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 of 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 of encounters. I think the gigantic, looming threat that consent calls to mind is part of why some members of the genuinely non-monstrous majority population are afraid to discuss it. (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 well-meaning, resolutely decent types who just didn’t seem to know how to address consent 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 of them have never been made to understand that it’s a thing they even have to think about, or don’t know how to bring up consent 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 that—in most cases, it is so easy for it NOT to be like that! You just have to give each other 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 this is predicated, though, is mutual honesty and respect, which—guess what—come from mutual consent.
I don’t mean you have to permanently 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 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…or 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, rather than 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, as a result, a waaaaay more enjoyable, less intimidating way method to go about goin’ at it.
The first tenet of consent: Each “yes” you give is one-time-use-only. By this, 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, ANYTIME.
So, since, if you plan on having a sex life, you’re going to be giving a LOT of consent, 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 are 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 between us, and while most of that conversation probably concerned our differences of opinion about what the best Curb Your Enthusiasm episode 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 when we actually started going far together. We knew each other’s deals, and we didn’t try to broker new ones mid-hookup without having considered them aloud while fully clothed. 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.