Consent is quite possibly my all-time favourite subject in regards to sex and relating. Until I studied it in earnest with consent trainer Betty Martin, I didn’t realise how hot consent can be. Since then, I have continued to learn that consent is about much more than behaving right; it is a path to glorious pleasures. Having benefitted so much myself from a better understanding of consent, it is now a core part of my teaching. I am delighted to share some of it with you here.
Exploring the realm of the delicious yes (which I will cover in part II of this topic, in my summer blogpost) requires the foundation of clarity about our limits. Continue on, dear reader, for practical tips on getting ok with no.
Getting ok with no (your own and other people's)
Ever had a conversation that’s gone something like this?
It seems to me that this kind of experience, which many of us will recognise, has two main components to it:
- We don’t give ourselves a moment to actually notice what we want
- If we've said yes, we don't think it's really ok to change our answer
Noticing your no
The ‘automatic yes’ is so common that we seem to have an epidemic of fuzzy consent. It’s as though we think we should know the answer immediately, or that taking time to notice our real answer is somehow rude. The ‘automatic yes’ is how we end up in situations like the one above, over and over.
So, how can we notice what we want?
The short answer is: time. The longer-but-still-quite-short answer is: time + your body.
When someone asks something of you (e.g. “Will you help me move house?”) or makes you an offer (e.g. “This item has a special deal – you can have 3 for the price of 2.”), take a moment to notice what your answer is. It’s that simple. Once the automatic yes has dropped away, the real answer will become clear. It may still be a yes, but it will be a real yes rather than an automatic yes. If it’s a no, you just saved yourself from agreeing to something you’ll feel unhappy about later. We’ll look at how to say no in the next section.
A great way to deepen that moment of noticing is not just to take time, but also to actively turn your attention to your body to see what it can tell you. If you notice that your back is sore, that may help you decide whether you can help that friend move house. If you notice that you’re feeling a tightness in your chest, you might recognise that you feel pressured by that salesperson and actually, you don’t want three of this item regardless of the special deal. Tuning in to your body is especially helpful when someone asks you for, or offers, touch.
- Am I happy to give touch right now? (and notice the answer)
- What kind of touch can I happily give? (and notice)
- For how long? (and notice)
- Do I want to receive touch? (and notice the answer)
- Where do I want touch? (and notice)
- What’s the quality of touch that I want? (and notice)
The combination of taking time and tuning in to the body is powerful indeed, in noticing what we can give or receive with a full heart.
When things change
Another aspect of noticing is noticing that things change. I often hear people describe having said yes to something and then changing their mind – but feeling like they have to go through with what they’ve agreed to. There may be some aspects of life where you change your mind, and to back out would really inconvenience someone. But this does not apply to sex. You can say yes (or no) and then change your mind, even if you’ve already begun. In fact, it’s utterly important that you communicate what’s happening, so that you remain aligned with your body.
If we slip in to tolerating touch, we lose connection with ourselves and with others. Before I learned about consent, I often tolerated touch when I had changed my mind or if I was in discomfort, because I was thinking about the other person, or it just seemed easier, or I didn’t want to ‘make a fuss.’ Now, I know that I was inadvertently training my body to close down – and along that road lies a narrowing of pleasure potential, not a blossoming. We owe it to ourselves and our lovers to notice our nos and give authentic answers to requests and offers. Our lovers also owe it to us and to themselves to respect and value those authentic answers.
How to communicate a no
Saying no is more than just ok; a genuine no is a gift of truthfulness and trust. A no is a yes to something else! A no can be a pathfinder to pleasure because the honouring of our nos deepens our capacity to discover our utterly delicious yeses.
Most of us recognise that hearing a no can sometimes be difficult. So, how do we communicate in a way that makes it easier to receive our nos?
- Understand that you have a right: Knowing in your bones that you have a fundamental right to say no can help with communicating it clearly, without guilt or apology or lengthy explanation.
- Consider that a no is a gift: Would you want someone to tolerate your touch or go through the motions when touching you? In saying no, we move away from tolerating and towards pleasure and connection.
- Be kind: Saying no kindly is about manner rather than a form of words.
- Notice it, ventilate it, say it: As soon as you notice you have a no, if you feel comfortable, say it. But if you have some discomfort about communicating it, give yourself a moment to let it be. The popular Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chödrön, describes allowing difficult feelings and ‘ventilating’ them. So, if you find having a no difficult, just let it ‘breathe’ for a moment, to bring a little peace to it before you communicate it.
Noticing other people's nos
We’re against a cultural backdrop of scant (or completely absent) teaching of consent in schools, and there is widespread teaching of persuasion skills in business. In the media, we see reported defensive and dictatorial responses to consent problems, such as the new policies on some US college campuses. We also see both the promotion and fierce criticism of the ‘Pick Up Artist’ movement, which teaches men how to convince women to have sex with them, with arguably dubious consent. The cultural mirror seems to be one of extremes – we disregard choice and violate consent as standard, or we disempower ourselves, taking responsibility for other people’s nos and refusing to believe their yeses for fear of being a perpetrator.
So, how can we notice other people’s nos?
- They tell us no
Less clear answer:
- They seem to avoid giving an answer
- They say yes but seem distracted or disconnected
- They say yes but then avoid the interaction or cancel repeatedly
- They say things like, “I don’t mind” or “Do what you want” or “It’s ok”
All of these may be caused by something other than an unsaid no or luke-warm consent, but it’s best to check in. There is a balance to be found between taking someone’s yes at face value, and relentlessly digging for a hidden no. Somewhere in the middle is observant consideration, where we are aware of the complexity of consent, but where we trust the person giving consent to take responsibility for their own limits.
It takes practice, and we all get it wrong sometimes. It’s important to be forgiving – of ourselves and others - for genuine misunderstandings.
How to receive a no
Many of us have sometimes experienced difficult feelings when receiving a no. We may feel rejected, or feel some shame for even having asked. But we know that being cool with a no is very important.
So, what can help us to receive a no well?
- Consider making requests in a way that shows the importance we place on consent. In doing so, we can make it easier for the person to communicate a no if they have one, and this can make it easier to receive that no. For example, Seattle sex coach and fellow Certified Sexological Bodyworker Charlie Glickman suggests adding a simple ‘If statement’ to our desires, e.g. “If you’re available, I’d love to go out for dinner with you” or “If you’re in the mood, I’d love to kiss you.”
- Don’t take it personally if you get a no. Instead, think about how the person has honoured themselves – and honour that.
- Some people find saying ‘thank you’ helpful in response to a no. In fact, with practice I have noticed that saying thank you in response to a no can bring a warm ease for everyone involved, through that verbal honouring of the person expressing their limits.
- Suggest exploring what else you might like to do together
If you give an automatic yes when you have a no, or fumble over your communication (or hearing) of a no, don’t be discouraged – it gets easier with practice.
As a somatic sex educator my purpose for this blog is to educate and share tips that can aid greater erotic connection. But, the reality is that when it comes to noticing and communicating our limits, it’s about so much more than sex – it’s about the broader business of living and negotiating our way in the world. Consent is about honouring our boundaries and giving with a full heart, whether in sexual expression or at work or with our family and friends – and expressing our limits well in one area of our lives can make it easier to do so more broadly.
For support in deepening consent awareness, or to find out more about somatic sex education, check out the rest of my website, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss sessions.