Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sexual Health Sundays: Sasha Langford on Consent

Sasha Langford is a Communication Major at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., currently on exchange in Istanbul, Turkey. Sasha loves to talk and write about media, consumer culture, and gender, and hopes to pursue a career in media advocacy work to help challenge the dominant beliefs surrounding these issues. She is also a fan of consented sex, the main thing along with her life experience giving her authority to write on the topic in this piece. For more of Sasha's writing check out her blog at

Remember that song from elementary school “My body’s nobody’s body but mine”?  As cheesy and funny as it might have sounded back then, the lyrics most certainly are true.  It is up to you to decide what you do with your own body, and what others are allowed to do with it.  When it comes to sex, consent is a verbal agreement to ensure that these decisions of yours are respected.  

Giving your sexual consent means giving your approval towards doing a given sexual (or just generally physically intimate) activity with another person.  But consent isn’t just a casual “yes”.  It is a willingness, an enthusiasm. You can’t adequately give consent when either or both you and the other person are intoxicated, if you’re under any kind of pressure, or if was just assumed you wanted to have sex and you were never asked in the first place.  Consent is a big articulated “Yay!” inspired by your attraction or curiosity and backed up by your sense of trust, safety, and comfort. 

What you want to consent to do or not do is incredibly personal and specific.  By consenting to do one thing with a person, you have not given them permission to do whatever they like.  You can agree to make out but not take off your clothes, to have oral sex but not intercourse, to have intercourse today but not tomorrow, or any combination under the sun that makes you feel good.  Up until shockingly recently in Canada, rape within marriage wasn’t criminalized because it was believed that when a person got married she/he was consenting to have any kind of sex at any moment with her/his spouse for the rest of her/his life.  Of course this is absurd—no matter how much we may be attracted to someone or love or trust him or her, there are bound to be (many) times that we don’t feel like engaging sexually with them, and we always have the right not to want to.    You give consent as you go—it is dependent on the moment, and you are always welcome to change your mind.

 One of the most important things to keep in mind with regards to consent is that you do not owe anyone sex (neither does anyone owe you sex).  There is no instance where someone else has the right to have sex with you when you don’t want to.  Even if a sex worker’s client has just paid her/him for sex, and then she/he doesn’t want to have it, the client still has no right to rape her/him.  Even if you picked someone up at a bar and brought them back to your place and are lying in bed naked with them, you do not owe them sex.  Even if you’ve been with the same partner for years and you’ve had sex a hundred times, you do not owe them sex the 101st time.  Even if you’re about to give your partner an orgasm but you suddenly don’t feel safe and want to stop, you do not owe them that orgasm. Your comfort and safety are far more important than some orgasm.

While some might say that “wanting to have sex” and “feeling violated” are two complete opposites without any gray zone, I believe that in practice it is not so simple.  As crazy as it sounds, sometimes you might not be sure how you feel about a sexual situation in the moment. After all, sex and physical intimacy in general put us in a very vulnerable place where we are likely to feel a whole range of complicated emotions. Maybe you aren’t exactly sure whether you’re enjoying what’s happening or whether it’s making you feel a bit uncomfortable. The best bet is to first take a moment and let your partner know how you’re feeling (See Sexual Health Sundays: Communication).  From there, there are lots of options.  Maybe you’d feel best if you switched to a different sexual activity with your partner.  Maybe you just want to make out or cuddle for a while and see how that feels.  Or, maybe you come to the conclusion you’re really not comfortable being in a sexual place right now, and you want to do something else entirely. Any combination of these options is perfect and awesome; remember you’re the only one who can decide what’s best for your body at any given time.  Sex is about mutual pleasure, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice yours out of a worry of “ruining the moment” or “breaking the mood”.  What kind of “sexy mood” do you have going anyway if you’re not feeling sexy about what’s happening?

If your partner ever makes you feel bad about stopping a sexual activity, I will say as a rule that this is not a good sexual partner.  I repeat, anyone who makes you feel guilty for not wanting to have sex is not someone worth having sex with.  If you tell a partner you don’t want to do a particular sexual activity, then they talk you into you it and you end up doing it, this is not consent.  In fact, this could even be assault.  While I said that consent is a verbal agreement to do something, if you are only saying ‘yes’ because of pressure and not because of your own desire, then you are not being honest with your partner or yourself, and that word is meaningless.  “No” is always, always an option.

If consent is a verbal affirmation, does that mean one has to go through the question and answer process every single time one does something sexual with someone?  Is someone’s body language a good enough indicator of their desire? Some would say that body language alone is never sufficient, but I believe that this can be dependent on any given sexual relationship.  I’ll admit that in my current relationship with my long-term partner, we are comfortable using body language as a gauge of our desire most of the time and don’t always feel the need to have a verbal discussion prior to each sexual activity.  That being said, even if you have a trusting relationship and you are doing a sexual activity you have done before many times, you can never fully assume how your partner is feeling.  It is always the best idea to throw in a quick “How do you feel about doing ______ with me right now?” before physically going ahead to ensure that everyone involved is happy and comfortable.

Sex can be wonderful, but it is only so if everyone involved wants it to be happening.  The bottom line is trust your instincts and communicate.  Love yourself for being the amazing person that you are, and know that you deserve to feel safe and respected.  Your body is nobody’s body but yours!




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