Is Sexual Consent More Complicated Than A ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?

Why all this talk about sexual consent if it’s just about a yes or a no?

Here at Fumble, we’re all about discussing sexual consent.

Consent is crucial for pleasurable sex, and sex is all about the pleasure!

Simple, right?

At least, it should be –– but consent can often feel a bit more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

What does ‘consenting’ actually mean?

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of ‘consenting’.

This defines consenting as ‘complying’ and ‘yielding’. It suggests that it’s something we are willing to do, but that we don’t really want to do it.

For example: we may go to school on a Monday morning because we want to study further or get a specific job. We are willing to do this, whilst not wanting to crawl out of bed that particular morning.

But how helpful is this definition when it comes to sexual consent?

Sex shouldn’t be something we’re willing to do but don’t want to. Sex is about mutual pleasure, right?!

What about when it comes to the law?

Sexual consent, under the law, is the agreement between people to have sex or engage in sexual activity. That means having the freedom, capacity and choice to make a decision.

But this phrasing doesn’t properly distinguish between wanting sex and giving in to sex.

And what does it mean exactly to have the freedom, capacity and choice to make such a decision?

What about if we’re drunk? Or if we’re feeling pressured? If we’re afraid of the other person? Or we’re exchanging sex for a roof over our head? What if our friends have arranged for us to “lose our virginity” at a party that night?

Some people* argue that the term ‘consenting’ simply means an agreement to engage, rather than actually wanting it.

But why agree to it when you don’t actually want it?

It’s actually very common for people to say yes to sex or go along with sex, even though they don’t want it.

There are lots of reasons: they may be afraid to hurt their partner’s feelings by saying no, or they may be afraid to say no. Perhaps they feel pressured to always ‘be game’ for sex (especially the case for men).

Brook gives statistics of 1 in 10 women experiencing this (since the age of 13) whilst 1 in 71 men have experienced this – which shows the gendered nature of sexual consent.

Whilst stats don’t tell us the full story (such as the pressure on young men to always be ‘up for it’ making them less likely to reveal if sex was non-consensual) these stats do show that non-consensual sex is common.

So, despite consent being framed as a simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’, that’s rarely how it goes in real life.

It can be hard to say no

As we’re always advocating at Fumble, you can say no to sex at any point. That’s your right, whether you’re mid-fumbling, getting under the covers, heading upstairs, or still in the bar.

But how easy is it to say no? Even if you know it’s your right, it can be very difficult to voice.

And that’s not simply down to you and your “inability”. We live in a culture that doesn’t encourage us to say that outright ‘no’.

British society is known for its polite making of excuses, rather than saying a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

For example: it’s commonplace to make an excuse if we’re invited out to something we don’t want to go to, rather than say ‘no’ because we don’t want to go.

“Ah, sorry, wish I could but I’m at a family thing that day…”

It’s rare to say a direct ‘no’ to something non-sexual with the reasoning that you simply don’t want to.

So, why would we expect ourselves to do that when it comes to sex? Especially as rejection cuts deeper when it comes to physical intimacy and sexual relations.

So, if it’s hard to say ‘no’, how can I trust the other person actually wants to have sex?!

Yes, this can feel tricky if you’re initiating sex. But it doesn’t have to be difficult!

Alongside enthusiastic consent, it’s important to give the other person opportunity to say ‘no’ indirectly.

That could be through an open question that gives an alternative to sex. For example:

“Do you feel like sex or chilling with a film?”

“Do you want to come back to mine or shall we stay for another drink?”

“Do you want to cuddle/have sex or are you tired?”

Open questions with an alternative to sex give the other person the opportunity to say ‘no’.

And this is where enthusiastic consent also comes in…

Enthusiastic consent is about getting a confident and meaningful YES before assuming the other person(s) wants to engage in sexual activity.

This puts less focus on someone needing to say ‘no’ to stop sexual activity. Rather, there needs to be enthusiastic, reciprocated desire before any fumbling goes down.

Okay, it may not be that outward as the person above, but enthusiastic consent also acknowledges the importance of body language.

Just like it’s hard to say ‘no’ to sex, it can be equally tricky to say ‘yes’ to sex. Studies show that the majority of us consent and communicate through body language when it comes to sexual activity, rather than verbalising our desires.

This makes the idea that consent is a vocal yes/no even less realistic!

Instead, most of us show our feelings through our body language.

For example: turning away, silence, curling up, not reciprocating the touching/kissing. This is certainly not enthusiastic consent.

Likewise, our body language can show our enthusiasm. For example: kissing back, touching back, smiling, making eye contact.

So sexual consent turns out to be a little more complicated than the yes/no notion, but that’s okay:

Communication, body language and enthusiasm is where it’s at!


* check out academics: Beres 2005 and 2007, Muehlenhard and Peterson 2007, if you fancy learning more. 


Read More

Alcohol and Consent