What do we mean when we use the phrase “enthusiastic consent”, and why is it important? Writer Rachael Davies (she/her) explores how enthusiastic consent can make sure everyone is safe and happy.
Over the past few years, education around consent has ramped up in digital culture and mainstream education. The phrase ‘no means no’ has been driven home. Hopefully, the message that someone saying no to a sexual act means to stop immediately has sunk in for the majority of people.
However, consent is not decided by one singular moment in time, then staying true indefinitely. Sex can happen in different places, in different positions, and involve different acts, all of which need to be consented to separately and continuously. A way that we can make sure that all parties are willing and happy to go on is through enthusiastic consent.
So what exactly is enthusiastic consent?
“Enthusiastic consent requires an enthusiastic response to every aspect of the sexual activity, rather than just a yes, which would be explicit or affirmative consent,” explains sex and relationship coach, Julia Kotziamani. “The aim here is to reduce pressuring, coercing, or manipulating people into sexual activity, and about reading whether your partner is equally excited to go ahead with things.”
An unfortunately high number of people can likely remember a time when they have continued with sexual activity when they didn’t want to, not because they were being physically forced to, but because they didn’t feel like they could say no. It could be subtle pressure or manipulation that the other person might not even consciously be aware of. Nonetheless, it affects the person’s ability to consent fully.
It’s situations like these that enthusiastic consent seeks to avoid. By encouraging people to continually check in and seek out positive and whole-hearted consent at every stage of sex, there’s plenty of space and opportunities for people to pause or stop intercourse. Ultimately, you want excited, genuine participation in the bedroom – that’s what makes the time together that much more satisfying.
“There are instances when enthusiasm is not needed for someone to consent,” adds Julia. “For example, less-sexually experienced partners might consent to pleasuring a more-sexual partner without being enthusiastic, or someone recovering from sexual assault and trying things for the first time, or people trying for babies who are consenting to “functional” sex, or sex workers, and so on.”
“It is important not to remove the agency from people to consent, even if it’s not fully in line with the definition of enthusiastic consent.”
In many cases, though, enthusiastic consent is a passionate and exciting way to make sure that everybody involved is on the same page.
What’s the difference between enthusiastic consent and ‘no means no’?
Julia explains that the culture of ‘no means no’ doesn’t actually go far enough in making sure that all partners are actively excited about what’s happening.
“It is important that people are excited to participate, rather than pressured,” she notes. “Enthusiastic consent involves reading your partner’s body language and words to ensure they are not feeling pressure and are super up for it…which is obviously hot and appropriate in most cases!”
What are some tips to make sure consent is enthusiastic?
“The first may sound a little obvious, but ask,” says Julia. “Get used to asking frequently and checking in that things are ok for the other person.”
“There are some exemptions to this in some power-play (such as BDSM etc) where consent can be discussed beforehand to ensure everyone is enthusiastically on the same page. This is a form of pre-negotiated ‘blanket consent’ which may feel more comfortable for people than expressly and continually asking with each new act.”
“Another is reading body language, and noticing if someone tenses or pulls away or appears ‘closed’. If this happens, it’s best to revert to asking and checking if they want to stop or slow down. It is best to create a culture between you where ‘no’ is as easy as ‘yes’ and encourage a safe space to withdraw from anything which is uncomfortable.”
It’s also vital to be aware of situations where a person’s ability to consent might be impaired. This could be due to factors like drugs, alcohol, sexual inexperience, or some physical or mental capabilities, such as learning difficulties or mental illness.
“It’s really important to make sure that the person you are asking for consent is not vulnerable,” explains Julia. “You need to do everything you can to make the encounter as positive as possible and make sure no one regrets it the next day.”
Asking for consent also doesn’t need to feel stilted or sterile. Making sure someone is just as into you as you are into them is surely one of the sexiest parts of foreplay.
“There are also ways to make consent part of the play and more passionate,” says Julia. “Starting things by saying ‘I’d like to do… with you’, ‘would you like me to…’, or ‘it would be really hot if we…’, and so on.”
“Expressing your enthusiasm is a great way of gauging where someone else is in terms of excitement. As with all things, it soon becomes second nature to make sure everyone is consenting, so practice ways that make you all comfortable whilst still gaining that enthusiastic yes!”