Enthusiastic Consent in Relationships Requires Ongoing Conversation
According to Canadian law, sexual consent should be positive—saying yes and initiating and/or enjoying the act—and ongoing throughout the sexual activity. While this is a law that should encourage enthusiastic consent from all partners in a relationship, a 2015 study by the Canadian Women's Foundation revealed 2 in 3 Canadians don't actually know what consent means.
Americans' views, based on a 2015 Planned Parenthood survey, are just as alarming. There continues to be varying beliefs about what behaviors do and do not communicate consent. Relatively small percentages of people strongly agree that taking off their own clothes (35 percent), getting a condom (37 percent), nodding in agreement (24 percent), engaging in foreplay (22 percent) and not saying "no" (19 percent) indicate consent for sexual activity. However, about 12 percent to 13 percent of people strongly disagree that consent is indicated by these behaviors, with the exception of not saying "no," for which 20 percent disagreed.
While women are more likely than men to hold strong ideas about consent, it is not uncommon to see these lines blurred in relationships. The only way to remedy this lack of clarity is to have conversations about consent at the beginning of romantic or sexual interaction.
What we need to know about consent
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a philosophy professor and ethics expert at the University of British Columbia, posits that sex, love and romance often create very intense relationships where people impact each other in serious ways. To engage in a relationship in an ethical, mutually beneficial way requires a person to be concerned with more than their own wants, experiences and sexual urges. It becomes important to prioritize what a partner wants as well.
Building a type of relationship that fosters sexual consent requires a responsive element and engaging a partner in a collaborative, interesting way. Ichikawa admitted this is a unique way of looking at consent.
"Think of consent as a matter of making sure that you have someone's permission to do certain kinds of things, particularly things to them," Ichikawa said. "People have a kind of domain autonomy, where you need permission to transgress it. Otherwise, it's a violation."
'People have a kind of domain autonomy, where you need permission to transgress it. Otherwise, it's a violation.'
Enthusiastic consent is pivotal in any type of interaction, but it's especially important in sexual or romantic situations because a violation of consent is a violation of the individual and may be considered assault by the law. Ichikawa believes conversations about consent and boundaries should occur very early in a relationship. Simple ways to go about this include being upfront and direct from the start, he said.
"I think the more clear you are about your needs and expectations, the more likely it is that you're going to end up with partners who respect them," Ichikawa explained. "I think that's an important thing when it comes to sex and sexual assaults. It's not uncommon to have a kiss on a first date. So, in that sense, some of the questions about consent are going to come up very early."
The conversation with your partner
The "Yes means yes" and "No means no" slogans have somewhat diluted the lines around when an act becomes nonconsensual. Certainly, there are a number of scenarios where a person may not be able to say no, in which case reading body language and other signs becomes imperative. This is why it's so important to establish firm boundaries within a relationship.
In the early stages of a relationship, consent can be straightforward. Ichikawa used the examples of observing body language, and taking words and suggestions indicating mutual interest as clear signs consent will likely not be violated if you go in for a kiss. However, he cautioned that it's important to gauge your partner's reactions as well.
Once things get a little more serious and you're considering engaging in other sexual activities, it becomes important to have conversations about comfort and boundaries.
"If you're considering having penetrative sexual intercourse, people have different kinds of ideas about whether condoms are important or how important condoms are," Ichikawa explained. "So that's the kind of situation where you're probably not going to be able to communicate clearly enough without using your words. So saying things like, 'It's important to me that we keep the condom on' would be a nice way to be really clear. And when you're not clear, sometimes you'll have to make the best guesses if you're not able to have the conversation. Sometimes that works out OK, but you get into more dangerous territory."
The rule of thumb is to ask about something if you're unsure at all. If you want to try something but your partner's response and comfort level are not obvious to you, check in with them and ask about it. Ichikawa reiterated that a relationship is a collaborative project where both people's needs matter, so it's important to approach these conversations and situations in ways that are constructive to the relationship you're trying to build.
"It should be an ongoing type of dynamic and texture with a relationship," said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation. "You [should] never not ask if this person is comfortable or if they're enjoying something."
She believes individuals need to cultivate and develop the capacity to be sensitive. This requires the sensibility to gauge when someone is uncomfortable or determine why someone is being quiet.
It's important to build a relationship where both partners are able to say, "Are you OK?" and "How are you feeling?" In turn, it has to be OK for each person to be able to respond, "No, I don't want to talk about this right now. I'm not feeling comfortable right now. Let's talk about it later."
Developing consent skills
Giving and asking for consent is a skill and not something we're likely to naturally possess as individuals; it has to be learned.
However, the learning process is fraught with concepts about relationships we're taught as children; these have to be unlearned. We're rarely taught we're allowed to say no. Learning and building on consent skills early on in interpersonal relationships is likely to better prepare the individual for romantic relationships and sexual interactions.
"By the time you get into romantic relationships, you already have some of that skill; you already know that you can say yes, you can say no, that there's going to be many circumstances where you may not feel comfortable and your feelings are valid and should be listened to, and that you should be asking that of other people and be sensitive to other people," Gunraj said.
"So I see that as something that actually has to be learned far outside of a relationship, so that by the time you're ready to be in romantic relationships, it's natural for you to always be asking, always be watching, always be paying attention, always being sensitive and careful," she continued. "So even in a moment where this person might say yes but they look uncomfortable to you, you say, 'No, I'm going to respect your boundary'; you're going to proactively say no because you can see that something is off and you care about consent that much."
Another important piece to nurturing your consent skills is not to make assumptions. Early on in relationships, it's easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about what the other person wants, needs, likes or doesn't like. Vocalizing and asking before you initiate actions can go a long way toward building trust and ensuring sustained, enthusiastic consent in your interactions. It's also a great way to get to know your partner. Kindness and sensitivity in interactions are essential to building relationships that foster mutual growth and well-being.