How to Protect Your Partners by Cultivating a Culture of Consent
For those who don’t know, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And the unfortunate reality is that while this may be a challenging and even painful topic to discuss, far too many people are navigating sex and relationships in this world as sexual assault survivors.
A 2018 study conducted in the wake of the #MeToo movement found that more than 1 in 4 women and 1 in 14 men are survivors of sexual assault, while 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. What this means is that it’s surprisingly likely that even if you personally never experience assault or harassment, there will be someone that you want to date or sleep with over the course of your lifetime who has. Understandably, survivors don’t always tell every person they go on a date with about their past trauma. So if you’re courting someone, dating someone, or sleeping with someone, it’s important to understand that whether you know it or not, you may be engaging in a relationship with a survivor.
So how can we support survivors in all of our romantic and sexual relationships, no matter how casual or committed they might be?
Unfortunately, this is a question that doesn’t have a single easy answer. There is no authoritative rulebook that will work as a reference for all relationships. Survivors are not a monolith, and no one perspective can encompass all of their experiences. Every survivor has different and changing needs and boundaries. Therefore, the best thing – and in fact the only thing – that we can all do to protect the survivors we may encounter in our lifetime is to cultivate a living culture of consent in all of our sexual or romantic relationships.
This is easier said than done, of course. Human beings are not perfect, and we are all capable of harming other people, even if we don’t intend to. There is no magical button that you can push to ensure that consent will always be present in your interactions with others, and it’s extremely unlikely that consent will look exactly the same in every situation you find yourself in.
But in spite of the challenges, it’s up to us to navigate consent in our interactions with others. We owe it to ourselves and one another to build an interpersonal culture of consent. The only way to support each other in our relationships is to be able to communicate openly and honestly with our partners about what they want and need in each moment.
And while it’s true that there isn’t a single correct answer when it comes to supporting the survivors in our lives, there are several helpful practices we can adopt to help us navigate these challenging conversations more easily.
1. Understand that Consent is ongoing, retractable, and ever-changing.
In order to work, consent must not be treated as an immutable contract or a binding document. Instead, we must understand consent as fluid, retractable, and able to change rapidly from one moment to the next. Survivors of sexual trauma are especially prone to quick changes in what feels comfortable to them, and might be triggered by something that seems totally innocuous from the outside. Even if your partner previously said “yes,” they are allowed to change their mind at any point, even right in the middle of the act.
What’s more, just because your partner said “yes” to a certain sex act previously, that doesn’t give blanket consent to do that act in the future. Consent resets at the end of each interaction, if not sooner, and can’t be carried over to new interactions. Obviously, as you get to know someone, you may fall into comfortable patterns and develop habits – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! – but sometimes these patterns can make it challenging to interrupt if something suddenly doesn’t feel good anymore. After all, we all grow and change all the time, and so do our boundaries.
For that reason it’s important to continually be paying attention to your partner’s responses. If you sense a change in them, or notice a lack of response, pause and check in with them before continuing. Even if everything feels okay, it still might be beneficial to check in with your partner. You can also ask for clarification outside of the heat of the moment! This can be as simple as asking “do you like it when I ______?” or “how did it feel for you when I _____?” when you’re outside of the bedroom. You can practice consent in casual, everyday moments, too – like asking if your partner is in a mental space where they can listen to you empathetically before bringing up heavy topics, for example. After all, consent isn’t an inherently sexual concept, but a framework for interacting with others!
As your relationship grows, continue to check in with your partner about their changing wants and needs, and continue to communicate yours to them. Consent is ongoing and ever-changing, and none of us are mind readers. There is no point when you will get to know your partner so well that you no longer need to get their full and active consent. As long as we want to foster healthy relationships with other people, the ability to communicate openly about consent will be a necessity. So we may as well get used to it!
2. Be conscious of your partner’s body language just as much as their words.
There is much more to communication than the words we say, and consent encompasses so much more than mere verbal agreements. One of the most commonly reported effects of surviving sexual trauma is an inability to speak up when triggered. Many survivors will assume that their partner wants sex, and feel pressured into continuing on because of their own past experiences. Some have strong fear reactions to the thought of saying “no” due to past abuse. Others will be inclined to override their own feelings to acquiesce to their partner’s wants out of a desire to please. If you can’t tell if your partner is into it anymore, STOP! Ask them what they’re feeling, and make an effort to connect with them as they respond. You might be wrong, and you might be able to get right back to it, but maybe not! Consent must be enthusiastic and freely given, and survivors often struggle with internal feelings of coercion due to their past experiences. It’s important that we as their partners listen closely, and understand the difference between “okay…” and “YES!”
Remember, it is your job to affirm consent with your partner if you are uncertain. If your partner says yes, but they still seem unsure, it may still be wise to take a break. You may want to say something like “I can’t really tell if you’re into this, and I really don’t want to continue if you’re not enjoying yourself. Can we take a break and just cuddle instead?” You can always try again later, when you’re both sure you’re up for it!
Because of their past experiences, many survivors react to being triggered by becoming very quiet and even out-of-body, which is called dissociatiating. This is usually an unconscious form of self-protection, a way of removing their consciousness from the trigger. If you sense your partner may be dissociating during an intimate moment, or has “gone somewhere else” in their mind, stop and take a break. Try to gently invite them back into the present moment by saying their name. Make it a safe place for them to return to. When they do come back, they may feel groggy or emotional. It can be helpful to ask very specific questions about how to support them – for example, “Do you want me to touch you?” may be easier for them to respond to in the moment than “What do you need?”
3. Get comfortable with rejection and accountability.
If your partner is able to say no to you, honor that for the brave and courageous act that it is! In order for consent to work, we must be able to hear the word “no” without taking it as a personal slight, or a reflection of our partner’s feelings for us. Never guilt trip your partner for saying no to a particular sex act, or stopping in the middle of sex. Realize that it’s very likely that their reaction was not about you at all, so don’t make it about you! Instead, try to be understanding and supportive of your partner’s needs in the moment, and make a point to check in with yourself to properly honor and process your feelings later.
It’s important to understand that it is very likely that you will cross someone’s boundaries at some point in your lifetime. Even if you have the best of intentions, and even if you yourself are a survivor. We can all wield power in interpersonal relationships, and we can all hurt people. Life is complicated and sometimes we don’t show up as our best selves. What matters is how we react when we inevitably slip up. Taking accountability for our actions can be one of the most healing and empowering things we can do as individuals and as members of a relationship. But real accountability can be hard to achieve, especially if you’re navigating your own trauma.
If your partner comes to you and tells you that something that you did in the past triggered them, try not to get defensive. It’s a normal human reaction to want to explain your actions or recount the situation from your point of view, but in a vulnerable moment while they are trying to be honest and vulnerable with you, it’s more important that you focus on hearing and understanding your partner’s emotions. This is a critical step in creating a safe space for your partner to communicate with you openly, so that consent can be ongoing in your relationship. If you need some time to process what they’re saying before you are able to respond properly, it’s okay to say so! Try not to ask “Why didn’t you say anything in the moment,” or otherwise point the blame at them for their reactions or lack thereof. Instead, understand that it can be extremely hard to talk about trauma, especially when in the midst of a trigger, so thank them for being brave and honest with you.
4. Make an effort to understand – and use – your partner’s preferred language.
It can be incredibly hard for survivors to communicate clearly when they are triggered. But if you agree on some of the language that feels good to you and your partner before you get in a sexual situation, it can be easier for them to speak for themselves.
You may have heard of the concept of a “safe word” before, but safe words shouldn’t be limited to being used during kink scenes! One of the most common and easy to use safe words is the “traffic light” system. Under this system, saying “green” aloud means you’re ready to go, saying “yellow” means that you need to slow down or change the specific activity you’re doing, while saying “red” means that you need to stop immediately. Because it can be very complex to put specific needs and wants into words in the heat of the moment, the traffic light system allows survivors and their partners to easily sort their desires into one of three different categories that they will be able to navigate with their partners.
Other people prefer to use a numbered scale to help communicate their desire level. For example, in a 1 through 5 scale, 1 might be “I want to cuddle, but I’m not feeling sexual right now,” and 5 might be “Full steam ahead!” with the numbers in between designating different levels of desire. For survivors, it can be extremely hard to communicate needs clearly without feeling selfish. But creating a number scale can make needs and desires both more clear and more objective. For example, it might be very hard to say aloud “I want to make out, and maybe touch a little, but nothing below the waist,” but very easy to say “I’m at a 3 right now.” Then, as you continue on with the interaction, the number may change as your desires grow!
Building a relationship with another person inevitably involves the creation of a new language, one that the two of you share and understand. Experiment with words that feel most accurate to your feelings to discover what works best for your relationship!
5. When in doubt, ask.
This one speaks for itself. There are endless tools to help communicate more clearly with survivors, but as we have already noted, no two survivors will have the exact same desires and needs. Therefore, the same tools may not work for every individual or relationship. The only way to discover what works best for you and your partner(s) is to ask them questions about their feelings, desires, and needs. If you never ask, you might never know!
When you ask your partner questions, be specific and clear, and make sure you actually listen to the answers! Questions that are designed to discover what your partner likes and dislikes sexually are important (not to mention hot to talk about), but questions about what you should do when your partner becomes triggered or disassociated are equally critical. Asking questions in the moment can be helpful to lend clarity to an uncertain situation, but asking questions when you are both outside of a sexual mindset is the best way to arm yourself with the most helpful tips and tools to navigate your unique relationship.
6. Talk about it!
The best resource we have available to help support those we love and heal ourselves is each other. We must all be willing to talk to one another about our experiences, our needs, and our traumas. We must be both willing and capable of communicating openly and bravely with our partners, our friends, our supporters, and our counselors about how to have sex that is safe emotionally as well as physically. We must not let our fear of trauma or our puritanical culture keep us from speaking up about our experiences, not only as survivors but also as the people that care about them. Only by talking about it can we achieve a greater understanding, and only through being understood will we truly begin to heal.
Many survivors express a desire to talk about their experiences, but an inability to bring it up. While some prefer not to talk about their past, or to only talk about it with a trained trauma counselor, others can find incredible catharsis in talking about what happened to them. If a partner of yours reveals to you that they are a survivor, it’s important that you offer them the support they need. You will likely feel a whole host of emotions of your own, but try your best to stay calm and rooted in compassion for your partner. Thank them for being brave enough to tell you, and express to them that you are open to hearing more about it.
Always remember to care for yourself in these conversations, and don’t be afraid to ask to take a break when you become overwhelmed. In this world, survivors often enter into sexual or romantic relationships with each other, and both partners might need different kinds of support at different times. Survivor support involves a constant dialogue, defining and redefining our boundaries while learning to express our own needs and desires.
Talking about sexual assault may seem scary, but it happens sometimes, and the more people in our communities who know how to help when it does, the better off we will all be. One of the best things you can do to help support the survivors in your life is to get really comfortable talking about the scary topics, hearing about the sad things, and navigating the strong emotions that often come with navigating the aftermath of sexual assault.
Whether your current partner is a survivor or not, it’s almost guaranteed that someone you love is. If you are interested in helping better support the survivors in your life, there are several incredible books that can help you get more familiar with the process of healing and accountability, and better cultivate a culture of consent with the people in your relationships and in your community.
It’s an unfortunate fact that sexual assault is still widespread within our current society. Still, we dare to dream of a world in which survivors are supported and protected in their communities and in their sexual or romantic relationships, as well as capable of supporting others. But we also know that dreaming is not enough. Building a robust interpersonal consent culture is undeniably hard work. It involves facing our trauma, both as individuals and as a collective. It’s scary! But it is necessary that we do the work if we hope to create the space for healing in both ourselves as individuals and in our society.
The good news? None of us have to do the work alone. We have each other! And the more people that get comfortable talking about how to build a culture of consent, the easier it will be for survivors to navigate their relationships as they move through the world.