Closeup of shoes of two people facing each other

Rate this article and enter to win
We all make requests every day—asking our friends to join us for lunch, asking classmates to borrow notes, asking our roommates not to leave their dirty socks on the floor. In these everyday encounters, it’s easy to tell if people are agreeing readily, agreeing reluctantly, or refusing.

Does this sound painfully obvious? Good, because it is. The ability to read people’s signals of agreement and refusal is a skill set we develop very early in life. When we ask people to do things, most of us are very good at reading their response and determining whether they are agreeing or refusing. If the signals are mixed or confusing—that is, if the response is ambiguous—it’s easy to spot that as well. “Interpreting cues can take a bit more effort when people are impaired (for example, by exhaustion, intoxication, or anxiety),” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who runs programming designed to create a more positive social culture at Yale University. “But those deeply ingrained skills don’t desert us even then.”

Verbal signs

  • Brief, direct answers, such as “Sure!”
  • Concrete planning (e.g., “I’d love to! When?”)

Body language

  • Direct eye contact
  • A step toward you
  • Nodding and smiling

Verbal signs

  • Long, indirect answers with pauses, such as “Oh, I’d love to…but I actually have to finish a paper…”

Body language

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Looking closed off
  • Leaning away

Consent: Critical, but not complicated

Sometimes, people act as if consent around relationships is totally different from consenting to other things in life, as if we need some special training to interpret signals of agreement and refusal in romantic or social contexts. This simply isn’t true. Research shows we use the same everyday signals—both verbal and nonverbal—to communicate interest in romantic situations as we do in everyday life. For example, study participants reported easily being able to understand their partner’s subtle, nonverbal forms of agreement and refusal during casual intimate encounters, according to a 2010 study of 21 young adults published in Culture, Health, and Sexuality.

Some people have genuine difficulty interpreting nonverbal language and social cues. This has implications for establishing mutual consent.

What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for you

“I don’t always pick up on body language, so if I misunderstand you, it’s not intentional. Please tell me directly what you want and what you don’t want.”

What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for them

“Let’s be direct so we’re sure to understand each other. I’ll tell you what I want and what I don’t want. What do you want?”

How misunderstandings can happen

“This is mainly about the ability to read other people’s intentions and thoughts,” says Dr. Isabelle Hénault, a psychologist based in Montreal, Quebec. “Especially with individuals with Asperger syndrome or other autism conditions, they rarely act out with a negative intention. Any problems are most likely about misreading situations.”

Pensive asian female looking upward

So what exactly is consent?

Consent is a clear, voluntary, and ongoing agreement to engage in a romantic or intimate encounter. Spotting agreement is obvious, and anything less is not consent.

This doesn’t make us mind readers; we can’t know someone’s innermost wants or if that will change in the future. But we can tell if someone is actively engaged in an encounter or if they are anything less than engaged.

Raising the bar above consent

Consent is necessary. If you choose to engage in intimate or romantic encounters, it’s critical to pay attention to and respect your partner’s signals of agreement, and you should expect your partner to do the same.

However, we—as individuals and as communities—want encounters that are more than just consensual. “The ideal is a genuinely mutual, engaged, connected encounter that’s working for both people,” says Dr. Boyd. This means holding out for encounters that are not just consensual but also enthusiastic. We aren’t just looking for the “yes” of consent—we’re looking for the “YES!” of enthusiasm.

Why enthusiasm is the goal

Enthusiastic encounters are better for our community, and they’re a lot more enjoyable. “By making absolutely sure that your partner wants to be involved in what you’re doing [physically], you’re…going to have a [better] time. You’ll know what they want, in their own words,” writes Rachel Kramer Bussel, a journalist and blogger, in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Seal Press, 2008).

Collage of three different romantic couples

Ensuring enthusiasm

Enthusiasm in a romantic situation looks a lot like enthusiasm in everyday contexts. “I’ve always found it really clear if both parties are engaged and interested,” says Katie R.*, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria, Canada in a recent Student Health 101 survey. “You both smile, there’s electricity, it’s exciting. [There’s a] super-stark difference when someone is not interested. They won’t make eye contact, their shoulders are clenched, very tense, they’re quiet.”

How can you make sure that your encounters are as enthusiastic as you’d like them to be? “Furthering the conversation in a positive way is fun,” Twanna A. Hines, the writer behind the Funky Brown Chick blog and Twitter account, told Student Health 101. Try asking questions about what they like, she says.

Here are some in-the-moment strategies 

Try saying...

Tell me what you like.

I enjoy this.

I’m all-in for a cuddle session. Nothing more please.

“Sometimes when someone leans in to kiss me for the first time, I stop them just to see if they’re cool with me setting a boundary.”
Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011)

Students recommend saying...

“Something seems a little off tonight. Should we save this for another time?”
—Sydney P.*, third-year graduate student, University of Victoria, Canada

“I stopped what we were doing and asked what was wrong. She admitted something was bugging her, so we stopped and had a long discussion about what was going on.”
—Matt V.*, second-year undergraduate, St. Clair College, Ontario, Canada

“Let’s order food. Maybe we’re hungry.”
—Ann M.*, fourth-year undergraduate, Saint Mary’s College of California

Students recommend saying...

“I have work tomorrow.”
—Amanda T.*, third-year undergraduate, University of Rhode Island

“I kinda just told them I wasn’t into it, but told them it wasn’t because of them.”
—Russell Q.*, fifth-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

“My friend needs me.”
—Julia W.*, third-year undergraduate, Tulane University, Louisiana

“You can always just say ‘no.’ Prioritize your feeling about the situation—if you aren’t sure or you aren’t into it, don’t do it. You have no obligation to stay in a situation you aren’t comfortable in. Your partner should understand. If they don’t, talk it out. If they still don’t understand or disagree with your feelings, perhaps it isn’t a partner you want to be with.”
—Caylynn J.*, first-year undergraduate, Colby College, Maine

Handling unwanted pressure

Most importantly, don’t tolerate even low levels of pressure. If you feel like you sent clear signals of refusal, you probably did. It’s never okay for someone to push at your boundaries. To do so is a form of disregard: to act as if the other persons’ wishes don’t matter. This type of disregard can escalate into sexual assault, but it’s a problem even when it doesn’t. Pressured romantic encounters—even when they are consensual—are often deeply uncomfortable.

If you ever do encounter pressure, you can look around for intervention and support. In the moment, seek out authority figures such as party hosts or bouncers who can help you if you need it. If you’re looking for an excuse to leave an uncomfortable situation, try texting a friend and asking them to call you, or simply get up and leave. If you do experience a pressured situation—if someone pushes your boundaries or crosses them—you may find that talking about it is helpful. Reach out to friends, family members, and university resources such as a dean, a chaplain, the counseling center, your Title IX coordinator, or the health center, or call/chat the National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673.

The mindset: Holding out for ideal encounters

Reflect on what you want from intimacy, romance, and relationships. When we do this, we all benefit. For example, our romantic encounters will be more engaged and enjoyable; we can feel confident that our decisions to have sex or not will be respected; and we can all feel more comfortable checking in with our partners to find the practices that work best for us. Working together, we can build campuses where enthusiastic encounters are the norm.

“He actively listened to my concerns [in other contexts], so I knew he would listen to me if I spoke up about something physical that made me uncomfortable.”
—Amelie D.*, fifth-year undergraduate, University of North Dakota

“We were flirting. He leaned in so I started leaning in too, and we started kissing. Our body language was obvious that we both wanted [to kiss].”
—Yolanda S.*, third-year undergraduate, College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts

“I love to cuddle and asked a friend to join me in a cuddle session. He respected that I only wanted to cuddle and didn’t press for anything more or less.”
—Jamie V.*, third-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

“Just being open and talking is most important to make sure all parties are OK with what is going on.”
—Alex R.*, Fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

*Student names have been changed for privacy

Get help or find out more

Student Wellness & Counseling Center (SWCC)
4457-8330
Urgent Consultation: 5503-9044
Rooms: 1G09 to 1G19
Sunday - Thursday: 9 AM to 5 PM
  


Office of Academic Services
4457-8340
Rooms: 1G26 to 1G36
Book an Appointment: https://georgetownqatar.mywconline.com/

Education City Information Desk
4454-0267
4454-2312
Student Center
Administration Reception: 4454-0288

Communication and Consent Educators: Yale University

How to attain real personal empowerment: Psychology Today

Support with consent skills (contact Adult Services): Asperger/Autism Network [AANE]

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

 

This survey should take about 5 minutes to complete. You will be prompted to enter your name and email so that we can contact you if you're the winner of this month's drawing.

Your data will never be shared or sold to outside parties. View our privacy policy.

I read the article + learned from it
I read the article + learned nothing
I didn't read the article
What was the most interesting thing you read in this article?

Next >>


Article sources

Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.

Isabelle Hénault, PhD, director, Clinique Autisme et Asperger de Montréal, Quebec.

Twanna A. Hines, sexuality writer at http://funkybrownchick.com/.

Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).

Beres, M. (2010). Sexual miscommunication? Untangling assumptions about sexual communication between casual sex partners. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 12(1), 1–14.

Beres, M. A. (2014). Rethinking the concept of consent for anti-sexual violence activism and education. Feminism & Psychology, 24(3), 373–389.

Beres, M. A., Senn, C. Y., & McCaw, J. (2014). Navigating ambivalence: How heterosexual young adults make sense of desire differences. Journal of Sex Research, 51(7), 765–776.

Boyd, M. (2014, December 17). The case for affirmative consent [Blog post]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melanie-boyd/the-case-for-affirmative-consent_b_6312476.html

Carmody, M. (2003). Sexual ethics and violence prevention. Social & Legal Studies, 12(2), 199–216. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1177/0964663903012002003

Friedman, J. (2011). What you really really want: The smart girl’s shame-free guide to sex and safety. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Friedman, J., & Valenti, J. (2008). Yes means yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Grasgreen, A. (2013, June 5). Yale program to shift sexual assault culture goes beyond rape prevention. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/06/05/yale-program-shift-sexual-assault-culture-goes-beyond-rape-prevention

Halley, J. (2016). The move to affirmative consent. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(1), 257-279.

Kimmel, M., & Steinem, G. (2014, September 4). Michael Kimmel and Gloria Steinem on consensual sex on campus. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/opinion/michael-kimmel-and-gloria-steinem-on-consensual-sex-on-campus.html

Kitzinger, C., & Frith, H. (1999). Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal. Discourse & Society, 10(3), 293–316.

Kramer Bussel, R. (2008). Beyond yes or no: Consent as sexual process. In J. Friedman & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes means yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape (43–52). Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

McDonough, K. (2014, September 5). Gloria Steinem on consent and sexual assault: “Since when is hearing ‘yes’ a turnoff?” Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/09/05/gloria_steinem_on_consent_and_sexual_assault_since_when_is_hearing_yes_a_turnoff/

O’Byrne, R., Hansen, S., & Rapley, M. (2007). If a girl doesn’t say “no…”: Young men, rape, and claims of insufficient knowledge. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18(3), 168–193.

Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist45(8), 921.

Walker-Wells, E. (2016, October 1). Get empowered: Finding yourself in dating and in life. Student Health 101 High School. Retrieved from http://demonstration.getsh101.com/finding-yourself-in-dating-and-life/

Walker-Wells, E. (2016, April 1). Let’s talk about sex: How to share what you both want. Student Health 101. Retrieved from http://default.readsh101.com/talk-about-sex/

Yale CCEs. (n.d.). “Myth of miscommunication” workshops. Yale University. Retrieved from http://cce.yalecollege.yale.edu/myth-miscommunication-workshops