By De Elizabeth
With a plethora of headlines regarding sexual misconduct everywhere from Hollywood to Washington, not to mention the millions of survivors who have shared their stories through the powerful #MeToo movement, the topic of consent is, understandably, having a global moment.
But despite its prevalence in the news, there are still too many misconceptions about what consent actually is — and what it isn’t. Consent is not “implied” by wearing certain clothes, consuming alcohol on a date, flirting, kissing, or any previous sexual encounters. On the contrary, consent is an explicit and clear affirmation that, yes, someone wants to engage in sexual activity in that specific and present moment.
What’s more, many people still falsely think of consent as a binary concept, falling back on phrases like “no means no,” which don’t paint a comprehensive picture of mutual agreement to a sexual act. And with only eight states requiring public school sex education classes to discuss consent as part of the curriculum, there’s an apparent need for further information, especially when troubling ideas both in pop culture and people’s lives provide conflicting information about boundaries, respect, and bodily autonomy.
“I grew up with ‘no means no’ burned into the back of my brain,” Nick*, a 20-year-old from New York, told MTV News, referring to the now outdated slogan used to teach people about sexual assault. But his understanding of consent has shifted notably since attending college and surrounding himself with a different social circle. “You don’t ever want to put someone in an uncomfortable position, or make them feel like they can’t change their mind,” he said. “You don’t want to infringe on their rights or impose on their body that way; it’s their body. Only they can decide what is done to it.”
The prevalence of sexual assault is another indicator that society’s understanding of consent needs work. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lives. RAINN adds that someone is sexually assaulted in the United States every 92 seconds. And with sexual assault being the most under-reported crime in the U.S., the actual numbers are likely a lot higher. This is crucial to understand because experts agree that one of the best ways to eradicate sexual violence is to teach young people about consent, which can — and should — be straightforward and easy to understand.
Lacey, a 26-year-old from Kentucky said that she used to think consent was “just about a vibe,” adding: “I assumed that if [I] wasn’t vocal enough about not being comfortable doing something, that it was my bad because I technically ‘consented’ by allowing it.” However, the absence of “no” is not the same thing as consent, and unwanted sexual contact without consent is sexual assault. But misconceptions like Lacey’s are common; a survey conducted by the University of Chicago determined that there is “persistent confusion” among U.S. adults about what constitutes consent, making it clear that an entire overhaul of the term is needed.
This is where the term “enthusiastic consent” comes into play. Where consent itself is an agreement, or acknowledgment of permission, enthusiastic consent requires all parties in a sexual act to be visibly and vocally interested in what is taking place. By reframing the way society thinks about consent, people can create a safer environment for both themselves and their sexual partners, as well as a more productive way to talk about the concept itself. Ahead, learn more about enthusiastic consent from a sex educator, along with tips for implementing it in your own life, from people who have been there.
What exactly is “enthusiastic consent?”
According to Gigi Engle, certified sex coach and educator, enthusiastic consent is “when two people not only say ‘yes’ to having sexual contact,” but they’re also clearly psyched about the encounter from start to finish. “Enthusiastic consent is not coerced, pressured, or forced in any way. It’s when you’re super down to clown, and everyone is extremely excited about it,” Engle added, noting that it can be enthusiastic consent can be communicated through both body language and verbal cues.
For Nick, the “enthusiastic” piece has been key in understanding what consent truly entails. “To me, [it] means that both people (or three or whatever) are incredibly excited about the sexual activity, and they genuinely want it to take place,” he told MTV News. “No one is feeling … uncomfortable. There are no doubts. Everyone is on the same page.”
How is “enthusiastic consent” different from “no means no?”
Engle explained that one of the (many) problems with the “no means no” catchphrase is that “no” isn’t the only thing that should indicate a person does not give their consent. “Consent is not just a black and white, yes or no thing,” she said, adding that several other phrases, like “maybe later,” “I’m not sure,” and “eh, I guess,” do not equate consent, and should also “mean no.”
Furthermore, this misleading phrase overlooks a host of scenarios where a person might not be able to verbally give their consent or say anything at all. Someone who is unconscious, intoxicated, or in an otherwise vulnerable capacity legally cannot consent to sexual activity. This is why enthusiastic consent is the most important and safest baseline, and has even been worked into sexual assault legislature in order to establish clearer messaging surrounding consent.
PSA: Consent can be revoked at any time.
Things can change from the start of a sexual encounter, and you should always be able to stop any time you are no longer comfortable with the activity.
“Consent is not a blanket yes,” Engle explained, adding that people often misunderstand this crucial point. “It is an ongoing conversation throughout a sexual experience… Sometimes sex is going well — [and then] it’s not. Maybe you change your mind, maybe you’re not into this person’s moves and want to stop, maybe you thought this would be fun and it isn’t. If this is the case, you are completely within your right to revoke consent.”
It can feel scary to assert your boundaries in that way, but it’s important to remember you have agency over your body, and you never have to do anything that doesn’t feel right. To stop something mid-act, Engle suggests taking a deep breath first, and then using a phrase like “I’m uncomfortable,” “I’d like to take a break,” or “Stop.”
Another tactic is to set up a safe word to bring things to a full halt if needed. “Have a nonsexual word that is designed to stop the play, especially with a new partner,” Engle advised. “I suggest using the traffic light method. ‘Green’ means go, and ‘red’ means stop.”
As Engle described, enthusiastic consent can be confirmed or denied through physical cues, but also by communicating out loud before — and during — a sexual act. Juliet, a 20-year-old from Los Angeles, California, told MTV News that she’ll sometimes ask her partner questions like “Is this OK?” or “Do you like that?” adding that if she ever has any doubt, she stops to check in further. “I would expect my partner to do the same,” she said, explaining that it hasn’t always easy for her to talk freely about consent. “There were times [in the past] where I was cool with kissing or making out, but I didn’t want to go further, and yet I would find myself going further anyway because I felt like, ‘I started this, I guess I can’t really stop.’ But I know now that that’s not true. I have the power to say, ‘Hey, wait a second. I’m not comfortable, let’s slow down, take a break.’”
Similarly, enthusiastic consent should be obtained each and every time you have a sexual encounter, regardless of whether or not you’ve been intimate with that person before.
It’s important to remember that just because someone gave enthusiastic consent once, it’s not a “given” for any and all sexual activity going forward. Even if you’re in a relationship, it’s important to confirm enthusiastic consent with your partner every time you are physical. “Get a million yesses, not just one at the beginning,” Engle advised.
And the conversation doesn’t have to end when the sexual act is over. Enid, a 21-year-old from Georgia, told MTV News that she and her partner always check in with one another afterward. “There’s always a follow-up: ‘Were you still okay with that?’ or something along those lines,” she explained. “It might sound like a lot of talking, and it is, but when you’re talking about sex, it’s not necessarily a boring conversation. There’s always an understanding that if that consent is drawn for whatever reason, everything is stopped, no matter what.”
Yes, dirty talk can count as consent!
If you’re comfortable with it, turning up the heat with your words can make consent crystal clear. And given that enthusiastic consent is an evolving process, adding some raunchy dialogue to your sexual encounter can only help communicate your feelings and desires.
“Some of the best partners … have been really vocal about letting me know what they like or how (and where) they want to be touched,” Nick explained. “Not everyone is into that of course, but if you are, it can be a great way to demonstrate enthusiastic consent, and it’s a huge turn-on to know that you’re turning the other person on.”
Juliet told MTV News that she tries to make it clear to her partner during any sexual activity that she is enjoying it and wants it to continue. “I’ll say things like, ‘That feels good,’ or ‘Don’t stop,’ or even guide them to touch me somewhere to show that I am not just okay with it, but really into it,” she explained.
How does all of this work IRL?
Lacey told MTV News that she pays close attention to her partner’s physical cues. “If I sense that they are uncomfortable or uncertain, I’ll ask them if there’s anything I can do, or if everything is okay,” she said. The communication, she says, helps create space so that they can “let me know if they are nervous … or if they just don’t feel right about continuing with whatever we’ve started.”
Gavin, a 19-year-old from Nebraska, also believes that body language is a huge part of enthusiastic consent. “My partner and I always ask, ‘Is this OK?’” he told MTV News, noting that the answer isn’t always simple, which is why it’s important to examine the entire scope of the situation. “Sometimes it’s the attitude, body language, expression, or … other non-verbal context clues. The important thing is not to rush into it, especially if you have doubts about the other’s level of enthusiasm.”
Engle agreed. “Even if you’re not sure and are misreading it, it’s best to check in,” she stresses. Whether you’re questioning if your partner is enjoying the experience, or if they don’t seem to be into it, it’s best to simply ask. It’s worth noting that many people — especially women — often feel that their male partners just haven’t been taught to prioritize their comfort, and that their partner may seemingly take consent for granted throughout an encounter, rather than explicitly confirming it.
“People [sometimes] assume that everyone will be very clear if they don’t want something, so they don’t care to look for signs — but people can feel nervous, uncomfortable, or afraid of reactions,” Lacey described. “It’s important for both partners to be confirming what’s happening, and whether it’s okay that it’s happening.”
If obtaining enthusiastic consent from your partner is one piece of the puzzle, communicating your own is the other. “The best tool we have is our words,” Engle explained, adding that it’s important to be straightforward. “Keep it sexy and keep it clear,” she said, suggesting a phrase like, “I’m so into this, you’re so hot.”
The bottom line: Consent is vital… And it’s also sexy.
“By reframing what we think is sexy, we can infuse enthusiastic consent into regular discussions about sexuality,” Engle said, noting that “being heard and valued is hot.”
And when put into practice, it’s easy to see why. “The knowledge that you and your pleasure is valuable … only opens up the possibilities for where you can take things, and can only increase the amount of excitement and enjoyment for both parties,” Lacey said, recalling that her best sexual experiences have been with partners who explicitly confirmed her enthusiastic consent. “Asking is not a mood killer,” she added.
Gavin agreed, telling MTV News that simply knowing his partner is “happy and excited to be sharing that part of their body and life is … pretty sexy.”
As Juliet put it: “It’s so damn hot to know that someone is enthusiastic about hooking up with you,” noting that being asked for her consent is just as appealing. “Knowing that I am respected and that my body is seen as my own makes me feel good, and it makes me more attracted to the person, which makes the sex better.”
*Some names have been changed upon request.