As a sex educator, I often begin my enthusiastic consent workshops by discussing the difference in the behaviors between folks who show sexual interest and those who do not.
If someone shyly smiles at you, is that a sign that they are into you? What about if they keep looking in your direction and then looking away? What if they give you their number? What if they agree to come over for coffee after a date?
Initially, these may appear to be clear signs of sexual interest, but they are more complex than they may seem. I myself have smiled at someone when they made me uncomfortable, continued to look in their direction to assess safety, gave them my number because I thought it may end the in-person encounter more quickly, and gone to someone’s house after a date to be polite.
A study in Psychological Science showed that there is a gender difference in how we interpret others’ behavior. Straight men were more likely to misinterpret smiling, laughing, or general interest in conversation as flirting, whereas straight women were less likely to consider this behavior an indicator of romantic interest. Regardless of gender, I think many of us have been in situations where we are unsure if someone is sexually interested.
We often don’t communicate about sex because we are worried it will ruin the mood or make it awkward. However, miscommunicating or accidentally pushing someone’s boundaries is so much more harmful than having a potentially awkward moment where you discuss those boundaries.
Key to any sexual encounter is enthusiastic consent, which sex expert Nazanin Moali describes as “one that is given freely, specific and is fully reversible. Enthusiastic consent assures that everybody involved in a sexual act is excited and willing to engage. It is coming from experiencing a genuine desire without being pushed or coerced.”
This is certainly ideal, but how do we ensure enthusiastic consent in the moment?
Talk about it beforehand.
As someone who has invited multiple sexy strangers home from the bar for fully clothed cuddle sessions, I have had a lot of practice expressing my boundaries before entering a situation with the potential for misunderstanding. When you first talk to someone on a dating app, let them know if you are someone who prefers to get to know a person before having sex or if you are open to having sex on the first date.
Similarly, if you’ve had a fantastic time and want to invite your date over, set the tone before going inside by sharing that you aren’t interested in having sex today, but that making out sounds like fun. Even mid-hookup, you can say you would love to have your partner touch you, but perhaps start by using their fingers and not their mouth. The channels of communication should stay open throughout the encounter.
Use verbal and non-verbal consent.
Verbal consent is the clearest way to communicate the first time you are with someone, as you may be less familiar with their non-verbal signals. As the sexual encounter escalates during a first hookup, ask your partner if they are into it. Moali suggests “[asking] them in a flirty way about what they like and dislike. During the play, you can ask affirmatively with questions such as, ‘Do you want me to keep going?’ and/or ‘Do you like what I’m doing?’ As soon as they say ‘no,’ you should stop.”
You can also look for non-verbal signals: are they moving towards you or away? Do they appear hesitant? Are they pushing your hand away? Non-verbal signals can be misinterpreted, but you can often tell how someone is feeling by their non-verbal cues. If you receive any indication that your partner isn’t into what is happening, immediately stop and check in.
Enthusiastic consent must be in the moment.
I was on a first date with someone from a dating site, and we had already had some pretty intense Internet sex and talked about doing some very sexy activities when we met up IRL. However, when I met him, he seemed friendly enough, but I didn’t feel sexually attracted to him. Online we had talked about the possibility of him coming back to my place after we grabbed a drink, but I politely told him that he seemed great, but I didn’t feel that spark. He seemed annoyed that I changed the plans.
An important component of consent is the ability to change your mind at any time. In all circumstances! Consent should never be assumed regardless of whether you hooked up before, made explicit plans to hook up, or already started hooking up. Consent must be renewed each time and it can be withdrawn at any point. Normalizing checking in makes it easier for someone to express if they have changed their mind.
Don’t be pushy.
Never make a sexual request more than once. I was on a trip abroad and had a flirty interaction with a member of the military. We went into his room and started kissing. At the beginning of the encounter, I told him that I wasn’t interested in having intercourse, but I thought it would be fun to explore each other’s bodies manually. Despite the clear expression of my boundaries, he asked me three times if I would like to have penetrative sex.
The more you push someone, the more likely they are to say yes to sex—not because they want to, but because they feel like they have to. They may also be worried that you will make it happen one way or another, so they might as well say yes. The vast majority of us only want to engage with people who want to be with us, so don’t risk crossing that line.
Enthusiastic consent should be active.
There is a difference between ambivalence and active. When someone has experienced trauma, either through reliving a situation or feeling uncomfortable in the moment, the most common response is to freeze. In this frozen state, a person can’t say no and usually appears zoned out. If someone seems disengaged and non-present, immediately stop and check in with them.
Enthusiastic consent can not be granted while drunk.
If it is your first time hooking up with someone and you would say that they are too drunk to drive home, then they are too drunk to actively consent. You don’t want to be someone’s drunk mistake. If it turns out that you both like each other, you can stop drinking for a couple of hours and then hook up (or make a plan to get freaky the next day). Other substances can also alter your mind and perception, impeding your ability to consent fully.
A first hookup is meant to be fun. By becoming comfortable communicating about consent, it will also make it easier to communicate about desires, dirty talk, and all that fun stuff. Let’s work on co-creating a culture of checking in, communication, and pleasure!