Giving sexual consent, in the simplest terms, means voluntarily agreeing to engage in a specific sexual activity. There are many conversations, articles, and resources around how to ask for consent, what “no” and “yes” look like, and encouraging people to give enthusiastic yes’es and unapologetic no’s. However, this assumes that we always know for sure what we want and don’t want. In reality, it’s sometimes hard to check in with ourselves and figure out how we feel about a situation. And sometimes our honest answers are somewhere between an enthusiastic yes and an unapologetic no.
This experience has many names and generates a lot of controversy. Some call it the “grey zone,” which conceptualizes consent as a spectrum between 0 (I absolutely do not want this) and 10 (I’m giving an enthusiastic yes!). We don’t have a lot of language to help us talk about this space in between, and it is certainly not a recognized part of sex culture in the US. The controversy around this idea arises because it suggests that rape can be an accident, and that fault lies with the person who was assaulted for not being clear and direct. And to be sure, the grey zone is a product of rape culture in which it is unsafe and unusual to express rejection, ambivalence, hesitation, or doubt. The person with the most power has the responsibility to directly and explicitly ask for consent and note body language, non-verbals and hesitation or deflection. And there are things we can all do to check in with ourselves to see how we’re really feeling before engaging in sex.
It’s important to know when you’re in the grey zone because people become especially susceptible to coercion in this space. We’re not sure how we feel, so if someone applies enough pressure, we are likely to give in. People who have experienced or are experiencing the things below might find themselves in the grey zone more often:
- People who have had their needs ignored or dismissed, or were taught that they’re unimportant, such as those who have experienced abusive relationships
- People who were taught that another person’s needs or desires are always more important, such as those who were socialized as women
- People who were taught that they should enjoy sex all the time, such as those who were socialized as men
- People who were taught that they should be “grateful” for any sex at all, such as those with marginalized identities like LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and people with larger bodies
- People who have trouble tapping into or trusting their “gut” or intuition, such as those with mood disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, identity issues, or those who have experienced trauma
As you can see above, many people with a range of experiences are likely to find themselves in the grey zone and experience difficulty identifying and expressing it. Our “gut” or intuition will tell us when we’re in the grey zone, but many people with the experiences above were taught to ignore their gut. For example, someone who experienced abuse may have learned that even if their gut told them something was wrong, listening to it only made the experience of abuse more difficult because there was no way out anyway. So it was better to ignore their gut feeling than to accept that something bad and unstoppable was happening. It takes time, intention, awareness and practice to learn to listen to our gut. Checking in with yourself about sexual consent means finding ways to give yourself that time and space to do so.
There are a few things you can do to make space for a sexual consent self check:
- Make rules ahead of time that build in space for a self check. For example, “I won’t sleep with someone until the third date.” This doesn’t have to mean that you believe it’s morally wrong to sleep with someone on the first date or have casual sex. It’s simply meant to give those who have trouble identifying feelings and desires some time to decide how you feel and what you want from the connection. Another rule might be that you avoid substances if possible that make it more difficult to check in with yourself, like drugs or alcohol.
- Practice expressing ambivalence or hesitation. One challenge with the grey zone is that we’re not taught that it’s okay if we’re not sure what we want, and so it’s difficult to express it. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to be unsure and to take a moment to figure out how we feel and how we want to express that. You can practice this in low stakes scenarios first to get comfortable. For example, practice asking for more time when you’re at a restaurant to decide what you want to order by saying “I’m not sure yet and I’d like more time to decide.” You can also do this when deciding what movie to watch with a friend. “Hm, a part of me wants to watch a drama, and a part of me wants to watch a comedy. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. Let’s start watching the drama and I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
- Prepare sentence stems ahead of time to help you be prepared in the moment. For people with high anxiety, imagining a scenario and preparing for it ahead of time can help reduce anxiety in the moment. Some sentence stems might include: “I’m not sure I want to have sex right now. Can we talk about it first?” “I’m not ready to have sex so let’s just cuddle for a while and check in again.” “I’m having fun just making out with you so let’s stick to this for now. I’ll let you know if I’m ready for sex.”
Consent, both for yourself and your sexual partners, is absolutely necessary. The tips in this article are meant to help you check in with yourself when you’re not yet sure what you want. If you communicate to your sexual partner(s) that you’re not sure what you want and they respond by applying pressure or ignoring requests to check in again, that is a big red flag that this is not a safe situation. A good partner will respond positively to expressions of ambiguity and will wait for clarity before continuing. They will be proactive in checking in. They will recognize consent as a process. If you want support in exploring these issues, feel free to reach out to us at 215-922-5683 x 100 or book an appointment online.