It also has to be noted that there are circumstances in which it’s not legally possible to give consent, no matter what you say or how you feel in the moment, and that that’s actually a really good thing. Here’s a comprehensive list of consent-based laws broken down by state in the U.S. These laws invalidate the idea of “consensual sex” if you’re under a certain age and having sex with an adult, when you’re drunk or high, when you’ve been coerced into sex, or when you’re asleep or otherwise unconscious. (And if you’ve been the victim of this type of sexual assault, or any other nonconsensual sexual encounter, take a look at the website for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, which has a slew of resources that you might find helpful.)
I don’t want to scare you off sex forever with this talk—truly, most people are not angling to put each other in these kinds of scenarios, but if we’re going to have this consent-versation, we have to talk about the fact that consent isn’t always a given, even in the most mutually loving encounters. I think that’s partly because it can seem like a scary conversation to have. (This is a shame, since explicitly consensual sex is good, healthy, and the crowd favorite among highly skilled and respectful hookup candidates who want only wonderful, hot, and pleasant things for one another.) I’ve had myriad physical experiences with resolutely decent types who just didn’t seem to know how to address the subject in a proactive and sexy way, especially not in the heat of the moment. I have also been this species of person myself! I don’t think everyone who stumbles when it comes to discussing consent is a rapist/predatory beast—many have never even been told they have to think about it; others don’t know how to bring it up without getting skittish, feeling prim, worrying they’re killing some kind of moment/boner, or otherwise shutting down. This makes me sad, because I think avoiding the topic of consent because it’s “uncomfortable” actually steers people into the exact awkwardness they’re trying to avoid: It leads to situations where two hotties who set out to have a great time together end up snarled in a morass of anxiety, which is, at least from the maps I’ve drawn up in my RoBZP, not usually their intended destination. And it sincerely doesn’t have to be like this—in most cases, it is so easy for it NOT to be like this! You just have to give each other some simple directions.
At its best, sex, or making out, or touching regions, or whatever affectionate physical contact you’re enjoying with another personage, is communicative and instructive in tons of ways. Every person has their own motions, methods, preferences, and modes when it comes to all these lovely exercises. Learning someone’s personal specificities—and having them learn yours—can (and will) be rad and edifying. One important condition on which all this is predicated, though, is mutual respect, which—guess what—come from mutual consent.
You don’t have to chuck spontaneity in the garbage disposal mid-hookup to instigate a heart-to-pelvis conversation about your entire sexual history and interior life (although, if that’s what you need to do to feel comfortable about being physical with another person, do it right up without giving it a second thought). But no matter how free ’n’ breezy (or otherwise reminiscent of a feminine hygiene–centric commercial) your encounter, you still have to pay attention to and interpret physical and verbal signals, respond to cues, and intermittently ask questions. Those are the basics (but, trust your girl, we’ll delve deeper in just a moment). Speaking up is so much easier—and so much more effective—than wordlessly removing someone’s hand from a part of your body where you’d rather not have it fluttering around (although, frankly, your partner should get the message from that alone).
Sex, for all its virtues, is weird (which is also frequently one of its virtues). It can be hard to know what another person likes, wants, or is thinking, or whether they’re able to gauge what you like, want, or are thinking without an explicit, out-loud announcement from you (and vice versa). Such announcements can be especially hard for girls and women to make, because we’ve all been taught that we should be “good,” which means submitting to authority, which means not voicing our own desires or protests. This, in a sexual setting, can manifest as remaining passive as someone else does things to you, instead of allowing yourself to be an autonomous participant capable of gross, strange, amazing lustful passion just like everybody else. But, as you know, you are capable of all kinds of desires, and of voicing your concerns in the spirit of self-protection. What’s more, your partner needs to be protected, too, and it’s crucial to ask them the same consent-based questions that you require of them. Once you get into the habit of verbalizing that murky stuff, it’ll be a massive relief and will lead to waaaaay more enjoyable, less intimidating intimate encounters.
The first tenet of consent: Each “yes” you give is one-time-use-only. By that I mean that since you are a person with mutable feelings, you might want to do something one day with one person in one setting, but you’re not bound to want that same thing on any other day in any other setting with that person or anyone else. You are not being unreasonable or prudish if you decide to (a) draw the line and/or (b) change your mind, at any time.
If you plan on having a sex life, you’re going to be giving a LOT of consent, so it’s time we delved into some specific ideas about HOW to give it—and how to clearly withhold it. The ideal time to talk about what your sexual limitations is before you’re embroiled in a physical situation where someone might be straining them. If you’re able to have a conversation with the person you’re potentially going to be intimate with prior to acting on whatever that means for you, you can tell them exactly what you do and don’t want to do. When I started seeing my first long-term boyfriend, we spent a lot of time talking before anything beyond entry-level kissing took place, and while most of that conversation probably concerned our differences of opinion regarding what the best episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm was, we also asked each other plenty of questions about “how far we’d gone,” that most classic of shy/sly high school sexual mile-marking systems. I told him that I hadn’t ever had sex, among some other things which seemed intense to me at the time, and didn’t want to until I was sure I loved someone and had been with them for a little while. In return, he told me about his history with sexual trauma, which made me rethink being rough with him in ways I would have otherwise thought playful. We knew each other’s deals, and we didn’t try to broker new ones mid-hookup. Learning to pretty much constantly ask, and respond honestly to, the question “Do you want to try [whatever new thing]?” and then actually respecting each other’s answers was probably what made “losing” our virginities to each other after a few months so sweet and lovely—we were both stoked, happy, and comfortable, and totally aware that the other person was, too. We still had our Larry David–based differences, but all the other important stuff, we agreed on.