Marcus Lee is a third-year sociology major at Morehouse College and one of Rewire’s youth voices.
Recently I hosted a webinar on “Men Eradicating Sexual Violence” for the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault, during which I gave a variety of tips and suggested practices for men to help end sexual assault. In particular, I focused on things men can do to affirm and embrace a culture of consent within the context of their own relationships. Since it was well-received, I have condensed the presentation into five suggested practices that can help men work against sexual violence in intimate relationships.
I should preface this list by noting that these suggestions could be helpful for people of a variety of different gender identities and sexual orientations. I have focused specifically on men because we are socialized to be more likely to perpetuate sexual violence. However, one can perform hyper-masculinity and perpetuate sexual violence regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
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It should also be noted that consent isn’t something to be gotten. Instead, it is something to be constantly negotiated and communicated. So the tips given below will help facilitate communication and ongoing negotiation between and among intimate partners.
1. Listen. Be attentive and responsive to everything your partner has to say before, during, and after a sexual encounter. Instead of “getting consent,” aim to find a way to curate a space of comfort and safety. Hear, receive, and adjust accordingly.
2. The body communicates in a variety of ways. Pay attention to all of them. A verbal yes or no is the most important and clear way in which consent can be communicated; so if your partner verbally says no, it is cause for immediate disengagement. However, if your partner verbally says yes, paying attention to body language, facial expressions, and vocal sounds may be important for understanding the person’s level of comfort throughout the encounter.
I include this suggestion because of a specific encounter I had: I was once with a partner who verbally said yes, but whose body language suggested that he was uncomfortable—his body seemed to shake with worry. When I asked him if he was OK, his response was “I don’t know.” We immediately disengaged and he left shortly after. The next morning, he sent me a text message that simply read, “Thank you.” He seemed to be relieved that I was willing to respond to the feeling that his body was communicating. From this experience, I began to learn how important it is to receive and respond to what your partner’s body is communicating. Simply put, body language is integral to negotiating consent.
3. Talk openly about sex. Negotiating consent needn’t be a boring or tedious exercise. Discussing sex explicitly—likes/dislikes, turn-ons/turn-offs, pleasurable sexual experiences of the past—can act both as an aid to arousal and as an opportunity to negotiate what could happen in a sexual encounter. Sparking conversations about what you and your partner(s) do and do not want to do will help bring clarity to what everyone is comfortable with, and whether or not your desire to engage in specific sexual practices is reciprocated.
4. Explore! Try out different sexual activities that will push you and your partner(s) to remain in communication throughout the encounter. Often, sex is undergirded with assumptions—the role of parties during the encounter, what will happen during the encounter, and more. When consent is one of those assumptions, room is left for ambiguity regarding all parties’ comfort level, and that ambiguity can be dangerous. By purposefully exploring new sexual possibilities, one refuses reliance on potentially dangerous assumptions about their partner(s) bodies and everyone involved is pushed to rethink/renegotiate what they want during the encounter. Again, openly communicating desires mitigates ambiguities or confusions about the intentions of all involved.
5. Beyond sex, find out what makes you feel powerful. Sexual assault is about an extraction or exertion of power, not sex. Unfortunately, men are often socialized to understand power as dominance over others. However, if we move ourselves to be more introspective, we can think about what makes us feel powerful—something that doesn’t involve dominance over others—and begin to revel in that feeling so we do not feel compelled to implicate someone else.
Think about incorporating rituals into your routine that make you feel powerful. For example, I feel powerful when I exercise alone. I revel in the feeling of accomplishment after a run. By finding power from within, I am working to not have to find power from without. In other words, if I feel powerful in and of myself, I do not feel compelled to dominate someone else to feel powerful.
Of course, this list could be expanded infinitely. But, I hope this condensed version can help stimulate discussions about how everyone can be more intentional about hearing and responding to each other’s needs.