love is a battlefield, consent is not
Image © Jorja Kelly
If no means no and yes means yes, then what about all the tricky little nuances of intimacy that aren’t vocalised? With little discussion on how to communicate consent in wider Australian society, people are attending consent workshops to learn how to say yes, no, maybe and use other methods to assert themselves in their relationships… especially when there can be a battle of I vs. We in desire.
Put simply, consent isn’t just a lesson for the perpetrators in sexual assault. Where sex education has left off, grassroots community groups are staging consent workshops in regional centres to address a lack of discussion on negotiating intimacy. Sydney-based Sexologist Giverny Lewis feels that discussing consent in relationships is beneficial to communities, particularly as state-based organisations such as Family Planning and ACON cannot deploy resources for extensive education.
‘Consent probably isn’t explored as much as it should be,’ Giverny says.
‘It’s certainly addressed in a lot of media articles, mainly when there’s been a sexual assault… but there doesn’t seem to be any real conversation going on about “well, if that’s not consent, then what is consent?”’
Clearly defined consent can be hard to spot on the horizon in relationships conforming to Western ideas of romantic love. That is, beyond the timelessly apt slogan of “no means no” where consent is lacking. Unlike alternative lifestyles like BDSM, where – when performed properly – desires are negotiated thoroughly with contracts and safe words before the nipple clamps come out of the drawer, mainstream focus on the “heat of the moment” can leave partners with a bad taste in their mouth. Giverny says this lack of communication to determine consent is compounded where discussion on negotiating intimacy is not free flowing among peers.
‘People are kind of left to fend for themselves unfortunately, because they’re not a part of a community that has strong ideas and norms,’ she says.
Consent workshop instructor, Nissa Lee agrees, saying the openness to discuss wants and want nots in the “boy meets girl / boy meets boy / girl meets girl” trajectory is not as present as in structures such as online dating. The ability to state turn-ons and turnoffs on a dating profile allows a basic understanding of a person’s boundaries before the emotional or physical safety of any party is breached.
‘[You] just put it out there which I think just doesn’t happen so much when you meet someone,’ Nissa says, describing how this is rarely applied in any given nightclub on a Saturday night.
Nissa has been running Newcastle-based workshops on consent and assertive communication for several years. In this time, she has taught people who identify with various sexual orientations how to be able to say yes, no, maybe and how to pull someone up when they’ve had their right to consent breached. In her workshops, consent is a communication tool to navigate through interactions on all levels.
Nissa’s workshops work twofold to allow attendees to take home methods they can apply to assert themselves and to ensure others are consenting. From making sure someone wants you to hold their hand to informing partners which sexual acts you’re willing to participate in, she will let you know your options. As opposed to setting strict guidelines, attendees are taught examples of communication that works for others in their relationships. This includes non-verbal cues such as body language and the use of colours to indicate consent or a lack thereof because sometimes people have not had their words listened to (mainly ‘no’). For example:
‘If I scratch your arm it means go harder or faster or if I put my hand up it means stop,’ she says.
‘It’s a whole level of communication, it’s just how you choose to negotiate it.’
Knowing personal boundaries and desires helps in the process, as beyond yes and no people have endless preferences on how they should be treated, with Nissa regularly teaching that consent can be “okay danger”. In this situation, a person who has been hurt in the past has consented to an interaction that brings up related anxieties or could be keen to venture into a new area of their sexuality, on the premise of their safety. The concept of okay danger is as such something that needs to be fully negotiated. The terms to be able to feel safe, feel respected and have fun can’t be rushed into in the heat of the moment. Giverny Lewis says that this is beneficial to any relationship.
‘It’s about negotiating different levels of comfort, what’s okay and what’s not okay,’ she says.
‘It might be that certain acts or ways of responding to each other both parties are comfortable with, or certain ways they’re not.’
Unfortunately – and unfortunately is an understatement – people often aren’t comfortable and feel subjected to the whims of others. Desire can be a battleground in relationships, where attempts to compromise can lead to agreement through coercion as opposed to true consent as in the case of mismatched libido. While coercion is a big no-no, true consent itself can often be conditional. Giverny Lewis says this is particularly the case where a kink one partner is keen on is situated in the other’s maybe pile.
‘What people will and won’t consent to is not always black and white, it can be situational,’ she says.
‘They might not do certain acts with certain partners but they might with others, or it might depend on what situation they’re in or how they’re feeling at the time.’
Couple Gillian and Barry Vaughan aim to break down the need to appease partner’s interests at their emotional expense in their “Sacred Sexual Healing” workshops on New South Wales’s Central Coast. These paid classes, which delve into Eastern spirituality and sensuality, teach individuals and couples to assert their rights to sexual happiness through compassionate communication and compromise with the intent to harm no one.
‘They come to us because they’re dissatisfied and then they discover “if I actually work on what I need and I’m honest, then my partner or whomever I’m with actually gains as well,”’ Gillian says.
‘They’ve got to have the freedom to say no if they want and to say yes sometimes when they desire something they would otherwise have thought their partner wouldn’t be okay with.’
Nissa also aims to dispel this focus on pleasing others at the expense of one’s own comfort, extending the idea beyond the bedroom. Think of kissing slightly seedy uncle hello at a family barbecue when you really don’t want to. As such, education on the right to say no in everyday interactions is something Nissa feels should be incorporated into the discussion on consent, setting up awareness of boundaries before sex even comes into the picture.
‘I think it needs to be from the start that kids have a choice,’ she says.
Consent workshop attendee, Megan* is thankful for the improved confidence to assert her boundaries.
‘If they respond negatively to that then I can kind of go, “well, that’s your issue and not mine,”’ she says.
This confidence also extends into the right to say yes and how she can negotiate the terms in her interactions. With consent being experienced as different things by different people, the need for more people to become educated on how to negotiate intimacy is of the utmost importance. After just one consent workshop, Megan knows this.
‘I think it’s a conversation we really need to be having.’
*Names have been changed.