A few weeks ago, my 2½-year-old asked me if I was okay. I was (though that particular day had been…a day), so I told her as much. Then she asked me if I wanted a hug. It was sweet, but it was also an example of her budding understanding of something far more important: consent.
As adults, we rarely need to ask for permission—we can go where we want, when we want, and with whom we want. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that consent is often thought of as a one-and-done conversation solely about sex. Maybe you talked about it with past partners, or maybe it’s come up on occasion, but you don’t think of it as that big a deal (and you wouldn’t be alone—research finds people are less likely to ask for consent as time passes in a relationship).
The truth: Consent is a fundamental piece of every connection. That’s not just because issues such as sexual coercion and rape do happen in long-term partnerships, but also because, ultimately, consent is about communicating and respecting boundaries. It’s about having autonomy throughout your life span to make your own decisions and empower those around you to do the same. Pretty important, right? “Having an honest and engaging conversation about all parts of our lives is key for healthy relationships,” says Angela Lee, director of Love Is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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Meet the experts: Angela Lee is the Director of Love Is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, where she has been employed for 10 years. Prior to her role as Director, Lee served on the front lines as a Phone Service advocate as well as a Program Service Manager.
Jennifer Aull, LMFT, is the Founder and Director of North Brooklyn Marriage & Family Therapy. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, she is also a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and an AASECT-certified sex therapist.
Zoë D. Peterson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the Director of the Sexual Assault Research Initiative at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. She is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Sex Research and was elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality from 2019 to 2021.
But sit-down, awkward, want-to-cringe chats? Besides being outdated, they often just scratch the surface of consent’s true value. Instead, these five expert-backed strategies provide a guide for keeping consent an ongoing part of the conversation, which in turn boosts trust, confidence, and pleasure (sometimes without saying a word)…
1. Redefine consent.
When it comes to integrating the idea more regularly into your home life, it’s helpful to do some internal work and address bigger boundary-type consent issues first. Remember: Consent can also be about things like finances or houseguests. Problem is, you may never have talked with your S.O. about sharing a bank account or discussed what counts as TMI when chatting with family members. And without a convo, cue the blowups.
An easy place to begin is to ask your partner, “What were things like in your family growing up?” says Jennifer Aull, LMFT, a marriage, family, and sex therapist based in Brooklyn. Sorting through past familial experiences, current situations, and future goals is important when it comes to setting up your ideal “now,” she says. More specifically, previous experiences shape our now, so start a conversation about what policies with houseguests looked like in your childhood home and your partner’s, for example. You’ll both be able to zero in on what you liked, what you didn’t, and what you want to keep, moving forward. Same goes with money or any tricky topic requiring a set boundary or a no-cross line. Once you agree on a game plan (go, team!), “respect what your partner says, stick to the boundary they establish, and build trust,” says Lee.
2. Use a scale (not that kind).
It’s easy to view seeking permission as asking a question with a yes/no answer, but the standard for consent should be “enthusiastic consent,” says Aull. She suggests a technique called “scaling”—rating excitement on a scale of 1 to 10—so you can avoid doing stuff you’re not jazzed about and making your S.O. feel rejected. (Both can erode relationships over time.) Just not feeling it tonight? Try, “Sex is a 3 for me, but taking a shower together would be a 7. What would that be for you?” or “I’ve had a long day; sex is a 3, but tomorrow morning, it could be a 7.” Scaling keeps the conversation playful and open.
3. Talk about changes.
Nothing wrong with a routine, but sometimes, falling into patterns in a partnership can contribute to certain “dances” (think: one person pursues, the other distances). That can lead to feelings of resentment, says Aull.
Truth is, relationships ebb and flow, which is why it’s important to describe to each other any shifts you pick up on. A quick, “Hey, have you noticed we always used to have sex every week, and now it seems like that’s changed,” or “I noticed you’re telling people how much your raise was when we’ve usually kept salaries private” could spark a conversation in which you both feel comfortable enough to update guidelines around different topics.
4. Pick up another language.
“Want to go to bed early tonight?” or “Want to come home for lunch today?” Code words might sound corny, but creating your own languages and rituals around consent can be intimate and fun, says Zoë D. Peterson, PhD, director of the Sexual Assault Research Initiative at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. (Plus, great for parents!) “Those types of questions wouldn’t work with a new partner, but in established relationships, they can be great ways to ask for consent.” Bonus idea: You can even use code words when it comes to less spicy subjects, like finances (saying “bread,” for example, to signal to your S.O. you’d like to give in and buy your toddler that toy at the store).
5. Do off-the-cuff check-ins.
Mini temp checks may seem the opposite of sexy, but they can be key in getting to know your partner better and staying current with what works (and what doesn’t!) when dealing with topics like intimacy. “Checking in during sexual encounters—asking things like, ‘Does this feel good?’—is communication that’s about consent, but also, hopefully, fun,” says Peterson. And you don’t have to be in the moment to touch base about turn-ons (and -offs); you might be more comfortable setting a boundary at another time. You should apply this check-up approach to other aspects of life too.
MODEL PARENTING: Ever heard the saying “More is caught than taught” with kids? Using the correct anatomical terminology (penis and vagina), explaining what you’re doing when touching your child (changing a diaper), stopping your tickling when a child tells you to, not coercing kids to show affection (forcing goodbye hugs), asking your partner in front of your kids if they want a kiss—these are the building blocks of consent, says Aull. But there are other ways to model respect for personal boundaries too, like allowing your child to put away the special toy they don’t want to share before friends come over. “When adults are respectful of children’s boundaries, it teaches children to speak up about their own and to honor others’,” Peterson says. “That sets the stage for good consent communication when they reach adolescence and adulthood.”