Feeld × Sex School: Consent
May 7th, 2020
Sex School experts Lina Bembe and Anarella Martínez-Madrid answer your questions about navigating consent.
We’re excited to introduce our new series in partnership with Sex School, the Berlin-based platform revolutionising online sex education, who will shed light on your questions about consent, threesomes and sexual identities.
This week, we asked you to share your most pressing questions about consent on our social channels. To answer them, we have invited Lina Bembe, porn performer with experience ranging from feminist amateur to queer post-porn narratives, and Anarella Martínez-Madrid, initiator of Sex School, cultural manager and film producer, who draw on their knowledge and experience in triggering honest, unbiased conversations about sex.
Lina Bembe, performer and educator at Sex School, Image by Natália Zajačiková
Anarella Martínez-Madrid, Sex School founder, Image by Natália Zajačiková
What is consent?
Consent, within a sexual environment, is an active agreement to engage in sexual activity. Consent lets someone know that a specific kind of sexual contact is wanted.
Consent however isn’t only about sex. It has plenty to do with personal agency. Quoting Sadie Lune from our episode on consent, ‘Learning consent culture is not just about sex, it’s about learning how to respect someone’s personal physical and / or emotional boundaries.’ In the same way sex isn’t only about bodily interactions, but also about emotional interactions, consent needs to deal both with physical and emotional boundaries.
In our opinion, consent is one of the very first Sex Ed topics everyone should learn about, from a very tender age. As Sadie puts it, ‘Consent starts long before we even have a sense of ourselves as possessing a sexuality. For example when you were young and asked to give a family member a hug and a kiss, even if you didn’t want to. Or being tickled past the point of comfort. The core of consent culture is about having a sense of your own bodily autonomy, as well the autonomy of other people’s bodies. You decide and have control over what you can do and what can be done to or with your own body.’
In the same vein, you should always respect other people’s bodily autonomy. Ignoring and acting against another person’s boundaries, whether wilfully or unconsciously, is abuse, sexual assault or rape.
Freely given. This means a choice is made without any pressure, gaslighting or manipulation, made under circumstances of enough mental clarity and sobriety at the moment of the sexual exchange.
Reversible. An enthusiastic ‘yes’ can become an ‘I’m not sure anymore’ or a ‘no’ two seconds later, or anytime. That reversal must be respected regardless of the circumstances.
Informed. People can only consent to situations and activities they are informed about and to whatever sexual partners agreed or consented to.
Enthusiastic. This means actively agreeing to perform a specific sexual activity, as opposed to passively saying ‘yes’, or letting things slide. It’s far easier to understand that ‘no means no’ but there are plenty of occasions where timidly saying ‘yes’ or being unsure about doing something and eventually being pushed or convinced into doing it, was also a way of saying ‘no’.
- Specific. Consent isn’t a free pass to everything. It needs to be enthusiastically and freely given for every single kind of sexual activity, touch, position, and so on.
What is the best way to give consent and to ask for consent?
The best way to give and ask for consent is by actively talking about it. A lot of our sexual interactions move in a non-verbal ‘body language’ kind of way but non-verbal cues can sometimes get lost in translation. When you get the impression that you are not being read properly, it is important to verbalise.
Practice with yourself ways of verbalising how you want / don’t want to be touched and interacted with. In the same way, don’t be shy about checking in with your partner about how they’re doing and what they need. Having clear boundaries makes for safer sex and enjoyable interactions and the lack of boundaries can often be a red flag. Consent doesn’t necessarily need to be a scary talk that kills the mood. When consent is internalised as an essential, non-negotiable element of all sexual interactions, the communication around it becomes easier, even a turn-on! It’s a matter of practice.
Consent & Communication
How do I introduce a conversation around consent without disrupting intimacy?
Talking about consent cannot really disrupt intimacy. Quite the opposite, it stimulates and facilitates intimacy. Conversations about consent are essentially conversations about boundaries, in sexual, physical and emotional terms. Talking about consent can help to get to know yourself and your partner even better and can aid towards establishing an enjoyable atmosphere and sexual exchange. So for starters, convince yourself that talking about consent is a healthy habit.
If during the course of a sexual interaction you feel you need to make a pause to discuss, reaffirm or change your mind about a specific boundary, that is perfectly fine. It is not a disruption and is actually an opportunity for feeling safer and better tuning in with your partner. You can introduce a conversation about consent by talking in first person about your feelings and needs. Also, if at some point you get the feeling that your partner is somehow not at ease, simply check in with them. Don’t be afraid of ‘killing the moment’, especially if you think that talking about consent would be important at a specific moment in a sexual encounter. Feeling the need to do it is enough of a reason.
It is important to convince ourselves that conversations about consent shouldn’t be optional, that they are normal, aren’t scary and make for better sexual and emotional wellbeing. If your partners are consistently reluctant to discuss consent, either in relation to your own boundaries, or theirs, you should consider whether it’s safe for you to continue engaging with them.
How do I talk about consent with my partners more openly?
First, it is very important to internalise in a systematic way the kind of things we like, the things we definitely don’t like, as well as what and where our boundaries are. For example, writing a list of all these things can help a lot in having a clear picture in our minds of what is good for us, what is not and what are things we feel unsure about. Such an exercise could help us be better, clearer and firmer at communicating and understanding that boundaries are not negotiable and that mutual respect of them would make relationships and sexual interactions healthier and more enjoyable. If you can encourage your partners to go through a similar exercise on their own, soon you will be on a similar page and potentially enter into pleasurable dynamics of exploration that reflect both of your wishes.
Once you understand that respecting boundaries takes priority, being more open about consent will be easier. We would advise you to try a style of communication that expresses how you are feeling, what your wishes are and where your boundaries lie. Once you set these, ask your partner to do the same.
How do I communicate firmly without hurting someone’s feelings?
It is important to talk in first person and have an open conversation about your needs, feeling and emotions. Ask the other person/s what they think about what you are sharing with them. To be clear, this is not an occasion for negotiation, but for an expression of your feelings, doubts and boundaries. It is always good to hear what the other part wants to say because talking about it makes sex real, visible, not shameful, human, simple, funny and empowering. It will help you enhance your knowledge and experiences and resolve some doubts and negative or confusing feelings… and it could be a lot of fun!
‘I had a lovely evening and enjoyed the conversation and the kiss, but I don’t want to sleep with you. I am listening to myself, and I don’t want to have sex.’ (It may sound direct, but both parties will understand each others’ needs and avoid misunderstandings.)
‘I am sorry, but I don’t want to go down on you. I don’t like it, but I would love to give you a hand and continue with this amazing sexy time we are having, or do you have anything else in mind you would enjoy?’
‘Before we go together to bed, I want to share with you that I like receiving spanks, and I would like you to spank me before having sex. How comfortable would you be with that? Would you like to do it?’
If someone has said no, can you reproach them without being needy or rude?
No. Although navigating consent can sometimes be complex and tricky, one of the clearest, easiest rules to understand is the fact that ‘no means no’. That’s a very clear and non-negotiable way of asserting a boundary; trying to push it, ignore it, or using other mechanisms to cross a limit in your favour is not consent, and could potentially become an abusive situation. Reproaching someone in order to have things your way can hardly be called consensual, even if you do it in the sweetest possible way.
If you have certain unmet needs or wishes for which your partner has already established a boundary, we would advise you to discuss it with them. You can find out more about the nature of that boundary at a moment when things are calm (take a break, pause, do it in a non-sexual context). Did they say ‘no’ because it’s a hard limit for them (something they’d never do under any circumstance)? Or did they say ‘no’ to something that under other circumstances they’d probably be down for doing, but on that day they’re just not in the mood? Or perhaps they said ‘no’ to something they’ve never tried before and feel unsure or not ready to do? Having more background information could perhaps be helpful to explore alternatives for having that wish/need met without pushing your partner’s boundaries. Likewise, if you express your own needs and wishes in first person, without assuming, judging or attacking, perhaps you both could agree on doable solutions where you can have your needs met without stepping on your partner’s limits.
Consent & BDSM
What are tips for consensual non-consent play with a partner?
First of all, full, enthusiastic consent from all parties is beyond mandatory. If someone isn’t 100% sure, then it’s better not to give it a try.
Plan your scene extra carefully, preferably in non sexual scenarios. In consensual non-consent scenarios, plenty of negotiation is super crucial. The negotiation dynamic needs to be extra explicit and broken down with as much detail as possible, no matter how much of an intuitive person you consider yourself to be. Of course, safe words and plenty of boundaries will be incredibly important. Don’t forget that doms also have boundaries. Establish which words or terms can be used safely throughout the scene (eg. saying ‘no’ won’t mean stopping the action).
It’s also very important to discuss what motivates all parties involved to participate in a scene of this kind. Examine your own fantasies. Why does it turn you on? Why do you want to explore this? What power dynamics are at play in this scene and the different roles played in it? Face and work through potential feelings of internalised shame. Discuss if there are any traumas linked to the scene and potential ways in which enacting the scene could be healing or triggering. If you’re a survivor, plan with as much detail as possible how the scene will help you rewrite your own narratives in a potentially healing way.
Aftercare will also be extremely important. If the scene includes forceful physical interactions, aftercare might not translate into immediate physical proximity or tender gestures. If the sub rejects the dom’s touch right away, it’s important to give them some space while remaining present and to continue giving aftercare until the sub decides they feel safe and comfortable with more proximity, cuddles, etc. If you’re a survivor or if the scene touches upon your trauma, be prepared for the potential need to discuss any outcomes of the scene with a specialised therapist. Don’t rely solely on yourself or your partner for it.
What role does consent play in BDSM, where pushing boundaries is part of the dynamic? How does one know if what they are agreeing to might not make them feel bad afterwards?
As with the above case, enthusiastic consent is vital. There must be plenty of clear boundaries in these kind of scenarios, otherwise the risk of harm or abuse becomes very real. Again, negotiation in a non-sexual context is advisable. Also, understanding what elements turn on each person in such a scenario is also important in understanding whether all parties are compatible in what they’re looking forward to experiencing. Create a space for mutually understanding what you want to achieve with that kind of scene. In BDSM dynamics, mutual trust is extremely important and can only be built on clear, informed and detailed boundaries and enthusiastic consent. Thus, discussing hard/soft limits and safe words with as much detail as possible is mandatory. If you are a dom and the scene gets intense, remind the sub they can use their safe words.
When you try to cover all these aspects as comprehensively as possible, a connection based on trust can be created. That way, if all parties play by the rules, everyone will enjoy the scene without harming each other.
What role does alcohol play and what are the clear indicators in this scenario?
Many people use alcohol or other drugs to feel freer and braver, often in the context of meeting new people and having casual sex, but when do we know if a person is giving you their consent? Our answer is that if you are doubting the status of the person you’re interacting with, do not try have sex with them. If the person is not responding to your direct questions, if you’re unable to get their attention, if they seem too intoxicated to acknowledge your concerns – then it is possible that they are unable to consent. You might have to make a decision about this in order to keep them safe.
What if non-verbal indicators are not taken seriously enough?
Switch to verbal indicators! A number of scientific studies have revealed that in sexual play most communication is non-verbal but verbal sexual communication was proven to be clearer and more effective. This is because non-verbal communication can often be interpreted in a different way than originally intended, whereas verbal communication leaves less room for misinterpretation and is thus safer.
A way for making non-verbal communication safer is to discuss it beforehand and agree on non-verbal cues that indicate your оr your partner’s wishes (eg. grabbing a wrist firmly). You might also decide together on what safe words to use in case non-verbal indicators are not enough.
If non-verbal indicators are repeatedly ignored, it is OK to pause and clearly make your partner aware of the situation. Reinforce your wishes with clear verbal communication. If you feel that these indicators aren’t being taken seriously enough or if you sense your wishes are systematically ignored, it is better to stop the interaction.
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