Myths busted IV: yes, no, maybe … consent in your sex life

1. The lack of a no means yes. Maybe also means yes.

Consent needs to be continuous, enthusiastic, clearly and freely given. The lack of a no, or of a clean-cut no, are definitely not enough. It is of course difficult to learn to vocalise consent and recognize verbal and non-verbal signs in others (which is why we provide you with a non-exhaustive but useful list of examples). However, this does never justify violating other people’s boundaries. Also, consent is sexy: questions about our and our partners’ likes, dislikes and desires can make sex more fun for everyone involved!

2. When someone said yes once, or to a specific sexual activity, they said yes to all and always will.

Consent is a state rather than a pledge or a choice for life, and can be withdrawn in any moment. People can change their mind, and feel like engaging in one specific activity and not in another. Everyone has the right to set specific boundaries and should never feel pressured, criticised or ridiculed for this. Please make sure that you and your partners are always mutually checking on each other’s well-being!

3. When someone experiences an erection or vaginal arousal, they are always consenting to sex.

No, for multiple reasons. A partner might be consenting to a certain sexual act but not necessarily a type of sex (e.g. penetrative or oral). A partner might be aroused in that moment but not feel the same level of arousal later (hence the importance of communicating), or the arousal may be involuntary. One cannot know whether a partner who is physically aroused is consenting to sex unless you you ask or check explicitly! It is also important to know that some survivors of sexual violence experience physical arousal during the assault, which they still live as an insufferable violation of their bodies and minds. Physical arousal has nothing to do with consent and one person’s actual desire to engage in sex.

4. When someone had sex with other partners, it is safe to assume they will do the same with others.

No, not at all. Sex differs from partner to partner and from scenario to scenario. You cannot assume that, just because someone has done something once, they will want to repeat that experience. Also, desires and needs change with time and circumstances. Sometimes people want to have sex and sometimes they don’t. This is why it is always important to ask a partner what they feel comfortable doing, or to make sure that they are giving affirmative signs.

5. Consent is simple: yes means yes and no means no, even when there are strong power differences (i.e. age\class\wealth differences, between a student and a teacher, an employer and employee etc.).

Consent, like many things in life, is far from simple. Sometimes people are able to clearly articulate a no, which we must respect in all cases. Some other times, however, someone might feel pressured or manipulated into sex because of the power dynamics between them and their partners. These include strong differences in age (even when all people involved are underage), or when one of the partners is in a position of authority (a teacher, an employer, a sport coach, a priest). In this last cases, sexual encounters actually tend to be illegal.

6. It is OK to pressure a partner to have sex without contraception. Sex with no contraception equal trust, or ‘sex with love’.

Contraception is about protecting ourselves and our partners from STDs (sexually transmittable diseases) and/or unwanted pregnancies. It is equally important in LGBTQ+ sexual encounters and/or sexual activities where there is no, or little risk of pregnancy. People make different choices about contraception, and this often changes in the context of long-terms relationships in which partners know each other well, have been tested for STDs etc. This does NOT mean that contraception is no more necessary, but simply that other options may be available (for example, contraceptive pills or implants instead of condoms). However, no one should ever disrespect their partners’ choices and force or manipulate them into anything. Far from expressing trust and love, this is an act of control and abuse.

7. We owe sex to a loving partner (or one we have been with for long enough).

Not at all. Sex is a personal choice and should never be imposed. We do not owe anyone sex, and a loving partner will understand any decisions we make, or factors that might influence our decision to not have sex, or to prefer one type of act over another.

8. It’s OK to bite, slap, scratch or spank someone during sex without checking first.

These actions have the potential to cause pain and physical scarring. Whilst people can derive pleasure from this, and many do choose to practice BDSM related activities (which vary in form and intensity), these are things that must be clarified with and agreed upon with a partner. It is unfair to impose preferences or acts on a person without their consent. If you think you might want to experiment with biting, slapping etc. please make sure your partner is comfortable with it first, and discuss any limits (or uncertainties) that a person may have. Also, if ever you feel pressured to engage in any unwanted activity and are not sure of how to set and express your boundaries, techniques for assertive communication can be learned!

9. Consent is all about the body. Consent is all about the mind.

This is an interesting one. Sometimes we think we really want to have sex, and then our body seems to disagree with us (for example, when erection or vaginal arousal prove to be difficult). Some other times our bodies react to stimulation, but intellectually and emotionally we feel we do not want to be sexual (and if sex is forced on us, this can make it a case of abuse). It is very useful to learn to pay attention to the messages our body sends us (which can be done, for example, through practices such as yoga, mindful, breathing exercises etc.), as well as to stay in tune with our emotions. Ideally, in fact, we want to consent to sex with all our mind and body. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong in trying to get more aroused (for instance, using lube) if having sex is what we truly want. Similarly, it happens sometimes that physical stimulation does actually put us in the right mood and mindset for sex. However, no one should ever impose on us any of these options.

10. Adults who are already experienced do not need to worry about consent.

Every sexual act must involve two consenting adults, and the age and degrees of experience of the people involved do not change that. Consent should be a given- experienced adults, or people who have been sexually active for a long time, are no different.

11. Discussing consent is not appropriate for religious people.

Consent is crucial to anyone, even those who choose not to engage in sex. Of course no one should be forced in conversations they do not want to have about their sexual lives. However, religious people most certainly can learn to understand and express their boundaries, communicate and recognize consent and have frank and honest discussions on these matters if they wish to.

12. Monogamous people, people who have already been tested for STDs, and queer people who engage in sex with no risk of getting pregnant do not need to worry about consent.

Again, consent concerns us all. It encompasses issues of contraception, and how we can protect ourselves and others from STDs and unwanted pregnancies. But is also, most importantly, refers to what we really want from our sexual life and every sexual encounter we experience, and how to articulate it and communicate it to others. Everyone needs to be mindful of consent matters.

This course has been created by GenPol, a think-tank on gender and politics based at the University of Cambridge, in cooperation with Serlo.

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