Being a good slut is an art form. But before you can become a flourishing sexual mechanic, you need to acquaint yourself with the nuances of sexual consent. After all, if you can’t effectively communicate consent, you’ll never be the cause of someone screaming “fuck, Fuck,FUCK!” or “ohmygodohmygodohmygod”.
Without good communication, you won’t be swapping bodily fluids with anyone at all. You’ll end up staggering round in a barren sexual wasteland until you eventually collapse from exhaustion, horny tears of frustration streaming down your bewildered face. Either that, or you’ll attempt a sex actwithoutconsent in which case you should deliver yourself to the nearest prison, unpack your belongings and settle in.
There are some things that are totally unambiguous, let’s get them out of the way: Silence doesn’t equal consent. Not protesting doesn’t equal consent. Being at a fetish club doesn’t equal consent. Being in a darkroom doesn’t equal consent. Sexual desire doesn’t equal consent. The fact that you’ve repeatedly inserted parts of your body into parts of theirs in the past doesn’t equal consent. The fact you verbally consented ten minutes ago doesn’t equal consent now.
In any sexual situation, consent is of course non-negotiable, like using lube during anal or cracking open a cold beer when it’s sunny, but the way that people prefer to give and receive it can be subjective. Some people swear that verbal consent is the only way to go; others believe nonverbal cues can sometimes be sufficient.
Lauren Smith, a psychologist from Leeds, spearheaded the first study into consent during drug-fuelled sex. She told me about research that concluded that people communicate consent differently for different sex acts. “Students report using verbal [consent] cues less frequently for behaviours such as intimate touching and touching genitals but are more likely to use verbal consent for vaginal/penile or anal sex.” She added that “oral sex tends to fall somewhere in the middle”.
Although she was also quick to point out that much of the research (including her own, she readily admits) is limited in that it’s too homogeneous. “The majority of the research is based on the experiences of the young, straight, cis-gender, white population,” she says, arguing that future studies should diversify their samples.
“We need to look at what consent looks like among people who are perhaps going out with someone with a different gender identity, someone who is attracted to different populations, people in kink relationships, or poly relationships where consent might look a lot different because we’re talking about multiple partners and different boundaries.”
Dr Feldman Barrett is a neuroscientist based in Toronto, Canada. In an article – titledWhy Men Need to Stop Relying on Non-Verbal Consent, published in TIME – she argued that verbal consent is important because from a psychological perspective different people can interpret nonverbal cues differently.
“The human brain is wired so that people see what they believe,” she wrote. “In many cases, without verbal consent, two people’s brains can perceive exactly the same events very differently.”
“Miscommunication about consent happens, but it is never an excuse for assault. The lesson is clear: Face and body movements aren’t a language. They are not a replacement for words. Even words aren’t guaranteed to be heard, but they’re less likely to be misunderstood.”
Laura*, a 22-year-old journalist working in media in London, told me that she always prefers verbal consent. “Just because I know a lot of people have had bad experiences with non-verbal cues and them being misinterpreted,” she told me.
“If I go in for a first kiss I will always ask, because sure my ego might be bruised a bit if they say ‘no’, but then I’m not doing something that makes someone incredibly uncomfortable. If they say ‘no’ I’ll be like, ‘Okay, great, do you want to see this picture of my dog instead?’
However, this is not the experience of Olivia*, a 36-year-old psychotherapist also working in London. “I think the whole thing about consent and verbal consent seems to be a new phenomenon,” she tells me. “I have never encountered a scenario where somebody has said to me anything like, ‘Would it be okay if I touch you or I do this?’ If I did, it would be – to be brutally honest – profoundly off putting. It would just kill the whole thing.”
I put this to Laura, who is all about verbal consent: “I wouldn’t personally agree that it can be awkward,” she responded. “The most that it does is pause whatever you’re doing for five seconds to have that quick chat, then you go ahead. I think it unblurs any lines that might exist.”
Some research suggests that men “tend to rely on a single cue to indicate consent to a sexual encounter, whereas women more frequently report using an accumulation of cues to indicate consent”. This could demonstrate that verbal consent could be more useful than relying on the interpretation of body language. Other research suggests that explicit verbal consent is less likely to be used by women, or when the sexual relationship is casual. Again though, the research only focuses on straight, white students which means it only represents one world view and one set of experiences.
“I used to think I preferred non-verbal cues because it allowed sex to ‘flow’,” saysFranki Cookney, whose newsletter,The Overthinker’s Guide to Sex, got me through lockdown. “But as I've got older, I've realised it's not that I preferred it, it's just that I didn't have the confidence when I was younger to vocalise things during sex.”
These days though, she’s all about chatty sex. “I also don't really believe in the idea of ‘flow’ anymore because I think if two people are turned on and there to have a good time together, sex can easily withstand a moment of awkwardness or a pause or even something going wrong in a ridiculous way,” she says.
Having said that, she does believe that context is sometimes key. “There are times when it's not necessary to spell out everything you're doing or about to do, as long as you're paying close attention to your partner and their reactions.” Example? “I'm thinking about when you're on top of someone kissing them and then you slowly make your way down their body, keeping an eye on how they're responding and the sounds they make as you touch their skin or kiss different parts of their body,” she explains.
“Or if you're about to go down on someone and kind of hovering around the area, teasing them a bit and they push themselves towards you. But then there are obviously times when it won't work like that. If you want someone to sit on your face, you're going to have to say the words ‘I want you to come and sit on my face’ otherwise how the fuck will they know?”
The key to sexual consent is that it is contextual, standard practices of consent vary by context. It’s not a one fit for all, but one thing is for sure in my opinion: the people who are best to get naked with are those who relentlessly refuse to shy away from difficult conversations. Difficult conversations often blossom into swashbuckling orgasms. The people who think nothing of asking, ‘Would you like it if I… [*insert your preferred blend of filth*]?’ The people who check in as a scene progresses – ‘Do you want to take a break?’ or ‘Do you want to keep going?’ or ‘How do you like the look of that St Andrew’s Cross in the corner?’
If you can’t be bothered with reading all of the above, just remember this: If you’re not 1,000,000 percent confident that everyone agrees to and is happy with what is happening – then it’s essential to stop and ask.bySimon Doherty