Are things getting steamy? Before you take things to the next level, let's talk about the C word – ‘consent’ – with sexperts Sara Tang and Valentina Tudose.
So you’re finally meeting your date after swiping away dozens on dating apps. The evening is going smoothly, and romance is in the air when you start cuddling on the sofa and putting on some Netflix. But, wait – what’s next? Most importantly, are you ready for whatever’s coming next? As awkward and counterintuitive as it may feel, saying yes or no is crucial – if not the first and foremost thing to do so – in the bedroom. If you’re wondering about how to ask for and give sexual consent without ruining the moment, read on for expert advice from sex coach Sara Tang and relationship coach Valentina Tudose as part of our Pillowtalk sex advice column.
What is ‘consent’?
Sara: Consent is one of the fundamental parts of intimate relationships, yet it’s also something that’s frequently left out of our sex education.
Valentina: Yes, and to think that consent is actually the most natural thing in the world, too! If we look into the origins of the word, ‘consent’ is derived from two Latin words: con, meaning ‘together’; and sentire, meaning ‘feel’.
Moreover, modern neuroscience has proven that our emotional state is reflected naturally in another person’s emotional state. In other words, it’s natural for us to feel what another person is feeling. The issue is whether we’re paying attention, and whether we’re willing to match it or react to it with a suitable emotional response. It also depends on how we interpret the signals we’re getting.
Sara: While consent is – to be put in simple terms – an agreement to participate in any kind of sexual activity, there are many nuances to the concept of consent.
Genuine consent can only be given without pressure or manipulation, and when someone isn’t incapacitated. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time – that means even if you’re naked, even if you’re in the middle of sex, and even if you’re doing something that you may have consented to previous encounters. This makes consent an active and ongoing dialogue, as opposed to a one-off permission slip, regardless of whether you’re with a new or a long-term partner.
Valentina: Yes, and this dialogue can make consent seem like a big challenge that gets in the way of sexual connection. How much do we actually allow ourselves to truly be in the moment and respond to the energy we receive from our partner, rather than being in our own head? How explicit is explicit, and at what point is it okay to go with your gut and trust your partner will stop you from doing anything they are not okay with? What about the people who are not comfortable with verbalising their feelings and boundaries in a very clear manner? These are all questions that link sex to a certain level of anxiety, although, in fact, they’re all natural reactions to arousal.
Furthermore, the modern pitfalls of the goal- and performance-oriented mindset, combined with the focus on explicit, informed, and enthusiastic consent promoted by the #MeToo movement, have created even more reasons to be nervous in bed.
Sara: In addition to being nervous in bed, there are also people who find talking about sex with their partners awkward – and they also tend to be the ones to think that giving or getting consent is awkward. That is understandable, but I believe that consent can be established in a natural, respectful way that enhances the mood, too, and here’s how.
How to ask for sexual consent without ruining the moment
Sara: Very few of us enter a sexual encounter with a fully fleshed out list of exactly what we want to do, and are able to ask our partners to agree to it beforehand. So, a much more natural and organic method of establishing consent is to check in regularly as things go.
Valentina: Simple questions like ‘what turns you on?’, ‘do you like it when someone…’, or ‘what are your no-no’s?’ are specific enough to ensure your partner the opportunity to give explicit consent, clarify the no-go scenarios, and explore each other’s boundaries. During foreplay, you can also ask for consent more directly. Questions such as ‘do you like this?’, ‘does this feel good?’, and ‘should I keep going?’ invite the partner to guide the interaction towards areas that give them pleasure.
Sara: Other questions to ask a partner for consent include: ‘Want to try something new with me?’, or ‘I want to go down on you, would you like that?’ In fact, if you dropped your voice and used a sexy whisper, these questions could easily be incorporated into the foreplay with your partner.
Valentina: Absolutely. In new relationships or casual sex encounters, discussing fantasies, desires, and each other’s likes and dislikes – even before getting to the ‘making out’ part – are great ways to build anticipation, too.
Moreover, giving the other person reassurance that they can always withdraw consent is the best way to create and maintain the safe space necessary for a successful and pleasurable sexual encounter. A simple ‘we can stop anytime if you don’t feel comfortable’ is all it takes.
Sara: And although it may be difficult to hear a partner say ‘no’ or ‘I’m not in the mood for that’ when you’re in a state of arousal, it’s important not to take the rejection personally and to respect your partner’s wishes. Avoid rolling your eyes, getting annoyed, or repeatedly asking them whether they’ll change their mind. If your partner is willing to stay intimate and connected, try asking them if there is another activity they would be comfortable doing instead. Because even if the encounter turns into naked cuddling or a steamy make-out session, it can still be highly satisfying for both of you!
How to give or withdraw sexual consent
Valentina: In my opinion, anything that does not sound or feel like a ‘hell yes’ is a ‘hell no.’ So, when giving consent, it’s best to only say yes to what feels good in that moment and what you’re sure will also leave you feeling good after.
Sara: 100%. If you’re giving consent, be clear and enthusiastic about articulating what you want and don’t want. Some phrases to use can be: ‘yes, I’d love to!’; ‘that sounds awesome’; ‘more!’; or ‘let’s try it’. Remember that it’s sexy and exciting for a partner to hear you express your desire for them. It’s a guaranteed way to enhance intimacy and arousal!
Valentina: Yes. Clear verbal communication is key to not feeling pushed (or pushy), even though sex is often about experimentation and pushing boundaries. Other phrases to use when giving consent include: ‘Mmm, I love it when you…’; ‘that feels so good, don’t stop!’; ‘I love my ears kissed, but not my neck’; and more. These are direct ways in which you can guide your partner to touch you in the ways that make you feel best. If you’re not too sure, you can say: ‘I’ve not tried that before, but I’m willing to go slow and see how it goes.’
Sara: In addition, you can also use non-verbal cues to convey consent. This could be direct eye contact, nodding, pulling closer and actively initiating touch or sexual contact. On the other hand, you can communicate a lack of consent by pushing someone away, avoiding touch, lying still, or not participating. That being said, body language can sometimes be misinterpreted, so I always recommend using a combination of verbal and non-verbal cues to convey your message effectively.
Valentina: Last but not least, it’s good to remember that just because you did something once, there’s no obligation to do it again without renewing that agreement each time. You can simply say: ‘I liked that last time, but I’m not in the mood today’, or ‘I don’t really feel like doing that today, but how about…’ You are entitled to change your mind, but providing an alternative to try something you’re really into helps to keep the mood positive and deepen your connection.
Sara Tang is a certified sexologist and coach. She believes that sex is a skill and everyone can learn how to get better in bed. She is most passionate about helping people who had a limited sex education or culturally conservative upbringing feel more connected and confident with their sexuality. Sara has previously been a student of Human Sexuality at Stanford University, an erotic writer, and a sex toy party entrepreneur. Follow her on Instagram @hellosarasense or visit her website.
Valentina Tudose is a Transformational Relationship Coach, hypnotherapist, sexpert and TEDx Speaker. She is passionate about educating and empowering her clients to communicate effectively, learn more about themselves and how to create positive, deeply meaningful relationships with others. She is one of the most popular Hong Kong TEDx Speakers with her talk on ‘Embracing Unconditional Love.’ Follow her on Instagram @therealqueenmaker or visit her website.