Why We Still Need To Talk (And Think) More About Consent

Here's what you should know.

Were you ever taught about consent?

Maybe you heard the word but were never really told what exactly it is and how to instigate it, or openly talk about it in intimate relationships. In order to ensure consent in society, more conversation, communication and understanding is needed. We know that consent means saying yes or no, but it’s not just that either, it’s deeper, and more complex and begins long before you take your clothes off.

Consent is not about just saying yes or no to sex, but about the various moments of intimacy too. If we change the way we look at consent, we can make it better for everyone says Sarah Monaghan, We-Consent campaign manager: “Consent is about agreement between people rather than a permission granted by one person to another. Traditionally, we’ve been taught to consider consent as a give and get – as a transactional model – which is often gendered to focus on men asking and women responding.

“This often casts men as the pursuer and women as the gatekeeper of consent. This does a disservice to everyone involved. We should consider consent as a continual agreement between two, or multiple people who are equal. It is not about convincing a yes, or of coercing a yes, it is about both people reaching an agreement that works for both of them.”

Many people feel that open consent is important, but also a little awkward. Caroline Kellegher, lecturer in sexual health at the Department of Psychology, RCSI, says that the first step in eliminating that awkwardness is depersonalising what it means to say ‘no’ in a situation. “When you don’t get consent, there is a personalisation to it, where you feel like you’re being rejected. We have to learn that a ‘no’ is a ‘no’ to the activity. If we can depersonalise it, it provides a good place for people to have conversations.”

Even though consent is about comfort, a lot of the time it can feel formal, but Caroline says we need to remember that consent enhances pleasure too. The first step to doing that happens before intimacy even takes place. “A lot of the work starts with you, yourself. Figure out what your expectations are, how you like to be treated, what’s pleasurable for you, and how you like to be touched and experience pleasure. Then you have the information to communicate that to someone else. You can also recognise when that’s not happening and you can say ‘That’s not working for me’. It’s awkward at the beginning but you build up that muscle, like with any skill and then it gets easier.”

She adds: “Affirmative consent is sexy. If someone is totally into what’s happening, and they’re able and willing to vocalise it, that’s the sexiest thing ever. When someone is caught up in ensuring pleasure, that’s what we should be aiming for.” Oftentimes this conversation can focus only on health. “Sex education until now has come from a public health perspective,” Caroline explains. “It was about preventing STIs and reducing pregnancy, and pleasure was not part of that conversation. Pleasure-based sexuality education actually promotes condom use, it reduces the likelihood of STIs. So this type of conversation encourages what we want which is pleasure in sexual relationships that are free of coercion and violence. That is the essence of what sexual health is.”

This is why the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre recently launched its three-year campaign, We-Consent. “These are long overdue conversations really,” Caroline says. “I think most of us grew up without the skills to be able to negotiate consent or even knowing that we have the right to negotiate consent. The campaign is bringing about a cultural change. A lot of the problems are the social norms that support that kind of inappropriate behaviour. While it’s really important that the DRCC and the others are responding to the needs of survivors, we need to be engaged as a society much earlier on so that we’re preventing it from happening in the first place.

“The key to that is social norms changing. We need to give people the information they need to talk about consent. It’s for everybody, every sexual practice and orientation. It’s for every gender and for long-term relationships and those not in relationships.” It can sometimes feel like consent is a given in long-term relationships, that years of routine means people don’t check in with one another.

Sarah explains: “Consent is a must-have conversation in any relationship or encounter. Often people slip into patterns and assumptions when they are in a relationship. In all areas of your relationship, you should feel free to determine what you really want, communicate that to your partner, be heard and respected.

“Sex should be something that both people enjoy and feel safe to communicate openly about. It should not be something we feel we have to do because a certain amount of time has passed or to meet an expectation we feel is there. Instead, it should be a shared experience that is fun and pleasurable for all parties.”

She goes on: “The best way to ensure this is to talk. Over time you may find that what you like, don’t like, want to try, don’t want to try, has changed and the best way to ensure everyone feels safe and is having fun is to talk about it. While you might feel nervous about this conversation, it will likely result in everyone having more fun, and your relationship growing even stronger due to mutual respect and growth in intimacy.”

When it comes to causal partners or one-night stands, it can help to understand what it is you want in general to help you vocalise it in the moment. “If you figure out what you like and don’t like then the more casual situations might be a little bit clearer to navigate,” says Caroline.

“Your boundaries are clearer so your willingness to accept certain behaviour changes. Having boundaries is one thing but implementing them is another. It is going to feel awkward and difficult but you need to stand up for yourself and your sexual pleasure.”

Conversations around consent in our society can bring up difficult or uncomfortable memories as many people might realise a past experience was missing consent. Caroline adds: “If you start to look back at some experiences, I think that’s helpful because it will help you shape what your standards are going forward. It may mean that you need to go and seek support too.

“This campaign is trying to create safe listening spaces for people to have this conversation. It puts that responsibility on society. The more we talk about it, the more we can call it out and understand what is and isn’t okay. The more we understand, our expectations can rise up a little.

“We can expect more and expect better treatment. People shouldn’t feel bad about not really knowing how to do this, because they haven’t been taught it. When you know better you do better. It’s about articulating, experimenting and making it pleasurable. The sky is the limit, I think we need to elevate our standards around that.”

Visit We-Consent.ie for information, support and resources. For support freephone 24-Hour NationalHelpline on 1800 77 8888.

Images via cottonbro studio. 


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