You probably (hopefully) are not a rapist.
You would probably (hopefully) never force yourself on someone who was actively trying to stop you. You probably (hopefully) would never take advantage of an unconscious person, or a child, or someone with a mental disability who does not understand what sex is.
Simply avoiding these behaviours, however, does not mean that you always have the meaningful consent of your partners. Meaningful consent means that everyone involved has a full understanding of what they’re agreeing to, and that they are agreeing to it eagerly and without reservations. Having this kind of consent is the only way to avoid unethical behaviour, the only way to obviate resentment and power imbalances.
There are a few ‘grey areas’ that seem to confuse people when it comes to what does or doesn’t constitute consent. My philosophy is that if there’s any question at all about whether the consent is meaningful, you should stop and make sure everyone’s on the same page.
- “Not saying no” is not consent.
- Agreeing only out of concern about the consequences of saying no – my negative reaction, financial hardship, workplace problems – is not meaningful consent.
- Agreeing to something under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not meaningful consent.
- Agreeing to something not fully understood is not meaningful consent.
(Inexperienced people must be given all the information. Animals, people with severe cognitive disabilities, and children are not able to give meaningful consent however much information you give them.)
- Agreeing to something under pressure is not meaningful consent.
- Not being aware of something and thus not able to give or withhold consent is, finally, not consent.
So now that we’ve covered what consent does and doesn’t mean, let’s talk a bit about whose consent we need. Anyone who is affected by or exposed to your sexual behaviour should have the right to give or withhold consent regarding their involvement. This means:
- Anyone who witnesses your sexual or fetish acts? You must have their meaningful consent. Never play in front of people who haven’t agreed to be part of your thing. Don’t force them to be involved even as observers in your sexuality without their consent.
- Anyone you look at when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy? You must have their meaningful consent. Porn workers expect to be looked at. People walking down the street do not expect to be private. People in a public toilet, however, have a reasonable expectation of privacy – it is not okay to peek, even if they’ll never know. The same goes for “voyeur cam” porn or upskirt photos, where the subjects did not realise they were being watched or filmed. If the people involved didn’t give their consent, don’t bloody watch it.
- Anyone playing at a sex or fetish party? You must have their meaningful consent to join in. If they are playing in a private room, you must have their consent even to watch. Just because it’s more than two people going at it doesn’t mean you’re welcome.
- Someone in the D/s scene? You must have their meaningful consent before you act as though you are already in a D/s relationship with them. You do not have the right to invade the personal space of someone who has not given you their consent, even if that person is submissive. Nor if that person is dominant.
- Anyone whose belongings you use during the course of sex, masturbation, or a fetish act? You must have their meaningful consent.
- Anyone you wish to do anything sexual with, at all, ever? You must have their meaningful consent!
- Anyone in a relationship with someone you also wish to bang? You should respect their relationship, and a good rule for harmony is that when you’re sleeping with someone, you should have the meaningful consent of that person and all of their partners.
- The same goes for you and your preexisting partners. You and your partners must decide together what your relationship structure will be. Respect your agreements about metamours – if you don’t have an agreement, one needs to be made.
There is a bit of a cliché about the lover who asks for permission before each touch. No one wants to stop the fun every ten seconds when it’s obvious that everyone is on the same page. But getting consent doesn’t have to be like that.
One thing I do – and as someone who is not just polyamorous but also involved in the kink community, it’s even more important for me – is talk with my partners ahead of time over what limits they are comfortable with. I truly do recommend this for everyone. Sit down to coffee or tea with your new lover and have a good long honest talk about sex and love and all of your likes and dislikes.
Another important piece of making sure you are not forcing unwanted attentions on someone who isn’t actually consenting is to listen, and listen well. Respect limits and safewords. Empower your partners and potential partners to say exactly what they mean. Don’t pressure, and don’t react badly if they do not give consent. If they are not enthusiastic about a particular act, let it go. Remember that they are not responsible for meeting all of your needs.
Likewise, be clear about your own consent. Don’t waffle. Don’t say yes when you mean no. Don’t say no and hope it will be overridden. Respect your own limits! If you’re submissive or switchy, you don’t have to agree to everything your dominant wants just because they’re dominant. If you’re kinked in a way that makes you want to say no when you mean yes, reserve that “no-means-yes” behaviour for playtime, set up a safeword, remember it, and treat it with respect. Don’t agree to anything unless you are willing to be an active, enthusiastic collaborator. Don’t agree to anything you’re not sure about – be honest about not being sure, and wait to agree until you are.
Set limits you are comfortable with and reexamine them regularly through the lens of what you would actually enjoy. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured, and make it clear that pressuring behaviour is unacceptable. Remember that you are not responsible for meeting all of your partners’ needs.
Real, meaningful consent is about communication – two or more partners actively collaborating to dream up a fantastic sexual/romantic experience for both or all of them. It only works if you’re all clear about what you’re consenting to, and honest about your needs and limits. As a polyamorous person, being honest with my partners is crucial. No one enjoys being misled, left in the dark, or lied to, and someone in that position cannot give meaningful consent.
Consent is meaningful when someone has the power to say yes or no and the knowledge to understand the choice, and chooses to say yes. And wouldn’t we all really prefer to be in relationships where people do things with us because they really, truly want to? Having open discussions to ensure meaningful consent all round may seem awkward at first, but it’s simply too important to neglect.