“Enthusiastic consent” advocates seem loathe to actually lay out what sexual consent really looks like. It would be cynical to think it’s because they want to retain the freedom to define any sexual encounter as rape–you can always argue that somebody’s consent wasn’t enthusiastic enough after the fact–but I’m kind of cynical.
I’m also pragmatic, and a list-maker, so I thought I’d try to help out, and actually compose that list of rules* that proponents of enthusiastic consent refuse to make, that takes both verbal and non-verbal communication into consideration in navigating casual sexual encounters.**
Verbal NO + resistance = STOP! STOP! If you keep going, you are a rapist.
Verbal NO + passivity = STOP! STOP! This woman might very well be scared you are going to hurt her, and that’s why she’s not putting up a fight. Her “no” means she doesn’t want to have sex with you, even if she isn’t fighting back. Leave her alone. If you keep going, you are a rapist.
Verbal NO + active participation = STOP! STOP! It’s possible that the person you are with is just conditioned to think she has to say “no” to sex even if she really wants it, but she very well just might not want to have sex with you. Do NOT have sex with her. Talk it out. If she does express that she’d like to have sex but feel some sort of moral/cultural duty to put up a fight, give her some time (like, MONTHS AND MONTHS, perhaps YEARS) to get more comfortable with her sexuality before even thinking about engaging in sexual activity again. And, as is more likely, if she just doesn’t want to have sex with you, sorry. She doesn’t want to have sex with you, so back off. If you keep going in either of those scenarios, you are a rapist.
Silence + resistance = STOP! STOP! This woman does not want to have sex with you, and if you keep going, you are a rapist. Stop as soon as she gives any resistance, give her space, and see if she wants to talk it out. If she does, listen; if she doesn’t, respect that you rightfully scared or upset or bothered her, and leave her alone. It could be that she’d like to have sex with you but just started her period and isn’t into that. Or, maybe she wants to have sex with you but she doesn’t like the particular way you are touching her. Or, more likely, she just doesn’t want to sleep with you at all. Back off immediately, give her physical space, and if she wants to talk to you, listen to her, and then respect her wishes. If she doesn’t want to talk, leave her alone and don’t approach her again (she’ll approach you if she wants to). If you keep going when she is physically resisting you, you are a rapist.
Silence + passivity = If this is a casual encounter, STOP! Talk it out. Maybe she wants to have sex with you. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she doesn’t care either way. Who knows? Not you! Find out what is going on before going any further, and respect her wishes once you know. If she isn’t into it, do something else with her or, if you really need to have sex, find somebody who is into it. If she’s just a “lie back and think of England type” but says she’s into it, then I’d say it’s your call. If you keep going in this scenario without finding out what the woman’s deal is, assuming she is sober you aren’t legally committing rape, even though the entire internet will call you a rapist. You may not be–you probably aren’t!–but you might be kind douchebaggy and not really care if your partner is into it, or you might be kind of pathetic and not realize you can find a partner who is really into it, and you probably don’t want to be pathetic or a douchebag. So don’t proceed without more information, and back off if the information you get is that she’d rather not be having sex with you. If this is a person you are in a relationship with and you know that they just are kind of quiet and passive during sex because that’s the way they like it, then you are good to go.
Silence + active participation = You are probably good to go, but if this is a casual encounter, for your own legal safety, stop. Make sure you get verbal affirmation. I know that you very probably aren’t a rapist if in this scenario you take active physical participation as proof of consent, but rather a normal human being capable of interpreting non-verbal communication, but 90% of the internet will think you are, and there’s a good chance whoever you are sleeping with is on the internet at least sometimes. So I’d get a verbal yes just to be safe, even though you are probably in the clear both legally and morally. If this is a partner you are in a relationship with, you are all good.
Verbal YES + resistance = STOP! Do not go any further. Something is off, and you need to know what it is. Non-verbal communication can often be more honest than verbal communication, so just back immediately off. If it turns out that this person is indeed super into it and just happens to be lying on top of a size 2 knitting needle that is digging into her butt in the most painful way possible (such things can happen) or something along those lines, then find a more comfy place and get back to it. If there isn’t a clear, identifiable, easily-solvable reason why they are giving you signals this mixed, run in the other direction and do not look back. If you keep going in spite of physical resistance, even if you are hearing a verbal yes, you are a rapist.
Verbal YES + passivity = If this is a casual encounter, you probably want to stop and make sure your partner is as on board as she’s saying. It’s quite likely that you are just with a woman who enjoys taking a more passive role during sex, but it’s better all around to make sure. If this is a partner you know well, you will probably know whether it’s just the way they like things or a sign that something is amiss, depending on their usual level of physical participation.
Verbal YES + active participation = CONGRATULATIONS! You are having sex exactly the way the internet wants you to! Go ahead and casually fuck with abandon!
Unless, of course, your partner is drunk, in which case none of this counts. A drunk no is a no; drunk silence is a no; a drunk yes is a no. How drunk is too drunk? As drunk as the internet thinks is too drunk (and, legally, this tends to be undefined, and you should err on the side of caution and consider ANY alcohol consumed too much alcohol consumed). The internet will likely accuse you of rape if the woman you slept with had been drinking at all, no matter which of the nine categories she fell into. Alcohol invalidates both verbal and physical consent. Under no circumstances should you ever have sexual contact with a woman who has been drinking.
And remember that, while this advice may hopefully keep you from raping somebody, it won’t keep you from hurting somebody’s feelings, being a really bad lay, or doing something that your partner might years or decades look back on with regret. There is no formula for that.
So there’s my handy, tongue-in-cheek guide to sexual etiquette, taking both verbal and non-verbal communication into consideration. I just ended rape culture, internet. You’re welcome!
* I realize this is heteronormative. So are most rape accusations.
** I am not a proponent of casual sex. Truth be told, I think you should wait until you are married to have sex. Seriously, I do. Stop laughing.
I think you should get married younger than your friends and your parents and our culture and of course the internet think you should–your late teens or early twenties is really, truly an okay time to marry–and I think you should wait until then to have sex. You can do it!
If won’t do that, then I think you should wait until you are in a totally committed, loving, monogamous relationship. Everything involving sex will be less fraught both emotionally and legally.
But, I’m a realist, and if you don’t want to do that, either, and want to engage in casual sex, you can still do so in the safest way possible, by taking both physical and verbal communication seriously and also using a condom. Even if the woman on the pill, you still need a condom. I came of age in the era of AIDS, and if you have sex without a condom, I will track you down and lecture you very, very sternly. Don’t do it.
Seriously, though, consider getting married. It’s way better than casual sex, and in thirty years, old married sex is the ONLY sex you are going to be having. You can have a couple of decades of practice to make sure it’s really good.