Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence
South Africa’s new first-years are about to start university. They will pack their bags, catch trains or planes or taxis or lifts and start their new lives in a whole new world of freedom. One of those freedoms is sex: away from the watchful eye of relatives and surrounded by a whole lot of new people the same age, sex is much more present, possible and available. But South Africa is a conservative country where sex remains a taboo topic, and our high-school life-orientation programme is far from sex-positive.
Throw in alcohol, wild fresher parties and the excitement and anxiety of the first weeks, and first-years can find themselves in sexual situations that neither person is ready to navigate. This can lead to sex without consent – which is rape – but it is very difficult to have it treated as rape because it happened in a grey area where ‘they didn’t say no’.
Not saying ‘no’ is not the same as saying yes: a person could stay silent because they are intimidated, or drunk, or afraid of angering their partner.
Enter enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent is the notion that sex shouldn’t happen unless both people actively, verbally consent to it. Enthusiastic consent, also known as affirmative consent, is clear and unmistakable: only yes means yes.
What is enthusiastic consent?
- A clear ‘yes’. Both people voluntarily say ‘yes’ to sexual activity.
- It’s mutual. Each person should ensure they have the enthusiastic consent of the other person.
- It’s ongoing. Enthusiastic consent is ongoing throughout the activity and can be revoked at any time.
- It also applies within relationships. Even if you are dating someone, you still need consent before engaging in sexual activity. Also, having dated someone previously doesn’t automatically mean you have their consent.
What about keeping silent?
Keeping silent or not protesting or resisting does not equal consent. Only a clear, conscious and voluntary ‘yes’ counts as consent.
US sex educator and activist Laci Green explains consent and how it works.
Why is enthusiastic consent important?
Because we still live in a world where men and women are taught different lessons about sex, and where passivity and silence can mean it’s OK to proceed, says US thought leader and health editor Tara Culp-Ressler.
‘That’s on top of the fact that male sexuality has been socially defined as aggressive, something that can result in men feeling entitled to sex, while women have been taught that sex is something that simply happens to them rather than something they’re an active participant in. It’s not hard to imagine how couples end up in ambiguous situations where one partner is not exactly comfortable with going forward, but also not exactly comfortable saying no.
Under an affirmative consent standard, on the other hand, both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having. There aren’t any assumptions about where the sexual encounter is going or whether both people are already on the same page. At its very basic level, this is the opposite of killing the mood — it’s about making sure the person with whom you’re about to have sex is excited about having sex with you.’
Enthusiastic consent is about mutual desire, about both partners being in touch with each other’s wants and needs, and how those are expressed with their bodies and in their words. It’s based on the premise that women have sexual agency of their own, and are entitled to enjoy sex. What’s the enthusiastic part? It’s different to saying ‘OK’ after a lot of pressure or guilt-tripping from your partner, or ‘Yes’ even though you don’t feel like it, or saying nothing at all. Enthusiastic consent is given when you really actively do want to have sex, and you communicate that to your partner.
How do you know you really want to have sex?
Genuinely desiring sex is different to feeling like you should have sex. Enthusiastic consent comes from you (and your partner, but we’re focusing on you right now). Are you enjoying what has happened so far, and do you want to go further? Listen to your body: are you turned on? Does your partner’s touch feel good and do you want more? Do you feel hot and flushed and is your heart beating faster? And yes, if applicable, are you wet? Excitement and some nervousness are part of arousal, but having a raised heart rate out of fear is something different. Check in with yourself and be sure you definitely want to take the next step, and if you do, tell your partner.
What if you change your mind?
If you are enjoying something but then change your mind – perhaps it doesn’t feel good, or it feels good but you decide you’re not ready – you can withdraw your consent at any time. Just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything other than that specific thing.
Yes, that’s right: AT ANY TIME. If you withdraw your consent and the other person keeps touching you or having sex with you, that is sexual assault, or rape. Some examples: If you’re having sex and it starts hurting, and you ask to stop but they keep going. Or if you’re giving someone oral sex and they hold your head forcefully and you’ve indicated you are choking but they don’t stop. If you’ve withdrawn your consent, these acts are rape.
This handy video uses tea as a metaphor for consent and how a person can reasonably change their mind.
How does enthusiastic consent work?
Giving or gaining consent at every step of a sexual encounter might sound awkward, intimidating or just plain impossible, but it can be super sexy. There’s a whole range of ways to give and get consent that are more or less spicy. You and your partner can go for mild (‘Can I kiss you?’; ‘Can I kiss you here?’; ‘Is this OK?’; ‘Please can we have sex?’); medium (‘I want to lick your _____, do you want it too?’; ‘Do you like that?’; ‘Do you want it?’); or HOT (‘I want you to f*ck me right now!’).
Enthusiastic consent can be sexy – if your partner is pleasing you and you want more, or you want something specific, let them know. Bustle has great tips on how to make consent sexy, and how to ask for what you want without feeling ‘dirty’ in a bad way. And if you’re not enjoying it, your partner should definitely know about it so they can stop. Because your partner shouldn’t want sex with you if you’re not into it.
If the idea of sexy talk leaves your skin crawling with embarrassment or you just can’t imagine ever doing it, that’s OK. But: consent is essential. No one has the right to have sex with you without your consent, and sex without consent is rape. There needs to be an agreement – emotional, physical and verbal – between sexual partners, even if it’s as simple as a ‘yes, please’ or a ‘please don’t’ accompanied by a whole lot of body language.