[Trigger warning: This article contains information about consent that might also pertain to sexual assault.]
Whether your parents talked to you about sexual health or your only exposure to sex education was when your high school PE teacher yelled at you about how being a teen parent was a bad idea, you most likely have been told to “be safe” when having sex. In my ninth-grade health class, I was taught that to have “safe” sex means two things: avoiding unplanned pregnancies, and avoiding contracting or spreading sexually transmitted infections. While I appreciate that my large public high school implemented a sex education program at all, remembering the eight steps for correct condom use or how to use a dental dam are of no use to me without also knowing different ways to ask for consent.
Not only is consent necessary to establish in any hook-up as a measure of emotional and physical safety, but asking for consent can also be really sexy! It has always been such a big turn on for me when a partner looks me in the eye and asks, “Is this OK?” or “Do you like this?” before taking things a step further. Even in relationships where eye contact and a quick nod would have sufficed, I have always appreciated being explicitly asked for consent because it makes me feel valued and respected by my partner.
Asking for consent can look very different depending on the nature of your relationship with the person you are physically intimate with, but it is always important to make sure you have obtained it. With one-night stands and casual hook-ups, just because you have been making out with someone, they went back to your room, or their body language seems to be indicating interest in sex doesn’t necessarily imply consent.
Asking is always the best way to ensure things, and this doesn’t have to be awkward. If you start to move down your partner’s body to initiate oral sex, you can say, “Can I go down on you?”, “Is this OK?”, “Tell me what you want me to do,” or “Do you like it when I ___?” Asking, “Should I get a condom?” or “Do you have a condom (or dental dam, etc.)?” is also a good way to ensure that your partner is interested in what is going on. In more established sexual relationships, when both parties have discussed their sexual preferences with each other, this explicit verbal consent might not be required, but it is still helpful in understanding your partner’s body and what they are comfortable with.
Consent is often constructed at the 5Cs as a women’s issue, and, unfortunately, it is commonly only discussed in relation to a sexual relationship between cis-men and cis-women. These consent practices are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender identification, sexual orientation, or the size of your partner in relation to you. Everyone deserves to be respected in the same way. Plus, knowing what your partner likes makes sex more enjoyable.
It is commonly thought on campus that when someone is intoxicated they cannot legally give consent, but recent policy changes at Pomona state that someone who is inebriated can, in fact, give consent. However, their partner must proceed with caution. If they are too drunk to answer the who, what, when, where, and why questions about themselves, then they are too intoxicated to give consent, and the sexual interaction shouldn’t go any further. Always be sure to use your best judgment!
Safe sex does not only mean protecting yourself and your partners against unwanted pregnancies and STIs as I was taught in high school, but also means ensuring that you and your partner have open communication and that physical and emotional safety is protected. If you are interested in learning more about consent, you can contact Pomona College’s Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault at email@example.com to schedule training. They hope to put on a series of trainings and workshops in late October or early November, so stay tuned for more information.