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What Is Verbal and Non-Verbal Consent?

Photo by W R

Verbal non-consent might sound like this:

  • No.
  • I don’t want to.
  • Now isn’t a good time.
  • I need to take some time out.
  • Can we wait a bit longer?
  • I’m not really in the mood.
  • I’d rather not today.
  • Stop.
  • I feel a bit too tired tonight.
  • Perhaps we can cuddle instead?
  • I’m not ready.
  • There’s too much on my mind at the moment.
  • I’d like to do something else.
  • That doesn’t feel good.
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • This is making me uncomfortable.

Non-verbal non-consent might look like this:

  • Keeping physical distance from a partner.
  • Gently pushing a partner away.
  • Moving a partner’s hands.
  • Lack of initiation of sexual intimacy.
  • Shaking your head.
  • Turning over in bed.
  • Rolling your eyes.
  • Holding your hands over areas that you don’t want to be touched.
  • Tensing your body.
  • Keeping clothes on or not trying to remove a partner’s clothes.
  • Being visibly unenthusiastic.

About verbal and non-verbal consent 

These lists of what verbal and non-verbal consent and non-consent might look like are neither definitive nor exhaustive. They are simply examples that can be used as either a frame of reference or a starting point for learning how to communicate your consent to your partner (and for understanding their ways of communicating consent). You must also use your personal judgement and common sense. Doing some of the things on these lists does not automatically mean you gave your consent, and likewise for your partner. Use your judgement on a situational basis and keep checking in with your partner. Non-verbal consent and non-consent can be a helpful way of expressing through body language what we are thinking or feeling. It can enable us to build the confidence to use our words and can aid us alongside our language. For example, we may convey our consent to our partner by guiding their hands towards our body and then following up with the sentence, ‘I want you to touch me’. Alternatively, to express our lack of consent we may use non-verbal cues such as gently moving away from a partner and shaking our head while suggesting, ‘let’s listen to some music instead’.

What is crucial to remember is that consent does not look the same in every sexual encounter, and non-verbal consent should be treated with caution. While there is no denying that it can be a useful aid, relying solely on a partner’s body language is potentially problematic. Just because we have chosen to cuddle naked with someone does not automatically mean that we want to have sex with them. Just because someone has started kissing us does not mean they want to take that experience with us any further. That is why, throughout any sexual encounter, we should always be seeking to both give and receive a variety of physical and verbal types of consent.

In the same way a single text message can be interpreted differently by every person that reads it, so too can our body language. People will make sense of someone’s body language in whatever way their past experiences have conditioned them to do so. If a person’s last sexual partner would roll over in bed whenever they wanted to spoon, they may assume that their next sexual partner is wanting to spoon when they roll over. In reality, that person may have rolled over in order to create some personal space and may feel invaded if their partner advances towards them. This is exactly why communication is key, and you should employ a range of both verbal and non-verbal types of consent whenever you choose to engage in sexual activity with someone in order to avoid any confusion.

Another relevant point here is that a partner’s physical bodily response (for example a female experiencing erect nipples or a wet vagina, or a male producing precum) is NOT consent, because consent is a conscious choice not an unconscious bodily response to a stimulus. Non-verbal consent is a mindful decision in the form of an intentional action which ideally should be supported with verbal affirmations of enjoyment. If you are ever in any doubt as to whether you have consent from your partner, you must check in with them. Ask them if they are enjoying the experience, want to carry on, or wish to take the encounter any further. Give them the time and space necessary to reply. Learning to voice your wants and needs can be daunting and it can take a little bit of time to think it through first. Never settle for any less than this in return. If a partner is not prepared to check in with you before, during and after every sexual experience that you share with them, it is time to honor your worth by saying, ‘no’.

If you’ve ever been a victim to abuse, try to remember this is not your fault, you are not to blame, and you are not alone.

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Author: Hannah

My name’s Hannah (she/they) is an artist and a writer. My work centres around sex positivity, sexual empowerment and liberation for young women, femmes and enbys. I am also very vocal about self healing, personal growth and intersectional feminism! You can find me on Instagram over at @keep.it.weird_ 💜

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