Communicating consent for military wellness

One essential step for healthy sexual relationships is to make sure all partners involved express affirmative consent. What is consent? Consent is permission to continue moving forward with the sexual experience. It’s about communicating your boundaries and what you’re comfortable with—it should be clearly and freely expressed. You can provide consent verbally—“Yes! I want what is happening to keep happening!”—and nonverbally using body language such as nodding. Enthusiastic verbal consent is great because it’s unmistakable.

If you’re not sure how to ask for consent, consider some of the following:

  • Can I kiss you?
  • Is this okay?
  • Do you like it when I do this?
  • Do you want me to keep going?

A positive, freely-given verbal answer to any of these questions—“Yes!” “Yes, please,” “Keep going,”—is consent, meaning you’re on the same page about the sexual experience. In addition to asking for verbal confirmation, get in tune with your partner’s body language. Are they making eye contact and responding to your gestures?

In some situations, an individual isn’t able to consent to sex, such as when drugs or alcohol are involved. These impact decision-making and impulse control. Also, remember that a lack of a “No” doesn’t mean a  “Yes.” When a person feels in danger, they might become immobilized with fear and not actively resist or say no. Don’t mistake the absence of resistance for consent.

Consent is an ongoing conversation

You must obtain consent with each and every sexual encounter, regardless of your sexual history and relationship with the partner(s). Everyone is entitled to a change of mind, so it’s important to keep checking in with each other throughout the experience. Think of sex and consent like ordering a pizza. Before you order, it’s important to ask those who are sharing the meal if they’re hungry and if they’re in the mood for pizza. Then you need to consider the toppings you want versus the flavors they want. Everyone sharing the pizza needs to be on the same page—imagine expecting a pepperoni pizza but, instead, it’s anchovies and pineapple. Even if you order a pizza every Friday, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be what you want to have next week. This is why ongoing communication is so important for consent.

A side of FRIES to fuel consent?

If pizza isn’t your style, another way to think about consent is with the acronym FRIES.

  • Freely given. Consent only occurs when it is freely given, without pressure or manipulation.
  • Reversible. Partners can change their minds about what they consent to at any time.
  • Informed. All parties should know exactly what they are saying yes or no to.
  • Enthusiastic. Partners should feel enthusiastic to participate, not obligated.
  • Specific. Agreeing to one specific activity does not mean you consent to other acts.

Anytime you’re giving consent or asking for it, make sure it comes with a side of FRIES. When you provide consent it means you give your permission freely, and you can reverse it at any time. You should know exactly what you’re consenting to and feel enthusiastic about participating, not pressured.

Consenting and asking for consent are about setting and respecting boundaries and checking in when you are unclear. Without consent, forced sexual activity is a form of sexual violence. If you feel that you’ve experienced violence, the DoD Safe Helpline is available 24/7 as a free, anonymous, confidential sexual assault resource for the DoD community. You can call, text, or chat with Helpline members. They will answer your questions and connect you with holistic resources.

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Shumlich, E. J., & Fisher, W. A. (2020). An exploration of factors that influence enactment of affirmative consent behaviors. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(9), 1108–1121. doi:10.1080/00224499.2020.1761937

Strengers, Y., Sadowski, J., Li, Z., Shimshak, A., & Mueller, F. (2021). What can HCI learn from sexual consent? Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. doi:10.1145/3411764.3445107