual touch because I was afraid, again of when I would have to put on the brakes and disappoint my partner. Does that sound familiar?
This can also work in the reverse too. Let’s say I am up for all the things, I want sex all the time and usually initiate things, but then maybe one night I’m tired and I don’t want to do all the things, maybe I just want to cuddle or make out or I’m not up for a particular sex act, but I’m worried if I start then I’ll be creating this expectation for a particular set of activities, so I just avoid any kind of physical affection or touch. In either case, the response is to avoid touch because of all that implied expectation. This avoidance can lead to one or both partners feeling disconnected and undesirable.
The game-changer for me was just… talking about what my partner and I wanted to do before we did anything. As a person who came to a deeper understanding of my own queerness in my 30s, I feel a bit sheepish that this was such a revelation, because I have since been told that it’s common practice for queer folks to talk about what they do before they do it. (And research has shown that queer people generally have better sex - maybe this is why.) Sometimes I’m just interested in the closeness and the sensuality of the experience rather than the experience looking one particular way, so now I tell my partner things I know for sure I’m up for, ask them what their hopes and aspirations are, and all of that helps me to relax into the moment.
This goes both ways. If your partner is sending you mixed signals, it’s great to just ask what they want to do. It can alleviate anxiety around whether they’re into it or if they’re just going along or if they are anticipating some expectation you might have for them. By checking in, you’re creating a container for information about their desires, and you’re prioritizing that information as very important.
You don’t have to map out exactly what you’re going to do step by step and execute the plan perfectly; you can make room for following the energy and make adjustments as you go. Pro tip? At least initially, don’t test limits that are set ahead of time. If someone says they’re not up for anal this afternoon, don’t offer it mid-session. Even if that someone is you.
Here are a few things you might want to talk about when you talk with your partner about the sexual activity you’re going to do together: what are some things you definitely don’t want to happen? What is something you’re afraid of? Is there a certain amount of time you want to spend on the activity? Do you want to have a safe word or phrase to pause or stop, or do you want to say “pause” and “stop”? What level of energy do you have right now?
Be specific, so that the two of you can make a plan together, and adjust as you need to. Not only will this communication break up those patterns of avoidance due to unspoken expectations, but you may actually find yourself having better and more sex.
Maybe you have a hard time asking for anything out of fear of being turned down, maybe you have a hard time turning someone down, maybe you even have a hard time with both. I think all of us have struggled with rejection, and I’m not suggesting that we need to be perfectly at peace with it in order to have sex at all -- but we do need to do the work.
Asking is vulnerable, and there’s no way around that. One belief we might have is that that long-term partnerships are inherently more protected from rejection, because of the belief that there’s a certain amount of implied consent baked in. That’s part of what makes rejection so scary when it does come from a long-term partner; there’s this feeling of “woah, this isn’t supposed to happen!” Here’s the thing about receiving rejection: you probably don’t want someone to say yes to you out of fear of disappointing you, and that’s what rejection prevents. So it’s crucial to make it safe for your partner to say “no” to you, by receiving it well.
If you have a hard time asking for consent for fear of rejection, two things that can help are to 1) practice detachment from outcome, and 2) stay curious about what the other person wants. Detaching from outcome is so important because any relationship is really a long game. It’s so much more important that both of you feel good about the interaction than that it looks any particular way. Just because sex isn’t happening or isn’t happening in the way you were hoping doesn’t mean that will be a forever thing, so try not to catastrophize that “not right now” means “not ever again.” It can help so much to shift away from your disappointment to great interest in where your partner actually is and be willing to pivot and be flexible.
However, I know that rejection can sometimes end up being pretty harsh! It can definitely happen that a partner will turn down sex with disgust and annoyance rather than with love and compassion. This sucks, and it can cause the person being rejected to go down a shame spiral around their desires.
In defense of the people who might turn down sexual activity harshly, it can often come from a place from wanting to please their partner, and being frustrated that they’re put in a position where they can’t, so they get mad at their partner for asking and putting them in the position of saying no. But that can lead to an atmosphere where there’s no space to ask for anything. I’ve definitely met folks who have a really hard time expressing their desires because they have or have had a partner that struggles with and carries a lot of fear around asserting boundaries.
Maybe you’re thinking, oh, that’s me! I’m that partner. If you get upset when you have to say no, you also might want to work on your relationship to rejection. Consider practicing saying no by softening it and affirming your love and desire for your partner. You can also make counter-offers, like “I know you want X, but I am really only up for Y tonight.”
Another common response to a discomfort with saying no is to just shift into avoidance mode because it’s easier to avoid your partner asking for sex than to go through the pain of having to turn them down. I think that backfires and often makes a partner feel more rejected, not less. Here I’d unpack what you’re really afraid will happen if you say no. Are you afraid of their disappointment? That they’ll leave you? That they’ll turn around and reject you? This may be an indicator that your partner may have work to do around accepting rejection with more grace, but you also may need to practice saying no, allowing space for feelings that your partner may have without taking responsibility for them, and then move through the fears of the aftermath.
Getting in right relationship with rejection is essential to having a healthy consent practice. Once you have a sense of what is hard for you around hearing or saying no, you will know what the work is for you.
Our culture has created this expectation that if you’re a rockstar lover or if you have incredible chemistry with your partner, you’ll be so tuned in that you’ll just intuitively know what they want and don’t want in the moment.
Can I just disabuse you of this idea real quick? Most of us are just NOT good mind-readers, and that’s okay. I’ll own that some people are really good at being hyper-attuned to their partner and their pleasure and somehow just seem to “know” things. In my experience, that often comes at the expense of them being attuned to their own pleasure… and when they do get it wrong, they may not be able to hear it because their identity is so wrapped up in getting it right.
So cut the mind reading, but instead work to get to a place of confidence by having lots of experience with a partner, getting their feedback when things feel good, getting their feedback when things don’t feel right, and seeking lots of verbal confirmation that your read on their nonverbal cues was correct. There’s just no shortcutting the ability to read someone that comes with a lot of experience. What makes this so different from “mind-reading” is that it really requires the participation of both parties. Giving and soliciting feedback with a partner is giving you a template for how to have better sex together.
Instead of wordlessly proceeding and hoping you’re reading the signals right, try continuous check-ins throughout. You don’t have to do this in a way that takes the person out of the moment, either, it can be really small and simple, especially when you feel confident that you can communicate with your partner more after sex.
Most of the sex we are able to observe is either pornography or in the movies. In porn, the encounter is already scripted, so they don’t have to talk about it. Same with the movies, if we see anything at all. In most rom coms I've seen, the people express interest, sparks fly, they kiss, then…. fade to black. Sound familiar?
If we don’t have a model, it can be really hard to know exactly how to be explicit about what we want to do sexually with someone. But just because it might feel awkward in your mouth to say the words, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unnatural or clunky to talk about sex. We just haven’t gotten to see what it really looks like.
Fortunately, there are resources to help. I’m going to start you off with a few, but I want you to know that this really isn’t one-size-fits-all, and it might take you a little bit of exploration and even practice to do this in a way that feels sexy to you.
Consent is a practice, so don’t be surprised if you find that you need to fake it till you make it before talking about what you want to do sexually with your partner(s) feels effortless. In fact, even if you are comfortable, sometimes practice can be fun all on its own!
A big objection that I have heard to explicitly discussing and negotiating sexual activity is that it takes away that opportunity to be swept away and up in the moment. We want to let go and connect to something primal and free within us. I feel that too, and for me, that desire to be swept away is not an argument against talking about what you’re going to do sexually -- it’s the opposite. When you talk about what’s going to happen, and have a practice of sexy ways to check in throughout, that actually creates the container to confidently let go.
It’s like the difference between the thrill of signing up to go skydiving, versus just getting on a plane with no idea when or whether the back of the plane will open and you’ll be handed a parachute. Either way you’re getting the thrill of jumping out of a plane, but in the first scenario everyone’s agreed to be there, and you know what’s going to happen and when, so it is easier to lean into it and have fun instead of seizing up with anxiety. Instead of seeing boundaries as inherently limiting, I invite you to reframe them as freeing.
Practicing explicit communciation around sex is also both a wonderful way to show care for your partner and concern for their enjoyment. It also opens up more space for the experience to be deeply connecting and a mutual creation rather than being about just checking off a box. In sharing what you want and talking about what feels good, you create a greater opportunity for intimacy and vulnerability as well as really really good sex. Once you’ve got a solid consent practice with a partner, the safe container you create with them can establish a level of trust that not only makes space to let go and really fly away in the moment, but also to stretch and try new things.
I hope I’ve shown you that consent is for more than just first-time sexual encounters with new people. It’s not just to make sure you’re not sexually assaulting anyone. Getting explicit verbal agreement when having sex, on the kind of sex you’re going to have before you have it, making tons of space for saying and hearing no and setting limits, and checking in on how everyone is enjoying it actually makes for better, hotter, more connected sex with people you have established intimate relationships with. Now go forth, and have great sex! Or maybe don’t and just cuddle. Whatever you do, I hope you always feel empowered to truly be doing exactly what you want to be doing with the people you love, and empower your loved ones to do the same with you.
Libby Sinback is a queer, polyamorous mom, a relationship transformation coach, and host of the podcast, Making Polyamory Work. Libby helps individuals, couples, and polycules who want to break out of harmful relationship patterns and rewrite their broken scripts from childhood and culture to embrace nourishing, authentic, boundless love in their life.