Is Active Consent Required In A Relationship?
By Cara Sutra
Consent is mandatory for any sexual, intimate or otherwise physically or psychologically invasive experience. We all know this, and if you don’t, you do now. It’s difficult to believe that there could be any confusion surrounding the issue of consent. After all, you either consent, or you don’t. Easy, right? How about when you’re in a relationship? Is consent automatic in that case, or is active consent required for each & every sexual or intimate session?
What Do You Mean By Active Consent?
I’m not writing the international standard sexual dictionary here. I don’t claim to be an all-knowing sexual guru. Therefore I can only explain what active consent means to me personally.
In my opinion, active consent means consent which is clearly given for a certain activity or session. It might be spoken, but it could also be given in some other way. We’ll get to those in a while. Basically, there should be absolutely no question of whether a person is consenting or not, when active consent has been given. There is no room for confusion; the person has actively consented.
How Does Active Consent Differ From Passive Consent?
Again, I want to make it clear that I’m explaining how I understand these terms. While active consent is clearly given, in some way be it verbal or otherwise, passive consent is the opposite. Passive consent is allowing something to happen and not rejecting the action or showing unwilling.
Here’s where we get into murky territory in terms of consent.
There are situations in which consent could be seen to be given passively; a person does not speak up to reject an action or does not in some other way resist. However, that doesn’t mean the person is fully consenting. Letting something happen isn’t active consent, and in some cases could be the absolute opposite.
That’s why I believe consent should always be active. Passive consent cannot and should not be relied upon to gauge whether a person is fully willing to participate. If you care about the person you are engaging in sexual or other intimate activities with, you should require active consent to continue. And please, care about yourself. Always provide active consent, or speak up about the opposite. I know it’s not always as easy as that, or as black and white.
Is Active Consent Always Verbal?
Here’s another controversial point. I don’t believe active consent needs to be verbal in every single case. Yes, ideally, consent would be given in a clear, confident, absolutely-no-mumbling voice. But does everyone ask their partner if they can have sex with them every single time? Then wait for a clearly spoken affirmative?
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how it works with my partner and I. Yet every time we have sex, I actively consent to it. I enjoy rapeplay in my relationship, but I always actively consent to it first! How?
Examples of Non-Verbal Active Consent
There’s a few ways I actively consent to sex or (in our case) BDSM activities with my partner which don’t involve actually saying ‘yes I consent’ out loud. It might be that we’re enjoying a kiss and then his hands move closer to my sexual areas. I have a choice to make in that moment; do I want the kiss to evolve into something else or not?
If I do consent, I may move my body closer to him, help to move his hands closer to my sexual zones or make affirmative noises during the kiss. If we’re in bed and he instigates ‘sexy time’ by putting his hand on my hip, kissing my neck and otherwise non-verbally ‘asking’ for sex, I can respond with a wiggle of my hips towards him if I consent or sometimes an unabashed climbing on top of him in response.
These are just a few examples of how, in our relationship, I can give active consent to sexual or intimate activities without saying any words at all. This is different to any assumed passive consent from his point of view; me lying there silently and not responding isn’t consent. Doing nothing to stop proceedings is passive consent but confusion would arise from his point of view – am I actively consenting or not? It’s better to give active consent in some way, verbal or non-verbal, so a partner knows for sure that you do actually consent.
How About Non-Consent? Is That Always Spoken?
It’s a myth that non-consent is always shown by someone saying ‘no’ out loud. In an ideal world, non-consent would always be a clear and confident ‘no, I don’t want to’ – but of course we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in the real world. Non-verbal non-consent is very much a thing, and ignoring these markers is a breach of consent.
Again, some examples from the relationship I’m in. If I don’t want to have sex, do sexual things or engage in BDSM or other intimate activities with my partner, I can let him know non-verbally. He may start to ‘ask’ for these things, in the non-verbal ways I’ve already given examples of above, and I can choose not to consent on that occasion. I might do this by moving his hands to a non-sexual part of my body rather than allowing his hands to continue roaming, or by breaking off a kiss firmly. With my partner, I follow up these non-verbal methods of non-consent with an explanation of how I am feeling, because it’s considerate. My partner is also on the autistic spectrum and so in-depth explanations really help in that situation.
It could be that I’m tired, hormonal, sore or simply not in the mood. Just because I’m in a relationship it doesn’t mean I am obliged to consent to sex or intimate activities every time my partner wants. I’d hate to think anyone out there believes that. You have a right to not consent to sex/intimate activities whenever you choose, relationship or not. And whether that non-consent is given verbally or otherwise, it should be respected.
In this article I’ve provided examples of me consenting or not to activities desired by my partner, but it works vice versa & regardless of a person’s gender/sexuality too.
Why Is Active Consent Required Every Single Time? I’m In A Relationship!
Just because two (or more) people are in a relationship, it doesn’t mean consent is automatically given or the default position. Every single person experiences the ebb and flow of life and its consequential effects differently. At any particular time sex or other intimate happenings might be the furthest thing from your mind, or could even be actively distasteful. Yes, even with a person you love.
Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you’re a 24/7 sexual fulfilment provider. You’re a person with feelings and moods like any other person, and your desires regarding sex et al should be valued, determined and respected before any action starts.
Another myth (which I’m happy to say isn’t shared by my social circles) is that rape is impossible in a relationship or marriage. This is a dangerous and abhorrent belief. Rape and assault is possible wherever one person contravenes or disregards the consent and wants of another person. It doesn’t matter if they’re your friend with benefits, fuck buddy, boyfriend, girlfriend, object of your affection or husband or wife of many years. Please: actively consent and actively non-consent clearly, using verbal or non-verbal cues as discussed above. Also: respect your partner’s wishes and feelings in every matter, but particularly in matters where their physical and psychological selves are vulnerable and trusted to you.
Active consent is vital for a successful ongoing relationship which is built on trust and mutual respect. Not merely assumed consent.
It could be easy to feel obliged to provide sexual fulfilment to a partner whenever they want, simply because you’re in a relationship. You are not obliged to do anything you don’t really want to do, regardless of your relationship status. I’d like to think that all sexually active partners realise and recognise this fact. It’s worth stating clearly, in case anyone out there is confused on this point.
To those who desire sexual or intimate activities with their partner: are you absolutely certain your partner is actively consenting each time? Even if the situation doesn’t lend itself to a conversation about consent before you dive in (as it often doesn’t), can you see active consent cues from their other behaviours in response to your actions? Or are they simply not resisting, not refusing, allowing it to happen – ie. giving an assumed passive consent?
If you’re in any doubt about whether your partner is giving active consent to an activity, stop. Ask. Not everyone feels confident enough or able to voice their refusal. Active consent is mandatory – yes, even in a relationship. Do your part in ensuring your partner is actively consenting to your actions, each and every time.
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