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What Is Consent?

By: Lisa Finn

yes no

No matter what kind of erotic activity you’re participating in, consent is an absolutely vital part of play. Whether you’re getting hands-on with some BDSM and kink, or participating in a hands-off activity like sexting; whether it’s a one-time fling, or you’re playing with a long-term partner – no matter what, consent needs to occur and be shared throughout the experience.  

There’s a common misconception that consent is the absence of a “no,” when really, full consent needs to be the presence of a willing and enthusiastic yes. 

There are many factors to consider when seeking or giving consent. Our friends at Planned Parenthood made a convenient little acronym to make it easy to remember: full consent is FRIES

F- Freely Given: The consent was given without coercion, manipulation, force, threat, or the influence of intoxication. The person consenting gave it voluntarily, of full free will – not because they felt they had to, whether out of fear or feeling something was “expected” of them. 

R- Retractable (or reversable): Anyone can change their mind about what they want to do, at any time – even if they previously said yes, even if you’ve done it before, even if you’ve already gotten started. Consent can be retracted by the words “no,” “stop,” or use of a safeword. If the action continues after this, it is no longer consensual. 

I- Informed: Everyone is fully aware of what they’re giving consent to. This could include – but is not limited to - disclosing STI status, understanding what kind of sex is anticipated, or agreeing to use protection (for example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then doesn’t, there is not full consent). 

E- Enthusiastic: Simply, everyone involved wants to be doing anything involved. Sex should be about enjoyment: doing things you want to do, rather than because there’s an idea of “expectation”. 

S- Specific: Saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. For example, if someone says yes to being tied up doesn’t mean that they said yes to being tied up and spanked; if someone says they yes to oral sex doesn’t mean that they said yes to anal sex. Remember, there should be nothing ever “expected” of someone.  

Consent should always be communicated clearly, not implied -- and this isn’t just for first-time experiences. Even if you’re doing something you’ve done a thousand times with someone you’ve been with for a long time, checking in with your partner and getting consent is still essential. 

How do I talk about consent? 

Though it requires communication that is unquestionable, asking for or giving consent doesn’t need to feel awkward, rigid, or even scary. Communicating our wants, needs, and boundaries can actually be really sexy – especially since talking about what we want in bed can help us to enjoy the experience even more by knowing one another’s turn-ons and being more comfortable to explore within each other’s limits. 

Ask simple questions: 

Checking in as you go – before starting something new – with simple questions is an easy and straightforward way to give and get consent. Ask the question, and wait and listen for the answer. Pay attention to body language as well to make sure that enthusiasm is present! 

Can I touch you here? 

Do you want me to [fill in the blank]? 

Can we try [fill in the blank] together? 

Share your fantasies: 

Ask your partner to tell you what they want – have them describe a fantasy to you in as much detail as they’d like. Repeat back elements you’d like to try in the form of a yes/no question, and add in questions to expand. This is called negotiating a scene. 

A: I want to try being submissive with you- I love the idea of being bound to the bed with some rope or cuffs.  

B: So you want me to tie you up, do you? 

A: Yes, please. 

B: What if I put a blindfold on you, too? Do you want that? 

A: No, I want to be able to see. 

Now person B knows that using restraints and bondage is something they can explore with person A, but a blindfold is a boundary for person A and they do not consent to the use of one. 

Use dirty talk to check in: 

Consent isn’t something that just happens before anything begins, but should happen throughout play. But, again, it doesn’t need to feel rigid! Using dirty talk is a great way to keep communication flowing while still keeping things hot – ask your partner if they like what you’re doing, tell your partner when you like what they’re doing, or ask them to do something else.  

Do you like that? 

Do you want more? 

Yes, right there! 

Touch me here. 

You feel so good. 

Harder, please! 

Dirty talk is all about confidence in your words, so put on your best sultry voice and get to checking in.  

Try a Yes / No / Maybe list: 

Yes / No / Maybe lists are a great icebreaker to learn and share wants, needs, boundaries, and curiosities with a partner – and allow for specifics to be discussed more in-depth. These lists give the opportunity to categorize different sexual and erotic activities into three columns: Yes (I’m into this or want to try it), Maybe (this might be something to explore with further conversation), and No (this is a boundary and I do not consent to this activity). 

While Yes / No / Maybe lists are great tools to start the conversation and get some sexy inspiration going, they do not act as a consent contract of any kind. Remember, full consent needs to be able to be retracted if needed – so just because someone put it in their “Yes” column doesn’t mean that they are always willing to participate in that activity. 

Learn more about Yes / No / Maybe lists and print your own here: Yes / No / Maybe  

What if we’re exploring power dynamics, and “force” is part of the scene? 

Clearly communicating consent in power exchange play such as Dominant / submissive (D/s) scenes is still absolutely necessary- even if there’s an idea of someone “taking control” of someone else – because it still needs to be a pre-negotiated, consensual act. Talk through expectations of your scene beforehand, and discuss limits and boundaries in detail, especially if this is your first time exploring these dynamics together.  

If the words “no” or “stop” may be part of your consensual roleplay, make sure that you have a safeword in play, and that both partners (especially the person in the Dominant role) are still checking in throughout – this is a great time to flex those dirty talk skills. 

What if I’m still not sure? 

If you’re not 100% certain that someone is giving their full consent, then it is not consent. Asking outright for a clear and unmistakable answer is the best way to be sure. 

Remember, consent is necessary. No matter what. Always.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE, or visit RAINN.org for a list of national resources (United States).