Having an open dialogue about consent can make your relationship more clear and fun! (Illustration by Lina Kang, Rhode Island School of Design)

When people talk about consent, they often discuss it in context with hookup culture or sexual assaults. The topic is often tied to random sexual encounters, STDs and diseases. As a result, the term is rarely discussed in a positive and empowering light. More importantly, consent is rarely discussed in terms of committed, long-term relationships.

It’s important to note that consent isn’t only about sex; it’s about two people agreeing to share and build a life together. But when you’ve been sleeping with the same person for a while, you may start to take consent for granted — both your ability to give it and concede to it.

Whether you’ve been seeing each other for a couple of weeks or are approaching five years together, consent is relevant in all relationships. But I understand the hesitation to bring up the conversation of consent with your partner, especially if things are going fine.

It’s scary and a somewhat embarrassing to talk about, but I’m going to help you through it! Why? Because consent is awesome, and will make your relationship 10 times better. So here we go!

Start the Dialogue with Simple Questions

My boyfriend and I will often look at each other after an hour-long conversation about our communication and say, “Wow, are we talking about ourselves too much?” We laugh and brush it off, but as I’m sitting here writing this, I realize we aren’t crazy or self-centered. I’m proud to say that my relationship is a healthy one, all thanks to our communication.

We talk about everything: how our days are going, what we had for breakfast, annoying homework assignments, dry skin, chili recipes, etc. You name it — we’ve probably talked about it. We are not ashamed to have open dialogues about anything and everything. So when the topic of consent came up, it was relatively easy to talk about.

We talk about our sex life pretty regularly: before we have sex, after we have sex and during sex. But it hasn’t always been this easy. We started our conversation by discussing the so-called normal couple stuff: likes, dislikes, positions and pace. Once we established a healthy understanding of one another, we graduated to more emotionally complex topics, from which consent was at the top of the list.

Consent constantly changes. That’s not to say you should pause every minute to ask your partner how they are feeling, but checking-in is a good thing.

Planned Parenthood created a fantastic handout that walks parents through a conversation about consent with their children. The guidelines are broken down according to the child’s age, ranging from 8-years-old to 18. If you’re unsure of how to start a conversation about consent with your partner, I suggest giving this a read first. The flyer’s prompts and questions are great ways to jump into the discussion, although I would be careful not to address your partner like they’re a child.

Getting you and your partner talking is the first step, but it can feel like the hardest, and that’s because it is. It’s intimidating to look at someone you feel completely comfortable with and say, “Listen, we need to set some consent boundaries.” But, if you aren’t talking about both your emotional and sexual relationship, neither of you is actively consenting to even being there.

A relationship shouldn’t be defined by just one person’s vision, expectations, and assumptions, but rather, formed by a collaboration of two people’s individual thoughts and beliefs. Share with your partner what you expect, how you want to be treated and what you desire from the relationship, while also giving them a platform to share their side.

Affirm Expectations and Establish Boundaries

Once you’ve shared how you feel about consent, it’s important to listen to your partner’s thoughts. Practicing active listening can be as simple as repeating your partner’s words and adding, “I really want to make sure I’m understanding your wants and needs correctly, so here’s what I’m hearing.”

There are certain boundaries people should be careful not to cross, but when it comes to relationships, the most important line is that between “yes” and “no.” This means not doing anything – anything – without your partner’s consent.

I can guess my boyfriend’s mood better than I can recite the Starbucks secret menu (seriously, the red-velvet Frappuccino is amazing), but the beautiful thing about consent is that there’s no guesswork needed. It’s a simple “yes” or “no” that makes your relationship much more honest, easy and clear. It’s totally appropriate to ask about how your partner is feeling, but whatever their answer is, you must respect it.

Now let’s get slightly more embarrassing: let’s talk briefly about my sexual drive. I’m not ashamed to admit I have a high sex drive. It’s normal, but not something I think women often discuss. Well, here I am, for my mother and all my acquaintances from high school to read, liking sex. My boyfriend commented on my sex drive before, telling me he felt pressured as my partner to always say yes — even when he didn’t want to. The discussion made me re-evaluate consent.

I’m happy to report there is now no pressure to say yes, on neither his nor mine. When I’m not feeling it, I simply kiss his forehead and politely explain that I’m not in the mood. It’s nothing he did to make me feel this way, I’m just not up for it.

Most articles I read only discuss consent by women, assuming that females, and not males, should learn how to practice consent in order to protect themselves. But consent should come from both women and men. With a good understanding of consent, two partners should be free from feeling guilty, shameful or pressured to say yes.

There’s no question I’m embarrassed to ask, no feeling I regret sharing and no desire I am terrified to express, because I know anything and everything that my partner and I do is discussed. There is no greater feeling than knowing you have complete freedom to say anything you want — judgement free.

The Results

In the beginning of a relationship, you may have fears or reservations about your partner, but trust me when I say that after consent is discussed, your fears will subside.

Talking about consent will help you feel safe and at ease. You will open up to your partner in ways you never thought possible before. You will feel confident in yourself, knowing that you are a better partner because you respect their choices. On top of that, you’ll feel like a forward-thinking rock-star because your relationship has progressed to a level so deeply and romantically profound.

Consent is not compromise, so don’t let any partner convince you that you need to be sexually adventurous or available just because you’re dating. And consent should not be reserved for conversations involving anal lubricant, sex swings or a four-way with the couple from salsa night. In fact, consent exists wherever physical or emotional involvement exists. It’s your body, and you decide what you do with it.

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Tatianna Salisbury

Northern Illinois University

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