Have you ever been caught off guard while driving on the highway and someone changed lanes without a turn signal? It can feel similarly jarring when someone launches into an emotionally intense story in conversation without first checking in with you about whether now is a good time to talk about the topic. It’s a healthy practice to ask for consent and check-in with each other before acting in ways that affect or involve other people. We often think of consent as something related to sexual intimacy, and yes, consent is very important in that context. The same reasons that make consent crucial in sexual intimacy apply in many other interpersonal every-day situations as well. The practice of posting “CW” or “content warning” on social media is one example of asking for consent – it gives scrollers the option of scrolling by the post without reading the details, if it is healthier for them to not think about that particular content right now. Making a regular practice of asking consent in our interpersonal interactions enables us all to feel more connected and respected. I’ll break down some more reasons and benefits of asking and giving others the option to consent:
1. Reason 1: Asking shows you care about your partner/friend/family member. For example, let’s say something really challenging just happened and you need some emotional support. When you call or text your friend, asking if they have the space to hear about what happened shows that their mental health is important to you. Following up with sharing what would be most supportive from them helps them know how to help, and know whether they can help right now. For example, “would now be an OK time to share about some really frustrating stuff my boss said? I think I mostly just need someone to listen and validate my feelings.” If your friend also just had something challenging happen, they might not have the emotional energy to provide a listening ear right now. Asking gives them a chance to tell you when they might have the energy.
2. Reason 2: No one can read minds. Even in the closest relationship with the most enduring patterns and rituals, desires and needs can change. Consent can change too. I bet we have all experienced times when we made incorrect assumptions about what a loved one wanted, needed, or was in the mood for. Assuming you know what someone wants can set everyone up for disappointment. Don’t get me wrong – caring surprises can be delightful ways to show love! But checking in as a matter of course ensures that everyone will be ready and excited. Not to mention, the consenting person might have something to add! For instance, “Hey love, should I grab tacos for dinner?” “You know what, I feel like cooking, you in the mood for enchiladas?”
3. Reason 3: Asking helps all parties involved emotionally prepare for the activity. When we have a sense of what’s coming next, we’re more likely to be better listeners, to both others and to ourselves. We’re more in touch with what we are feeling and needing, and more able to give support. Plus, asking consent gives us the chance to share when we’ll have the most energy to be able to support. That might be in 20 minutes, 2 hours, 2 days, or next week.
4. Reason 4: Saying yes feels good! Asking consent gives your loved one the chance to say yes, and wholeheartedly saying yes releases feel-good neurotransmitters in our brain, just like smiling does! “Yes!” has the added benefit of increasing our sense of belonging and connection to each other.
Ways to ask
There are obviously many more verbal and nonverbal ways to ask consent than I can share here. Here are a few ideas: “Would you like it if I …?” “Is it cool if I…?” “Can we flirt?” “Does this feel good?” “Can I take your picture, and is it OK if I post it on social media?” “I think I need to process XYZ, would you have the energy to listen?” “Hey, I have a tough decision to make. Can you help me figure out what to do?”
Ways to answer
Answering “Yes!” “I would love that,” or “I would be happy to,” can be energizing, invigorating, and delightful. If it isn’t, Stop. Check-in with yourself – ‘How am I feeling right now?’ Adrienne maree brown poignantly observes in her book Pleasure Activism, “No” is a full sentence. You do not need to know or explain why you’re not ready at this moment for whatever is being asked of you, and you do not need to apologize. As brown says, “Your strong and solid no makes way for your deep, authentic yes.” Make it clear to those you love that “yes” and “no” answers both communicate respect and care. Consent culture enables us all to show up with our full authentic selves exactly when we are ready.