Consent—More Than “Yes” or “No”
Originally Published: February 7, 2017
Revised: February 7, 2017
“Yes” and “no” are words we all use on a day-to-day basis. From mundane things like, “Yes, I want sugar in my coffee,” or, “No, I don’t want cheese on my burger,” to answering important and personal questions about ourselves. There are times when we are really clear about what we do or don’t want, and those boundaries should be respected. But sometimes, saying yes or no—giving or not giving consent or receiving or not receiving consent—isn’t so simple.
Depending on the situation, consent can be complex and maybe even scary, requiring more than a few seconds of attention. It can also include a wide range of issues, from the behavioral consent that we usually see when talking about sex, a sort of “I will do this, but not this” kind of scenario to figuring out how to convey to your sexual partner, for example, if you only want to have sex with a condom or dental dam. It can include consent on sharing images of yourself. And whether consent is respected or not affects trust in a relationship.
It’s important to check in with yourself before you can communicate with someone else about what your wants and needs are. Read on to learn more about how complicated consent can be and how teens communicate with their partners about what they will or won’t do in a relationship and how to express and understand consent.
The best way to smooth out any questions and be completely clear is to simply sit down and talk.
What You Want to Do
When it comes to sex, saying yes or no can sometimes be difficult. In some instances, a person could consent to a certain act because they want their partner to be satisfied or like them. Others consent to doing something because they’re curious or like the way it makes them feel. Still others might say yes because they feel pressured to do so. (And just to be clear, being pressured into saying yes is not truly giving consent.)
When thinking about whether you will consent to something, it’s helpuful to evaluate your likes and dislikes and what you do or don’t want to do. It’s important to take a moment and think about all the things you are or are not comfortable with. If you agree to do something you’re not comfortable with, then the experience can go from awkward or awful really quickly.
“I felt extremely uncomfortable having oral sex done by one of my previous girlfriends,” explains Jon, 17, from Naples, FL. “I didn’t like it, but I consented to it because I didn’t want to make her feel bad or ruin the mood.”
Agreeing to do something to please someone else or because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or insult them is the wrong reason to say yes.
Franky, 16, from Little Rock, AR, says, “After my girlfriend watched Fifty Shades of Grey, she kept asking me to do some of the things the characters in the movie did.” Sometimes you can consent to things you don’t want to do because it makes you feel like you aren’t “manly” or “womanly” enough if you say no. “I wasn’t really up for it, since it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did it anyways because I felt like I needed to please her and prove to her that I wasn’t any less of a man for saying no,” explains Franky. Sometimes, we have expectations about what we’re supposed to like or do stuck in our head, and that voice can drown out our own voice.
Trusting and Sharing
Trusting a partner enough to tell that person how you feel is also a part of consent. How will you know if you feel comfortable sharing something like an intimate picture, or even something like a secret? You have to trust that your partner won’t share it. If they do, then it was either because they weren’t trustworthy to begin with.
The best way to smooth out any questions and be completely clear is to simply sit down and talk. You can’t expect a partner to know what you’re consenting to telepathically. Just like you can’t read their mind, they can’t read yours. Set aside some time to talk with your partner, whether on the phone, via text or face to face. These conversations can help to establish trust, strengthen your relationship and make things a lot easier later on.
Dana, 17, from Newark, NJ, shares how she communicated with a partner:
“My sex friend was into biting, and I told him straight from the beginning, ‘no.’ I didn’t like that because it was painful for me.”
She clearly told him that what he was doing made her feel uncomfortable and set a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Not Set in Stone
Consent is not set in stone. We all have the ability and the right to change our minds. Just because a person said yes to something one week and no to that same thing the next doesn’t undermine their decision. It can also vary with the partner you’re with. Maybe with one person you didn’t mind doing certain things but with another it just doesn’t feel right. That’s perfectly fine. You can give and withdraw consent as you feel comfortable—or uncomfortable—with the situation, person or timing.
“With my ex-boyfriend, I didn’t really like doing anything outside the box, nothing too experimental, because I didn’t really vibe with him like that,” explains Kirenia, 18, from Kearny, NJ. “But with my current boyfriend, I feel different—like I have more of a chance to explore myself and my body.”
Sometimes you may feel more comfortable or safe with someone, and it’s hard to explain why. Listen to what your gut is telling you.
Consent isn’t always as easy as yes or no. It can take time to decide whether you want to do something or not, and it can vary from person to person. As a teen I feel that it’s important to get in touch with yourself and think about the things you do or don’t want to do. (See “Consent 101: A How-to Guide.”) Making a list of those things is a good way to get your thoughts out on paper. Take a moment to sit down and think about who you are as a person, where you want to be in your life, what you want to share with a partner and how you want to talk to them about these things. You won’t regret it.
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