Consent is a hallmark of modern conversations about sex and relationships — and it’s also this year’s World Sexual Health Day theme. While traditionally framed as a simple verbal “yes” or “no,” this limited perspective doesn’t do justice to the intricate dance of human sexuality and communication. In honor of World Sexual Health Day, let’s delve into the limitations of our current discussions and explore the complexities of consent, with a focus on nonverbal cues, pre-intimacy conversations, and individual agency.
The Current Conversation on Consent
There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way in acknowledging the significance of enthusiastic and vocal consent. Gone are the days of ‘No means No,’ which focuses on hearing and respecting someone’s verbal “no” when it’s given. Instead, we’ve graduated to ‘Yes means Yes,’ emphasizing that consent must be enthusiastic, clearly communicated in the affirmative, and ongoing. While the shift towards explicit verbal consent is a step in the right direction, it isn’t without its limitations. As professor of philosophy Quill R. Kukla notes, we tend to “focus on only one narrow kind of communication: requests for sex followed by consent or refusal.”
The Limits of Words: An Alternative Perspective
The reality is that sex and consent are infinitely more complex, nuanced, and personal than can be summed up in a pithy ad slogan. And as writer Clementine Morrigan points out, many people — especially trauma survivors — have trouble with verbal communication during sex, especially saying no: “It is extremely difficult for me to verbally say no during sex…The focus on verbal consent can contribute to a freeze response in some people because vocalizing can feel so impossible.”
Beyond having a hard time getting a “no” or perhaps even a “yes” out mid-Netflix-and-chill, there may be times when verbal consent is not practical, such as in certain kink scenarios, or with illness or disability. Or, it may not be desirable: who amongst us, 3 years into a relationship, still asks for verbal consent each time?
Navigating Nonverbal Cues
Conversations about consent are undoubtedly essential, especially in new or casual relationships. Still, we need to broaden our understanding to include nonverbal cues.
Recognizing nonverbal cues as valid and crucial components of consent practices provides an inclusive approach, and only complements — rather than undermines — the importance of verbal consent by acknowledging the diverse ways in which people communicate their boundaries and desires. Whether it’s a double tap signaling a need to stop or a pre-discussed body language cue that indicates fatigue or discomfort, nonverbal consent practices are normal, healthy, and equally as legitimate as verbal ones.
Nuancing Our Approach to Consent
Here’s the thing: consent isn’t one-size-fits-all, as tempting as that simplistic narrative might be. People are different and have different needs, comfort levels, and preferences. Tailoring consent practices to each individual and their dynamic together is key to creating the kind of safe and sexy environment needed to have a mind-blowing experience.
Thinking of nonverbal communication as one of the tools in your toolbox can make a huge difference in practicing consent well with your partners or lovers. As Morrigan puts it, “Knowing that we have a number of ways to communicate our needs increases the likelihood that we will.”
Which means we need to create space for conversations about nonverbal consent in our cultural dialogue — and encourage people to have open conversations around consent, both verbal and nonverbal, before engaging in any sexual activity. And not just before, but after as well. After all, consent is not just a checkbox to tick off but a continuous dialogue.
Consent as an Ongoing Dialogue
The bottom line? Consent isn’t limited to verbal expression. If our goal is “a healthier, happier world with Sexual Health, Rights, Justice, and Pleasure for All!” like WSHD encourages us to, then we should expand our cultural conversations about consent to include models for nonverbal consent practices.
Let’s elevate the conversation beyond the act of saying “yes” or “no,” engaging in a broader, deeper dialogue about what consent means, and figure out what works for us, personally and in our unique dynamics with our partner(s). This isn’t just about avoiding the bad; it’s about actively striving for the good — for sexual encounters that are not just consensual but also joyous, fulfilling, and respectful.