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We all make requests every day—asking our friends to join us for lunch, asking our coworkers to switch a shift, asking our housemates not to leave their dirty dishes in the sink. In these everyday encounters, it’s easy to tell if people are agreeing readily, agreeing reluctantly, or refusing.
Does this sound painfully obvious? Good, because it is. The ability to read people’s signals of agreement and refusal is a skill set we develop very early in life. When we ask people to do things, most of us are very good at reading their response and determining whether they are agreeing or refusing. If the signals are mixed or confusing—that is, if the response is ambiguous—it’s easy to spot that as well. “Interpreting cues can take a bit more effort when people are impaired (for example, by exhaustion, intoxication, or anxiety),” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who runs programming designed to create a more positive sexual and romantic culture at Yale University. “But those deeply ingrained skills don’t desert us even then.”
- Brief, direct answers, such as “Sure!”
- Concrete planning (e.g., “I’d love to! When?”)
- Direct eye contact
- A step toward you
- Nodding and smiling
- Long, indirect answers with pauses, such as “Oh, I’d love to…but I actually have to finish a paper…”
- Avoiding eye contact
- Looking closed off
- Leaning away
Consent: Critical, but not complicated
Sometimes, people act as if consent around sex is totally different from consenting to nonsexual things in life, as if we need some special training to interpret signals of agreement and refusal in romantic or sexual contexts. This simply isn’t true. Research shows we use the same everyday signals—both verbal and nonverbal—to communicate interest in sexual situations as we do in everyday life. For example, study participants reported easily being able to understand their partner’s subtle, nonverbal forms of agreement and refusal during casual sexual encounters, according to a 2010 study of 21 young adults published in Culture, Health, and Sexuality.
Some people have genuine difficulty interpreting nonverbal language and social cues. This has implications for establishing mutual sexual consent.
What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for you
“I don’t always pick up on body language, so if I misunderstand you, it’s not intentional. Please tell me directly what you want and what you don’t want.”
What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for them
“Let’s be direct so we’re sure to understand each other. I’ll tell you what I want and what I don’t want. What do you want?”
How misunderstandings can happen
“This is mainly about the ability to read other people’s intentions and thoughts,” says Dr. Isabelle Hénault, a sexologist and psychologist based in Quebec. “Especially with individuals with Asperger syndrome or other autism conditions, they rarely act out with a negative intention. Any problems are most likely about misreading situations.”
So what exactly is consent?
Consent is a clear, voluntary, and ongoing agreement to engage in a sexual encounter. Spotting agreement is obvious, and anything less is not consent.
This doesn’t make us mind readers; we can’t know someone’s innermost desires or what they will want in the future. But we can tell if someone is actively engaged in an encounter or if they are anything less than engaged.
Raising the bar above consent
Consent is necessary. If you choose to engage in sexual or romantic encounters, it’s critical to pay attention to and respect your partner’s signals of agreement, and you should expect your partner to do the same.
However, we—as individuals and as communities—want encounters that are more than just consensual. “The ideal is a genuinely mutual, engaged, connected encounter that’s working for both people,” says Dr. Boyd. This means holding out for encounters that are not just consensual but also enthusiastic. We aren’t just looking for the “yes” of consent—we’re looking for the “YES!” of enthusiasm.
Why enthusiasm is the goal
Enthusiastic encounters are better for our community, and they’re a lot more pleasurable. “By making absolutely sure that your partner wants to be involved in what you’re doing sexually, you’re…going to have a [better] time. You’ll know what they want, in their own words. You can gauge from the way their eyelids flutter (or close), the way their breathing gets heavier, the way their body squirms as they answer your questions. And being on the receiving end of those questions (even if it makes you blush!) is pretty sexy,” writes Rachel Kramer Bussel, a journalist and blogger, in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Seal Press, 2008).
Enthusiasm in a sexual or romantic encounter looks a lot like enthusiasm in everyday contexts. “I’ve always found it really clear if both parties are engaged and interested,” says Katie R.*, a third-year student at the University of Victoria, Canada in a recent Student Health 101 survey. “You both smile, there’s electricity, it’s exciting. [There’s a] super-stark difference when someone is not interested. They won’t make eye contact, their shoulders are clenched, very tense, they’re quiet.”
How can you make sure that your encounters are as enthusiastic as you’d like them to be? “Furthering the conversation in a positive way is fun,” Twanna A. Hines, the sex writer behind the Funky Brown Chick blog and Twitter account, told Student Health 101. Try questions like these, she says: “What are you into? What’s the hottest thing you’ve ever tried?”
Here are some in-the-moment strategies from our student readers
Students recommend saying...
“Tell me something that excites you.”
—Sophia T.*, first-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick, Canada
“What really turns you on? How do you like to be touched? Is this too much? Too little?”
—James Z.*, first-year graduate student, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
“Do you like when I touch you here?”
—Marvin B.*, third-year student, San Bernardino Valley College, California
Students recommend saying...
“Something seems a little off tonight. Should we save this for another time?”
—Sydney R.*, third-year graduate student, University of Victoria, Canada
“Maybe we should take a break. Snacks, water, chill out a bit?”
—Aiden P.*, fourth-year graduate student, University of Delaware
“We don’t have to force anything. Let’s cool it down and just enjoy being together.”
—Andrea L.*, first-year graduate student, Utah State University
“Do you want to put on a movie instead?”
—Logan N.*, second-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon
Students recommend saying...
“I have a busy day tomorrow.”
—Amanda T.*, third-year graduate student, Montclair State University, New Jersey
“I kinda just told them I wasn’t into it, but told them it wasn’t because of them.”
—Russell E.*, fifth-year student, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
“I explained I wasn’t comfortable, and after we stopped, I explained why. He didn’t press me to go further and it was fine.”
—Megan V.*, second-year graduate student, University of Arkansas
“Simply say ‘no.’ You don’t need further justification after that.”
—Leo F.*, second-year online student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia, Canada
Handling unwanted pressure
Most importantly, don’t tolerate even low levels of sexual pressure. If you feel like you sent clear signals of refusal, you probably did. It’s never OK for someone to push at your sexual boundaries. To do so is a form of disregard: to act as if the other persons’ wishes don’t matter. This type of disregard can escalate into sexual assault, but it’s a problem even when it doesn’t. Pressured sexual encounters—even when they are consensual—are often deeply uncomfortable.
If you ever do encounter sexual pressure, you can look around for intervention and support. In the moment, seek out authority figures such as party hosts or bouncers who can help you if you need it. If you’re looking for an excuse to leave an uncomfortable situation, try texting a friend and asking them to call you, or simply get up and leave. If you do experience pressured sex—if someone pushes your boundaries or crosses them—you may find that talking about it is helpful. Reach out to friends, family members, and school resources such as counseling services, health services, a dean or advisor, or call/chat the National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673.
The mindset: Holding out for ideal sexual encounters
Reflect on what you want from intimacy, romance, and sex. When we do this, we all benefit. For example, our sexual encounters will be more engaged and pleasurable; we can feel confident that our decisions to have sex or not will be respected; and we can all feel more comfortable checking in with our partners to find the practices that work best for us. Working together, we can build communities where enthusiastic encounters are the norm.
*Student names have been changed for privacy
Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.
Isabelle Hénault, PhD, director, Clinique Autisme et Asperger de Montréal, Quebec.
Twanna A. Hines, sexuality writer at https://funkybrownchick.com/.
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