Sometimes, people dismiss “affirmative consent” as a series of awkward verbal questions: “May I put my hand on your leg? What about on your thigh?” But this isn’t realistic to how people actually communicate.
In everyday life, we’re skilled at picking up on subtle verbal and nonverbal signals of agreement and refusal. For example, when we ask someone for a favor, it’s easy to tell whether they are agreeing or refusing. If the signals are mixed or confusing—that is, if the situation is ambiguous—it’s easy to spot that as well.
- 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
- Initiating action
- Long, indirect answers with pauses, such as “Oh, I’d love to…but I actually have to…”
- Avoiding eye contact
- Looking closed off
- Leaning away
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. They also described interpreting these cues in the same way they would interpret agreement and refusal in nonsexual social encounters.
By drawing students’ attention to their ability to interpret signals of agreement and refusal, we can demonstrate that consent is straightforward.
Moving beyond consent to enthusiasm
While consent is a critical baseline, we can encourage our students to aspire for more. All their interactions need to be consensual, but they should also be engaged, wanted, and enthusiastic. Building communities in which sexual respect is the norm may reduce the risk of sexual violence by making manipulation and disrespect stand out more clearly. And, of course, a positive sexual and social culture will lead to better outcomes for everyone.
Foster a culture of enthusiastic consent by providing opportunities for communication and reflection
Emphasize the importance of genuine conversations. You can help make these conversations more likely by giving students opportunities to think about and articulate what they want, both sexually and socially.
Help students reflect on their desires
We can help students reach enthusiastic encounters by prompting them to think about what they want from intimacy, romance, and love. While some of these questions are deeply personal, much of this reflection happens in a community setting. Try building questions about intimacy into moments where students reflect on their values.
Encourage questions, such as:
- What am I looking for from sex and romance? How has that changed over time?
- What are my core values about how I treat other people? How can I live those out?
- What kind of values do we, as a community, hold about sexuality? How can we create a community where everyone feels respected and supported in their choices?
Some of these questions are best answered privately, but even in a group setting, you can use writing exercises to enable internal reflection. In an appropriate setting, these questions can also be good starting points for group discussion.
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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