Megan Neufeld is a member of the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), an on-campus sexual assault resource centre, and wrote this article in consultation with other members.
In a world of “blurred lines,” determining the boundaries in a sexual encounter may be hard for a lusty university student (or anyone for that matter). Which eye signal means interest? Which means back off? Was that arm brush code for suck on my neck, or did the turned head mean “Grab my ass please?” Perhaps the phone check was code for leave me alone. How do you decipher the complicated language of clubs and parties, navigating the world for a good time, and a fun person to join you?
We discuss these blurred lines, in articles, songs, between classes, even while out with friends (Does that look mean she’s into me? She doesn’t look gay). These discussions can generate frustration over grey areas. However, there is a way to clarify these murky areas. Verbalizing your sexual wants and desires makes romantic interactions clearer simply because you are expressing what you want.
Consent, in principle, also comes with the convenience of keeping others safe in sexual interactions. By being open about what steps you want to take, and how you want to take them, you are verifying that all involved parties are on the same page. Communication can establish boundaries, so that sexual assault is not committed in your nighttime adventures.
Sexual assault is any sexualized contact that lacks consent (as described by the Anti-Violence Project at the University of Victoria). Consent to grind does not mean consent to kiss; consent to kiss does not mean consent to have sex, etc. Informed consent involves more communication than that. AVP defines consent as “a mutual, emotional, physical and mental understanding without force of any kind.” Consent should be an enthusiastic “Yes.” It should be sought at every step, and previous agreements do not mean continued consent. By seeking out sexual contact, you bear responsibility to obtain consent. Consent functions on multiple levels, and requires both verbal and physical indications on how both parties want to proceed. According to the law, proper consent cannot be given while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
I can hear the knee-jerk reactions to my comments: consent and communication are good in theory, but will they be able to translate into practice? Are we dumbing down the sexy with our words of confirmation? My roommate and I have an agreement about sex in the house; it involves loud music and a warning text before things start to get noisy. Recently, I have been sloppy with these rules. After a polite, yet stern, conversation about the level of noise, we came to the conclusion that music and the text have to be treated like a condom. Whether or not I think it’s going to slow down the flow of sexy time, those steps are important, just as condoms are for safe sex. I propose that those who are new to verbal consent take this approach. Consenting to sexual acts is vital for safe sex. Learning to voice our yeses and noes is a crucial practice, just as it is important for me to turn up my music.
Media representations of sex and romantic encounters have constructed a sexiness surrounding silence. We see a dimly-lit room, quiet sighs, and a lack of voices proclaiming what is wanted. Perceiving these media portrayals as normal has resulted in feelings of shame when voicing what we want from our partners, what feels good, and when we want things to stop. By opening up communication, these hiccups can be avoided.
We’ve seen the slogans: “Yes means yes,” “No means no,” “Consent is sexy.” These are all really important messages. However, a key feature that is often missed is that consent is necessary. Sexual assault goes beyond bad or one-sided sex. Sexual assault is not sex at all. Sexual assault is a violation of another person’s body, as it has taken place without the consent of the individual.
So this is a plea to end the discussion on blurred lies. Adjust your camera focus, put on your glasses, or zoom out to see the image. There are no blurred lines; there is a lack of verbal, physical, and emotional consent. To remedy the problem, we need to reintroduce communication into our sexual experiences, tell our partners (and people) what we want and don’t want, and reach a better level of understanding of where we want to go. The key to the consent process is constantly checking in. Just because consent has been given in the past does not imply consent for the present or future.
Folks, seriously, talk about sex—with those you engage with, hope to engage with, or have engaged with. When in the club, or in someone’s bedroom, all we need to do is talk about sex to confirm that we’re all on the same page. Consent has no special code. Practise direct verbal, physical, and emotional communication, and we can all be on the same page about what we want.