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Consent, expounded

Consent is at the core of any form of eroticism: the world of sex positivity rightly talks about it all the time, but are you sure you know what it really means? Things are a bit more complicated than just saying ‘yes’, and knowing how to properly handle them can greatly enhance your life (and save you from nasty mishaps).

To have good sex, you need… «Consent!!!» a thousand voices immediately chime in, from ordinary people to specialized educators; from mass media and social platforms, to the point that it has almost become a catchphrase. Still, it’s true: consent indeed is the most crucial element for better enjoying sexuality, whether it’s a casual encounter or a lifelong relationship. There’s just one problem. As any news feed makes abundantly clear, there is a dearth of actual consent in general – and even less within relationships that should be based on love. And the reason is simple: despite talking so much about the topic, the proper meaning of what consent really is gets rarely explained… and when you are not informed, it is easy to make mistakes.

The biggest misconception about consent is that one ‘yes’ will do forever. The reality, however, is quite different because circumstances, feelings, mood, and many other factors can rightfully change one’s mind about things. It is entirely legitimate to suddenly want to jump in a bed and engage in unspeakable things with someone we hadn’t even considered until yesterday, as well as the exact opposite. If this discussion already sounds odd to you, try a classic exercise from consent courses, and instead of focusing on sex, let’s talk about tea. It goes like this: yesterday I offered you tea, you said yes, and I poured you a cup. How would you feel if today I broke into your home to force feed you another cup of tea? Exactly. So why should it be different for sex? The tea metaphor works very well in many scenarios: the one where you accepted just a cup and I keep pouring the entire teapot no matter how overflowing your vessel is; the one where you understood ‘tea’, and I show up with a mug of whipped cream-topped hot chocolate; the one where you wanted a delicate green tea, and I place a highly spiced Indian chai on the table… I guess you caught my drift, right?

 

But it is not over yet, because the issue gets even more complicated. To begin with… are you familiar with the idiom ‘informed and capable consent’? Yes, the one used in contracts, and for a good reason: because other types of consent don’t count at all! For example, the consent of a person who is not fully in control of their cognitive faculties due to being drunk, drugged, exhausted, or otherwise. The consent of minors is similarly not valid (also for neurological reasons: up to roughly 21 years old, the brain does not develop all the abilities to assess the consequences of choices), and neither is that of people forced to accept under threat or because of intimidation from social obligations, blackmail, or group pressure.

Above all, there is no consent if one does not fully understand what they are consenting to. If it seems impossible to you, hear this: what about playing a light erotic domination game with me? Well, I’m sorry for you, because while you thought about engaging in blindfolded sex, I was thinking of bringing you bound and gagged in a parking lot, and making you available to any passerby all night, without protection. What do you have to complain about if that is my idea of “light”?

Misunderstandings and situations like these are much more common than you might think – and strangely enough, they are more widespread in “normal” environments like the clubbing scene or schools compared to theoretically “perverse” circles such as swingers clubs and kinky parties.

And wait, there’s more to it. Because real consent is also ongoing, which is a typically controversial points in rape trials. In other words: if we have decided to have sex, but after a while I change my mind and ask you to stop, you have no authorization or right to continue – not even if we’ve been a steady couple for years and we have a known dominant/submissive relationship. These are called ‘basic human rights’, and yet the concept struggles to catch on because we have been surrounded by stories presenting it differently throughout our lives.

«So do I have to ask for permission for every tiny action?» is a frequent objection. Of course not, but one must always immediately respect the well-being of partners, even when it doesn’t please us. A great strategy is to discuss beforehand what is allowed and desired, and what is not – besides, that also earns you a bunch of trust with your partners! Another useful tool is the safeword, a pre-agreed signal to interrupt any activity until whatever issue is resolved. It was invented by kinksters, who engage in potentially dangerous activities, to enjoy better peace of mind. And it works so well that today it is also recommended by many couple therapists.

When it comes to consent, even ‘peace of mind’ is a more complicated concept than it seems. For example, because it also concerns the serenity of not being sued the next day due to a misunderstanding – or because the other person is trying to take advantage of your naivety. Ideally, consent should be demonstrable, although this isn’t easy at all. A few years ago several startups tried launching smartphone apps specifically designed for this purpose, but none was successful because, in addition to killing the mood, they didn’t really prove much. Due to the matter of ongoing consent, even any messages, emails, etc., spelling the desire to have sex together do not have much legal value – yet they certainly do not harm either.

The truly important thing, however, is to be at least aware of the legal implications of what you choose to do. They never talk about it in porn videos and erotic novels, but the truth is that the sexual sphere is not as separate from everyday life as we usually think.

Need another example of how complicated things are? Well, consent must be extended to all people involved. It seems obvious… until you consider that ‘other people involved’ also include those who might see our games and not like them. Christian Grey would be unaffected, but think about it: in a restaurant restaurant, the family sitting at the table next to yours probably doesn’t care about how arousing it is for you to make your partner remove their panties right there, and could get you into serious trouble. The same goes for neighbors when you have sex in front of the open window, or for those who receive your unsolicited erotic photos.

Mind you, all of this was not intended to throw a wet blanked on your passion: quite the opposite! Serene sex is always more enjoyable than sex experienced with anxiety, but above all, “negotiating consent” – as those who love kinky games say – can become an opportunity for great complicity and intimacy, to get to know each other better as partners and discover each other’s fantasies. It all depends on knowing what the hell consent really is… and now you do know!

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