April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is a great opportunity to spread awareness and support for issues surrounding sexual assault and domestic violence as well as to also study up on healthy sex and relationship skills. With the topic of healthy relationships comes the subject of consent. Contrary to popular belief, consent goes far beyond a simple “yes” or “no” before engaging in sex. How can you approach consent in a way that actually strengthens your bond and creates a safe container for sexual exploration and enjoyment for all involved parties? Let's talk about it, because no — talks about consent do not have to kill the mood, and can actually enhance attraction.
I had the opportunity to talk with dating and relationship expert Emily Avagliano. A survivor of sexual assault herself, Avagliano is now a coach who helps individuals find and create a relationship with their soulmate through her program, Dating to Get Married. She is the author of the book Dating After Trauma, and actively fights to spread awareness and education on sexual assault and consent.
It’s important to note that although this piece is in correlation with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, victims of sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence are never at fault for the experiences they go through, no matter the circumstance.
What is consent?
Consent is a freely, clearly communicated, ongoing verbal agreement between all involved parties. It is relevant in any potentially physical, sexual, and/or romantic encounter. Even for couples in long-term, monogamous committed relationships. The beautiful thing about consent is that when it is used regularly, it actually strengthens the bond between healthy partners and improves their sex life.
Avagliano explains, “The uncomfortableness of talking about these subjects helps you better understand your partner’s values.” Vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, which in turn invites your partner to reciprocate. This fosters comfort and safety. When sexual and/or physical experiences do arise, the foundation of mutual trust makes these experiences feel more pleasurable. Individuals can more easily let down their guard and be present in the moment, soaking in feelings that do arise.
“Consent is the who, the what, the when, the how,” Avagliano shares. “It also includes all other forms of physical contact, and it continues long after any single event.” Before engaging in a potentially sexual or physical encounter, she suggests that individuals think about the following in their own time:
What type(s) of activities do you want to have?
What type of relationship do you want to have (or can you have) with this person before and after the experience?
Where/how do you like (and don’t like) to be touched?
What have you liked in previous relationships/sexual encounters?
What have you not liked?
Are there any curiosities you want to explore?
How will you communicate to your partner(s) if you would like to stop the encounter or activity? (Hint: you can designate a “safe” word.)
Tip: If you are someone who likes journaling, it might be helpful to write down your answers to these questions.
Discovering personal boundaries
“It is okay to explore your sexuality to see what feels good,” Avagliano explains. Many young adults are curious about experimenting with different types of relationships and sexual experiences, something I am all too familiar with in my own experience.
That being said, who and what I consent to varies tremendously. My decision on providing consent is impacted by many factors including the nature of our relationship, sexual histories, desires, personalities, physical/emotional/mental states, motives, etc. Every individual, interaction, action, and moment is different. It is important to routinely gauge my own comfort and have a deep level of self-awareness. Knowing my own personal boundaries and the boundaries of my partner helps me feel safe to fully express myself and allow them to express themselves in our relationship.
When to talk consent
Especially in the early stages of a relationship, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are common. “The biggest problem I see with consent conversations is that people misinterpret their partner not being ready to have sex with rejection,” Avagliano shares. “That is why you need to have the consent talk as early as possible, and lay out expectations, needs, and desires. It is okay if you have different interests or standards. The point of having the consent conversation is to get on the same page in terms of understanding expectations and relationship implications.”
Oftentimes, if you wait until the moment of a potential sexual encounter to think about what you feel comfortable doing, judgment will be clouded by numerous conflicting factors. Avaglaino explains that potent neurohormones are released when we are sexually aroused. These hormones can cloud our judgement, making us more likely to say “yes” to things that we wouldn’t normally say yes to.
During a sexual encounter, your brain releases oxytocin, which increases the bond you have with someone. “If you don’t talk about expectations for the relationship until after sex has happened, people are left feeling awkwardly uncertain about the status of the relationship, and simultaneously inappropriately bonded to them.”
“If you both are interested in each other, but have different expectations, work together to find a pace that feels comfortable to both of you. This is how you develop intimacy and build a healthy relationship.”
Communicate consent — without killing the mood
Conversations about consent should be as clear as possible. Frame these conversations with as much positive phrasing to help ignite the spark you have with someone. For example, tell them: “I’m excited to see where this relationship is going. Just so you are aware, I am the type of person who likes to be in a committed relationship before I have sex. I find it a lot more pleasurable to explore sex with someone who knows me on an emotional level.”
The goal with positive phrasing is to align both the emotional and verbal content of a message to convey assertiveness in a positive manner. Language (specifically connotation, or the emotional tone of a message) is one of your greatest assets to build intimacy with a partner. It is also important to note that “no” is a full answer, and one that should always be respected.
Many people feel awkward or uncomfortable initiating conversations about consent, as sex and relationships in general are incredily vulnerable subjects. You are not alone in feeling embarrassed, anxious or nervous. Being the person who initiates these hard conversations is an expression of personal strength, and will help you improve your communication skills in other aspects of life. It’s almost like ripping off a bandaid and talking about the white elephant in the room. You can even initiate these conversations by saying, “Hey, can we talk about the white elephant in the room?”
There are ways to lighten the mood. Listen to your favorite music, dance a little, watch a funny TV show beforehand. Yes, sex and consent are serious subjects, but that does not mean you have to have to approach them in a stoic manner. Everyone knows these conversations aren’t easy. It is an act of self-care for you, your heart, your partner, and your relationship. Talking about consent demonstrates your maturity.
Avagliano reiterates the importance of affirming the relationship at the end of your statement. For example, “I am telling you this because I really like you. I want you to know how to best love and support me.” As the old saying goes, what you say is not as important as how you say it.
Why consent builds intimacy
Conversations about consent communicate respect to your partner. They are also a powerful expression of self-respect, which is very attractive to healthy partners. If you are open and vulnerable, someone else is more likely to reciprocate. People value relationships where they feel they can be completely honest and that their honesty will be met with compassion. Taking the lead in expressing vulnerability is attractive.
As someone who was once in an abusive relationship, I neglected to even think that I had my own needs, curiosities and desires as a sexual being for years. I had convinced myself that sex was something I did to “please” others. With Avagliano as my coach, I quickly learned that that mindset was not only not only damaging to the integrity of myself, but it damaged relationships I was in. I have found a tremendous amount of strength in reclaiming my own sexuality.
I am grateful to have a level of self-awareness that allows me to express my own boundaries confidently. I take pleasure in the sexual experiences I do have, and if at any time I no longer feel comfortable in a situation, I feel safe to draw the line.
Even if you previously consented to an activity, you always have the option to withdraw consent at any time. Your wish should be respected by your partner(s). This is a two (or three, or four, etc.) way street. Continue to invite your partner to share their own feelings, curiosities, preferences, boundaries, and insecurities. Show that you respect them. Act in alignment and respect their confidentiality.
Consent is attractive regardless of the context. As humans, we are all hardwired to desire connection and crave safety in intimate relationships. Inviting someone to share their own boundaries and actively respecting them fosters trust. By sharing your own boundaries and desires, you invite everyone to express themselves in the healthiest, fullest way possible, whether it is a one-night-stand or in a marriage with your soulmate.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): 800-656-HOPE
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE
Loveisrespect (support for individuals in abusive/unhealthy relationships): 866-331-9474