What do healthy sexual interactions look like?
Before we talk about sexual violence, it helps to understand what healthy sexual interactions look like. Safe, enjoyable and consensual sex looks like:
- discussing and navigating everyone’s different desires in a safe and respectful way
- checking in with someone before, during and after sex, that is, finding out if they want to have sex, either through words or actions
- clear, consistent communication, taking in the whole context of the environment and dynamics of the situation
- if there are any concerns, or if the other person has not communicated their consent, then stopping or checking in with your partner/s before continuing.
Communicating and checking in during sex is integral to making sure that everyone is having a positive, pleasurable and consensual time.
When we talk about sex in this toolkit, we are using an inclusive definition, of anything that the person would define as sex or felt sexual to them, regardless of the body parts, or other objects used.
When it comes to our bodies and sex lives, the truth is no one can tell you what is and isn’t sex. No matter what you’re doing, if two (or more) people are getting up to something and everyone involved thinks it’s sexy… it’s probably sex. You get to be the judge on this one, and that’s pretty excellent.
Let's talk about consent
Consent means that you and everyone else involved in an activity (i.e., sex) want to be doing what they’re doing.Consent is often used to talk about how we have sex with people, and it means a mutual agreement between two or more people to do something together and that agreement is communicated by words or actions.Consent means that an act or action is expected, wanted, enjoyed and able to be stopped at any point without worry.Consent is important and necessary not just because it allows us to know about our own wants, needs and boundaries but also to be able to communicate these to other people.
Getting consent doesn’t always require the actual words of “yes” or “no” but can rather play in the world of “god yes”, “not right now”, “let me think about it”, “next time”, and “let’s talk about it later, right now I want to keep doing this!” However the “yes” is expressed, you need to be sure the other person is saying “yes” before you continue. Likewise, however the no is expressed, if you have any doubt about whether the other person is consenting, you should stop.
LGBTQ+ communities have many strengths around discussing consent, we have built these kinds of spaces without always having role models or scripts for what this looks like in our communities. We’re often great at talking about kinks, turn ons and turn offs, sexual health and what safe sex looks like to us. However, sexual violence is still an issue that occurs within our community when sex and consent are not spoken about openly.
Before and during sex, it is essential to check in about consent, and make sure everyone is having a good time and feeling safe. Here are some ways you can do that, or start those conversations:
“do you wanna try…?”
“does that feel good?”
“is this okay?”
“tell me what you’d like?”
“do you want me to…?”
“how does this feel for you?”
working it into dirty talk: “I wanna… Would you like that?”
“how does it feel when I…?
“can you tell me how it feels?”
“do you like it when I touch you here?”
“what’s your fantasy?”
“do you want me to keep going?”
And giving indications of what you like:
“I like it when you do…”.
You can also change your mind, and communicating this can look like:
“I know I said I was really feeling it today, but I’m not feeling it so much anymore”
“actually, can we do something else?”
“that’s starting to not feel so good, wanna try…?”
“lets stop for a sec and try something else?”
Having conversations about sex, what you enjoy, and what boundaries you have creates a safe and positive environment for consent and sex, as well as enhancing the experience for everyone involved. However, when we’re having a bad time (or sometimes even a good time), we don’t always feel able to communicate our needs verbally.
Whether or not someone is aroused doesn’t indicate whether they are consenting to what is happening- it’s just a physiological reaction. It’s important we stay open to picking up on non-verbal cues before, during and after sex. This can allow us to feel when the mood changes, and to stop any sexual activity and take some time out. This time can then make talking about changes in mood, wants, or feelings feel more possible. Everyone involved in sex needs to pay attention to non-verbal cues like:
- are they leaning into you?
- are they making noises of pleasure such as moaning?
- are they initiating?
- are they kissing you back?
- are they in the moment and fully present?
While these signs aren’t a ‘guarantee’, if the answer to these questions is yes, it’s a good sign that the other person is feeling good. Some of the actions that indicate a person may not be consenting to what is happening include:
- they are freezing up- this is a very common physiological response to an intense threat, fear or stress
- they aren’t reciprocating, or seem to be holding back
- they seem distant or glassy eyed
- they appear upset, including crying
These are all signs that someone may not be ok. If you see any of these signs or you are just not sure, then you need to stop and check-in with your partner/s to make sure they are consenting and to see what you can do to support them.
How to build your Consent Castle with your partner
If you’re interested in reading more about consent, check out the Consent Castle analogy. It shows how easy (and important!) it is to build a foundation of consent in a relationship, and how that can change and evolve over a long-term relationship.
How to check in around consent and model good norms outside of your own sexual relationships
Consent is not always limited to sexual encounters, you can ‘practice’ consent with your friends by:
- asking your friends if you can hug/touch them before you do so (doing this has the added bonus of being helpful for social distancing during these COVID times)
- giving your friends compliments that are not only about how they look (qualities such as funny, generous, kind, caring, passionate, honest, intelligent, witty, joyful, considerate etc.)
- if you are sharing a story about a hook up, (respectfully) including mention of how you checked in about consent ‘and then he asked if he could kiss me, it was such a turn on, then…)’
- if you want to talk about topics like your personal sex life, ask your friends for consent e.g. “Could I get your advice on something that came up in my sex life?”
- respect people’s privacy, do not share things about other people without consent (e.g., disclosing someone’s survivor status or sexuality/gender history without consent)
- ask permission for things: ‘I love this photo of us! Can I share it online?’
- accepting when someone says no to something and not holding it against the person, or trying to change their mind (eg “talk them into it”).
Modelling good norms and practising consent in all social interactions will make it easier to ensure consent is being practiced properly in sexual encounters.
If reading this content has caused you distress, or made you think you may need support, you can find an LGBTQ+ affirming service here.
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