Short answer: extremely complicated.
It’s a bit like an onion, once you’ve peeled one layer, you find another underneath.
I’m going to start with the beginner level basics of yes/no consent, and give a simple exercise to help you with it. Then I’m going to dive into the more advanced areas of consent, using Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent model to explain it, and I will give some more exercises to explore it.
I want to be very clear that consent is important for every part of your life. Sex is just the case study that is usually highlighted because the consequences are so bad when you get it wrong. You need to cultivate good consent practices in everything you do.
‘No’ means No!
This is the very base level of consent which I think is generally understood these days (although it is worrying how recently this was a thing people had to campaign for).
If you are not familiar with the tea analogy of consent, watch it here!
Are there some occasions when people say ‘no’, but actually mean ‘yes’? Yes, I think there are, but in this situation it’s still better to treat the ‘no’ as a definite ‘no’. For the person saying ‘no’ when they really mean ‘yes’ it’s an important life lesson for them to learn to say ‘yes’, and they are unlikely to learn it if you never wait for them to say ‘yes’. The negative consequences of mistaking a real ‘no’ for a false ‘no’ far outweigh anything good that can possibly come from correctly identifying a false ‘no’. If you think someone is saying ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’, then perhaps you could help by pointing it out to them, but make it clear that it is your perception, and DO NOT under any circumstances pressure them into saying ‘yes’.
The only time it is acceptable to disregard a ‘no’ is when you have previously explicitly agreed with that person that you can do that, and you have also put in place a safe word that that person can use when they really do mean ‘no’.
Absence of a ‘no’ doesn’t mean yes.
One of the main fear responses when we are put it scary situations is to freeze. The rabbit-in-headlights effect, which can prevent people from saying or doing anything in a fearful situation. Watch out for this one, it is very common, and it is not consent!
Further, if people are used to having their ‘no’ ignored for no good reason, they will eventually give it up as pointless, and just end up allowing people to do things to them. This conditioning can start from a very young age. How many adults delight in tickling children even when they are crying ‘no’? Or force their children to be kissed by their elderly relatives when they really don’t want to? This teaches us that other people’s desires are more important than our own, and we should just silently put up with it to keep them happy and not cause a fuss. In more severe cases the child fears that if they don’t do what the adults want them to do, they will lose the love and care that they need. This conditioning doesn’t go away just because the person gets older.
So be careful not to assume consent for things, and get used to explicitly asking for consent, even an innocent hug.
‘Yes’ can mean No!
Another of the main fear responses is the compromise of truth – this is when a person fears one thing, (such as being alone,) and so compromises their truth and lies about their own feelings about something, (such as how much they love football,) so that their partner will like them more and be less likely to leave them. So when you ask your partner ‘Do you want to watch the football?’ they will say ‘yes’ when they mean no: they are too scared of saying ‘no’, because they fear your rejection.
In this world, people, especially those raised as female, are conditioned to say ‘yes’ when they don’t mean yes. We are conditioned to please those around us, to avoid conflict, and not cause a fuss. Sometimes to the point where we become so disconnected from ourselves that we don’t even think to stop and consider our own feelings when making a decision, and will always give the answer we think the other person wants from us, believing it to be the truth.
Why you should be grateful to hear a ‘No’
If you really care about someone, would you want them to agree to something that made them unhappy (and lie about it) just to please you?
If you never hear a ‘no’ from someone, then warning bells should be going off. You can’t trust a ‘yes’ until you hear a ‘no’. You need that reassurance that the other person is comfortable and able to say ‘no’ to you about important things.
As part of this you need to ask yourself – how well do I accept a ‘no’? Rejection can be a very hard thing to deal with, and if you are bad at dealing with it, the other person is even less likely to feel comfortable saying ‘no’, because generally they don’t want to hurt you, and don’t want to see you upset. So the very first thing you should say when someone says ‘no’ to you is ‘thank you for taking care of yourself’ even if it hurts.
The more you get used to asking for consent for the easy things, the easier it will be for the harder things.
Simple yes/no exercise that works wonders.
For consent to work, both of you need to be comfortable giving and receiving both ‘yes’s and ‘no’s. And both of you need to be aware of all the social pressures that might cause you to answer inauthentically.
So, stand/sit in front of your partner and look them in the eye. Decide on one of you to do the asking and one to do the answering, then switch and do it the other way round.
Stage 1: The asker asks some yes/no questions of the receiver about things they might like to do or experience. Try and choose varied things such that some of them you would expect them to say ‘yes’ to (e.g. would you like a massage), and things you would expect them to say ‘no’ to (e.g. would you like me to poke you in the eye).
The receiver says ‘no’ to every one of these questions. They key here is not just saying ‘no’ automatically, but really consider the question, and pay attention to what it feels like in your body to say ‘no’ when you mean no, and to say ‘no’ when you don’t mean no. Create emotional data points so in the future you can recognise when you are being inauthentic. Also practice saying ‘no’ firmly, with no apology in your voice.
During this the asker is also paying attention to what it feels like to receive a ‘no’, especially when it’s a question they would really like the receiver to agree to. Do you struggle with rejection? Are you trying to work out if the other person really means no? Can you find any feelings of gratitude towards the other person for looking after themselves and not agreeing to do anything that they wouldn’t actually enjoy?
Stage 2: Is exactly the same as stage 1, but the receiver will answer ‘yes’ to every question (you don’t actually do the thing, obviously). Again, what does it feel like to say ‘yes’ when you do and don’t mean it? What does it feel like to receive a yes when you know the other person would want to say ‘no’?
Stage 3: Talk about the experience with each other. What did you find easy/hard? What surprised you? What do you need to work on?
Mostly we’ve been talking about consent from the point of view of the person getting the consent. But what about the person giving consent? We’ve talked about some of the reasons why someone might lie about what they want, but it turns out that knowing your own mind and your own desires is actually a whole lot more complicated than you think. This section is about learning how to identify unhealthy consent habits within yourself so you can better look after yourself and be authentic to others.
Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent
We can plot interactions between people along two axis. The horizontal axis indicates who is the giver and receiver of the benefit of the interaction, while the vertical axis indicates who is being active (doing) and who is being passive (done to).
The area within the green circle is the area where consent is given, while the area outside of the circle is outside of consent.
We can use a simple hug to illustrate the differences between the areas: When you offer to hug someone, what are your intentions? Do you want to give the person a hug to make them happy (serving), or do you want to feel the pleasure of someone in your arms (taking)?
If you are the person being offered the hug, can you fully enjoy the benefit of it (accepting) or are you doing it to please the other person (allowing)?
Slipping into non consensual allowing
This is a really common thing that people do. Someone wants something from you that you don’t really want to give, but you also want to be seen as a nice person, and you don’t want to disappoint anyone or cause a fuss, and anyway it’s not like it’s all that bad.
The hug is a good example – can you really say ‘no’ to a hug if you don’t want one? Far easier just to allow them to hug you and deal with it, it makes them happy, it may make them like you more, and it’s not much trouble for you. But this is a dangerous slippery slope.
Making someone a taker when they want to be a server
So… you are allowing someone to hug you when you don’t really want it. But what if the person doing the hugging is really intending to serve you? They are hugging you because they think that benefits you. But you are making them into a taker – you are allowing them to take the satisfaction of having helped someone, when they haven’t. This is a non consensual interaction.
And the longer it goes on for, the harder it is to correct them, because you know they will be mortified and feel awful if they know they’ve been taking instead of serving all this time, and you know thy only have the best intentions at heart, so you don’t want them to feel bad.
The difficulty of receiving
Certainly amongst my friendship group, people find it very difficult to be fully in the receiving half of the wheel. Whether it’s taking or allowing, people seem to feel like it must be a reward for being nice, or pretty, or of being of service. Either that or they feel like it is a favour they must pay back later. Essentially they have trouble feeling like they deserve to receive unconditionally.
And yet all of them really enjoy giving. They get so much joy out of making others happy, and yet they can’t seem to see that they can make others happy in the same way – by receiving from them.
The most effective way to show your gratitude to a giver, is to fully receive what is given.
In my experience, this is the quadrant that people find it the hardest to be in. On top of the difficulty of recieving, we also know that people have a tendency to slip into non consensual allowing, and both of those combine to make us very unfomfortable being in the taker roll. And yet it can be a very rewarding dynamic, both for the taker and the allower if done correctly, and it is needed it we are to achieve true balance in our lives.
So where in the wheel are you most comfortable, and where are you least comfortable? Of course real interactions are more complicated than this simple model, so lets engineer some more simplified interactions. This will help you work out where you stand, and get used to what each area feels like so you can more readily identify it in a real interaction. The results may surprise you.
After each exercise I recommend discussing it with your partner. What did you find easy or difficult? What surprised you?
If you find any of these exercises difficult, then it is highlighting an area you have difficulty with that you need to work on.
This is an exercise you can do on your own.
Pick up any nearby inanimate object. Begin exploring the object with your hands. What does it feel like? Is it hard or soft? Warm of cool? Does it make a noise?
See if you can find any way of manipulating the object which brings you pleasure. Maybe the coolness it nice against your forehead, maybe the squidgyness is nice to test your hand muscles against.
Congratulations, you are taking.
Taker – Allower
The taker asks the allower ‘may I touch your arm (or body part of choice)?’
If the allower is comfortable with it, say ‘yes’ and feel free to place any conditions on it that you need (eg ‘only between my elbow and wrist’). Plus the allower can stop the exercise or place new boundaries at any point.
The taker then explores the other person in the same way they explored the inanimate object in the taking exercise.
The allower should try not to signal which things they enjoy more than others, you are simply allowing the other to take pleasure from you.
The taker should not be trying to work out what the allower does and doesn’t like. This is an exercise entirely for you to take pleasure, within the boundaries they set.
What is the maximum amount of pleasure you can take from this scenario?
Then switch roles and do the exercise again.
Giver – Receiver
The receiver asks the giver ‘will you touch my arm (or body part of choice)?’
If the giver is comfortable with it, say ‘yes, how would you like to be touched?’
The receiver then gives an in depth description of how they want to be touched, making sure to cover speed, pressure, and location.
If the giver is comfortable with giving the requested touch, then do so. If not, then say so, and negotiate something that they would like you are comfortable with giving.
During the touch, the receiver should try to fully receive the pleasure given to them, and if it can be improved in any way, let the giver know how they should modify their touch. You can ask for modifications as many times as you want – the giver is there purely for your enjoyment, and they want to know exactly how to please you. Don’t worry about making them feel like they aren’t good at touching you. This is the best way for you both to learn.
Then switch roles and do the exercise again.