No Means No
Everyone reading this is probably very familiar with the phrase, “No means no!” If you aren’t, take a minute to educate yourself. If you need a hint, we’re not talking about the rock band today… we’re talking about consent! Maybe you’re familiar with the concept of consent when it comes to meeting up with someone new on Tinder or after a party where everyone’s been drinking. But what about consent between two people who have known and cared about each other for a long time? Consent in long-term relationships is often ignored, and not just in the bedroom, which makes it all the more important to talk about!
What is consent?
First of all, consent is when you agree to something. If your sister asks to borrow your sweatshirt, and you willingly give it to her–you’ve given her your consent. If she takes it while you’re not around, she’s wearing it without your consent. It can be super annoying when someone doesn’t ask for or respect your consent in mundane, everyday situations like siblings borrowing clothes without asking, but when consent is ignored with respect to our bodily autonomy, that’s more than just annoying. What’s bodily autonomy? That’s the right to govern your own body. And if anyone at all, including you, crosses the line of another person’s bodily autonomy, especially in a sexual way, that’s incredibly damaging and against the law. In the words of VeryWellMind’s Sarah Sheppard, “Unwanted touching, of any kind, is unacceptable social behavior, but unwanted sexual touching is criminal.” How do you know if the behavior is wanted or unwanted? You ask.
What If You’ve Been Together For a Really Long Time?
Back to that sweatshirt example. Let’s say you let your sister borrow that sweatshirt once because she was cold and couldn’t find her own. You gave your consent under particular circumstances. One day a few weeks later, you can’t find your sweatshirt anywhere… your sister is wearing it! You confront her about taking it without asking. She claims, “You said I could!” She’s assuming that because you said “yes” once, you were implying “yes” always. This can happen in relationships too. Maybe you and your partner usually have “date night” on Fridays. Maybe you’ve fallen into a rut of assuming Fridays will include dinner, a movie, and a little bit of physical time together. You might be relying on the myth of implied consent.
The fact of the matter is, however, that consent can absolutely never be implied or assumed. Even if you’re dating. Even if you’re engaged. Even if you’re married. Even if it’s Friday! Consent must always be clear, direct, enthusiastic, and ongoing. That means every time your sister wants to borrow your sweatshirt, she needs to ask, and you have the right to say “yes” sometimes and “no” to others. Same with sex and your partner of 6 weeks, or months, or years… no matter how many times you’ve said “yes” to something in the past, you have the absolute right to say “no” next time. Or “yes.” It’s up to you, and in a healthy relationship, consent will always be a priority. So next Friday, consider checking in with your partner before barreling ahead with your assumptions about the evening’s plans. Just ask.
Consent Is More Than “Yes & No”
While “yes” and “no” are great places to start a conversation about consent, there is a lot more to this dialogue than a simple choice between the two. To demonstrate, the Thames Valley Police in the United Kingdom released an insightful (and hilarious) video back in 2015 that tries to explain sexual consent by comparing the idea of initiating sex with the idea of offering your partner a cup of tea. Please take a moment to watch it if you’re unfamiliar!
This brief sketch does a great job of showing how (un)complicated consent can be, especially confronting the idea of implied consent. If you offer someone a cup of tea, they may say “yes,” and when you bring them that cup of tea, they may happily drink it. However, even if they said “yes,” they still don’t have to drink the cup of tea.
Perhaps they changed their mind and don’t want tea anymore. Perhaps they only said “yes” to be polite, but they’re not actually thirsty. Perhaps they tasted the tea and didn’t like it, so they don’t want to finish the cup. Or perhaps they simply said “no” to your offer. Would you keep offering them tea every ten minutes until they finally agreed? Please don’t. Would you forcibly pour the cup of tea down your guest’s throat? No! Because at any given moment, this person has the right to decide whether or not they want tea. Plain and simple.
Communication Is Key
Sweatshirt and teacup comparisons aside, it’s very important to state that no matter how long or how many times you’ve kissed, hugged, or had sex with a person, you have the right, at any given moment, to decide that you don’t want to. As does your partner. Plain and simple. Practice honest communication with your partner so that you are both aware of each other’s actual desires day to day, rather than assuming consent based on past experiences. Make sure that, just as much as you want your boundaries to be respected when you speak up, you’re also considerate of your partner’s boundaries. If you or your partner is feeling pressured to have sex, or only participates out of obligation or guilt, that’s not consent… and if it’s nonconsensual, you’ve entered sexual assault territory.
What To Do From There
If you think you and your partner have visited or are currently living in sexual assault territory, the first thing to do is name it. Realize that you and/or your partner haven’t been respectful of each other’s bodily autonomy. Seek counseling. Educate yourself on what consent is and why it’s a key element of healthy relationships. Make sure you know, moving forward, how you want to communicate consent in the future. If you and your partner are both willing to grow, it is possible to learn how to respect each other’s autonomy, as long as you feel safe and confident doing that together.
If, however, your partner (or anyone else) blatantly disrespects your newfound “no,” or continually pressures you to say “yes” until you begrudgingly do, and you feel unsafe or like you don’t get to decide what happens to your own body, it’s time to walk away. You are a precious soul, made in the image of the divine, and your power to say “yes” or “no” when it comes to your body should never be taken from you. Find support for yourself through a number of available resources, like TheHopeLine, our partner RAINN, and many more. There is hope if you’re struggling, and these resources can get you connected to folks who’ll be able to help with the next steps.
You should never feel pressured to anything you are not ready to do in a dating relationship. If you feel unsafe or drained read more to find out if it’s time to end your relationship.
About the Author…
Cara Beth Heath is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. She loves words and all the different ways they can come together to illuminate the world for us. All she wants to do is use her God-given word skills to bring light into dark places, and when she’s not doing that, she’s probably wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate watching a movie or playing Dungeons & Dragons… God loves nerds too!
Photo by Anete Lusina