At its most basic, consent is the agreement to engage in sexual activity. However…
There’s a lot more to it. In the following in-depth article, you’ll learn what consent to sex is, why it’s essential, and how to give and accept consent in a way that should set you and any partners up to have enjoyable sexual encounters that are wanted. You might be surprised to understand how nuanced the subject of sexual consent can be!
Why is consent important?
Before we get into what consent is, let’s talk about why it’s important. Most people think they understand sexual consent, but that’s not necessarily the case. If it were, how could two people come away from an experience, with one feeling violated and the other completely unaware?
Or why would one group of researchers have found that some men will admit to forcible, coerced, or otherwise non-consensual sex as long as you don’t use words like “assault” or “rape” ?
It’s due to a poor or lacking education when it comes to sex and, more specifically, sexual consent.
Frustratingly, the sparse (and sometimes inaccurate) information people receive about what consent means comes too little too late. For example, if you start teaching about consent to teens, some of them may already be victims of sexual assault. This also means that some of those young adults may already have violated someone else .
If we want to prevent that from happening, we need to teach people about consent starting from a young age, even if they don’t yet know to ask, “What is consent?”
But even if you’re only young at heart, have already found yourself in situations you’d rather avoid, or think you know everything about consent, you can always benefit from learning more about consent.
In fact, the Bad Girls Bible exists because there’s always something more to learn about sex!
With that, it’s time to learn everything you need to know about sexual consent…
What is sexual consent?
At its most basic, consent is the agreement to engage in sexual activity. However, consent is incredibly dependent on factors, including the location, people involved, specific activities, and all sorts of other things that could make someone more or less likely to consent at a given time.
For example, you might not consent to vaginal sex when you’re not on birth control and have no access to condoms. You may love anal sex but not when you feel bloated. Sexy activities could include kissing with one partner because of a romantic connection but not with more casual sex partners. Certain things also prevent you from legally consenting to sex, which we’ll touch on below.
It’s always freely given – True consent is freely given, which means that partners know they can say “No” if they don’t really want to have any type of sex. If someone doesn’t feel like they can turn down sex, they may agree to it even if they don’t mean it. In this case, consent isn’t freely and honestly given, and sex is unlikely to be enjoyable for both people.
In fact, when coercion, manipulation, and pressure (including physical) come into play, it becomes sexual assault. Another way to look at it: there is no non-consensual sex. There is only assault.
It can be revoked or withdrawn – Because sexual consent should be given freely, it can also be revoked or withdrawn at any time . So if you want to wait, pause, switch activities, or stop being sexual, that’s always your right.
And if your partner asks you to do the same, they are revoking consent. No matter how good it feels, how involved you are, or how close you are to orgasm, continuing after your partner withdrew consent is sexual assault.
Your partner won’t feel safe or like they can trust you. But sexual violence can also impact every sexual or even potential sexual relationship a person has in the future, no matter how small it feels to someone else.
When is sexual consent needed?
Everyone has the right to give (or not give) consent for every sexual session and activity, including when sexting. That’s why dick pics are such an issue; they’re sent without consent.
Consent does not automatically cover every sexual activity – Of course, in reality, we make a lot of assumptions about how far consent extends. To be careful, you shouldn’t assume that consenting to an activity is consenting to do anything else besides that specific activity. You might consent to kiss, make out, take off clothes, or outercourse, but that doesn’t mean you want to include intercourse, for example.
Consent is required each time – It would also be a mistake to assume that someone who has consented to do something will do so again in the future. That just isn’t always the case.
Not only is it your right to decide if you don’t want to do something again just because you’ve done it once, but you might not want to do something in a specific situation. Imagine you’re feeling a little bloated or irregular, so you don’t want to do anal, even if you’ve tried and enjoyed it in the past (even frequently!).
Consent is required in marriages/long term relationships too – To make things even more complicated, society tends to assume consent exists when people are in a long-term or committed romantic relationship. That can spell trouble, so it’s good to make yourself clear as soon as possible. Even if you’re married, you have the right to say “No,” however. Your body is always your own, and you get to decide who gets to access it.
Of course, you may not want to give consent to every activity, every time, even when you’re with someone familiar. Established partners may not explicitly ask for or give consent to activities, but you definitely want to make sure you’re on the same page before making any assumptions.
For example, you might tell your partner, “You can kiss me whenever you like,” allowing them to skip asking for consent every time.
Related: 22 Hot Kissing Techniques
Does an absence of no mean yes?
Just because someone is silent or doesn’t resist doesn’t mean they consent .
Unfortunately, many ignore their partner’s wishes and take a lack of “No” as consent. This is a pretty selfish way to go about having sex.
Sometimes people clam up because they want to say “No” but feel like they can’t. People might not say “No” when they want to for several reasons, including:
- Fear of physical harm
- Not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings
- Feeling like they “owe” sex to someone
- Worries about reputation and social standing
- A “No” that was already ignored
- Threats to loved ones
- Low self-esteem and wanting to be liked
- Not knowing how to say “No” or leave the situation
- The fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in
- Manipulation, blackmail, or other threats that can impact a person’s life
- Previous experiences with sexual violence 
When there is a power difference – Many of these reasons involve differences in how much power each person has, even if it’s only perceived. For example, men are typically physically stronger (more powerful) than women. People in positions of authority at work or school have power in those settings, so staff and students may not want to risk their careers and education by saying “No.”
Sometimes people can be unaware of these power differences or willfully ignore them if they want to have sex with someone they have power over. However, you can easily see why it’s essential to be aware of any power you may have over someone and make it clear that you want freely given, not coerced consent.
That’s why it’s so important to get that “Yes” instead of looking for the absence of a “No.”
What is enthusiastic consent?
Because of the confusion caused by consent that some people might consider to be lukewarm or even resistant, many people push for enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent makes it clear that everyone involved wants to engage in sexual activity and minimizes the risk of regret.
Think of enthusiastic consent as a “Hell, yes!” as opposed to an “Okay…” or an “I suppose.”
By default, enthusiastic consent is freely given, so it covers multiple bases.
In an ideal world, all consent would be enthusiastic. But that’s sometimes not the case. If your partner is in the mood for sex and you could go either way, or you’re a little tired, your “Yes” might sound a bit more like “Sure” because you care about your partner and your relationship.
Of course, you always have the right to say “No,” and your partner can always back off and pursue sex later. Or they could suggest a different activity, such as masturbating while you watch (or mutual masturbation) or caress their body. Sex doesn’t have to be all or nothing, after all.
You might even change your mind once you see your partner being sexual. Sometimes desire doesn’t follow until after you get things started so you could realize that you really do want sex.
You can and should talk to your partner about situations like these ahead of time to make sure you understand each other.
What is informed consent?
Informed consent means that partners are aware of what they’re consenting to. That’s why clearly asking for consent for specific activities is so important.
However, if someone cannot understand what you mean, they lack the ability to consent. People with certain injuries or disabilities may not be able to consent.
All of the above can be summed up by an acronym used by organizations such as Planned Parenthood: FRIES .
Fries stands for:
- Freely given
If the sexual consent you look for and accept from partners (not to mention the consent you give) covers all of those topics, you can be fairly confident that no one will have regrets and, hopefully, everyone will enjoy themselves.
How to ask for consent
Some people push back against the idea of asking and giving consent because it’s not “sexy” or it “ruins the moment.” Some even feel frustrated because partners have responded poorly to their requests for consent in the past. However, consent is necessary. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that consent can be sexy and add to the moment!
In fact, some of the things you say as dirty talk can be a form of asking for consent! Think of the following, said with the right tone and a sexy smirk or a growl into your partner’s ear:
- Do you wanna…?
- Can I do X to you?
- Would you like to?
- Tell me what you want to do.
- Are you ready?
You’ll notice that these examples of asking for consent all come before the activity. They give your partner a chance to decline if they want. However, sometimes you’ll want to gauge your partner’s consent in the middle of things. In those cases, try:
- Does this feel good?
- Do you like this?
- Are you comfortable?
- Do you want me to change anything?
- Do you want to keep doing this or switch to something else?
- Should I slow down?
Asking for consent can feel awkward, but it gets easier with time. No matter what you do, you must respect your partner’s response. If they don’t consent, don’t push, pout, argue, respond passive-aggressively, or otherwise punish them for exercising their right to decline.
Check your partner’s body language – Are they stiff? Pulling away from you? Deathly silent? Double-check that they want to be sexual with you. It’s your responsibility to ask that you have your partner’s consent if there’s any doubt .
Sometimes adding something like, “We don’t have to if you don’t want to” or “It’s okay if we don’t have sex tonight” can reassure your partner that they have a right to turn you down without hurt feelings.
On the other hand, if they’re pulling you close, pushing their body against yours, moaning, or otherwise expressing desire and pleasure, they might just feel a little awkward saying what they want out loud or even a little nervous, even if all they want is to jump your bones.
If your partner is enthusiastic about getting dirty with you and comfortable enough to speak up, have fun! You could even ask your partner to show you what they want you to do and move your hand or another body part into place, which can be useful for those struggling to find their voices in bed.
Ask before you start – It’s much better to verbally ask for consent than it is to simply start an activity, which can make someone freeze, especially if you’re physically stronger than they are.
How to give consent
In most cases, consenting to a sexy activity is way easier than asking for consent. A simple “Yes” will do. Of course, you can switch it up with an “I’d like that” or something similar. Other ways to consent include:
- That sound’s great.
- Let’s do it.
- What are we waiting for?
- You read my mind.
- I’d like to try that.
Certain types of consent are also requests for activities, such as, “I love it when you…”
Your response can also outline how far your consent goes. For example, you might say, “We can make out (tips for making out), but keep your hands on the outside of my clothes.”
Or you could tell your partner, “I’d love to have intercourse, but only if you use a condom.” A statement such as “Grinding against each other in our undies” is a great way to give consent to a specific activity, too.
To show continuing consent to whatever you’re doing that feels great, you can say a few things:
- Can we do more of that?
- I’d love to keep doing this.
- That feels so good.
- Don’t stop.
- Keep going.
So far, we’ve focused on verbal examples of giving consent. However, you might opt for a non-verbal option, such as doing what your partner has asked for. A nod or thumbs up also does the trick, especially if you’re gagged or your mouth is busy.
Moving closer to your partner or pulling them closer to you can signal consent, as can placing their hand on your body where you want them to touch you.
When you don’t want to consent
“No” is a complete sentence. It’s all you need to say whenever anyone asks you to do anything you’re not comfortable with.
Still, you might want want to change it up or reply in a way that’s a bit more kind. Again, you’ve got a few options.
- I’m sorry, I don’t think so.
- That doesn’t really pique my interest.
- I’m not really in the mood for sex tonight (tips for getting horny).
You can also suggest alternative activities. For example, “I don’t want to go down on you right now, but I’d love to stroke you” lets you gently turn down one activity by suggesting another.
Hopefully, you’re never in a situation where you feel unsafe saying “No.” We always recommend you say “No” when you don’t want to consent. However, if you don’t feel safe, we understand if you use an excuse to exit the situation.
We also hope you’re never in a position where someone ignores you. But if they do, feel free to do whatever it takes to get your point across and get free of the situation, whether it be yelling, physically fighting back, or even peeing on someone.
When someone can’t give consent
There are definitely times when consent is more black and white, especially to the person seeking it. If someone is drunk, high, asleep, or unconscious, they cannot legally consent. You shouldn’t pursue any sexual activity, unless and only if you have express consent to engage in sex with a person while they are sober and alert.
For example, you might be okay waking up to oral sex from your partner who shares your bed every night. Or the two of you might think nothing of getting high or drunk and having sex, but it’s far less likely that you’d want a stranger to take advantage of you in that situation. And no one should ever alter someone’s state of mind to try to get them to have sex.
Finally, there is one last instance when people cannot consent to sex: when they are under the legal age of consent. When someone of legal age has sex with a minor, it’s considered statutory rape, even if the minor consented to sex, because the law doesn’t recognize that consent as legally binding . It can lead to a trial and record as a sex offender, especially if the minor’s parents/guardians or law enforcement push the issue.
Consent in BDSM
Most kinksters are pretty familiar with consent. After all, these are the people who sometimes use BDSM contracts with their partners, even if it’s only for a scene!
No matter how you look at it, consent is incredibly important in BDSM relationships and scenes.
It’s so important that it’s included in all three of the most common safety philosophies that many kinksters recognize.
Safe, Sane, Consensual – Perhaps the best-known BDSM safety acronym is SSC, which stands for safe, sane, and consensual. It prioritizes interactions that are consented to in a sane mindset. However, not everyone likes SSC.
Risk Aware Consensual Kink – RACK, which stands for risk-aware consensual kink, arose because some people felt that SSC didn’t recognize the inherent risk in BDSM and kink. Try as you might, someone might become hurt. That’s why all participants must be aware of the risk before they can consent to the activity.
Personal Responsibility, Informed, Consensual Kink – Finally, you have personal responsibility, informed, consensual kink, or PRICK. With PRICK, all parties recognize their responsibility to be safe and informed when consenting to kink.
Learn more: SSC, RACK, PRICK explanation and practical guide.
Safe words are commonly used in BDSM to communicate to a partner how you’re doing and feeling. Partners can use it if something is wrong and they need to stop or pause the play. In this way, a safe word revokes consent.
Although less commonly used this way, safe words can also be used to give consent. In the classic traffic light system, partners can say “Red” to stop play, but they might use “Yellow” if they want to pause or don’t want the activity to get any more intense. “Green” is usually reserved for check-ins.
Using words is one common BDSM rule.
Safe words are discussed before play even begins, often at the same time as limits.
Limits are those things that kink practitioners use to try to prevent to the risk of harm from occurring. Limits are an issue of consent.
Hard limits are those things that are entirely off limits; you don’t consent to them at all. Soft limits are things you might consider in certain situations or may need to work up to. Doing something close to those limits is known as pushing a limit, and people may push limits to help their partners get past them. Some people do not consent to having their limits pushed with anyone but a trusted, vetted partner.
A respectful partner will not cross hard limits, even if they’re pushing against them on purpose, and will not cross soft limits in ways that can have negative effects.
These safety precautions are an important aspect of BDSM D/s relationships and explain how someone could be comfortable submitting to someone else and possibly receiving pain!
After reading this, you should understand sexual consent and how to give or ask for it in a way that removes any confusion from your sexcapades, leaving only room for fun and enjoyment.